Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Here's Aesop. Fable creator in ancient Greece who made such stories as “The Tortoise and the Hare”, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, and “The Boy who Cried Wolf” that give practical wisdom through simple and enjoyable stories. Even though he is usually reserved for adults in order to be extremely condescending to children, Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong reader, and some of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous sayings are based on Aesop’s pithy morals and assertions. “God helps those who help themselves” is based on Aesop’s “Heaven helps those who help themselves”; and Franklin’s famous “United we stand; divided we fall” was lifted directly from Aesop. You’ve probably also heard, “necessity is the mother of invention” and “honesty is the best policy.”
“Please all, and you will please none”
“The smaller the mind, the greater the conceit”
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” – often falsely attributed to Mother Teresa
“Little by little does the trick”
And here's a topical one:
“We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office”
One of his lesser-known stories is about the apocalyptic downfall of an entire people. It’s called “The Owl and The Birds” and it goes like this:
“An owl, in her wisdom, counseled the Birds that when the acorn first began to sprout, to pull it all up out of the ground and not allow it to grow. She said acorns would produce mistletoe, from which an irremediable poison, the bird-lime, would be extracted and by which they would be captured. The Owl next advised them to pluck up the seed of the flax, which men had sown, as it was a plant which boded no good to them. And, lastly, the Owl, seeing an archer approach, predicted that this man, being on foot, would contrive darts armed with feathers which would fly faster than the wings of the Birds themselves. The Birds gave no credence to these warning words, but considered the Owl to be beside herself and said that she was mad. But afterwards, finding her words were true, they wondered at her knowledge and deemed her to be the wisest of birds. Hence it is that when she appears they look to her as knowing all things, while she no longer gives them advice, but in solitude laments their past folly.”
Moral: Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin.
Aesop understood how automatic and reflexive we are to rationalize away people and thoughts that aren't encouraging or confirm our assumptions. In order to preserve our feelings of confidence, we often insist the other person is delusional or clamor to claiming the moral high ground. In their day, the birds “considered the Owl to be beside herself and said that she was mad.” In modern day we call the Owl “unappreciative,” “divisive,” “nagging,” and "shrill"; someone who is "focused on the negative," “complains too much,” and “would rather curse the dark than shine a light.” Otherwise we just ignore her. In a more charitable mood, we offer to take her to therapy.
As Aesop observed through other stories, the desire to maintain confidence often results in self-destructive coping mechanisms. “The Ant and The Grasshopper,” is often read as stories of overconfidence and laziness, but such interpretations fall short as too why the Grasshopper feels so invulnerable to the looming threat of season’s change or change in climate...climate change if you will. When confronted on his inaction, the Grasshopper gives an answer based in denial, “Why bother about winter?”
Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat is related to this same dynamic where the exuberant, almost delirious, Cat lures the children into his delightful silliness. His appeal is impervious to the fish’s sobering, and therefore unappealing, voice of reason until the house falls into ruin. Fittingly, a cat is a natural predator of fish.
Entire worldviews are built enforcing the stigma against the skeptical and critical, which I notice is too recurrent in self-help type books and motivational speakers. A tendency which is parodied in Donni Darko’s fictional self-help author, Jim Cunningham, and his idiotically simple worldview that all emotions are extensions of Fear and Love. That our best life is related to pursuing the latter at the expense of the former as much as possible. This isn’t to say we should tolerate toxic people who make us feel worse for no reason or that coping methods are always bad (like shutting off the news when it brings nothing but incoherent despair). Rather that there is wisdom in avoiding the trap that says what makes me feel better or more certain now must be wise or conducive to my mental health. As it turns out, psychopaths think very highly of themselves and have a natural disposition to not feel emotions related to fear or sadness.
I remember a few years ago, I was talking with a family friend and we got to having a friendly disagreement over a political status quo. I was struck not so much by her position, but the argument she used:
“You’re too young to have such a skeptical world view.”
Her argument wasn’t that jaded weariness was something to be earned through age, but that I was failing to live up to a higher virtue as a younger person just by being skeptical. What’s more interesting is that as the conversation progressed, I realized she was using “skeptical”, “pessimistic”, and “cynical” interchangeably.
Granted, I think it’s a uniquely American situation that so many people carry such a suspicious attitude toward not being “positive” as much as possible, and some people I’ve talked to from other countries even find this tendency charming. Nonetheless, its charm has led to catastrophic paths before and will continue to do so if we don’t think more critically about what it entails.
There’s a responsibility on the part of the speaker and the writer to not cross the line between sobering or disheartening and completely demoralizing, but listeners must not be so eager to assume that line has been crossed. Case in point, philosopher Mark Fisher explained in an interview with Crack that “People say that my work is pessimistic, but it’s not – it’s negative. It’s more that it reveals the negativity that is already there, but there’s massive efforts of denial and disavowal” (Broaks).
We could have done a lot more listening to “negative” people in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis and their warnings that the unrestraint of complex financial systems was both irresponsible and unsustainable. Driven by Cat-in-the-Hat like exuberance ("irrational exuberance" as Keynes called it), the “massive efforts of denial and disavowal” got in the way of more sensible people influencing policy. The results were cataclysmic, and many people around the world still haven’t recovered economically. People who warned how fragile the system was, like Robert Schiller, Nassim Taleb, and Brooksley Born, are hailed today as wise and prescient as Aesop foretold.
In a similar manner, our current climate crisis is looming, and our collective negligence on the subject is both irresponsible and unsustainable. By some estimates it could lead to the end of humanity. Even if it doesn’t, if serious action in policy is not taken, the coming cataclysms will dwarf anything seen in 2008 or 2020. The results could literally be apocalyptic in the worst sense of the word.
The closing words of “The Owl and The Birds” say, “she no longer gives them advice, but in solitude laments their past folly.” In the only instance where a character’s action is given an explicit motive, the Owl is silent - not out of prideful rejection, but out of grief and resignation because there was no longer any use for her wisdom. It was too late.
Broaks, Andrew. “Do You Miss the Future? Mark Fisher Interviewed.” Crack Magazine, crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/mark-fisher-interviewed/.