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Archive for the tag “Isaiah Berlin”

On History and Herodotus

That History is a useless and boring collection of names and dates is one of those careless statements of foolishness that one overhears occasionally and which immediately marks the speaker as an illiterate member of democratic society — a grave deficiency from my point of view as a historian, teacher, and concerned citizen. In this essay, I intend to define exactly what history is and why it is important.

Herodotus, called the “father of history”, invented the word history as we know it (from Greek  istoria: “inquiry” or “research”) as well as the field of historiography. His Histories of the Persian Wars were composed and performed in Periclean Athens from about 440-420 BCE, or roughly two generations after the wars. Herodotus gathered all of his information about the background and events of the wars second- or third-hand from eyewitnesses. He also traveled widely and gathered first-hand information about customs, geography, and local history of not only the archipelago of Greek poleis (city-states), but also the nations comprising the distant and exotic Persian empire, including Egypt, Babylon, and Arabia. Already in the first line of the Histories he presents the reader (or audience, in the original case) with the results of his inquiries into the Persian wars:

This is the result of the inquiry (historia) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, published so that time may not erase the memory of past events from the mind of mankind, so that the great and marvelous deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians should not be without fame, and especially to explain why they fought against one another.

Herodotus collects this information so that it will not be forgotten, so that both Greeks and the Persians be rightly honored for glorious deeds, and, most importantly from the historical point of view, to try to understand the causes behind the conflict. While the Histories remains almost as much a work of literature as of history, Herodotus lays the groundwork for a rudimentary systematic method of recording past events.

Thucydides, writing soon after Herodotus, and contemporary with him, composed his History of the Peloponnesian War, which has been the obvious foil for Herodotus’s work ever since. Thucydides was an Athenian general who personally fought in the Peloponnesian War until he was exiled for losing a strategic fortress in 423, whereupon he began recording a history of the war while it was still being fought.

In his opening lines, Thucydides copies Herodotus by giving his name and purpose, although we will note a difference in focus:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another. He began to write when they first took up arms, believing that it would be great and memorable above any previous war. For he argued that both states were then at the full height of their military power, and he saw the rest of the Hellenes either siding or intending to side with one or other of them. No movement ever stirred Hellas more deeply than this; it was shared by many of the Barbarians, and might be said even to affect the world at large. The character of the events which preceded, whether immediately or in more remote antiquity, owing to the lapse of time cannot be made out with certainty. But, judging from the evidence which I am able to trust after most careful enquiry, I should imagine that former ages were not great either in their wars or in anything else.”

Describing his method, he has this to say later in Book One:

Of the events of the war I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own; I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry. The task was a laborious one, because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, as they remembered or were interested in the actions of one side or the other. And very likely the strictly historical character of my narrative may be disappointing to the ear. But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things, shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied. My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten.

Already we can see Thucydides taking a dig at Herodotus with that last line. Thucydides would have considered himself a more rigorous and scientific historian than his predecessor, and most critics since at least Cicero have agreed. In Thucydides, we are focused solely on military and political matters, in a straight-line and chronological order. He goes to pains to show that he presents the only the facts or the most likely interpretation of the facts when there is uncertainty. He even tells us he basically made up the speeches when he could not remember them or according to what he thought they should be. Still miles ahead of Herodotus in terms of modern historiography. Thucydides has been appreciated for centuries due to his apparent realism, or Realpolitik, and experienced a resurgence in military study before and after the World Wars and the Cold War.

In Herodotus, however, we find something that Thucydides lacks. In Herodotus there is much less focus on politics, and the military encounters are more exaggerated and less detailed, with the occasional involvement of the gods à la Homer. But Herodotus takes us on a literary and anthropological journey that surely would (and perhaps did) make Thucydides blush. He traveled far and wide interviewing people and seeing different cultures and lands for himself. The result is a book which remains the most important ancient source on the Persian empire. In one case, Herodotus spends the entire Book Two on a description of Egypt, its history and customs, and flora and fauna (though his report of the crocodile and hippopotamus reveal that he certainly did not see them first-hand). This chapter is also one of the founding documents of the field of Egyptology. In another full chapter we are told all about the customs and geography of the area north of Greece called Scythia, one of the best sources for these mysterious people as well. Other things he includes are India and its culture, Arabia and its culture and spice-collecting method, and any number of other interesting anecdotes and digressions. Herodotus, more than a historian, is a master storyteller who keeps us entertained while giving us his own brand of history. Some of my favorite sections are the tale of Gyges and the magic ring of invisibility, the tale of Solon and Croesus, and the debate between Darius and two other Persian lords about which type of government the empire would have (obviously in Herodotus’ version democracy is the winner).

The Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, until his death in 1987, was considered one of the world’s experts in ancient historiography. In a 1962 lecture he described the “Herodotean and the Thucydidean Tradition” as a contrast between two models of history writing. As much as Herodotus was called the “father of history”, his was not a model much appreciated at all until periods of reemergence during the Enlightenment, and intermittently since then. Thucydides has always been the model of strong political and military history writing. Momigliano emphasizes that Thucydides intentionally undercut Herodotus this way from the beginning, by putting himself between Herodotus and his readers, and getting the “lying Herodotus” motif off the ground. Herodotus painted a broad canvas with features of culture, religion, anthropology, sociology, geography, mythology, and, to a lesser extent, war (and its traditional mythical, classical, glorious, and heroic–that is to say, pre-modern–manifestations). Thucydides focused solely on the present, with little need for any past history outside of the immediate causes for political and military behavior. For him, like Lord Acton, history is present politics. Herodotus is a humanist and a preserver of civilization, which is a “hedge against human mortality” as Momigliano describes. Thucydides’ central concern is the use of human power by means of politics and war. These are the two broad categories of historiography that still characterize the field of history from its inception to the present day.

One of the skills of mankind, homo sapiens (“wise man”), is to divide the world into patterns and divisions in order to understand things better (or at least more easily). The observation and description of various patterns in the world does not necessarily make them true; in fact, these observations and descriptions can only ever be theoretical and incomplete facsimiles of the real “thing-in-itself”. This goes for every field of human knowledge, as much for philosophy as the natural sciences, as much for psychology as for history. It is rare that we would ever be so bold as to consider any of the various competing theories in any field as “true”; better to consider them variously “true for a certain time, place, or person”, or more “useful” for a particular purpose or need. In philosophy I would not consider anything to have ever been “solved”, and there are things to praise and criticize in the “Platonic” versus the “Aristotelian” view, or in the “Analytic” versus “Pragmatic” view. It seems like there are as many different views as there are people who express them, which would make each one “idiosyncratic” and true for each person’s understanding of things (at least, according to a pragmatist). In psychology, there are obviously still many proponents of either the “Freudian” or “Jungian” schools, or their less venerable rivals. In every field of human thought we find such competing perspectives, methods, and aims. History is no different.

In addition to Herodotean (cultural) and Thucydidean (political) emphasis on history writing, let us spend the rest of this essay mentioning some other various categorizations of history, and what we can take from the reading of history in general.

One debate about history is whether it is an art or a science. Seconding the former, we have Schopenhauer saying “There is no general science of history. History is the insignificant tale of humanity’s interminable, weighty, fragmented dream.” Though not so pessimistic as that so-called “philosopher of pessimism,” many of the great historians’ fame and greatness — Gibbon, Macauley, Durant, Mommsen to a certain extent — rests on their style or “art.” These characterize the more popular, general, and broad surveys of history which must be above all readable and interesting: works of art rather than science. On the other hand, we have various proponents of the science of history, which begins with the philosophical views of Hegel and Marx, appears after World War One with writers like Spengler, and has characterized some of the modern academic and scholarly study of history, such as with Huntington and Fukuyama. Despite their pretenses, I think we would find that no one has yet convincingly proved history (or economics, for that matter, despite Marx, Keynes, and Friedman) to be a science, though the attempt to do so typically makes it more immutable and less interesting. As far as I’m concerned, science can facilitate history writing, especially in regards to archaeology, numismatics, epigraphy, dendrochronology, etc., but the historiography itself is an art.

History has also been seen through the eyes of either its great individuals or as societies writ large. The former case is most purely expressed with biography, from Plutarch, Caesar, and Suetonius onwards. From a certain point of view, the lives of history’s great individuals can illustrate a great deal of the history of a certain time and place. As Harold Bloom points out, “History, to Rilke, was the index of men born too soon, but as a strong poet Rilke would not let himself know that art is the index of men born too late.” This is the traditional view, but it has more recently been superseded in the academic world by cultural or social history, especially from the points of view of previously marginalized groups such as women, minorities, and non-Western peoples and tribes. Surely if our goal is to learn more about a particular society or culture, we would not read “traditional” books like Caesar’s On the Gallic Wars but something more modern (or post-modern) like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Once again, the point is not which is correct or more correct, but which is most useful for helping to understand the past better from all points of view.

