In response to:
The Hedgehog and the Fox from the September 25, 1980 issue
To the Editors:
Mr. Bowman in his polite and charming letter [NYR, September 25] says that he accuses me of nothing, but nevertheless implies that my English version of Archilochus’s line about the fox and the hedgehog may have misrepresented his meaning; and adds that he does not know who is responsible for the translation. The facts are these: when I first came across the line in question in Diehl’s well-known edition (to which I was led by a passage about Archilochus in one of Herder’s literary essays), it seemed to me to be prima facie suitable as an epigraph to an article on Tolstoy’s view of history which I was then thinking of contributing to an Oxford periodical (I ought to add that the original title of the essay was “On Lev Tolstoy’s Historical Scepticism”; the present title was suggested by the publisher of it in book form). Since I am not a Greek scholar, I turned for advice on the exact meaning of the line to the three most authoritative Greek scholars personally known to me—Eduard Fraenkel, Maurice Bowra, and E.R. Dodds—and asked them whether the most obvious meaning given by translators, some of whom Mr. Bowman cites—that while the fox has many tricks, the hedgehog knows one, which protects him against all the fox’s stratagems—was the only valid meaning.
All three scholars, Fraenkel and Bowra by word of mouth, Dodds in a postcard (which, alas, after a quarter of a century, I cannot find) told me that the meaning of the fragment was not clear: that it might indeed mean what Mr. Bowman (and I) supposed it to mean; but that the literal translation proposed by me seems to them equally possible; and that consequently I should be justified in using it as an epigraph to my thesis on Tolstoy’s epilogue to War and Peace. Dodds added “little” to “things,” and I accepted this. Needless to say I did not for a moment wish to suggest that such concepts as the one and the many, or monism and pluralism, or the ideas of Parmenides and his critics, could have been present in any form to the mind of Archilochus. I used his isolated line as a peg on which to hang my own reflections: the metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes was not, I warned the reader, to be driven too far; it was intended, at most, as an opening to my central theme—a hypothesis about the psychological roots of Tolstoy’s historical outlook. Still less did I mean to imply that foxes were superior to hedgehogs; this was (and is) not my view. I made no judgments of value. If Mr. Bowman is right (whether he is I have no way of telling), and I have indeed misled the unwary about the meaning of a line in Archilochus, I can only plead in extenuation that I acted on what was the best advice obtainable by me at that time; and that if no more than the name of this writer—one of the earliest of European poets whose physical existence is not in doubt—has thereby been made known to many who might otherwise never have heard of him, that could, perhaps, be regarded as something to set against such doubts as Mr. Bowman and others may feel about the soundness of the opinions on this topic of my eminent consultants.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Sidney Morgenbesser and Mr. Jonathan Lieberson for their explanatory letter, with every word of which I entirely agree.
October 9, 1980