The Hedgehog and the Fox.

I’ve just started James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (thanks, bulbul!), and I’ve stumbled right out of the blocks. The very first words of the Prologue are: “In his Adages (1500) the great humanist Erasmus of Rottersdam quipped, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.'” Now, in the effete intellectual circles to which I belong, that’s a very familiar quotation, but in my mind — and, I had thought, in the collective mind of those to whom it is familiar — it is associated with two names, those of Archilochus, who wrote the original line in Greek (πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα: ‘the fox knows many [things], but the hedgehog [knows] one big [thing]’), and Isaiah Berlin, who used it as the title of probably his most famous essay in 1953 and brought it into late-twentieth-century discourse. Berlin’s essay begins “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'”; he has a footnote quoting the Greek, but there is not a mention of Erasmus. I was, therefore, astonished that Turner would cite this as a “quip” of Erasmus; I turned to the attached footnote and found:

“Multa novit vulpes verum echinus unum magnum.” Erasmus was translating a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, but Erasmus’s version seems to have stuck. The proverb owes its modern fame to Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox.

I ask the Varied Reader: with whom do you associate the hedgehog/fox meme? Am I an outlier in considering “Erasmus’s version seems to have stuck” a blatant error?

Comments

  1. Asssociate? With Berlin 🙂

    It’s unknown in the older Russian literature, and the modern educated opinion seems to be certain that Archilochus wasn’t original (perhaps borrowing from [a pseudo-? ] Homer, according to Zenob), or possibly from Hermogenes)

  2. Trond Engen says:

    I know nothing of anything, but it struck me that there might be a dual sense here: The fox senses many things (spikes), while the hedgehog knows the inside of one big thing.

  3. Surely the expression is a proverb, iambicized by whoever.

  4. It may well be, but “surely” shivers no timbers. The first documented appearance is in the poetry of Archilochus (and I twitch irritably at Turner’s “attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus” — why not “attributed to Erasmus” as well, if one is being so agnostic? and how would he like it if I said his book was “attributed to Turner”?); Erasmus translated Archilochus, not the Volksgeist, into Latin; and Berlin explicitly quoted Archilochus. I would expect that most people today who know the phrase at all would, like Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA), asssociate it with Berlin, and those who have a further association would have it with Archilochus. I would be quite surprised if any substantial number of people had an association with Erasmus, let alone the clear preponderance that Turner implies, but I am willing to be surprised.

  5. I knew it as Archilochus first, and whenever I see it attributed directly to Berlin I feel slightly smug. Not that I deserve to.

  6. I am embarrassed to say that although I read Archilochos in Greek many years ago, I thought the quote must have been from Aesop when I just saw it again now. Oh well!

  7. Another vote for Archilochus and Berlin.

    I didn’t realize Erasmus had snaggled it, which I suppose entitles me to be only half-smug.

    Or perhaps two-thirds.

  8. I associate it only with Berlin. And that most likely comes about from reading articles about Berlin, not, as far as I recall, from reading Berlin himself.

  9. I’m not sure what “Erasmus’s version seems to have stuck” is even supposed to mean. Is he under the impression that Erasmus’ translation was very free or loose; that Archilochus’ original was substantially different? Or does he mean that most people quote the Latin rather than the Greek?

    I would have volunteered that Berlin got it from one of the Greeks. I would have guessed Aesop, only because I know so few Greeks.

  10. I associate it only with Berlin. And that most likely comes about from reading articles about Berlin, not, as far as I recall, from reading Berlin himself.

    And that’s exactly how I’d expect most people to know it.

    I’m not sure what “Erasmus’s version seems to have stuck” is even supposed to mean. Is he under the impression that Erasmus’ translation was very free or loose; that Archilochus’ original was substantially different? Or does he mean that most people quote the Latin rather than the Greek?

    I’m not sure either, but I took it to mean that most people associated it with Erasmus rather than Archilochus and that’s why he’s citing the one rather than the other. Surely the vast majority of English-speakers know it only in English. And now it occurs to me to wonder if the meme has spread beyond the English-speaking world.

  11. Berlin, of course, but none regarding the real, more interesting question between Erasmus and Archilochus (sorry) — although I do have another association, not a potential origin but rather a later play on the dichotomizing formula, an association with Auden discussed here in this very bar about five years ago.

