The Greek poet Archilochus was one of the first to focus on human emotions and personal experience. He wrote “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Those who write and think view their world in one of two ways – hedgehogs who look at things in terms of one great defining idea, like Plato, Pascal and Nietzsche, or foxes who draw threads of experience together and for whom the world can’t be reduced to one single idea, people like Aristotle, Shakespeare and James Joyce. The Amish are hedgehogs. A British reality show ‘Living with the Amish’ follows six British teenagers from a variety of backgrounds as they stay at five different Amish settlements from Pennsylvania to Ohio, cataloguing the responses of both their hosts and themselves when subjected to a regime of Benedictine severity. Clothed separately by each denomination – on their arrival they looked about as out of place as a stripper at the Eucharist, bereft of iPads, phones and the trappings of modern Western civilization, they were made to get up for milking at five, help with a barn raising – yes, the entire structure is assembled by hand – and learn the simple Biblical structures which underpinned each household they visited. I don’t often find myself caught up by reality shows, but this was a quite engaging experience.
One had no choice but to attempt to measure the purity of one’s own Biblical interpretations against the clarity and straightforwardness of the kindly but firm Amish hosts. One thing plumblined their lives. The Word of God. As written in the King James Bible. Full stop. No clever exegesis, no wriggling out of the awkward bits. There was a clear-eyed innocence about each of the families and their many children which was really quite touching. Amish children are homeschooled until fourteen, then work in family businesses; the contrasts were stark. Deliberately. The quiet Etonian, a rich, spoiled brat, a loud, black Cambridge undergraduate, an ex- foster kid in need of a father figure – all were received thoughtfully and the Amish gave more that they knew. One sensed clever editing – the British responses were careful never to offend, perhaps in deference to the Amish habit of weighing words carefully. Would that we could all learn to do the same, how much simpler diplomacy might become.