The Mortal Combat of Foxes and Hedgehogs; or, Why Do Eagles Win?

Mateusz Stróżyński

Πολλ᾿ οἶδ᾿ ἀλώπηξ ἀλλ᾿ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one, but it’s a big one.”[1]

In 1953, one of the most famous of all 20th-century liberal theorists, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–97), an Oxford don of Russian-Jewish origin, published an essay entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History.[2] Berlin begins by proposing to divide writers and thinkers (and then all of us) into two categories, referring to the fox and the hedgehog, from the fragment quoted above by the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus (c.680-645 BC).

According to Berlin, the hedgehogs “relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate,” according to “a single, universal, organizing principle”. The foxes, on the contrary, pursue many ends, which are often unrelated or even contradictory, and “their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels”.[3]

Isaiah Berlin in the 1940s.

Those who might have felt offended, either by this shameless pigeonholing of the whole human race into two rigid categories (how hedgehoggy of Berlin!), or by the beastly patrons of the categories in question, are invited by Berlin to imagine ourselves in excellent company. The hedgehogs find themselves among Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust, while the foxes are in the company of Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce. What a relief! Now we can join the society of our choice, by way of this rather odd quiz. Whether we are going to end up with our kindred spirits in Heaven or in Hell lies – and I think it should remain there – behind a veil of mystery. But feel free to guess!

This surprising reception by Berlin of an isolated fragment of a lost poem by Archilochus provoked an even more surprising development in the zoological and historical taxonomy of human intellectual attitudes. We cannot tell whether Archilochus invented the contrast, or had been drawing on some earlier material, such as a fable or a proverb. The aphorism was attributed in ancient times not only to Archilochus, but also to Homer, which would only strengthen (to Berlin’s delight, I’d imagine) the weight and prophetic character of this boldly, brutally binary image.

A bust of Archilochus, a 2nd-cent. AD Roman copy of a 4th-cent. BC Greek original (Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia).

Ancient Greek commentators as well as contemporary scholars have differed, not unexpectedly, on whether it might be better to be a fox or a hedgehog. Zenobius (2nd cent. AD) believed that the fox represented “scoundrels” (panourgotatoi), who try to make their way through life by lying, cheating, and tricking good-hearted (if not exactly cuddly) hedgehogs. As Laura Swift writes in her very instructive commentary on the fragment,[4] modern scholars debate whether the poet identified with the hedgehog or the fox. Most favour the hedgehog, but the opposite camp doesn’t have to throw away their shields in order to save their skin (to use another famous Archilochean image of rhipsaspiā).[5] There have even been attempts to claim that the skill of the fox might be equivalent to that of the hedgehog. However, the majority of ancient authors didn’t have any doubts that the hedgehog is the stronger party, since he can curl into a ball: the fox, for all his cunning, isn’t able to penetrate the spikes.

However, don’t enjoy yourself too much, you hedgehogs, because the hedgehog’s victory seems to be a Pyrrhic one. Berlin clearly favours the fox. The conclusion that Western elites drew from the history of the 19th and 20th centuries is that to have a “single, central vision”, as Berlin put it, is extremely dangerous. A “single, universal, organizing principle” is basically a loaded gun. One moment you think you’re enjoying (in your slow-witted, naïve, hedgehoggy way) your “less or more coherent or articulate” intellectual system, and the next moment – nobody quite knows how – you’re helping to build Auschwitz or the Solovky. If some of my kind readers are not entirely sure what the Solovky were, for that please blame all the very important (and very foxy) Western intellectuals of the 20th century, who tried for decades to convince themselves and the Western public that it was a holiday destination… sort of.

Mr Tod, as depicted in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod (Frederick Warne & Co, London, 1912).

Berlin wasn’t one of them: although he had the bad luck of being born in Russia not long before the Revolution of 1917, he enjoyed the good luck of getting out of there before he or his parents could receive a bullet in the back of the head. All the same, this frightening prospect made him, like many other Western liberals, react with a mixture of panic and condescension (or panic masked by condescension) in the face of any worldview that presented a unifying, universal, all-embracing explanation of the whole of reality. He came to believe that those horrible hedgehogs do not, in fact, curl into ridiculous balls and then secretly laugh at their defeated enemies. Rather, those hedgehogs are (potentially, at least) murderous – fanatics, madmen, evil geniuses. First they offer to explain everything; and then the gas chamber or the shot from behind.