Then there the question of whether the historian equates his work with an unalterable “truth”, or whether he admits that it is but one of the various versions or “perspectives” of truth. Whether there is such a thing as absolute truth is an unresolved philosophical argument. Truth is an unintuitively difficult concept to pin down, and the dichotomy in this case is similar to that of science versus art. Let’s take an example: that Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804 is not a fact which reasonable people will dispute–it represents “truth.” But despite those who stopped paying attention in high school, history is not a concatenation of names and dates that somehow embodies everything that ever happened in the foreign world of the past. The key to historical understanding is nuanced interpretation of cause and effect. To use the terms of a grammar debate, history is “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” The way in which truth is hard to pin down is not in the facts themselves, but in the perspective used to describe, interpret, and explain the facts which comprises the changeable, imperfect human aspect of history. If we say “the Americans won a victory over the British at Yorktown,” it tells me one single fact, but does little to explain who the Americans and British are and what they represent (as if there were one wholesale Platonic ideal of “Americans” or “British”). History is thus beholden to the historian to give perspective, which is an art and not a science, and interpretation, which depends on the historian’s philosophical or political bent.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning, if stretching the metaphor a bit thin, Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the hedgehog and the fox. The fox is the person who knows many things; the hedgehog knows one thing very well. Written to discuss the merits of Russian novelists (Berlin classifies Dostoevsky as the quintessential hedgehog, and Tolstoy as the fox who wants to be a hedgehog), I think we can roughly describe Herodotus as a fox, while Thucydides is nothing if not a hedgehog.

So what can we take from all of this theory, all these perspectives of history? I think, paradoxically (and hypocritically), the awareness of theories and philosophies of history is not itself an end, but only at best a means to an end for certain readers with a certain intellectual sensibility and too much time. The point of reading history is, to my mind, to enrich one’s mind, raise awareness of our shared humanity, and understand how the past still affects the present.

Studying History makes, or allows, one to think about the world in multifaceted ways, which should be seen as a requisite for living in a multifaceted world. “The past is foreign country: they do things differently there,” according to the writer L.P. Hartley. “History is past politics, and politics present history,” according to historian E.A. Freeman. “ I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past,” according to Gibbon.

As Bertrand Russell wrote in an essay on history, “The man whose interests are bounded by the short span between his birth and death has a myopic vision and a limitation of outlook which can hardly fail to narrow the scope of his hopes and desires. And what applies to an individual man, applies also to a community…I am thinking of history as an essential part of the furniture of an educated mind. We do not think that poetry should only be read by poets, or that music should only be heard by composers. And, in like manner, history should not be known only to historians.

We need not envision history as cyclical or predetermined (something that seems to come with the “scientific” view of history such as Marx and Spengler). Rather the opposite, that by understanding past events and lives we can create a present and future life for ourselves, and world for everyone, that avoids the biggest mistakes of the past. After all, as George Santayana famously warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To not do so would forfeit mankind’s biological and cultural heritage as the “wise men.”

Karl Popper and The Paradox of Tolerance

The paradoxical problem can be stated as the following: a tolerant person may be hostile toward intolerance; thus, a tolerant person would apparently be intolerant of something–namely, intolerance. Is it possible to have too much tolerance? Does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Are there any limitations to tolerance and, if so, how do we define them? This is the problem in the so-called ‘paradox of tolerance’. In order to attempt to understand the issue, I will recount some of the history and meaning behind the idea of tolerance (aka, toleration), and then present my own current preferred method of defining and applying the idea of tolerance for practical use in our modern political and social context.

Let’s begin in the early modern era with John Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration (coincidentally published the same year as the English Act of Toleration). In this influential treatise, Locke focuses on the conflict between political authority and religious belief. He argued that, since it was impossible for the state to coerce religious belief, it should totally refrain from interfering in the religious beliefs of is subjects. In his eyes, there was an inalienable right to the free exercise of religion that necessitated toleration by the state of all competing creeds (not counting his stated exceptions for Catholics who could give loyalty to a foreign government or atheists who could destroy the moral order). This view, somewhat revolutionary at the time (Locke was writing in exile from Holland), has come to be the central inspiration for the now-accepted doctrine of the separation of the church and the state.

