One Two Many

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, James 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, if attentive to our intuition we will 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’ 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 our vote and our cash. Since genuine 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 cable news media, odd creatures that have heads like humans and the backsides of. . . . horses. Lately, the view of those who follow cable news 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.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. This essay first appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: Darius Bashar from Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

“Standard operating procedure these days seems to force one to choose between the extremes: either conservative or progressive, right or left, all or nothing.” by Barry Casey.
Is there a viable alternative to this stalemate status quo of political tug of war we now find ourselves in? I used to think that being a centrist was the wise solution. The problem is that centrism, by its very name, positions itself as in between two more “proper” ideologies: left and right. Its name implies that centrists, rather than having a cohesive ideology as do the left and right, instead pick and choose pieces from both sides and cobble them together into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of political ideology. And the epithet “moderate”–going hand-in-hand with centrists–implies that centrists don’t have strong beliefs. Why else would they be willing to compromise? These labels has done incalculable damage to that very ideology. 2016 and now the upcoming 2018 elections has proven once and for all that candidates running on these platforms will lose, no matter how qualified they are.
Centrists have done very little to combat this image of wishy-washy wimps who don’t stand for anything. And to win an election, you cannot be for a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Trump and Hillary proved one undeniable fact, you have to stand 100% for your beliefs and against your opponent’s 100% if you want to inspire voters to rally around your cause.
Both Republicans and Democrats have had their eras of moderates, and it cost them dearly. From 1933-1953, Republicans offered no real resistance against the liberal, progressive domestic and foreign agendas that Democrats started. It wasn’t until the Red Scare that Republicans could get away from the “me too-ism” that had kept them away from the White House for 20 years and offer themselves as a real alternative to Democrats: tough against communists, unrelenting champions of free market capitalism. It explains their continual rise to power ever since. Look at maps of congressional districts from then until now. Democrats used to be all over the map. Now they are secluded to the Northeast, Chicago, California, and the Black Belt in the south.
Democrats succumbed to the me too-ism since the 1960s. But we centrists need to rebrand. We cannot continue to call ourselves moderates or talk about how much we love compromising. And above all, we cannot brand ourselves as an awkward mixture of the left and right. We are our own ideology, not mashed in between two “legitimate” ideologies, but one that is completely separate. A viable, cohesive centrist party could be centrism’s–and ultimately the country’s–political survival from Trumpism and Extremism.
“It is time that the great center of our people, who reject the violence and unreasonableness of both the extreme right and the extreme left, searched their consciences, mustered their moral and physical courage, shed their intimidated silence, and declare their consciences.”
—Senator Margaret Chase Smith

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Barry, FWIW, here is where I am at this point in my spiritual journey.
I am a hedgehog in that I believe all of mankind is on a giant, historical arc slowly closing a huge circle back to Eden. God has a master plan for humanity.

Adam was created in the image of God from the dust of the earth and from God’s breath or Spirit. This divine/human, physical/spiritual union Adam lost has been legally restored by Christ. The successful mission of Christ (the last Adam) on our behalf has given Him the authority to abide once more within each of us. The Bible refers to this implant of divinity into humanity as the indwelling Spirit, the begotten divine seed, being born again from above, Christ in you, the hope of glory. This is the gospel - what was lost has been restored.
However, in this age it has been and will only be manifested in a few, the firstfruits of the Spirit. But God will not be satisfied until everything that has been separated from Him is returned to Him. Indeed, He will not be complete until this is done. History is the outworking of His plan to accomplish this. In His wisdom and grace He has ordained that we are to participate in the accomplishment of this goal. Hence, it has taken and continues to take many seemingly disparate, woeful and apparently contradictory turns. So much so that because we can’t comprehend many of the connections, the foxes seem to have a point. We don’t understand much of how it can work right now, (we are to walk by faith) but I believe we are all part of this grand, and ultimately successful, plan of reconciliation.