The Hedgehog’s Dilemma or the Porcupine’s illusion


The Hedgehog’s Dilemma appears to be a dilemma of our times, right now. It is a dilemma, not of our own making, but built into us as a species. It is one of Schopenhauer‘s witticisms presented as a parable and goes as follows:

On a cold winter’s day a company of hedgehogs were huddling together seeking each other’s warmth to protect themselves from freezing to death. Soon however they felt each other’s prickles which made them move away. Moving to and fro they eventually had to settle for a medium distance to just about their best advantage.

(Originally in Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena: kleine philosophische Schriften. Zweiter Band. A. W. Hayn: Berlin 1851, p. 524 f.)


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 Danzig – 1860 Frankfurt/M.) at the age of 27. A romanticised portrait of the young man painted by Sigismund Ruhe in 1815.

Arthur Schopenhauer 1855. Painting by Jules Lunteschütz.

Schopenhauer explains: society’s inner monotony and emptiness motivates people to seek togetherness; their many faults and disgusting characteristics however drives them apart again. Through politeness and refined manners they eventually negotiate and can hold the medium distance. The need for warming each other is thereby partially compromised, but for that the stings from their prickles are avoided.

These days we are advised, if not commanded to exercise social distancing, whatever that means. We are told if you step out and mix with the world, you are under threat to be caught by a virus lurking in sneezes, kisses, hand shakes and other social gestures, ready to attack and potentially kill. Taking cover against an enemy invisible to the naked eye and who can strike with power and might. 

Schopenhauer concludes: the ones who have much inner warmth of their own, will prefer keeping away from society, neither to give cause for complaint nor be on the receiving end of any. 

Now, the Porcupine’s illusion.

“Schopenhauer’s tale was later quoted by Freud in a footnote to his 1921 essay Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, where it was invoked to illustrate what Freud called the ‘sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility’ adhering to any long-lasting human relationship. Freud’s entire corpus is haunted by questions of intimacy: How much is too much? What degree of intimacy is necessary for our survival? How can we simultaneously crave and repel intimacy—especially from those with whom we find ourselves in some kind of intermittently repulsive, inconceivably intimate embrace to begin with? One could say that the dilemma of the porcupine, as rendered by Schopenhauer, is the Freudian relationship problematic as such.”
(George Prochnik, The Porcupine Illusion. Cabinet Magazine. Issue 26/Magic. Summer 2007)

Returning to the Virus context of our present moment, we are presented with statistics and being bullied into retreating to and staying locked-down in our abodes, be they comfortable homes or overcrowded shacks. And while the well-to-do have stacked their cupboards with enough booze to last out weeks the majority of people have already run out of such provisions. Road deaths, usually in the hundreds over weekends, are nearing nil while domestic violence is on the increase. Lives are saved while jobs are lost. The virus itself is almost harmless compared with the catastrophic fall-out of these measures imposed. Yet, voices of dissent are ridiculed as conspiratorial or right-wing populist. 

Here is one such dissenting view:
“<…> In South Africa, the average male dies before the age of 60, and 3% of the population is over 65. The median age in Africa is 18. In Europe, it’s 42. Africa is the world’s youngest continent, by far. We must ask, then, whether African nations (including South Africa) have as much reason to fear Covid-19 as regions where so much of the population is older. <…> Do not be tempted to retort that Covid-19 will kill more people in total. By far the most dangerous disease in human history is malaria, preventable with mosquito nets. Almost nobody dies from childbirth in developed countries, and few children die of pneumonia. But in developing countries, according to Unicef, five million children die each year from pneumonia, malaria and childbirth complications. <…> It’s time that African leaders, and especially those in South Africa, get themselves advisers who are awake to the differences between Africa and the places where lockdown was conceived, and who are willing and able to model the full consequences – not just death by Covid-19 – of a full range of measures.” 
(Alex Broadbent, Lockdown is Wrong for Africa. In: The Namibian, Tuesday 14 April 2020, p. 7. Alex Broadbent is director of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge and professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. He specialises in prediction, causal inference, and explanation. His books include Philosophy of Epidemiology and Philosophy of Medicine.)

While we are called to heed government’s regulatory measures – and while we are seeking the motherly warmths of being cared for by the organs of state – we might also be repulsed by the prickles of being patronised through heavy handed state interaction with our private lives. Here to find the middle path between adherence and disobedience appears to be the dilemma of our times. 

In Schopenhauer’s own view of the world it would in any event be preferable to stay away from society as long – and that is the criterium – you have enough inner warmth yourself. 
Ironically, that is how we engage with the lockdown – as our very own private spiritual retreat.


With love as always.
Walter & Colleen
Stellenbosch, 20 April 2020