Throughout the next century, many thinkers continued to argue for the case of toleration, which was almost invariably represented as ‘religious toleration’. In France leading up to the Revolution, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau all followed Locke in different ways, while all generally conceiving of a secular state in which religious belief should be tolerated. Likewise in the New World before and after the American Revolution, where Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were some of the key proponents of Lockean toleration. Paine, in his 1791 Rights of Man, seconded Locke’s notion that toleration for religious diversity is necessary since neither state nor church authorities could truly judge an individual in matters of conscience.

Madison took the issue further than Locke by refusing any exceptions to universal toleration, writing that “the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it.” According to Madison and Jefferson, the state was to have nothing to do whatever with religious matters, not only for the purpose of guaranteeing toleration but also to place limits on the power of the state. The Bill of Rights that was authored by Madison and passed in 1791 served not only to restrain political power, but to protect for all time the freedom of thought, speech, and actions of individuals. This has led, among other things, to a tradition of toleration for these things, even in the case of disagreement. This is best summed up in the quote often misattributed to Voltaire (which was actually another author’s epitome of his attitude): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

If we continue to the 19th century, we encounter the more modern idea of tolerance championed by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 work On Liberty. Now, for virtually the first time, Mill centered the issue of toleration not on religious considerations, but on other forms of political, social, and cultural differences. He provides three arguments for toleration. The first is his ‘Harm Principle’, whereby individual liberty can only be limited to what harms another person or his well-being. The second is that freedom of thought is essential, and that even a wrong opinion can lead to a productive learning process. The third is his utilitarian argument that individuals will be happier, and will lead to more total happiness in society, if their differences are tolerated so that everyone can pursue his or her own idea of the good life. While his overall conclusions are uncertain and have some downsides (as I began to discuss here in regards to utilitarianism), his expanded and reasonable idea of toleration has had a positive and stimulating effect on the discussion up to the present day.

In the 20th century, especially since the World Wars, the concept of tolerance has become an important issue in ethical and political philosophy– especially seen in such liberal theorists as John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and John Rawls. I have previously written here about Berlin in regards to his concepts of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom, and his idea of a tolerant system of ‘value-pluralism’. Likewise in this essay in which I discussed John Rawls and his ‘overlapping consensus’: a system in which individuals and groups with diverse opinions will find political reasons to agree on certain principles of justice that include mutual and universal toleration. Keeping all of this in mind, I will now turn my attention to Karl Popper.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Karl Popper was born in Austria in 1902, emigrated to New Zealand after the Anschluss, and spent the last half of his life in England where he received a knighthood, membership in the Royal Academy, and many other awards. He died in 1994 at the age of 92. His primary area of interest was the philosophy of science, in which he is considered the most important thinker of the 20th century. He refined the concept of ‘falsifiability’, in which a theory can only be taken as scientific if it can be shown to be falsifiable. This led him to conduct sustained attacks against such in vogue theories as psychoanalysis and Marxism, both of which he (rightly) exposed as pseudo-scientific. The same line of reasoning led to his supposed solution to the problem of induction which had plagued philosophers since David Hume. He wrote the most fundamental criticisms of the Logical Positivist school during their early days before they were popularized in the English-speaking world by A.J. Ayer. He defied Wittgenstein upon their first meeting at Cambridge by saying that if there were not real problems of philosophy, but only with language, then he never would have become a philosopher (there is an apocryphal story in which Wittgenstein brandished a poker iron at Popper during this meeting). Popper’s work with which I am most concerned is his political philosophy and his vigorous defense of democracy and liberalism, represented famously in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In this book (which can be read or downloaded for free here), written during the latter stages of WWII and published in 1945, Popper maintains as his central thesis that Plato, Hegel, and Marx were all, at best, deeply flawed thinkers whose ideas led to totalitarianism. The reason for this, according to Popper, was that they all preached theories based on ‘historicism’, an idea which states that all historical events are pre-determined according to certain laws of nature. In the first volume, he focuses solely on deconstructing “The Spell of Plato” by analyzing the negative consequences stemming from the proto-fascistic state Plato describes in the Republic. In the second volume, he treats similarly with Hegel’s ‘dialectics’ and Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, claiming that both were responsible for the 20th century cases of Nazism and Stalinism, respectively. One of the results is what Isaiah Berlin called “the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer.” This somewhat polemical book has obviously been highly controversial as well, inviting much criticism of Popper by other philosophers for his interpretations and uses of Plato, Hegel, and Marx.

