Security Fable

  Jerome Shea       November 29, 2009      Weekend Wonk

If you ponder Krutch’s security axiom—security lies not in what one has but in what one can do without—long enough, you inevitably remember the story of the ant and the grasshopper, one of Aesop’s most famous fables. The details vary a bit in each telling but basically we have a happy-go-lucky grasshopper (in the original, a cicada) and a no-nonsense ant. The ant has spent the summer and fall finding bits of grain and grubs and hauling them laboriously back to his larder in the ant colony. The grasshopper, meanwhile, has spent those seasons roistering about—drinking, singing, dancing—and generally goofing off. Comes the winter, and the grasshopper, cold and hungry, pleads with the ant for food and shelter. The ant makes some snide remark about improvidence and slams the door in the grasshopper’s face. In some versions the grasshopper offers to (literally) sing for his supper, or otherwise entertain the ant. Too late. The ant is unmoved. It is never reported what happens to the grasshopper, but because Aesop was not Walt Disney (whose version ends in happy reconciliation), we can assume that the grasshopper will be a frozen corpse by morning. Ants practice tough love without the love. The same point, with the same righteous insect, is made in the Old Testament (Proverbs, 6:6-8): “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.” Let that be a lesson to you sluggards. You can eat, drink, and be merry and then pay a big price for your foolishness, or you can keep your nose to the grindstone but be snug (and smug) when the snow flies. What you can’t do is have it both ways.

Is the ant a cousin to Krutch’s horned toad and pack rat? Well, the parallels aren’t exact but they’re close, and certainly that silly grasshopper would not last long in the Sonoran Desert. The moral is very clear. Keep your nose to that grindstone. Sacrifice for the future. Save for a rainy day. Let old Ben Franklin be your guide (“Early to bed, early to rise….” “God helps those who help themselves.” “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” And so on. Ad nauseam.). In more familiar terms, I suppose it would mean putting in overtime if you get the chance, having a regular savings plan and cutting up those credit cards, and not shelling out for a Caddy if a Chevy will do.

Ok, we get it.

So we should be high-fiving the ant, right? But we really don’t feel like it. Nobody can reasonably be against responsibility, against behaving like a grown-up. So why don’t we like the ant (I wonder if it would have turned out differently had Aesop chosen that more sympathetic paragon of industry, the honeybee)? You can say it’s because he is willing to let the grasshopper die rather than part with a few of his precious provisions (surely the Little Red Hen wouldn’t let her lazy friends starve!) but I think it’s more than that. The truth is that we respect the ant but don’t like him, and we like the grasshopper even if we don’t respect him. And therein lies a basic human conflict. This isn’t about security. It’s about how you spend your time on earth, time that will not come again. It is also about the body and the soul and what nourishes each.

We don’t like the ant, for one thing, because he is an insufferable prig with all of the deadly priggish virtues. He’s the kid with no friends, and for good reason. And we instinctively like the grasshopper because, although he’s no better than he should be, at least he doesn’t pretend to be. He certainly is a wastrel, if we are being honest about it, but we have this sneaky suspicion that he knows more about life than the holier-than-thou ant.

I think this is what I meant when I said that Krutch’s axiom represents not so much a material position as a moral one. And the ant is more to be pitied than censured.

It’s all about life, and who has the better one. With his store of grubs and grains, the ant will certainly have the easier time of it getting through the winter. What the fable conveniently glosses over, however, is the spring and summer: the grasshopper gloried in those times (a short life and a happy one, friends), squeezing every joy out of life, while the ant couldn’t see past the end of his groping pincers. Just so, the man who thinks of himself as possessed of a job with a good pension plan may instead be possessed by them. As Thoreau warned us, will that security-driven man discover when he comes to die that he has not lived?

The ant has his good points, even if he is a prig and a fussbudget. But so does the grasshopper. So does the grasshopper, living by his wits, taking chances so that he can own his own life. We should remember what the grasshopper teaches, too.

Moral: All work and no play make Jack a dull formicidae.

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