Of Hedgehogs and Foxes
An email conversation about the news of the day.
May 9 2002 11:22 AM


Dear Alex,


First, a quick correction to yesterday's dispatch. That big yellow blimp that the Rolling Stones reportedly had up in the Bronx yesterday turned out to be Keith Richards' liver.

Alex, you know many things; that is why you have been named editor of the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. I, by contrast, know one big thing; that is why I am unemployed. Now, you probably think that I am alluding to Isaiah Berlin's famous 1953 essay on Tolstoy, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which began with the statement, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." As examples of hedgehogs—those who understand the world in terms of a single central vision—Berlin gave Dante, Plato, Hegel, and Proust. As examples of foxes—those who have a pluralist vision of the world—he gave Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe, and Joyce. Ever since, intellectualoids have made a parlor game of dichotomizing thinkers into the categories of hedgehog and fox.

The hedgehog-fox aphorism has always been attributed, by Berlin and everyone else, to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (680-640 B.C.). Now, it seems, this is the result of a literary forgery. The actual source of the aphorism turns out to be a long-forgotten Regency wag, adventurer, and rakehell named Archilochus Jones (1782?-1820).

As it happens, I discovered a cache of papers by Archilochus Jones—"the wickedest man who ever revelled with the Regent"—a few years ago in the Badminton Library. Perusing them, I found that Jones had a habit of peppering the letters he wrote to his brother, Baldercock Jones, with mock Greek aphorisms. It appears that some decades after Archilochus Jones' death, the unscrupulous classicist F.F. "Bunny" Arbuthnot interpolated several of these aphorisms—including the one about the hedgehog and the fox—into a corrupt fragment of the pseudo-Dionysius, attributing them to the Archilochus of antiquity. How Isaiah Berlin subsequently came upon them I have no idea.

The corrected attribution of this celebrated aphorism will be announced in a forthcoming issue of Classical Studies Quarterly, published by the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. (Unfortunately, they do not yet have a Web site.) No doubt, Alex, it will merit a headline in your "Ideas" section.

By the way, my friend Inigo Thomas (who, despite the improbable name, is a real person) has retranslated the aphorism as Archilochus Jones originally wrote it. The correct version is as follows: "The hedgehog knows one big thing, but not very well. The fox knows many things, none of them of the slightest importance." So Isaiah Berlin, in his essay on Leo Tolstoy, got things precisely backward. Tolstoy was not a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, as Berlin claimed; he was a hedgehog trying to avoid becoming a fox.

How about that Robert Blake. He takes his wife out to a restaurant and someone just shoots her? As Gary Shandling said, nobody's that lucky.


Jim Holt writes the "Egghead" column for Slate. He also writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Alexander Star is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. This fall, he will begin editing the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe.


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