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.