The foxes, however, are much more genial, according to liberals, because they are the liberals, of course (as the reader will have probably guessed). They are smart, but not overtly aggressive – softly smiling in a way that makes you want to stroke their long, furry tails. They will not tell you what is true or false, what is good or bad, or what you should and shouldn’t do, apart from telling you that the hedgehogs and their ideas are our greatest danger. When they talk about the hedgehogs, however, they stop smiling: suddenly, without noticing, you lose the urge to stroke their tails or scratch them behind their pointed ears.

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle with Jenny Wren’s wine-stained table cloth, as depicted in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Frederick Warne & Co, London, 1905).

Berlin and other Western liberals delight in this foxy way of thinking, “often unrelated or even contradictory”. Such a way of thinking would certainly save us from any single, unifying vision of reality. However, given the fact that the philosophy of the foxes has actually won in the West in recent decades, while we are facing a severe mental health crisis concerning adolescents, at least some of us may scratch our heads and ask whether this doesn’t have at least a tiny bit to do with the fact that the foxes have been telling young people in schools and at universities that it is very dangerous to have an unified vision of the world. They’ve been also telling young people that it is very good to live by a set of nice-sounding, disconnected impressions, which might in fact be self-contradictory but shine with all the diverse colours of the rainbow (I’m referring here to the image used by Plato in Republic Book 8, 561e).[6]

In the 21st century, these two categories – and (indirectly) Archilochus’ fragment – have experienced an interesting pattern of reception. In his 2005 book Invest Like a Fox… Not Like a Hedgehog, Robert Carlson tailors Berlin’s interpretation to his own field of investment: “Foxes are cunning and eclectic in their thinking and perhaps inconsistent at times. Hedgehogs are dogged, persistent, and very consistent.”[7] As you can see, he emphasises the inconsistency versus consistency of thinking, while also contrasting cunning with focus and persistence. In the end, the foxes win (or, at least, they get richer). A different use of the same metaphor can be found in Philip Tetlock’s 2007 book Expert Political Judgement: he also believes that the foxes win, because they know “tricks of their trade”, “are skeptical of grand schemes” and “are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess”.[8]

George the Fox from “Foxes and Hounds” (a “Merrie Melodies” cartoon directed by Tex Avery in 1940).

On the other hand, the hedgehogs “aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains”, while being too confident about their forecasting powers. For Tetlock, the fox represents the ordinary man, with his ordinary life experience, while the hedgehog represents what we now call “the expert”. The conclusion of the book is that the ‘experts’ we see on television, talking about what will happen, and what we should do and not do, turn out to be wrong about everything as much as the rest of us non-“experts”.

The same approach was adopted by George Friedman in his 2020 book The Storm before the Calm,[9] which analyses cycles of American politics, and forecasts the resolution of the present crisis after the failure of a highly incompetent president of the current cycle in trying to defend the old political ways, before the new compromise between the elites and the people will emerge. In chapter nine of the book (“The Crisis of the 2020s”), Friedman uses, like Tetlock, the image of the hedgehog to speak about experts, while the foxes are ordinary yet experienced people. The fox learns quickly; his knowledge is somewhat superficial, and conditioned by what “he needs to know well enough to get by”. He will fail, if he wants to manage “a very complex matter”. The hedgehog can solve complex problems, but only within a very narrow area of expertise; and he is a terrible learner.

A hedgehog enacting safety mode.

Friedman goes a bit further and deeper, I should say, than Tetlock, because he points out that our societies are governed by the hedgehogs (the experts), and this is precisely the reason that we are in a crisis that the hedgehogs cannot solve. For Friedman, it is the fox who can “see the whole”, while the hedgehog is limited to a part, curled into his tiny, spiky ball. Friedman believes that we need foxes to “tie hedgehogs together”, to make use of their narrow expertise. Finally, he equates the fox with wisdom, and the hedgehog with mere knowledge.  

For Berlin, the hedgehog sees the whole – and precisely because of that he is so dangerous. The fox is safe, because he will never impose his grand vision on others. Berlin, of course, remains unaware that the fox’s incoherent, pluralistic outlook is his grand vision, which he imposes with surprising determination and aggression, if needed. For Friedman, as for Tetlock and (to some degree) Carlson, the fox is wise because he is down-to-earth, flexible, smart, and able to encompass larger parts of life than a narrow, abstract hedgehog.

