Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and 'Myself'

Some people know only one thing. They base action and decision on that.  Others know everything. They take the world for what it is: endless and limitless. It's only natural in this world we inhabit that those who think they know everything know very little. They are hedgehogs. Know-alls who know everything under the sun are rare. They are foxes.

Long ago, a man maths students both love and love to hate said something: "I think, ergo I am". That's probably one of the most quoted lines out there. Few believe this. Some people don't think after all, but that hardly means the world doesn't exist. What stands out therefore is what the "I" in his statement means.

Is there an "I" beyond self? Some reality existing beyond I/You dichotomies? Modifying the above quote, is there a "you" because there is an "I"? Are the two interdependent to a point where the one cannot exist without the other? Or is the "fact" of there being no "I" but a mass of flesh and bone which suffers and dies so strong you might as well convince yourself that there is no reality?

Now an "I" beyond self is impossible. Self is a fiction. When you interact, argue, and debate, the I/You dichotomy kicks in. That's what defines the world according to self and that's what sustains it. Yes, one might as well say the world runs on an illusion. But that isn't a big surprise any longer, is it? If a monosyllable can be used to refer to a mass of living matter and this world consists of a billion such monosyllables put together, it has to be a mirage.

So where do foxes and hedgehogs fit in?

Foxes think beyond self. Writers, rebels, artists, composers, even architects fall under this category. They know this fiction called "I" can't last. They appreciate the finer nuances of life. They know nothing lingers forever. That “self-myths” don't offer much by way of life.

Not everyone behaves like this. Not every artist thinks there's a world beyond self. Not every composer can be humble enough to let go of ego in their music. This isn't to say they think no end of themselves. We all have hubris and pride. That is why we're hedgehogs at heart. We're born that way.

Let's think of an example. Mozart and Beethoven. Both are giants. Both authors of some of the most beautiful compositions the world has tasted. They adorn wherever we are whenever their music is played out. Hardly people you'd draw a line in-between.

But there is a line. One that divides.

Mozart's compositions were all spontaneous. He took in not only what he loved but so much more. Yes, we can be sure he lived a life. But the man who made all those masterpieces wasn't the man who suffered that life. The two were different. Clean different. That is why he did not subsist on "I". Why he did not reflect self-myths in his works. Why he was a fox.

Now take Beethoven. He wasn't spontaneous. Almost all his works are defined by an affirmation of self and a world according to "me". "Power is the morality of those who stand out from the rest," he once said. "and it is mine." Indeed.

In his case hence, both composition and composer were one. Like works of art generated based on narrow experience(s), his music (especially towards the end of his career) all reflect his thirst for life, arguably quenched in his masterpiece – the Ninth Symphony.

Think about it. All those flourishes, larger-than-life chords, and rhythms both simple and throbbing with energy: these could only come from a tormented soul, in search of a means of expressing self even when it could not hear (he was deaf). So yes, that celebration of life as he lived it was caught with what he created. A hedgehog? Certainly.

Now here's the question. Would you want the world to be defined as per “I” and “You”? Would you want to believe it exists because you think you do? Or would you take the world for what it is, free of this fiction called "self" and boundless therefore?

Putting this in another way, would you be a hedgehog, including "I" in what(ever) you do? Or would you be a fox, doing just the opposite? A Beethoven? Or a Mozart?

This is a tribute (of sorts) to Regi Siriwardena and his essay on Isaiah Berlin's "The Hedgehog and the Fox"

Written for: The Nation FREE, July 25 2015