Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Fox and the Hedgehog

In the last paragraph of her column yesterday, Peggy Noonan says the following:

These are the two great issues, the economic crisis and our safety. In the face of them, what strikes one is the weightlessness of the Obama administration, the jumping from issue to issue and venue to venue from day to day. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested a leader is a fox or a hedgehog. The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In political leadership the hedgehog has certain significant advantages, focus and clarity of vision among them. Most presidents are one or the other. So far Mr. Obama seems neither.

I haven't attempted to track down the Isaiah Berlin reference, but, of course, the idea about the fox and the hedgehog is much older. Remember Archilochus (fr. 201 West)?
πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

'The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one. One good one.' (Lattimore's tr.)


Laura Gibbs said...

The saying supplies the title of Isaiah Berlin's 1953 essay on the Russian writer, Tolstoy. The essay is not in the public domain, but there's an excerpt here.

By the time it reached the Latin Middle Ages, the hedgehog had become a cat, as here in one of Odo of Cheriton's fables:

Vulpes siue Reinardus obuiauit Tebergo, id est catto, et dixit Reinardus: Quot fraudes uel artificia nouisti? Et ait Catus: Certe nescio nisi unum. Et ait Reinardus: Quod est illud? Respondit: Quando canes me insequuntur, scio repere super arbores et euadere. Et quesiuit Catus: Et tu, quot scis? Et respondit Reinardus: Scio XVII, et ab hoc habeo saccum plenum. Veni mecum, et docebo te artificia mea, quod canes te non capient. Annuit Catus; ambo simul iuerunt. Venatores et canes insequebantur eos, et ait Catus: Audio canes; iam timeo. Et ait Reinardus: Noli timere; bene te instruam qualiter euades. Appropinquauerunt canes et uenatores. Certe, dixit Catus, amplius non uado tecum; uolo uti artificio meo. Et saltauit super arborem. Canes ipsum dimiserunt et Reinardum insecuti sunt et tandem ceperunt, quidam per tibias, quidam per uentrem, quidam per dorsum, quidam per capud. Et Catus in alto sedens clamauit: Reinarde, Reinarde, aperi sacculum tuum; certe omnes fraudes tue non ualent tibi.

Eric said...