A copy of the first edition of Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953).

My main point in this essay is that both the fox and the hedgehog are the products of modernity, because the key feature of what emerged from the slow disintegration of the unified Western outlook in the 17th and the 18th centuries is fragmentation. There are positive sides of modernity, to be sure – I’m not speaking about painkillers and smartphones, with which every sanctimonious advocate of modernity will always try to blackmail those who are even mildly critical of what they cherish. I mean the discovery of the individual and its political rights, or the invention of romantic love by a slow process which begun in the 12th century. I think about the rapid development of natural sciences from the 14th century onwards, owing to the steady secularisation of the physical universe, or the incredibly effective organization of time and work in the Cistercian monasteries.

But it is not so certain whether the price for all of that ought to have to been paid in the form of our current system of collective, illusory beliefs in the subject and the object of experience as separate entities, in the isolated autonomy of the individual, or the dead, mechanistic world whose creator is first reduced to some anthropomorphic “infinite mind”, exiled outside the universe, and then completely denied.

The growing fragmentation of our experience of the world, at least on the level of our collective convictions and representations, resulted in the proliferation of both the hedgehogs and the foxes. The hedgehog perceives our fragmented, modern reality and tries to make it whole again, but he does it in a way which will never work. He takes a fragment of the divided world and turns it into a unifying system explaining everything. Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) imagines that everything can be explained in terms of objects existing in time and space, which can be measured mathematically. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) discovers important aspects of our unconscious emotional and relational functioning and then proceeds to explain them in terms of our political systems, the Jewish religion or the beauty of Michelangelo’s Moses. Karl Marx (1818–83) grasps some isolated feature of the 19th-century economy, combines it with an assumption that all that exists is material, and then creates a grand system which explains everything by enslaving and killing millions of people.

Pierre-Simon Laplace, Marquis de Laplace, a posthumous portrait by Sophie Feytaud, 1842 (Académie des Sciences, Paris, France).

We could see this mode of functioning during the COVID pandemic, when power was handed over to the doctors, as if the entirety of reality were made up of viruses and biological organisms, and the highest goal of society were to avoid as many deaths as possible within the next election cycle. While doctors see only diseases and health, the climate experts see only global warming, conceived as the apocalyptic revenge of carbon dioxide. They assume that what is essential to enabling them to keep their jobs, is, by coincidence, essential to all of us.

The hedgehog reduces everything to his own favourite fragment and tries to impose that on the complex and nuanced whole of reality and the human life. On the other hand, the fox embraces the fragmented, modern view of reality, and tries to have fun. Until, of course, it can’t anymore, because the delights of chaos and meaninglessness are somewhat limited. Especially, for the poor, the sick, the old and the dying. It is easy to be a sceptical, ironic fox when you’re an Ivy League professor of comparative literature; it is rather more difficult if you’re a mother of a disabled child and you wonder at 3.00 a.m. what all of this is about. 

Mother and child (the goodnight hug), Mary Cassatt, 1880 (priv. coll.).

The fox doesn’t try to unify the scattered world, at least on the surface, but attempts to surf on its waves, sneering at the hedgehogs who try to integrate it into their own partial and unsuccessful ways. The fox also has a mere tunnel vision, but he doesn’t try to see everything through his narrow hole, like the hedgehog; instead, he tries to move from one narrow hole to the other, and convince everyone that this is happiness and kindness. Everyone has his own truth and his own “values”.[10] We should all focus on our own little “pursuit of happiness”. The emergence of so-called “woke” ideology in the West right now is (please do forgive the unpleasant image) like watching a fox giving birth to a hedgehog.

Both the foxes and the hedgehogs of modernity try to convince us that they have been fighting each other throughout the whole of Western history. It has become the dominant received opinion, at universities and throughout the entire public sphere, that, for instance, the worldview of Western Christendom was a typical instance of the hedgehog worldview, because it was a universal, unifying vision of reality (of which Dante’s Divine Comedy is possibly the greatest literary depiction). But this isn’t true: for there was a third view, one which was essentially common not only to Christianity, but also to late-antique Paganism (Plotinus, Proclus), to Judaism (Philo of Alexandria, Moses Maimonides) and Islam (Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sina, a.k.a. Avicenna). It is grounded in Platonic metaphysics, and is a different creature entirely. It is the eagle.

