The Fox And the Hedgehog

My colleague Scotty McLennan is, like me, a UU minister, member of the Yale class of 1970, and a lawyer as well. He got his law and divinity degrees at the same time, and he wrote a thesis for his divinity degree comparing the mindset of the lawyer with that of the minister. He said the lawyer’s job was always to take something big and amorphous and chop it down to size. The client comes in with a long story and the lawyer has to figure out what part of it will fit in court. So the lawyer starts with something big and makes it little. The minister, on the other hand, takes something little and makes it big. Let me tell you what happened to me in the bagel shop yesterday which shows the unconditional love of God.

I think I have both these mindsets, and maybe that is why I relate to this metaphor of the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog sees the unity behind the apparent multiplicity of the world. It may look real confusing, but there’s a simple explanation. The fox says, the heck with your simple explanation, the world is just irreducibly complex and if you think everything is simple, you’re deluding yourself.

Now a hedgehog is a cute critter. We don’t have them in America, here we have porcupines, which are covered in stiff spines but which are rodents. Hedgehogs are not rodents, but belong to a different family of animals. But their coat of stiff spines has led to their strategy of defense. When a hedgehog is attacked, it rolls itself into a ball, and its head and face and limbs and vital organs are all protected by its bristling spines. This is the one big thing the hedgehog knows how to do.

The fox is more nimble and agile. It survives by outwitting its predators, by outrunning them or by being somewhere else when they swoop in for the kill.

What does this have to do with us? In UU congregations, we often amuse ourselves with nose-counting as to how many of us believe in God. Humanists vs. theists. We are the church without a creed, firmly committed to the idea that we accept as full members and participants those who don’t find the idea of God appealing or even relevant.

But I wonder whether the division between foxes and hedgehogs may be as significant as the one between theists and non-theists. Stop and think for a moment: do you tend to see everything through one grand idea, and try to fit your life’s experiences into that idea? Or do you prefer to see life in all its grand diversity, its many colors and shapes, its highs and lows. Are you happy with bits of experience that you can’t categorize, which defy explanation or even description?Are you skeptical of grand theories or over-simplifications?

Now two points must be made before we go any further. One is that this fox/hedgehog distinction is not meant to be biologically accurate. We have no idea of how real foxes and real hedgehogs think, if the word think applies to animals at all. Secondly, Isaiah Berlin did not mean the distinction to be taken too seriously, but taken only for the insight it gives into human habits of mind.

Berlin cites Dante as his prime example of a hedgehog, and Shakespeare as his paradigm of a fox. You can’t read Dante’s Divine Comedy without being impressed at how he has imaginatively ordered all of human existence into one grand complex moral pecking order extending over the three realms of the afterlife, heaven, hell and purgatory. He has special spots reserved for figures real and categorical in each circle of each realm. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has a wide spectrum of individualistic characters from all walks of life who don’t fit in to easy categorization.

In philosophy, the hedgehogs’ lead figure is Plato, the guy who postulated that ideas were eternal, not dependent on humans, and were more real than the stuff we perceive with our senses. The foxes’ philosophical champion is Aristotle, who was a scientist in his day, cataloguing and categorizing the natural and social worlds around him.

What about us? You might expect that in a UU congregation we would find more foxes than hedgehogs. If we are skeptical of whether there is a God, we might be skeptical of other big ideas, such as that there is an overall or inherent meaning to life. But there is in idealistic streak among us as well.

As we meet here, we have hung on the front of the Meeting House a banner proclaiming Dr. King’s mantra, I have a dream, as well as the current hashtag Black Lives matter. A great deal of the energy of our social justice impulses is concerned with equality. We call it by many names: decentering whiteness, disestablishing white supremacy, anti-racism, #metoo, transgender rights.

I locate this concern with equality within a theological framework of transcendentalism, which I think is more popular than ever among UUs.Last week I mentioned the abolitionist transcendentalist Theodore Parker’s quote about the arc of the universe bending towards justice. The more well-known quote from Parker was his definition of democracy as government of the people, by the people and for the people. This, of course, was lifted by Abraham Lincoln into the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln’s birthday will soon be upon us, so it’s worth reflecting here on that great speech. Garry Wills wrote an analysis of the Gettysburg Address called Lincoln at Gettysburg, in which he argued, first, that, in the speech, Lincoln redefined the idea of the United States and second, that Lincoln’s theology was basically transcendentalist. He believed that equality was a foundational principle in America, but it had never been realized in practice.

A transcendentalist is not flummoxed by the fact that the ideal is not realized in practice. The transcendentalist expects this, it is part of being an idealist. The fact that the ideal is not fulfilled does not negate the ideal; it just calls on all of us to try harder to make that ideal true for more people in society.

I am not sure whether this makes Lincoln or Dr. King or Emerson or Parker a hedgehog or a fox. Hedgehog in that they are committed to a grand overarching idea, but fox insofar as they allow that reality does not yet conform to that idea.

I mentioned last week that the calls for justice have their own insistence. We had an upheaval last spring in the denominational structure over the issue of race and hiring practices. I am not here to argue that either side was right or wrong, only to note that a demand that reality conform to our ideal is more of a hedgehog characteristic and the tolerance for disparities is a fox thing.

To be a fox is to be in love with particularity and diversity and to deeply appreciate how tentative are our efforts to generalize. To understand that things often don’t add up. To be a fox is to be skeptical of conclusions, to realize that not everything can be explained. To be a fox is to make peace with paradox, ambiguity, mystery.

Isaiah Berlin wrote his fox/hedgehog essay in 1953 on Leo Tolstoy’s view of history as expressed in his great novel War and Peace. The novel, written in the 1860s, is set in the Napoleonic wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with fictional characters interacting with historical ones. At the end of the novel are two epilogues, the second of which is an essay setting forth Tolstoy’s theory of history.

