Say ‘fox and hedgehog’ and one is likely to think of several things. There is the old proverb, attributed to many people throughout history, that ‘the fox knows many things; the hedgehog, one big thing’. And, building on this idea, there is the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. But these vulpine and erinaceous phrases and references are perhaps eclipsed by Aesop’s famous fable of the fox and the hedgehog.
In summary, the fable of the fox and the hedgehog runs as follows: a fox, after crossing a river, got its tail entangled in a bush, and couldn’t move. A number of mosquitoes, upon seeing the fox trapped, settled upon him and enjoyed a good meal, feasting upon the fox’s blood, the fox unable to swish them away with his trapped tail. A hedgehog that was strolling by took pity on the fox and went up to him. ‘You are in a bad way, neighbour,’ said the hedgehog; ‘shall I help you out by driving off those mosquitoes who are sucking your blood?’ ‘Thank you, Master Hedgehog,’ said the fox, ‘but I would rather you didn’t.’ ‘Why not?’ asked the hedgehog. ‘Well, you see,’ the fox replied, ‘these mosquitoes have had their fill; if you drive these away, others will come with fresh appetite and bleed me to death.’
As you’ll see, this little fable has very little to do with how clever or knowledgeable foxes and hedgehogs are, which makes one wonder why these two animals were chosen for this fable. And what is the moral of the story of the fox and the hedgehog? It’s often quoted as being, ‘Better to bear a lesser evil than to risk a greater in removing it.’ In other words, we might think of political situations where things may be bad, but in voting for a different regime to replace the bad one may result in a worse political party coming to power. (Other more personal, local, and everyday examples are of course available.)
What has this fable got to do with Berlin’s essay, or with that famous statement about the fox knowing many things, but the hedgehog knowing one important thing? Not much. The sentiment about the fox and the hedgehog’s different kinds of knowledge is attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus; the Dutch scholar Erasmus, writing in his 1500 work Adagia, expressed the same idea. But confusingly, although there is an animal fable which embodied this ‘moral’ or apercu, it is not the fable of the fox and the hedgehog. Instead, we have to turn to the fable of the fox and the cat. This fable sees the fox and cat discussing the various tricks and dodges they know: the fox has many, while the cat says he has just one. The fox appears to have the advantage, until a pack of wild dogs attacks them both. The cat’s one bright idea – climb a tree to get out of harm’s way – rewards him by saving him from the dogs, while the fox – busy chewing over which of his bright ideas to act upon – remains rooted to the spot and is torn apart by the hounds. Clearly, there’s a moral there: act quickly and decisively when you have to, rather than endlessly turning over the various options in your head. Alternatively, it’s always better to run away!
Such an idea strikes at the core of what makes fables such interesting examples of oral literature (which they surely began life as, designed to instruct the young, using animals to make the message more colourful and fun, about how to act morally and effectively): they often express a simple central idea, a maxim or principle, but they encourage us to think about the way in which different principles, handed down to us as conventional homespun wisdom, often contradict each other. Christopher Ricks, perhaps the most brilliant living literary critic, likes to use the examples of the two well-known proverbs: ‘He who hesitates is lost’ (i.e. act instantly, like the cat) but also ‘Look before you leap’ (i.e. don’t rush in and act instantly; or, if you like, be more fox). Here, the former would have been excellent advice for the fox, but he chose the latter. Other proverbs, however, encourage the latter as the path to follow.
Aesop wasn’t the first person to write animal fables. Several centuries earlier, Hesiod had written one about a hawk and a nightingale, while a poet named Archilochus penned several, including one about an eagle and a vixen, and one about a fox and a monkey. But Aesop would turn the fable into a popular form. William Caxton printed the first English translation of the Fables in 1484, enabling such phrases as ‘sour grapes’ and ‘to cry wolf’ to enter the language.