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Foxes and Hedgehogs: The tension between eclecticism and unification

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Isaiah Berlin begins his famous essay The Fox and the Hedgehog by quoting the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin uses this saying to contrast two different intellectual styles: Hedgehogs “relate everything to a single central vision, one system,” while foxes “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves.” (Isaiah Berlin, The Fox and the Hedgehog: An essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, (Guernsey: Phoenix, 1992) 3)

In Pagan terms, Berlin’s approach presents an interesting way to think about what we mean by “eclectic,”  what it is that we’re contrasting eclecticism with, and the benefits and potential downfalls of both approaches.

 

In Berlin's interpretation, foxes are intellectually varied, willing to understand different things in different ways, whereas hedgehogs are more centrally organized in their thinking, relating and evaluating everything in terms of a particular overarching systematization. As examples, Berlin describes Dante, Plato, and Hegel as hedgehogs and Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Erasmus as foxes.

Berlin is not writing to advance one approach over the other but to examine the relationship between them. The essay concentrates on the tension between these worldviews in the life and work of Tolstoy. Berlin argues “Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.” (Berlin, 5)

Tolstoy wanted to believe in a unified theory of history and human behavior, and many such theories were offered as overarching explanations during the 19th century. But as Berlin points out, Tolstoy was too keen an observer of people and situations: he noticed the differences which made each situation unique, and this attention to differences enabled him to poke holes in any given theory. He was especially dissatisfied with the top-down theories of nineteenth century history which tended to glorify single individuals (the “great man” approach to history), and Tolstoy went out of his way in his writing to deflate the idea that much of anything could be accomplished by the direct actions and control of even the greatest leaders.

Many eclectic Pagans are foxes who would be sympathetic to Tolstoy's worldview. We usually use "eclectic" to label a practice that draws on multiple sources. People who approach Paganism this way tend to be foxes who, in Berlin’s words, interact with things “without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.” (Berlin, 3)

On the other hand, there can be Pagan hedgehogs: one example of this "unitary inner vision" within Paganism is Qabalah. Dion Fortune is speaking as a determined hedgehog when she asserts “the Tree of life is an attempt to reduce to diagrammatic form every force and factor in the manifested universe and the soul of man.” (Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah, (New York: Ibis, 1979) 13) She also insists, along similar lines, that any pantheon can be assigned positions on the Tree (her preferred method of making such assignments is through astrology), and that such assignments and correspondences will always make sense. Here Fortune tends towards the failure of hedgehogs that Berlin warned about: in pursuit of categorizing absolutely everything, she runs a significant risk of overloading her associations to the point that internal contradictions arise.

On the other hand, Fortune has a point when she says that “the student who sets out to be an eclectic before he has made himself an expert will never be anything more than a dabbler.” (Fortune, 8) There is no doubt that foxes can be accomplished polymaths, but valorizing eclecticism as an approach on its own runs a significant risk of shallowness. Rather than understanding each thing on its own terms and being aware of their uniquenesses, eclecticism can become an excuse for insufficiently engaging with the true nature and context of a source.

Part of Berlin’s point is that Tolstoy's inability to cope with this tension and his own natural tendency to fall towards one extreme of it was intensely difficult for him. I think Fortune, at least in her writing about Qabalah, falls towards the other end of the spectrum and is overly willing to see coherence in order to relate absolutely everything to her prized categorization scheme. Neither foxes nor hedgehogs are immune to the temptation of revising the world for their own convenience.

Berlin’s description of foxes and hedgehogs is a helpful tool for examining our own thinking. Most of us engage in both kinds of behavior at different times. With greater awareness of our own attitudes and approaches, we can try to avoid the excesses of either extreme. Foxes need to do due diligence, be thorough, and not eschew consistency, while hedgehogs need to admit the possibility that something which really doesn’t fit their categories might occur, so that they are not blinded by attachment to their systematization.

How do you see the strengths and weaknesses of foxes and hedgehogs playing out in your experience of Paganism?

(Please note that I am not arguing Dion Fortune was Neo-Pagan. There are Pagans who work with Qabalah, and her book is an excellent example of the kind of unified thinking that system tends towards.)

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats.

Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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