Popper concludes, against the common long-held belief, that democracy is indeed a more efficient government than a dictatorship, since an open society with guaranteed individual freedoms is more sustainable and more able to solve its own problems over the long term (and, ideally, with less bloodshed). Additionally, Popper advocates what he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than the sort of utopian planning which could be seen in theory and in practice leading up to WWII (and continuing today in some places). Rather than the great social upheavals, and often revolutions, brought about by the latter, Popper preferred piecemeal improvements on a small scale that could gradually eliminate errors in social policies and make the necessary improvements. There are many arguments he makes in this monumental work, such as ‘negative utilitarianism’, which are highly interesting and worthy of further debate. For now, however, I will transition back to the topic at hand– tolerance and its paradox.

From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Chapter 7, Note 4:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law. And we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

According to Popper, then, there is a limit to tolerance– the suppression, by the State, of intolerance. This is a key doctrine of modern liberalism, and contrary to the idea of individual freedom imagined by Jefferson, Madison, or in the classical liberalism of J.S. Mill. Governments and societies have changed much from 18th-19th century, and even from WWII to today. Governments have in general become much stronger and more centralized, but at the same time there is much more individual freedom, education, and empowerment than ever before, as well as numerous international authorities that can (ostensibly) check the power of any single government. In short, there is much diversity and plurality, and we know now that tolerance is necessary to maintain the peace between peoples of different opinions and ideologies.

So how do we define intolerance, and who gets to decide? How do we limit intolerance while not curtailing freedoms of expression? Intolerance should be defined as treating members of a certain group differently and with less equality only because of their beliefs, race, sex, etc. It should be decided by a democratically elected government which guarantees the rights of the minority. The limits of tolerance should be a point which goes beyond mere criticism of opinions or beliefs to a rejection of the legitimacy of the person making the criticism. As a general guideline, criticism of ideas is allowed, while extreme attacks on people who hold those ideas, and the corresponding attempt to limit the victim’s freedom, is usually intolerance (aka, bigotry). The issue is not so simple, and there are constant court cases which test the bounds of these rules.

Let’s look at an example of how this works. We can quite easily see now that racism is intolerance. In many areas of the United States, especially the South, that particular intolerant attitude was so ingrained that an outside authority was needed in order to ameliorate the situation. That authority was the US Government, which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racism by no means has ended, as we can see clearly in today’s political headlines, but it has become become a criminal offense to express it openly. A vicious cycle has been transformed into a virtuous one as new generations are gradually raised with the idea that racism is unacceptable and off-limits. Today, though it still exists in the ignorant fringe of society, you will not see many examples of people who publicly announce that racism is an “individual right”, or that the Civil Rights Act was bad (unless you happen to be a right-wing “libertarian” named Ron Paul). That type is intolerance is no longer tolerated. There is no such thing as a ‘freedom to discriminate’, for example.

While there are numerous areas in which intolerance is still widespread, there is reason to believe that the tide is slowly turning. Popper’s model has not only been influential on both sides of the political discourse, but it also has the virtue of being a model that works in practice. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is one of the shining examples of our moral progress as a species. Part of this declaration reads that education is a universal right and should strive to “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” The authority, in this case, is the international collection of all the countries on the planet, that have collectively decided where to set the limits of tolerance. American constitutional law continues to constantly develop as well as the nature of the society slowly evolves. We are seeing right now, for example, that the ‘traditional’ case for intolerance against gay rights is crumbling before our very eyes.

We can, it appears to me, conclude that criticism of opposing ideas or beliefs is permissible, and even necessary for the flourishing of free speech in a democratic and open society. Attacking people because of their beliefs is not permitted. The discussion on the finer points of this argument need to continue to be debated, but, for now, I think it is safe to say that, in order to maintain our freedoms, intolerance should not be tolerated.

Two Freedoms of Isaiah Berlin

Last month, I commented here on a short essay of literary criticism by Isaiah Berlin entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” As I wrote, however, “Berlin himself admitted that the essay was not intended to be taken seriously, but as a sort of enjoyable ‘intellectual game.'” Much more serious and influential, however, was his 1958 Oxford inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, which was later written in essay form and revised several times throughout Berlin’s life. Drawing freely from lessons from historical political thought, Berlin defined the two eponymous concepts as “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty.

