The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I just finished Muriel Barbery’s charming and provocative The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the French novel (or extended philosophical essay, depending on how you look it) narrated by Renee, a widowed middle-aged concierge and clandestine intellectual, and Paloma, a wealthy and intelligent twelve year old. So convinced is Paloma of the meaninglessness of life and so frustrated is she by the banality of her class that she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday after burning down her family’s apartment.

Renee is an autodidact, a lover of Tolstoy and Ozu, a critic of phenomenology, a “traitor to her archetype.” So convinced is Renee of the hostility of the upper class towards her own that she hides her intelligence behind her concierge uniform and the smell of proletariat cuisine wafting from her apartment. She plays dumb around the intelligent residents of the French apartment building she oversees, yet her narration is full of hostility towards the hypocrisy of these malign aristocrats. At the same time, one perceives a loneliness underlying her criticism. Renee has only one friend when the novel opens, Manuela, the Portuguese cleaning lady, and even when she talks about her late husband, the tone is stiff, formal, and lacking in intimacy. She is, as Paloma says, like the hedgehog: “on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

One is tempted to think that the title derives its name from this description, but as the NYTimes review cleverly points out, “there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all.”

(What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”

Berlin took the name of his book from the Greek poet Archilochus’ statement, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” What does the original quote mean? Who knows, although there is a helpful little debate in the New Yorker from 1980. Berlin took it to mean two different ways of knowing the world: those for whom all knowledge is an expression of a single idea like Plato, Pascal, Hegel, and Proust, and those whose knowledge relies on multiple disparate ideas and experiences like Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Joyce. Hedgehogs are the monists, foxes the pluralists.

My intention is not to go into Berlin’s text, but Archilochus’ phrase brings to mind two slightly different ways of knowing than Berlin discusses: simple apprehension and discursive knowledge. According to Aquinas, spirits (that is, angels) as well as God, know by simple apprehension. When they know an object, they grasp its essence of the object, its quiddity or “whatness” along with all of its accidents in one single act of knowing. Human beings, a hylomorphic unity of body and soul, do not have the power of simple apprehension. Humans know by discursive reasoning. When a human apprehends an object, it is only partial, and perfect knowledge is gained only by synthesis or syllogizing. Aquinas sums up:

the angels hold that grade among spiritual substances which the heavenly bodies hold among corporeal substances: for Dionysius calls them “heavenly minds” (1; 55, 1). Now, the difference between heavenly and earthly bodies is this, that earthly bodies obtain their last perfection by chance and movement: while the heavenly bodies have their last perfection at once from their very nature. So, likewise, the lower, namely, the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all. Such is the condition of the angels, because in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them. (I, Q. 58, art. 3)

Accordingly, spirits are the hedgehog who “know only one thing”; humans are the foxes who “know many little things.”

The reason this is important as relates to the book is that both Renee and Poloma are illustrations of discursive reasoning at work. Both proceed from what is known to what is not known. What is known is the stirring of the heart at the story of Levin and Kitty, the fall of a rosebud on the table, the shiver of delight at the sound of Mozart, the repugnance of phenomenology and nominalism, and the allure of Japan. What is unknown is love, truth, and beauty. Both Renee and Paloma reason discursively to arrive at the knowledge of love, the knowledge of beauty. Human beings cannot grasp the essence of love or beauty in an instant; we must arrive at such knowledge by experience, by piecing together bits of what we know over time, imperfectly and slowly, but nevertheless, humanly. Human beings are foxes. But we are foxes capable of becoming hedgehogs.

The elegance of the hedgehog is the “suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” as Paloma reflects as she watches a rosebud fall. “It”s something to do with time, not space.” Time is the recurring motif in the novel. Paloma writes in her journal about kairos, a Greek concept that means roughly ‘the right moment . . . kairos is the intuition of the moment, something like that.” It is the “split second of eternity” when, as Renee reflects, “a few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.”

The Elegance of the Hedgehog unintentionally provides an excellent theological anthropology. Human beings are somewhere between earth and heaven, body and spirit. They are trapped in time and yet desire eternity. They are limited and yet desire transcendence. They know imperfectly and yet long for perfect knowledge.

For Aquinas, such perfect knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of understanding. John of St. Thomas writes:

The gift of understanding does not judge analytically, nor does it reason about supernatural truths through their causes. From an interior impulse of the Holy ghost and from an affection toward spiritual things, it discerns spirtual realities from corporeal, and separates the things to be believed from those which are not the be beleived, or errors. The evidence of a reasoning process is not required for this type of judgment. It does not proceed from cause or from effect, nor does it resolve the conclusion to its principles, since the gift of understanding, like the habit of first princeples, is concerned with principles. Rather, this judgement is formed from a better and keener penetration of the terms in these truths, their congruity, and the incongruity of the opposing errors (84).

This is why understanding lasts persists in heaven. It is the knowledge of essences that human beings will possess for eternity.

Yet for both characters in the book, kairos is a result of a kind of analogy to grace, the undeserved and even unwilled friendship of the perspicacious Monsieur Ozu who sees through the rough facades of the two narrators and reveals to them the essence of love. Left to their own devices, the discursive reasoning leads only to an imperfect knowledge of love, beauty, and truth. Alone, Renee and Paloma are nominalists who see philosophy, art, and literature only in their particularity. With Ozu, they become realists who realize the beauty of a Dutch still life and an Italian Renaissance painting are expressions of the same beauty, of Beauty itself. The elevation of the intellect and the will and the senses that comes from the influence of Monsieur Ozu allows the characters to transcend their former selves, to grasp love and beauty and truth in an instant. It is these moments of eternity which make life worth living, as Paloma discovers, and it is the desire for these pockets of eternity to last which renders death beautiful, the perennial beauty of the camellia against the moss of the temple. For these two atheists characters, this is just about as close to a knowledge of God as one can come. The “elegance of the hedgehog” is just God by another name.

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3 comments so far

  1. scotthaile on

    Beautiful post about a beautiful book.

  2. debradeanmurphy on

    I’m reading Barbery’s book with an undergraduate honors class and have found this post so helpful. Thanks for the wonderful insights into a tender and beautiful book.

    • everydaythomist on

      Awesome! I thought about including it with my undergraduates this year but eventually decided not to. Overall, how do the undergraduates respond?


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