Honestly, this Wednesday Word is just… cute. It doesn't have a terribly interesting history or etymology. It comes from the Latin ericius, which literally means "hedgehog." Period. End of sentence.
Just kidding, of course there's more to it than that!
If you didn't take Latin for six years like your friendly neighborhood Girl Unaffiliated, you might not know that the ancient Romans were simultaneously lovers of war as well as lovers of the figurative use of animals in war strategy.
So how do hedgehogs, the lovable cuddlers that they are, relate to war? Well, quite evidently, hedgehogs are covered in spikes. Sure, they’re more like the soft bristles of a toothbrush, but they’re still echinated (another fun word meaning prickly with stiff spines). If you’re a bit trigger happy as several leaders of the Roman Empire were, you might have enough of an imagination to turn the spikes of a hedgehog into a built-in armor of spears, which sounds like a pretty effective way to synthesize defense and offense.
I’m not much of a war person. By that I mean I am one hundred percent against it, morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, animally, minerally. For some reason, however, the battles and conquests of Rome feel more like fantasy fiction than something that really happened to real people in real life. Is that wrong? Oh well, it’s something.
The fable-like animal metaphors probably influence that a little.
Anyway, back to the hedgehogs. Using the hedgehog’s physical characteristics as a reference, the Romans developed a device equipped with spines. This weapon was used to both repel and slow down attackers. I mean, come on. Would you want to approach someone bearing what is basically a spiked javelin?
In a fairly uncreative move, the Romans called this device an ericius as well. I wonder if there were any situations on the battlefield in which a soldier was referring to a hedgehog and not the weapon and a hilariously classic mix-up ensued.
Of course, there aren’t any clear images of the ericius, and only vague descriptions of it. But this is not the only example of the hedgehog in allegorical history. And because I’m self-serving and this is my blog, damn it, I’m going to tell you about my favorite: the hedgehog’s dilemma.
I actually learned about this at my very first class at college. It was a class that all freshmen who go to my school have to take, and typically complain about. But I got an incredible professor (who—and this is 100% true—was stolen from us by Harvard University literally after my class with her ended).
She never really told us why she started our class off with the hedgehog’s dilemma. The course itself was essentially an introduction to a number of significant texts and minds (Kant, Wollstonecraft, Nietzsche, other college party name-drop worthy philosophers, writers, thinkers) and to this day I can’t connect the hedgehog’s dilemma with the curriculum. But let’s see what we think after talking about it for a bit.
The hedgehog’s dilemma (often called the porcupine dilemma) is a metaphor attempting to describe the universal challenges of human intimacy. During times of cold weather, hedgehogs must burrow together (somewhat like penguins) to share heat. However, the sharp edges of their spines can’t help but puncture and hurt each other, making them remain apart. How do the sweet hedgehogs reconcile this? How do they stay warm without hurting each other?
For reasons they cannot change, hedgehogs can’t be as close and intimate as they want to be. So they have to keep just as much distance as they can between themselves.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in Parerga und Paralipomena, first used this dilemma to describe the state of the individual in relation to other individuals within a society. Here’s an excerpt from the text: “…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.”
A note about Schopenhauer that might influence how you feel about the hedgehog/porcupine dilemma: not only was he a massive pessimist, there is no evidence from his life that he had any virtues except for kindness toward animals and had a generally sour countenance.
It’s almost like an unspoken arrangement between members of the humankind. To keep ourselves from being pricked, and to keep from pricking those we care about, we try to maintain as much independence as we possibly can. And if you’re someone who is already a little too hot, you stay away to avoid further issues.
Sigmund Freud adopted the allegory from Schopenhauer, giving it international attention and inserting it into the field of psychology. In fact, when Freud visited the United States in 1919, he gave his reasoning for the trip as follows: “I am going to the USA to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.” (I find this anecdote to be adorable.)
I think I understand now why my dear professor told us this, in our very first class, in our very first year of school. For many of us, it was the first time that we would be interacting with people from a different place, a different perspective. It was inevitable that each student would bristle nerves, and get his or her nerves bristled in the next four years we spent together, in this tiny liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere.
I know that I, personally, have had my nerves bristled. I sure as hell have bristled a lot of nerves in the past two and a half years (and probably every year of my existence before then).
Maybe the hedgehog dilemma isn’t just an interesting way to think about personal relationships. Maybe it’s actually a fable with a moral, a lesson to be learned. I’m still figuring out how to catch sight of my own wild porcupine. I think I’m getting warmer.