Letters to a Law Student: A Guide to Studying Law at University. (2017 4 ed). p 50.

In an observation that is now so clichéd, you won’t be able to believe how much I hate myself for repeating it, the ancient Greek poet Archilochus distinguished between the fox, who ‘knows many things’, and the hedgehog, who ‘knows one big thing’. (The philosopher Isaiah Berlin borrowed the distinction to distinguish between writers (‘hedgehogs’) who attempt to explain the world in terms of one big idea, and writers (‘foxes’) who refuse to view the world in such simplistic terms.)

I'm benighted about hedgehogs. Do they truly know just one big thing?

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    I'm not making this an answer as i can add nothing too it and indeed can't read the chunks of it that are in untranslated ancient Greek... but this might be of interest. jstor.org/stable/… You can log into Jstor via Google etc and it is just a 4 page document.
    – Spagirl
    Jan 8, 2020 at 15:36

3 Answers 3


I don't think the question is asking about what Isaiah Berlin's essay means. I think he's simply asking what Archilochus meant. The fox is commonly regarded as a cunning figure in literature. He is the trickster in many fables (Aesop, Uncle Remus, Pinocchio etc). He is clever and knows many things. The hedgehog doesn't have any such reputation. He has one trick only, namely to roll up into a spiky ball. That's his one big thing. The comparison between the different styles is often used as a metaphor to describe different human personalities and behaviours. It's not necessarily a judgement (expert/amateur or smart/dumb) the one big trick can sometimes defeat all the smart moves.


The difference divides writers and the thinkers. On one side is a balanced central vision; on the other, the pursuit of contradictory ends. Listen for the distortion of strategy.


The title of Berlin's essay is a reference to a proverb attributed to Greek poet Archilochus (c. 680 – c. 645 BC): “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor of the hedgehog is lost on many non-European readers. Hedgehogs are simple small mammals that are native to Australia and are found in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. Hedgehogs are vocal and communicate through grunts, snuffles and squeals. Also, the hedgehog looks for beetles, worms and the like using a very straightforward hunting method: 1) waddle forward and 2) if you approach anything alive, eat it. The hedgehog is an exposed thinker, with a simple idea and a simple plan.

Foxes are small-to-medium-size mammals found across the entire Northern Hemisphere. From the Arctic Circle to North Africa, the red fox is known for its ability to adapt quickly to new environments. Foxes are largely silent animals that on rare occasions use contact calls (similar to a bark) and interaction calls (a high pitched whine). The fox is wise to many little things, with lots of ideas and no big plans.

Hedgehogs are the experts. Foxes are the amateurs.
Source: https://www.cio.com/article/3151060/decide-if-youre-a-hedgehog-or-a-fox.html

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    I've edited your answer to more clearly indicate that it's a quote. While it is relevant to the question, could you expand on it and show if it is truly the meaning behind "hedgehog" that is in the OP's question? Perhaps by comparing the two texts? As it stands, your answer lacks in your original reasoning Jan 10, 2020 at 6:56

In the longer version of the story, the fox is trying to eat the hedgehog. Every day, the fox comes up with a different strategy to try to eat the hedgehog. He tries to ambush him, chase him, lure him into a trap, etc. But no matter what the fox does, the hedgehog just rolls into a ball to defeat the fox. The moral of the fable is that it's better to know one really good strategy that always works vs. flailing around and constantly changing strategies like the fox does.

If you ever saw the old road runner cartoons, the coyote and the road runner is the same analogy. The coyote thinks he is a genius and is always trying different ways to catch the road runner, but the road runner always wins by just running away.

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    Where did you find "the longer version of the story"? Could you give a citation? Feb 9, 2022 at 19:24
  • It's generally attributed to a fragment of Archilochus (c. 680-c. 645 BCE) reproduced in ancient collections of quotations, not a longer fable. There is an Aesop fable about fox and hedgehog but it's unrelated (and Aesop was slightly later than Archilochus so could not have been the origin), and there may be other fables that also post-date Archilochus. So I too would like to know the origin.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 14, 2022 at 13:01

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