Atop my bookshelf sits a stuffed hedgehog, in perpetual birthday euphoria, named Archilochus. Among the more fecund maxims of his namesake—a Greek poet of the seventh century B.C.—is the now famous: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin split intellectuals into these two groups: foxes, who know a great deal about many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. These furry mammals of the life of the mind have stuck in all sorts of interesting ways, not least of which the well esteemed Hedgehog Review.
Last fall, a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, Father Raymond de Souza made a case that launching journals, and writing and editing them, is the work of foxes. He didn’t say foxes. But he did say it “requires a certain boldness of spirit. Another word for that is vanity. You can’t be a columnist without being a little bit vain. It is an extraordinary thing to think on a weekly basis that the nation needs to know what it is that I think. It’s a bold thing to do.”
“It is,” he said, “a kind of boldness which presumes to have a kind of expertise on just about everything.”
But it seems to me that the fox, unless he is a very ignorant fox, knows—full well knows—that in the knowing of many things, he may be a jack of all trades but master of none. The fox is not fooled by the presumptions of others. Every time a fox speaks, for every utterance of opinion that passes lips and keyboard, a concomitant folly and humility must attend. There is every chance, probably a very good one, that a master will correct—every likelihood he will be made to look wrong, foolish, or even intentionally and maliciously false. The fox is a gambler who knows he will not always win.
Peter Stockland trains foxes. He holds court with an aspiring skulk of foxes, and tells them how to learn, think, and write in a way that is simple, pointed, and fun.
In that training, he holds one grand Orwellian phrase above all else: do not tell lies.
The fox is a liar. Surely the fox is a liar. 600 words in a newspaper, 500 words in a blog, 400 words in a policy brief, all of it must reduce some knowledge, some perspective, some truth to a halfness, or a quarter. White lies and non-disclosure are simply understood. It’s not malicious, we say, it’s the format; it’s our attention span.
But Peter is a Catholic, and I’ve learned to be suspicious of Catholics when they use words like lies and truth. God always seems to get smuggled in, and not the comfortable abstract-God of foundational philosophy, but the kind of relational, sticky God that incarnates, gets physical, gets touchy.
“Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be produced,” says Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate. “They can only be received as a gift.”
All Catholics, all Christians, says de Souza, know one big thing. There again is this boldness, he says, “that is absurd, but also somewhat legitimate.” In 1965, when Pope Paul VI went to visit the United Nations, he said that “the church’s competence to address the nations of the world was because it was an expert in humanity.”
One big thing.
Which is why I think Peter’s Orwellian truism isn’t just about doing cleaner research, hiring fact checkers, and parsing bias. In Peter’s way he isn’t telling us to read more, focus up, or get a doctorate. He is telling us to know God. All people, foxes and intellectuals of any stripe, who receive that truth, know one big thing. That thing changes everything.