Zeus with an eagle: tondo from a black-figured Laconian cup, c, 560 BC, by the “Naukratis Painter” (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

According to the Greeks, the eagle is the bird of Zeus, and of course Plato pointed out in his Phaedrus that Zeus was the patron and leader of contemplative philosophers (250b).[11] The same symbol can be found in the Book of Isaiah: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Is 40:31).

The eagle is the symbol of contemplation and wisdom because in and of himself he combines two essential abilities that seem contradictory to both the foxes and the hedgehogs. He flies high above the earth, so that he’s able to embrace everything below within his entire vision. Soaring about in the air, he allows every single thing to be what it is. But the eagle also has very keen eyesight, which allows him to see everything below clearly, with penetration and focus. The vast breadth of his vision and its pinpoint acuity are not mutually exclusive, but actually in harmony. The eagle is the union of the wings spread wide and the piercing eye.

The “Bird of Washington”, perhaps a juvenile bald eagle (from John James Audubon’s Birds of America, 1827).

Hedgehogs, on the contrary, have a keen eye for the single thing they obsess about, while the foxes can run through a wide range of things with their cunning flexibility, but they are never able to integrate them into a whole. The eagle has both faculties, and in such a way that his focus doesn’t exclude the whole; nor does his integrative power obscure the tiniest nuances or details. This is so because he is the bird of the father of gods and men: he looks at everything in a divine manner. For the Classical Platonic sages of our tradition, such as Plotinus (AD 204–70), Augustine (AD 356–430), (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite (AD 5th/6th cent.) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), the First Principle of reality, which they call “God”, is at once none of the things that exist and all of them.

They believed that God is infinitely other than the totality of existing beings which He creates, and He is more those beings than they are themselves (as Augustine famously put it, God is “more intimate than the most intimate centre of myself and higher than the highest in me” or interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, Confessions, 3.6.1). This paradox, which both modern pantheism and anthropomorphic theism are unable to contain, was well captured by the 15th century philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64), who said that God is “non aliud”, the “not-other” (De li non aliud, published in 1462). Because God is not other than created beings, He is uniquely other and irreducible to them.

Nicholas of Cusa: detail from a painting by “The Master of the Life of the Virgin” (The Chapel of St Nicholas Hospital, Kues, Germany).

According to traditional metaphysics, God, who is the integrative and transcendent unity of all creatures in the non-pantheistic sense alluded to above, doesn’t oppress the many with His infinitely simple oneness. He is the principle of the unity that liberates diversity, and never stifles it. And He is the source of the variegated richness which doesn’t disperse, but integrates. He was called in the Middle Ages (but the image was already there in Plotinus) “a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere”. Pagans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believed that He gives those who want to be like Him the power to be eagles, and to rise above any polarisation and fragmentation, above all the petty unities and all the pathetic pluralisms of our life.[12]

The medieval brass lectern of an eagle in Christ’s College, Cambridge, UK.

On the one hand, for the pre-modern metaphysicians, to become an eagle is a life-long journey, because we become one by our growing participation in the way God sees the world. This participation can be cultivated by various spiritual exercises, such as meditation, prayer or philosophical dialogue. Some of us are called to a more intellectual path, but the Abrahamic religions emphasise that the love of God and neighbour is the most efficacious way to grow wings, strengthen our sight, and become eagles. According to a popular medieval adage, formulated by Gregory the Great (c. 540–604): amor ipse notitia est, “love is a form of knowledge”.[13] Augustine, towards the end of the Confessions, describes such a contemplative experience of the all-embracing vision of reality as allowing God to look at everything with our eyes: “we see all these things and they are very good, because it is you who see them in us, you, who have given us the Spirit by whom we see them and love you in them” (Conf. 13.34.49).[14]

On the other hand, it was not only the question of a few individuals who practised the way of the eagle, but also of the whole culture that was shaped by this ideal. In that way, even those who weren’t privileged to have time or talent for developing the contemplative dimension of life could share in the holistic vision of the world as meaningful and thus feel at home in the universe and society. That is why people used to be fascinated by the lives of the sages and the saints, and believed this is a necessary reading for children and the young.

