Sly as a fox…or a hedgehog?

fox_hedgehogOne of the earliest posts on this blog, since trashed, was one on the famous distinction made by Sir Isaiah Berlin that divided great minds into the “camps” of foxes and hedgehogs. This was in turn based on a fragment by the Greek philosopher Archilochos, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applied this nugget of wisdom to the world of writing and thinking, dividing famous poets and philosophers into two categories:
Foxes, who divide their interests among a wide variety of experiences and thoughts and who can’t be associated with a single big idea, and Hedgehogs, whose view of the world and reputation is founded on such a single big idea.

In Berlin’s view, examples of hedgehogs include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust, whereas Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce are represented as foxes.

In the field of politics, an exemplar of a fox might be Jimmy Carter – a typical micro-manager, who famously even involved himself in the scheduling of the White House tennis court, as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who focused his Presidency on a few major goals (“lower taxes”, “defeat communism”), set the agenda and then leaned back and let his staff do the work, who might be classified as a more or less typical hedgehog. As for Barack Obama, we may have to wait and see, although at the time of this writing, I fail to see the one overarching theme or goal of his Presidency, so he would seem to fall into the “fox” category. I’m certainly inviting comment and discussion when I venture that in presidents, it may be one of the signs of lasting greatness to focus on one big thing – independence, say, or the Union, or peace, or victory. Or, perhaps, normalcy and prosperity.

If we examine the life and career of Calvin Coolidge, I think we will come to the conclusion that he was of the hedgehog persuasion. While he certainly did “know many things,” the lodestar of his work as president undoubtedly was the theme of economy in government. This was his “one big thing” which occupied most of his time and was preeminent on his mind at all times. Nowhere did he wax more lyrical than when addressing the seminannual meetings of the Business Organization of the Government: he reports that he “rejoiced in keeping down the annual budget”, he avers that the real purpose of economy in government is nothing less than “the true and scientific progress of humanity”, he exults that “peace hath its victories no less than war.” The one cabinet member most influential and  closest to him was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and the one individual with whom he conferred longest and most often was the Budget Director General Lord, these two men being his closest allies in the fight against fiscal excesses.

Now, my literary and philosophical knowledge is not sufficient to analyse how fitting Berlin’s categorizations are. The point I want to make is that all of us human beings have to deal with getting through life successfully, given a limited set of resources. And those who single-mindedly invest those resources into a single goal or interest (the specialists or “hedgehogs”) will likely go farther in that field than those who spread their resources and interests far and wide (the generalists or “foxes”). Conversely, while they may end up more successful in their (narrower) chosen field, the hedgehogs miss out on many of the joys of dabbling in various hobbies, interests and domains.

Maybe the idea of hedgehogs being “better” or “wiser” than foxes (or vice versa) is not correct. Maybe, as is true in many things, there has to be a “goodness of fit” among the individual’s thinking style and his environment. There will be situations where the ability to juggle many things simultaneously is adaptive, whereas other situations may demand that one focuses on one or two big issues. From a lifespan perspective, it would seem foolish to focus on too few things too early in life, before you have had a chance to sample a wider selection of options and interests. Then, as life goes on, it may indeed be wise to focus on a few ideas and concepts that have turned out to make sense to you. Another possibility is that we need to be focused and goal-driven in our professional pursuits, while it will enhance our personal growth to have many interests in the private domain. Coolidge was a widely read man, with interest in philosophy, law, and the ancient languages. Detractors may say that his “one big thing” was to remain in whatever office he held, but it is true that in his case, the nation was lucky to have a “hedgehog” at the helm who was single-mindedly focused on the key goals of prosperity, solvency and peace.



A president retires

Recently, former president Jimmy Carter expressed the opinion that his conduct of his post-presidential years was “probably superior” to that of other retired presidents, while George W. Bush declined an invitation to attend the ground zero commemoration, among other reasons, out of a desire to stay out of the spotlight.

There just is no job description for former presidents; we have no particular, prescribed role for these leaders who have served their country. Only a few have chosen to seek and fill other political roles – John Quincy Adams served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives, William Howard Taft fulfilled his dream of becoming Chief Justice.

A description has been offered that our political system assigns any former president the role of “public man despite himself.” For no one of that select group is that more apt than for Calvin Coolidge. Returning home to Northampton by train on March 4, 1929 straightaway from the Hoover inauguration, the Coolidges hoped to return to a quiet life and private existence after many years of public service. But Coolidge was too well remembered, too well admired too much respected, for his fellow Americans to leave him alone – he was pestered on his front porch, accosted in the street, and pursued in his office. Coolidge complained to Ralph Hemenway, his law partner from earlier days,

“Did you ever stop to think what a task it is to speak to every person you see on the streets? It is nice to say good morning to several persons, and to shake hands with them; but it is hard to say good morning to several hundred, and to shake hands with each one of them.”

This happened all the time, whether the former president was at home in Northampton, vacationing in his boyhood home in Vermont, or attending to business affairs in Boston or New York, he always had to contend with an admiring throng showering him with an attention he neither wanted nor sought.

Coolidge did not make any lengthy trips during his retirement years; in a 1932 interview he said that

“If I travel, courtesy requires that I make speeches, sometimes, and there is always the danger of saying something that will cause embarrassment. I couldn’t go to Europe without accepting honors and seeing people.”

Still, he was on the go quite a bit, often to Boston, to Amherst, where he served on the Board of Trustees, and monthly to New York City, for meetings of the New York Life Insurance Company. While he appeared to enjoy these trips, he certainly did not like to be harrassed by the press, to be called upon to speak publicly, and to be subjected to the presence of substantial crowds. On one 1930 trip to the West Coast, according to the New York Times,

“…a reporter got into the [Coolidge] apartment and met the former president in his bathrobe coming from a shower. “Mr. Coolidge,” the reporter asked, “is it true that you are planning to run again for the presidency?” Mr. Coolidge told the reporter to depart at once.” (Actually, Coolidge’s exact words to the reporter were “not fit to print.”)

All in all, Coolidge did not relish the attention lavished upon him by a nation that fondly remembered him as a symbol of the prosperous and roaring 20s. He would have been perfectly happy to disappear from public view. Having looked forward to a leisurely retirement as a reward for his years of service, he was to some extent frustrated by those with an interest in keeping him in the public eye. It is possible that the demands made upon him contributed to hastening his untimely death at only 60 years of age, on January 5, 1933.