It is neither a universe pure and simple nor a multiverse pure and simple. — William James, Pragmatism
Is the universe one or many? Or to put it another way, are we hedgehogs or foxes? Isaiah Berlin, philosopher, cultural critic, and wise man, wrote an essay years ago about this with the focus on Tolstoy’s view of history. It has taken on a life of its own over the years, known mostly for the first few pages where Berlin sets the context. “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus,” he writes, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ ” If we take the line figuratively it divides the world up into two groups: those who relate everything to one single, unifying vision, overarching everything and giving meaning to all things, down to the minutest detail. Those are the hedgehogs, and Berlin counts among their august company such figures as Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Proust.
On the other side, across the vast chasm that divides the two, are the foxes, those who pursue many ends, related or not, usually contradictory in their purposes, and connected only in some de facto way. Their ideas, notes Berlin, are centrifugal rather than centripetal, flying outward unencumbered by any “fanatical, unitary inner vision.” Shakespeare, according to Berlin, is just such an animal, as is Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, and Joyce. And maybe we could add Woody Allen, John Lennon, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, and Robin Williams.
The difference between them does not seem to be the presence of a metaphysical ADHD, but rather this view of the universe as either monistic or pluralistic. It’s an old philosophical problem, probably the equivalent of a parlor game at Plato’s Academy. William James, realizing that many in his audience were hardly kept awake at night over such matters, considered it even so “the most central of all philosophic problems.” He believed that “if you know whether a man is a decided monist or a decided pluralist, you perhaps know more about the rest of his opinions than if you give him any other name ending in ist.” Philosophy, he notes, throughout its long history, has taken the search for unity as its default position, so much so that no one really questions it. But what about the variety in things? Doesn’t that matter too? In his usual brisk and humorous manner he asks what practical difference it would make to see all things through a single, unifying lens and goes on to show the presence of unity in our everyday lives.
For example, even in our ways of talking we assume a oneness to “the world” and trade on this assumption to avoid having to explain the multitude of parts every time we open our mouths. We also find a continuity between the parts such that we believe the whole is made up of the way the pieces hang together. And so on. Through several examples James seems to beat the monistic drum until you realize that he has slyly provided a third option: the world is neither One nor Many but One and Many.
I don’t toss and turn at night, vexed by this problem. But it’s always there, just at the edge of my peripheral vision, something that if looked at directly seems to float away and yet is constant in its persistence. Standard operating procedure these days seems to force one to choose between the extremes: either conservative or progressive, right or left, all or nothing. But between Rambo and Diary of a Wimpy Kid lies a vast spectrum of degrees of kind, along which we most certainly can claim a rightful place. I’m convinced that as we move through our days and years we instinctively find the Middle Path, an inward moral and cultural gyroscope that guides us through the social terrain. In a number of areas of life we might benefit from our own versions of James’ brooding reflection on this question.
Religion: Like the barnyard denizens of Animal Farm, we’ve learned to chant in unison, “Four legs good! Two legs bad!”, except that it usually comes out as “Religion bad! Spirituality good!” Choosing one over the other brings out the worst in both: a sclerotic religiosity leads to self-righteousness and hypocrisy—and that’s just on a good day. Spirituality unattached to communion with others has no reference points; it floats in a vaguely mystical haze unable to communicate with others and with no hope of transcending itself. In the geometry of the soul the ideal state is probably an angle bisecting the vertical axis Godward and the horizontal axis toward others. Jesus did say, after all, that we are to love God and treat others as we wish to be treated.
Politics: Democracies demand commitment; politicians will settle for your vote and your cash. Since commitment can’t be bought, and many don’t vote, this democracy seems both anemic and volatile. There’s a rage just under the surface, like a persistent fever that drains our energy and spikes our resistance to what we don’t understand. And there’s a lot we don’t understand, like how grownups can act like children fighting in a schoolyard, all sweat, threats, and wounded egos. Wasn’t politics the ‘art of compromise’? Isn’t it possible to hold convictions, recognize the convictions of others, and yet find a way to do the good thing in the right way?
Communication: We are social animals, clearly not ourselves without others. Through patience, practice, and a gracious humility, we can learn to communicate with others quite different from ourselves. But it doesn’t come naturally; it’s a learned response. Much of the tutoring is carried on through the media, odd creatures that have heads like humans and the backsides of. . . . horses. Lately, the view of those who follow the media has been of jostling backsides with precious few heads in sight. Perhaps we need to be out in front where we can put our heads together.
As for me, I’m perpetually betwixt and between. I’m a fox with a hedgehog headache. So many interests, so little time—wouldn’t it be nice to synthesize all this into a simple Rule of Life. I shall, for the moment, leave the last word to Bono: we’re one but we’re not the same.