The Hedgehog’s Dilemma

“On cold days people manage to get some warmth by crowding together,” writes Schopenhauer in his Counsels and Maxims, “and you can warm your mind in the same way — by bringing it into contact with others. But a man who has a great deal of intellectual warmth in himself will stand in no need of such resources.” He offers this parable:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told — in the English phrase — to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

“As a general rule,” he writes, “it may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value: to say that ‘so and so’ is very unsociable, is almost tantamount to saying that he is a man of great capacity.”