The Community Connection

Lessons from the fox and the hedgehog

- John C. Morgan Columnist John Morgan is a former teacher and newspaper writer. John C. Morgan

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The words come from an ancient Greek poet but were later used as the title of a 1953 essay by philosophe­r Isaiah Berlin in which he describes two types of thinkers, one who understand­s many things and the other one big thing or idea.

The conclusion of the story about the fox and the hedgehog is that while foxes supposedly know many things, the hedgehog’s one piece of knowledge is the best of all — it has to do with staying alive, and that’s pretty essential.

You see, when threatened, the hedgehog is able to roll up into a small ball and protect himself by raising the prickly needles on his outer layer.

While the fox may run in many directions to avoid hunters, the hedgehog stands his ground and does one thing well. Berlin concludes that in modern times we have few hedgehog thinkers and many foxes.

Radio talk show hosts are by and large foxes who think they know a lot but really don’t, even while pretending they do. But in our time, hedgehog thinkers are rare because most of our minds are cluttered with verbal garbage, unless, of course, from time to time we pause to actually reflect on life and think for ourselves.

The hedgehog story got me thinking about one truth I think is extremely important for everyone. It comes from

Viktor Frankl’s classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a book about what he learned surviving a Nazi concentrat­ion camp.

Frankl’s book ought to be read with Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” not only to counter those who race about with conspiracy theories but more importantl­y as a guide to how best to live, which is, after, the essential subject matter of ethics.

In his book, Frankl writes: “Everything can be taken from a man but … the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstan­ces.”

He doesn’t mean one should accept a terrible situation, but only that the final freedom is the ability to choose our attitudes about the situation until one can get out of it.

One can apply this to any life situation with which you are faced, especially one that may be troublesom­e. You may not be able to get out of the situation immediatel­y, but you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude. I know some whose attitudes make situations worse, and others whose attitudes end up changing not only their inner lives but also the situation itself. By choosing how you respond to any situation, you exercise your power over it.

Attitudes may not change the situation in which you find yourself, but they do change you and even how you face things, and perhaps that is the best wisdom of all a poor little hedgehog can offer.


When asked in a 1959 radio interview to sum up what he had learned for future generation­s, 20th-century British philosophe­r Bertrand Russell offered two responses, one moral and the other intellectu­al.

“The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say, love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconne­cted, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together — we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuati­on of human life on this planet.

The intellectu­al thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considerin­g any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out.

Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectu­al thing that I should wish to say.”

I am tempted to explain what Russell meant but will resist. I would only ask you to reflect on his words in the light of the situation we find ourselves in today where hate and lies seem to be the norms.

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