Monday, July 26, 2021

Old Fables New Morals : The Ant and the Grasshopper

It is normal for tales with morals to make children hate the 'moral' character of the story. Like the guy in your class who is held up as an example for you to emulate, moral characters seem to exist only to allow parents to tell you how disappointing you are. But our dear chap, Aesop, seems to have missed by a wide margin when he wrote 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' to teach morals. I mean, leave alone children, one helluva lot of adults seem to have taken against the hero of the moral here.

The tale goes like this

The Ant was busy scurrying around all Summer, collecting grains to tide over Winter. Seeing the Grasshopper singing happily, the Ant told him to spend some time storing grains for Winter.

In late autumn, as the Ant was drying out the grain it had stored up during the summer, the starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

"What?" cried the Ant in surprise, "Haven't you stored anything away for the winter like I asked you to? What were you doing all last summer?"

"I didn't have time to store up any food," whined the Grasshopper; "I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone."

The Ant shrugged its shoulders in disgust.

"Making music, were you?" it cried. "Very well; now dance!" And it turned its back on the Grasshopper and went on with its work.

The moral, apparently, is that 'There's a time for work and a time for play' or some such noble thing. Going by a story that no less than Somerset Maugham wrote, all that the fable communicated to him was such a hatred for ants that he went stomping on every ant he saw, after reading the fable. And was pushed into writing a sort of anti-fable, where the hardworking 'ant brother' ends up poorer than the happy-go-lucky 'grasshopper brother' who becomes rich by virtue of marrying a rich woman. Now THAT is the morality tale the world wants - like teaching children to drop out of school and spend time in garages with a view to becoming a billionaire!

At that Aesop got off cheap. Thanks to having lived in a time when social media was not a thing. If he had written it now...

"So...this wuss thinks that the arts are no use? And artists should be allowed to starve?"

"This Aesop is a right-wing fanatic. To praise the virtues of hoarding and allowing poor people to starve..."

"What do you expect? Typical capitalistic behavior. The rich becoming richer and preaching elimination of poverty by killing off the poor."

And so on and so on. Maugham's character only stomped on ANTS. Had it been today, we would have stomped on AESOP!

To be sure, the Ant did have a communication issue. I mean, 'Very well, dance' sounds too much like 'If they do not have bread, let them eat cake." Not really the image that you want to project to the public. But, then, Aesop lived in times when PR was not a thing, I suppose, leave alone Social media. If you had wealth or power, you really did not need to bother with diplomacy with people less well-endowed than you. It was probably EXPECTED that you would be arrogant, failing which people would take you for a easy mark and rob you blind.

So, perhaps, Aesop's Ant, in modern times, would have said something like, "Look, I worked all Summer and just managed to store enough food to keep my family from starving through Winter. If I share with you, my children will starve later in the season. I am sorry." AND, perhaps, give the grasshopper the idea that he could, perhaps, crowd-fund his food and keep from starvation!

Essentially, the Ant would DO only what it anyway DID...refuse the grasshopper food. The difference between becoming a hero or a villain is only in what it SAYS...not in what it DOES!

The moral of the fable...more to the point, the moral of the reaction to the really this:

When you are unwilling to help, nothing gets you more widely hated than telling 'I told you so'. It seems too much like kicking a man when he is down.


  1. Ha ha ha. I loved Somerset Maugham’s acerbic version of The Ant and the Grasshopper and laughed for days when I read it first. You are the first person to refer to that story since I read it more than three decades ago. And your trollisms are perfect. Poor Aesop would have been hounded so much he would have deleted his fb/twitter accounts.