Hedgehogs & foxes

Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful essay The Hedgehog and the Fox is really about Tolstoy’s War and Peace but it starts off with a quotation from the Greek poet Archilochus (who is, let’s face it, much less read and re-read than Tolstoy): “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Berlin sees Proust, Ibsen, Dostoevsky and others as hedgehogs, ‘monists’ who are good at one big thing, and Shakespeare, Pushkin and Montaigne as ‘pluralist’ foxes. Tolstoy he sees as being a bit of both.

As we learn that the actual hedgehog population is in peril, we ask ourselves: is it better to have only one big skill or defence, or to develop a range of skills, call yourself versatile and be ready for anything? It seems to work for foxes.

However, in the world of work we are often expected to be good at one big thing. Employers and potential employers who want us to fit their own scheme would themselves resent being pigeonholed and would want to be credited for their own diverse skills.

Actually, in most situations we only need to be ‘good enough’ – we get by without being an expert at spelling, adding up, driving, boiling an egg – and indeed if your particular skill becomes obsolete or if fate decides you can’t do it any more, you could be in trouble.

Perhaps the solution is to be foxes and then play the hedgehog game when the situation demands it. And to seek out those who enjoy foxiness in others, remembering that hedgehoggery has its charms when that One Big Thing is something that fascinates us.