  12. I’m with Hat and BWA: knew of Archilochus and Berlin, don’t think I’d heard of the Erasmian version.

  13. I am apparently unusual, in that I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Berlin’s essay. However, I knew the quote came from Archilochus (in principle—coming up with his name without prompting would probably have taken me a while) and had later been used by Erasmus.

  14. Charitably, I would say that this all makes sense if there were a lot of post-Erasman writers quoting E’s Latin version and not mentioning the Greek. (I don’t know if that’s the case or not and personally could only have given you Berlin as a source, but then I am “modern”.)

  15. It turns out that I’m not the only one to think so. At the Princeton University Press website there is a PDF of the first few pages containing this bracketed addition to Berlin’s original footnote:

    ‘πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα’. Archilochus fragment 201 in M. L. West (ed.), Iambi et elegi graeci ante Alexandrum cantati, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Oxford, 1989). [The fragment was preserved in a collection of proverbs by the Greek Sophist Zenobius (5. 68), who says that it is found in both Archilochus and Homer – West, op. cit., vol. 2 (Oxford, 1992), ‘Homerus’ fragment 5. Since it is iambic rather than dactylic in metre, the attribution to Homer is likely to mean that it appeared in the (now thought pseudo-Homeric) comic epic poem Margites, probably written later than Archilochus’ poem. See e.g. C. M. Bowra, ‘The Fox and the Hedgehog’, Classical Quarterly 34 (1940), 26–9 (see 26), an article reprinted with revisions in Bowra’s On Greek Margins (Oxford, 1970), 59–66 (see 59), and evidently unknown to Berlin. In any event, the sentiment might well be a proverb deployed by both authors, though given Archilochus’ frequent use of animal encounters (on which see also 114–15 below), it is attractive to think it was used first, and given this metrical form, by him.]

    I suppose this was written by Berlin’s editor Henry Hardy, whose name appears on the Princeton edition.

    Here’s the
    beginning of the Bowra article
    ; alas, I can neither read the rest nor paste it here.

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Did Erasmus attribute his version (either specifically to Archilochus or generically to Some Dead Ancient Guy)? Berlin presumably had had at least a smattering of Greek during his formal education, but focused relatively little on pre-modern thinkers in his own scholarly work — I suspect w/o knowing if there’s an actual account of how he found the passage that it’s more likely that he picked up the quote from some secondary source (which could have been influenced by Erasmus) rather than that he was just for kicks reading Greek poetry in the original and was struck by the phrase.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Erasmus first cites the phrase in Latin, without a source, and Barker translates this into English just as Berlin does, and then cites Archilochus via Zenodotus, translated “Many sided the skill of the fox; the hedgehog has one great gift”. Later Erasmus notes that it was also credited by Zenodotus to Ion of Chios, and cites Pliny and Plutarch on hedgehogs (Plutarch cites the passage). Barker notes that the proverb circulated in English in the 16th c.

    I recommend the Adages. Lots of fun trivia, and Erasmus gets his own digs in.

  18. 🙂 No doubt Berlin read it in Erasmus, and then pretended to know enough Greek to cite this Archy fellow. I think of it as belonging to Erasmus, as a cultural item, so far as it belongs to anyone. But the “version” thing is puzzling. I don’t know any Greek, to speak of, but it looks practically word-for-word to me!

  19. And here’s the Bowra article, thanks to a Hattic who prefers to remain annnncnnonymous [sic].

  20. John Emerson says:

    How likely was Berlin to have read Archilochos in his studies or recreational reading? I have no idea but I don’t think that he was always paid much attention by Hellenists, especially at Berlin’s non-specialist level.

    Berlin’s citation being identical to Baxter’s translation of the Latin and not his translation of the Greek confuses the issue a bit.

  21. John Emerson says:

    The hedgehog/fox in Erasmus are part of a fun cluster also involving octopuses and chameleons.

    https://haquelebac.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/adopt-the-attitude-of-the-octopus/

  22. Maybe Berlin got it from Bowra. Coincidentally, the other day I read that Berlin first found out about the poetry of Anna Akhmatova from Bowra, amazing as that might sound.

  23. Charles James Hedgehog, AJP says:

    “pretended to know enough Greek”

    Having gone to the same school as Berlin (though a few years later), I’m certain that Berlin learnt enough Greek there to sink a τριήρης. I’d love to include myself in Language’s effete circle, and I knew that it originated in Greece and not in Berlin, but the first time I heard it was from Woody Allen.