As far as I can tell, there is no difference in general meaning or connotation between the two English words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. One is etymologically Latinate, and the other Germanic, which allows for the typically wider range of lexical variation and nuance in English than many other languages. In the case of this discussion, I will honor my predilection for variety and use the words interchangeably.  Read more…

Hedgehogs and Foxes of Isaiah Berlin

If we go far enough backwards into the history of Western ‘culture’, we usually come to a stop somewhere around Iliad and Odyssey. Homer’s two epics formed the complete curriculum for at least 1000 years of Greek education (paideia), and obviously still speak to us today. For the Greeks, Achilles and Odysseus were the most excellent models of arete–virtue and courage in the face of adversity, being the best you can be. The poet Archilochus, writing perhaps only 100 years after Homer, is attributed with the saying, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one big thing.” It is possible to imagine Achilles as a ‘hedgehog’, a super-human who has mastered the art of killing (surpassing even the gods in his terrible skill). Odysseus, on the other hand, is the archetypal ‘fox’–king, warrior, mariner, farmer, builder, athlete, clever liar, and cunning cheater (once again, even getting the better of the gods in these last two aspects). The Greek phalanx formation, wielded most perfectly by the Spartans, Thebans, and finally Macedonians, was obviously a ‘hedgehog’ in reality as well as metaphor. I think it is fair to also classify the Roman legions into the ‘fox’ camp, constantly appropriating new tactics and weapons and evolving for every unique situation. The implication from Archilochus’ aphorism seems to be that the single powerful trick of the hedgehog will always prevail over the many clever tricks of the fox. There is no way to really make such a general conclusion, as the circumstances in each individual case usually tip the balance one way or the other.

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin, in his 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, took this idea and expanded it to include thinkers and their worldviews. Hedgehogs (such as Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust) “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.” Foxes, on the other hand (such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce), “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.” Basically, ‘hedgehogs’ focus on a single, possibly unifying idea, while ‘foxes’ see complex variety in the world. Berlin himself admitted that the essay was not intended to be taken seriously, but as a sort of “enjoyable intellectual game.” He knew that such dichotomies tend to be somewhat reductive, becoming academic and ultimately absurd when analyzed more closely. He also explained, however, that “every classification throws light on something.”

Lev Tolstoy

The main idea of his essay followed with a literary discussion of Tolstoy’s theory of history in War and Peace. Berlin described Pushkin as an “arch-fox”, the greatest of the 19th century; Dostoevsky is “nothing if not a hedgehog”; all Russian writers could therefore be placed at one or the other end of this spectrum…except Tolstoy. The great novelist had, according to Berlin, the natural gifts and achievements of a fox, but believed himself personally to be a hedgehog. This can be seen in the sense of disconnect between the universality of Tolstoy’s works (what has ever surpassed War and Peace for comprehensive description of the human condition and experience?), and his own personal moral crises and later rejection of much of Anna Karenina. By the end of his life, his farm at Yasnaya Polyana had become a religious shrine for his  anarcho-Christian disciples. As you might imagine, the analogy is flexible and can be used to differentiate people or concepts within almost any field. In a book about America’s founding fathers, historian Joseph Ellis has noted that George Washington was an archetypal hedgehog: his one big idea was that America’s future rested on its independence from European affairs and focus on developing westward. Presumably, Thomas Jefferson could be categorized as a fox. Stephen Jay Gould, the late great paleontologist, wrote a book (published posthumously in 2003) entitled The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. His purpose was to attempt to reconcile what he saw as a growing conflict in the academic realm between the sciences and the humanities. He traces four historical stages in which the ‘Science Wars’ have been falsely characterized by opposing sides. One such example is the late 19th century’s academic debate between rationalism and religion, a debate which continues today in America as some intractable school districts continue to fight against the teaching of evolution. Gould introduced the concept of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’ (NOMA) between science and religion, in which argues that the two do not overlap: science seeks to record and explain the factual nature of the natural world, while religion raises spiritual and ethical questions about the meaning and proper conduct of our lives. It is my opinion that this attempt at reconciliation is well-intended, but fallacious–religion thrusts itself into scientific debates, and rational philosophy can be used just as well to seek answers to spiritual and ethical questions. In conclusion, the hedgehog and the fox is more than a historical exercise or an academic diversion. We can use these conflicting perspectives to examine ourselves and our own place in the world. Do you feel that there is one great central idea that gives purpose to your life, and the universe? Or do you believe that there is endless variety, not only in human knowledge and experience, but in the physical workings of the planet and the cosmos? Even if no philosopher has ever found answers to these questions (or any found the right questions), there is a reason we are still asking them–we still need to find order and meaning in a disordered world. Things would be better if the hedgehogs learn more about the foxes, the foxes learn more about the hedgehogs, and maybe both learn one or two skills (or beliefs) from the other.

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