In terms of animal metaphors, Berlin describes Tolstoy as a fox by nature and a hedgehog by conviction. As a novelist, he is unsurpassed in his ability to observe the natural and social world and to recreate it in all its details for the delight of the reader. But Berlin holds that throughout his life, Tolstoy was consumed with the question of what caused historical events to happen.

A fox by nature and a hedgehog by conviction. What does that mean?

Tolstoy lived at a time when science was cracking many of the secrets of nature. The earth’s geologic age had been pushed back to millions of years. Oxygen had been discovered, the power of steam harnessed, and Darwin’s Origin of Species had just explained how life-forms emerge and evolve. This science, which was transforming the way people lived, was based on cause and effect. Darwin’s finches on Galapagos had different beaks because they had all had evolved from a common ancestor but had adapted to different habitats.

But Tolstoy could find no equivalent causal explanation for the affairs of humans. When you ask the question why did this war or that event happen in history, people are usually ready with stories. One that historians tell is that of the great man.

So the history of the Napoleonic Wars will be told conventionally as a clash of personalities such as Napoleon Bonaparte in France and Tsar Alexander I in Russia, and dozens of lesser-noted individuals. The history will be told in the acts and words and decisions of these individuals. And the story will be told as if these individuals had free will. Not complete freedom of action, for circumstances constrain such freedom, but within those constraints, one can act freely and moral consequences will attach to these actions.

However, such a view of the history is not scientific, Tolstoy thought. Science is based on causation: everything that happens can at least theoretically be explained as the product of something else that happened. Determinism rules in science, and an act of free will, by definition, is not determined by anything which has gone before.

In his epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy rejects the idea that history is made by the actions of great men, or that the overt acts of those great men are what cause the historical event to happen.

“The fundamental and essential significance of the European events of the beginning of the nineteenth century lies in the movement of the mass of the European peoples from west to east and afterwards from east to west. The commencement of that movement was the movement from west to east.”

In other words, the fundamental reality wasn’t that Napoleon ordered his army to invade Russia, it was that these masses of people simply moved from west to east.

Well, we might agree that the movement of people was the bare fact, but what caused the movement? As if describing a science experiment, Tolstoy then sets forth three conditions which were prerequisite to this movement:

“For the peoples of the west to be able to make their warlike movement to Moscow it was necessary: (1) that they should form themselves into a military group of a size able to endure a collision with the warlike military group of the east, (2) that they should abandon all established traditions and customs, and (3) that during their military movement they should have at their head a man who could justify to himself and to them the deceptions, robberies, and murders which would have to be committed during that movement.

By this point it is apparent that Tolstoy is not doing science but satire. If the circumstances called forth a certain type of man, soon a man emerged to step into the role set for him:

“A man without convictions, without habits, without traditions, without a name, and not even a Frenchman, emerges- by what seem the strangest chances- from among all the seething French parties, and without joining any one of them is borne forward to a prominent position.

“The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling and self-confident limitations of this man raise him to the head of the army.”

Does that remind you of anyone?

The entry of Napoleon into power in France is impossible to explain by any scientific principle or by any cause and effect. Tolstoy can find no better explanation than chance:

“Chance, millions of chances, give him power, and all men as if by agreement co-operate to confirm that power. Chance forms the characters of the rulers of France, who submit to him; chance forms the character of Paul I of Russia who recognizes his government; chance contrives a plot against him which not only fails to harm him but confirms his power.

Chance, of course, is not a scientific explanation for anything, but a disavowal of the search for explanations.

Isaiah Berlin summarizes Tolstoy’s fox-like approach in these words:

“[N]o theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record. Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind.”

The principal charlatan, of course is Napoleon:

Berlin concludes:

“This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces – these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid the bleak truths – side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life – the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals – with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction.”

What does this have to do with us here in 2018? I think our country and indeed the developed world is riven by competing hedgehog visions. Progressives embrace Dr. King’s dream of equality, not only between the races as he articulated it but between the genders, social classes, countries of origin, the equality which has never been actualized in any of these dimensions. To this dream of equality we add a dream of liberty, free speech, free press, rights of privacy in our bodies, free trade, open borders, and markets which are free but regulated in the public interest. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a dream of return to the good old days, a mythical golden age, of unfettered nationalism and unfettered capitalism, of, in some corners of conservatism, male dominance, white dominance, straight dominance, native-born dominance, unlimited influence of money in the political process in the guise of free speech, and the right to discriminate against others based on one’s religious conscience. Both conservative and progressive media, print, cable, broadcast and online, choose stories and facts which reinforce their hedgehog visions. On each side, we have adopted hedgehog reflexes: when attacked, our whole instinct is to curl up into a ball and wait for the attacker to go away.

Our hedgehog ideas keep us from seeing the real diversity of the world. We stereotype and demonize hedgehogs of the opposite camp, when maybe what we need is to bring out our inner foxes. I wonder whether there isn’t an actuality, a gritty concreteness to the world which is beyond the dreams, or perhaps between the dreams of both camps.

Many of you will say, yes, but we can’t get anywhere until we agree on the facts, and the other side doesn’t recognize the facts that we recognize. Psychologists have shown that people don’t change their basic opinions when confronted with opposing facts, they simply dig in deeper.

If we are to be foxes, we have to learn to listen and to look sharply. We must be quick on our feet. And yes, we must try to see the hedgehogs of the other camp as, yes, creatures like ourselves, breathing the common air, sharing the common earth, to which all shall, in the end, return.


Reading: the Fox and the Hedgehog.

Isaiah Berlin, the Hedgehog and the Fox (1953)

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square

​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075 

© 2021 UUMH of Chatham