  24. AJP Gibbon says:

    Actually, you could probably make a good case that Pitt was a fox and Fox was a hedgehog.

  25. My, we’re certainly getting somewhere. I’m very pleased to know the Erasmian details and the pseudo-Homeric stuff — thanks, JC and JE! — and now I’m interested in reading the Adages.

    I think of it as belonging to Erasmus, as a cultural item, so far as it belongs to anyone.

    Ah, so Turner is not alone. I guess there are different patterns of transmission that create different circles of fox/hedgehog awareness, which makes sense.

  26. This reminds me of another recent quote serially attributed to a variety of people to suit the audience or performers: the one about ‘good Xs copy, great Xs steal’. Here’s one blogger who did some research on the history of that one: Quote Investigator.

  27. Fascinating, thanks for the link!

  28. I know it as Berlin quoting a Greek. I couldn’t have told you it was Archilochus, and had a vague feeling it was a pre-Socratic philosopher, maybe Parmenides or Heraclitus, I’ve read the Berlin essay, but that was 40 years ago.

  29. the pseudo-Homeric stuff — thanks, JC and JE!

    [Pouting emoticons anyone?] LOL. When I mentioned Zenobius and [pseudo] Homeric attribution in the first comment here, I guess it sounded as pure fantasy?

    (The other, less probable, clue, about Hermogenes, is a reference in a treatise on Phrygia, mentioning that Euphorbes sacrificed a fox and a hedgehog when he founded the city of Aizanoi )

  30. Aizanoi – cited in more details here at bullet #3. May be a really ancient folk etymology, but the hedgehog and the fox did appear “in a team” there.

  31. Oops, sorry — that was so far back in the thread it slipped my mind — thanks go to Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA) as well, along with everyone else who has contributed their thoughts and ideas on the subject!

  32. Aizanoi – cited in more details here at bullet #3. May be a really ancient folk etymology, but the hedgehog and the fox did appear “in a team” there.

    Interesting! And εξιν must be related to Russian еж.

  33. Googling for [“Multa novit vulpes verum echinus unum magnum” -Berlin] turns up a healthy 30 kghits, including a posthumous book by Stephen Jay Gould entitled The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities. Gould describes Berlin as “his personal intellectual hero”.

    The Magister in question is a Catholic censor named Lelio Medice, who excised the names of Erasmus and other undesirables from a 1551 edition of Conrad Ges(s)ner’s monumental five-volume Historiae animalium. As for the pocks, they are the defacements he made to allow Gessner to be published in Catholic countries.

  34. And εξιν must be related to Russian еж

    If it actually existed. It’s not a Greek word — Stephanus is implying it’s Phrygian, along with the alleged word for fox, οὐανοῦν. Whether he or anyone else would have known the Phrygian for fox and hedgehog in the sixth century CE, I don’t know. But of course the Greek ἐχῖνος looks close enough to еж.

  35. John Emerson says:

    The sociologist Robert Merton wrote a rambling, amusing book organized around the history of the metaphor “on the shoulders of giants”.

    http://www.amazon.com/On-Shoulders-Giants-Shandean-Postscript/dp/0226520862

  36. John Emerson says:

    “Good Xs copy, great Xs steal”. At the link Steve Jobs uses the quote, presumably in order to justify his patent law machinations.

  37. If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. —Isaac Newton

    If [Tim Berners-Lee] has seen farther than others, it is because he is standing on a stack of dwarves. —Mike Champion

    If I have seen farther than others, it is because I am surrounded by dwarves. —Murray Gell-Mann

    In the sciences, we are now uniquely privileged to sit side by side with the giants on whose shoulders we stand. —Gerald Holton

    If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders. —Hal Abelson

    In computer science, we stand on each other’s feet. —Brian K. Reid

    See my .sig file for additional snappy remarks.

  38. If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was looking through a spyglass with my one good eye, with a parrot standing on my shoulder.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    If I have seen farther than others, it’s because my head is sitting on the shoulders of a giant.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    If I have not seen as far as other giants, it’s because I have been standing on my head.

  41. Trond Engen says:

    I thought I took care to write out “it is” in both cases, but it is not autocorrect’s fault, so I am obviously quite capable of automated corrections myself.