Ionic capital from the apparent grave of Archilochus, reading “Here lies Archilochus, son of Telesicles” (Paros Archaeological Museum, Greece).

Archilochus says that the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows ἓν μέγα (hen mega),“one big thing”. But the eagle knows even more than that, the ἓν καὶ πᾶν (hen kai pan), “the one and the all”[15] of his noble flight and his keen vision. In the mortal combat of the foxes and the hedgehogs, the eagle is untouched and undefiled. J.R.R. Tolkien, himself a medievalist, gave a powerful expression to the eagle as the symbol of hope and meaning at the moment of apparent failure and despair. This is how the moment of the turning of the tide is described in the Hobbit (1937):

The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round.  He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.

“The Eagles!  The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”

Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as an Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. His new book “Plotinus on the Contemplation of the Intelligible World” has been accepted for publication by Cambridge University Press.


1 Archilochus, fr. 201: see L. Swift, Archilochus, the Poems: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford UP, 2019) 161.
2 I. Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox. An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953).
3 Ibid. 1-2.
4 See Swift (as n.1) 385–7.
5 Fr. 5: “Some Saian glories in my shield, the blameless armour which I left by a bush, against my will. But I saved my own skin. What’s that shield to me? To hell with it! I’ll get another just as good.” (ἀσπίδι μὲν Σαΐων τις ἀγάλλεται, ἣν παρὰ θάμνωι,/ἔντος ἀμώμητον, κάλλιπον οὐκ ἐθέλων·/ αὐτὸν δ᾿ἐξεσάωσα. Τί μοι μέλει ἀσπὶς ἐκείνη¡/ ἐρρέτω· ἐξαῦτις κτήσομαι οὐ κακίω).
6 “’That is a perfect description,’ he said, ‘of a devotee of equality.’ ‘I certainly think,’ said I, ‘that he is a manifold man stuffed with most excellent differences, and that like that city he is the fair and many-coloured one whom many a man and woman would count fortunate in his life, as containing within himself the greatest number of patterns of constitutions and qualities. (παντάπασιν, ἦ δ᾽ ὅς, διελήλυθας βίον ἰσονομικοῦ τινος ἀνδρός.οἶμαι δέ γε, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, καὶ παντοδαπόν τε καὶ πλείστων ἠθῶν μεστόν, καὶ τὸν καλόν τε καὶ ποικίλον, ὥσπερ ἐκείνην τὴν πόλιν, τοῦτον τὸν ἄνδρα εἶναι: ὃν πολλοὶ ἂν καὶ πολλαὶ ζηλώσειαν τοῦ βίου, παραδείγματα πολιτειῶν τε καὶ τρόπων πλεῖστα ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχοντα).
7 Robert C. Carlson, Invest Like a Fox… Not Like a Hedgehog: How You Can Earn Higher Returns With Less Risk (John Wiley, Hoboken, NJ, 2007) 12.
8 Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton UP, 2005).
9 George Friedman, The Storm before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond (Random House, New York, 2021).
10 By the way, I refuse to use this term without quotation marks, because I think it immoral to talk about moral good in the language of economy.
11 “But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company – we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god – they saw the blessed sight and vision”. (κάλλος δὲ τότ᾽ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαμπρόν, ὅτε σὺν εὐδαίμονι χορῷ μακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν, ἑπόμενοι μετὰ μὲν Διὸς ἡμεῖς, ἄλλοι δὲ μετ᾽ ἄλλου θεῶν).
12 Dante, in his Divine Comedy, describes a moment of contemplation by combining the Greek mythological story of Ganymede, kidnapped by an eagle and taken to the Mount Olympus, with the Platonic and Christian imagery. He has a dream in which he is being rather violently captured by a golden eagle and lifted up to the fiery region of the heavens (Purgatorio 9.19–33).
13 Homiliae in Evangelia, II.27.4 (PL 76.1207).
14 haec omnia videmus et bona sunt valde, quoniam tu ea vides in nobis, qui spiritum quo ea videremus et in eis te amaremus dedisti nobis.
15 The expression comes from the 1733 Latin translation of the True Intellectual System by the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617–88) and became popular in the German Idealism and Romanticism.