Plaint of the Grasshopper


La cigale, ayant chanté,
Tout l’Été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue.
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la Fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’Oût, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal.
La Fourmi n’est pas prêteuse ;
C’est là son moindre défaut.
« Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud ?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez ? j’en suis fort aise.
Eh bien ! dansez maintenant. »
— Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695)
Fiddling the summer long,

Cicada came to rue his song.

With the winter’s snow and sleet,
He had not a crumb to eat.
“Famine!” cried he at the door
Of cousin ant, “I’ll starve for sure.
Please to lend the season’s food
Which I’ll repay — my credit’s good.”
Famous for his frugal ways,
The ant recalled his summer days.
“You might have worked a good deal harder
Stocking up your own great larder.”

“I was busking, you’ll recall,
Through the summer and the fall.”
“Your regrets have come too late.
Eat the song that’s on your plate!”

— tr. JJM (1949 – )

To generations of French children, the hero of this fable is the industrious ant. But Bernard Suits (1925-2007) saw the situation from The Grasshopper’s perspective, and he wrote a philosophical novel explaining his ideas.

“But that kind of justice,” exclaimed Prudence, ‘is only the justice of ants. Grasshoppers have nothing to do with such ‘justice.’,”
“You are right,” said the Grasshopper. ”The justice which is fairness in
trading is irrelevant to the lives of true grasshoppers. But there is a
different kind of justice which prevents me from accepting your offer.
Why are you willing to work so that I may live? Is it not because I embody in my life what you aspire to, and you do not want the model of your aspirations to perish? Your wish is understandable, and to a certain point even commendable. But at bottom it is inconsistent and selfdefeating. It is also — and I hope you will not take offence at my blunt language — hypocritical.
…the whole burden of my teaching is that you ought to be idle. So now
you propose to use me as a pretext not only for working, but for working harder than ever, since you would have not only yourselves to feed, but me as well. I call this hypocritical because you would like to take credit for doing something which is no more than a ruse for avoiding living up to your ideals.”

At this point Skepticus broke in with a laugh. “What the Grasshopper means, Prudence,” he said, “is that we do not yet have the courage of his convictions. The point is that we should not only refuse to work for the Grasshopper, we should also refuse to work for ourselves. We, like him, should be dying for our principles. That we are not is the respect in which, though no longer ants, we are not grasshoppers either. And, of course, given the premise that the life of the Grasshopper is the only life worth living, what he says certainly follows.”

“Not quite, Skepticus,” put in the Grasshopper. “I agree that the principles in question are worth dying for. But I must remind you that they are the principles of Grasshoppers. I am not here to persuade you to die for my principles, but to persuade you that I must. We ought to be quite clear about our respective roles. You are not here to die for me, but I for you. You only need, as Skepticus put it, the courage of my convictions up to a point; that is, courage sufficient to approve rather than to deplore my death. Neither of you is quite prepared to grant that approval, though for different reasons. You, Prudence, because, although you believe the principles are worth dying for, you do not believe they need to be died for; and you, Skepticus, because you are not even sure that the principles are worth dying for.

…it is possible that with accelerating advances in technology the time will come when there are in fact no winters. We may therefore conclude that although my timing may be a bit off, my way of life is not wrong in principle.”
“The operation was successful but the patient died,” put in Skepticus.
“No,” replied the Grasshopper, “it’s not quite like that.

…The ideal of prudence, therefore, like the ideal of preventive medicine, is its own extinction. For if it were the case that no sacrifices of goods needed ever to be made, then prudential actions would be pointless, indeed impossible. This principle, knowledge of which I regard as an indispensable first step on the path to wisdom, the ants seem never even to have entertained. The true Grasshopper sees that work is not self-justifying, and that his way of life is the final justification of any work whatever.”

John Danaher makes the same point less joyfully in the context of automation and UBI.

Post a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s