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Ars varia vulpi, ars una echino maxima

Original post date: Thursday, May 10, 2007

In English: The fox has various tricks, the hedgehog has one trick, a great one.

I thought this would be a fantastic follow-up to yesterday's post about proverbs which take the form "dative-x, y; dative-not-x, not-y." In today's saying, the two paired sets are the dative pair, vulpi-echino and the corresponding pair ars varia - ars una maxima. The idea is that while the fox knows all kinds of tricks that he can use to try to escape from trouble, the hedgehog knows just one trick he can use, but it is an excellent trick: he rolls up into a spiny ball.

The Latin saying is an adaptation of a line found in the archaic Greek poet Archilochus, who lived in the 7th century B.C.E.: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." (Here is the Greek for those of you who are interested: πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ ἀλλ' χῖνος ἕν μέγας .)

The saying received a new lease on life from its use as the title of Isaiah Berlin's famous essay on the Russian writer, Tolstoy. Berlin uses the dichotomy between the fox and the hedgehog as a rough way of classifying human endeavors: "The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes."

Well, probably needless to say, I am an incorrigible fox, and glad to find myself in the company of Erasmus here!

So, for all you fellow foxes and all you hedgehogs, too, here is today's proverb read out loud:

860. Ars varia vulpi, ars una echino maxima.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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