Back in the day, I had been intrigued by Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title of this famous essay comes from the 7th century Greek poet Archilochus, probably via Erasmus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
One suspects that this aphorism is to be taken literally: for all his cunning, the fox cannot defeat the hedgehog’s single form of defence. But it’s fun to take it figuratively and riff on the theme, characterizing assorted writers and philosophers as either foxes or hedgehogs. Those who recognize the world as diverse, a ‘world of fragments’ with a plethora of ideas and systems and those who see the world through the lens of a single, unifying idea.
Berlin compares Tolstoy with Dostoyevsky: the former a fox who should be a hedgehog, the latter a down-the-line hedgehog.
John Gray, it would appear, is a fox. He is one of a new and growing category of academics, strolling troubadours of erudition and opinion, moving effortlessly from the ivory towers of academe to the op-ed pages of our newspapers: from Oxford and Cambridge to the Sunday Times, from Harvard to BBC2 and PBS, from the literati to the twitterati.
This is not a new phenomenon – the ‘media don’ was a fixture of the BBC in my childhood, as I sat transfixed by Hugh Trevor-Roper, AJP Taylor and AJ Ayer. But, unless I misremember, their lectures to camera were specific to their own field. Whereas now, it appears that academic achievement in one discipline is sufficient to justify a forum for views on pretty much anything.
I am thinking, not disparagingly at all, of, for example, Niall Ferguson, of Simon Sharma, of Mary Beard, of Bethany Hughes, of John Gray himself.
These polymaths are clearly foxes of a high order. They know a great deal about a great many things. They are in the great tradition of “Renaissance” men and women: famous foxes such as Leonardo and Shakespeare as opposed to Proust, say, or Dante.
We can all play the game: Hegel and Marx are hedgehogs; Sartre and de Beauvoir are foxes. Plato is a hedgehog; Aristotle a fox. Beethoven is a fox; Bach a hedgehog. Dylan is a fox; Van Morrison a hedgehog. Corbyn is a hedgehog; May is … who knows? Probably neither one nor the other.
And me? A second division fox who would give anything to be a hedgehog.
Today from the everysmith vaults: an old BBC recital by Kathleen Ferrier: Warlock, Britten, Vaughan Williams. Such an exquisite voice which transports me back to the Third Programme in my childhood. In a good way.