  42. I commemorated Merton and his wonderful book in this obituary post back in 2003.

  43. ἐχῖνος, еж : *eģh-? Just guessing around here.

  44. Yes, that’s right; there are Germanic cognates too: German Igel, OE igil, íl, Dutch egel, Old Norse igull. Slightly oddly, the same root in Greek seems to give the word for adder, ἕχις, whence also echidna, originally a monstrous snake-woman.

  45. If I have seen farther than others, it is because they are closer than I am.

  46. Noetica’s standing on the shoulders of galahs.

  47. Better than standing on the shoulders of hobyahs (not to be confused with hobbits, though some have done so).

  48. David Marjanović says:

    And now it occurs to me to wonder if the meme has spread beyond the English-speaking world.

    For what it’s worth, I had never heard of it; but I’m not widely read by Hattery standards.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    For what it’s worth, I had never heard of it; but I’m not widely read by Hattery standards.

    Ditto, and ditto. And: What?

  50. ” ἕχις, whence also echidna, originally a monstrous snake-woman.”

    There are a lot of those in that region. it’s a feature of all those mythologies – the Medusa, the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Not! Satan, but a reflex of a pagan mother cult that part of the Bronze Age that was collapsing at the time and being superseded) and the snakes of the Cretan Great Mother. Love them all! Year of the Snake por la vida!

  51. David Marjanović says:

    And: What?

    I’ve read rather little of the genres where you’d expect rare sayings (or words, for that matter) to show up: literature in general, fiction in general. Have you noticed that I stay out of the literature threads here till the topic has drifted to science? 🙂

  52. I’m also not widely read enough to add anything of value, I’d somehow or other gotten the impression the saying was a) from Aesop and b) more widely cited in Russia. (I think I first came across it in translations of 19th-century russian novels, I have no way of knowing whether it was in the originals.)

  53. Well, this site says:

    Весьма высоко оценивал интеллектуальные способности ежа и древнегреческий поэт Архилох: «Много знает лиса, ёж [же] одно – но важное»2. Эти слова сделались крылатой фразой: столетия спустя их повторил Эразм Роттердамский («Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum»), а в XX веке использовал сэр Исайя Берлин в названии своего эссе «Лисица и ёж» («The Hedgehog and the Fox»)3. Для Берлина лисица и ёж символизируют две принципиально разные стратегии в достижении цели […]

    Which certainly makes it sound as if Russians in general are not familiar with either the quote or the concept. I also learned from the Russian Wikipedia article on Isaiah Berlin that his family name is pronounced with initial stress in Russian: BEAR-lin. I wonder why?

  54. I should note also that the Russian Wikipedia article on Archilochus does not mention foxes and hedgehogs.

  55. Also, a search in the Russian National Corpus for “Много знает лиса” gets “По этому запросу ничего не найдено” [“Nothing found”].

  56. Yeah, that’s why i said my contribution wasn’t of much value…

  57. Oh, it was of great value to me, because it got me to actually check on something I’d wondered about!

  58. Berlin is a relatively common Jewish surname in Russia and, yes, it’s pronounced with the first syllable stressed, not like the town. I assume it’s because the surname is derived from a personal name (or nickname) Berl “Bear Cub”.

  59. Ah, that makes sense.

  60. Melchior AJP Anderegg says:

    the surname is derived from a personal name (or nickname) Berl “Bear Cub”

    Isn’t the symbol of the city of Berlin a bear or bear cub? Yes, it is.

    And a hatty new year to you all.

  61. True, but it’s canting arms. Quoth WP: “The origin of the name Berlin is uncertain. It may have its roots in the language of West Slavic inhabitants of the area of today’s Berlin, and may be related to the Old Polabian stem berl-/birl- ‘swamp’.” (The Polabians were down-Elbe from the Sorbians, but their language has been extinct since the 18C.)

  62. Felix Moore says:

    With Berlin and understood him to be citing a classical Greek writer.

    Reminds me of how Newton is almost always credited with the comment about standing on the shoulders of giants, although it appears to have been a fairly common trope and due to a medieval, Bernard of Chartres.

  63. See.

  64. There is certainly a meme abroad in the ether that Newton made his comment about standing on the shoulders of giants as a dig at the “very crooked” Robert Hooke.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, so the surname Berlin could be *Bärlein?

  66. ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.’

    The Cat in the Hat, meanwhile, knows two Things.

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