Let’s talk about the ancient fable, “The Hare and the Tortoise.”
Everyone is hopefully familiar with this ancient tale but — for the sake of universal clarity and a shared starting point — I will provide a brief refresher.
The hare is a fast runner. He brags about this speed and teases the tortoise, who is obviously a slow runner. Technically, a non-runner. More of a crawler. The tortoise finally tires of the incessant teasing (bullying, if you will) and challenges the hare to a race. The fox is chosen to select the course. The hare loses the race because he takes a nap and awakes too late to beat the tortoise to the finish line.
Okay, refresher over, so now the commentary.
While this ancient tale is attributed to Aesop, the general thematic ideas and concepts predate him. It is a tale which speaks of the true nature of human being and has origins that are very old. The real meaning of this fable is hidden and not as easy to discern as one might think.
What kind of hidden meaning? Good question.
The most widely held conclusion about the fable is the expression, “slow and steady wins the race.”
This is the obvious and most easily attainable interpretation.
Fables are devilishly intricate things, as they are always meant to portray the multi-layered complexity of human behavior.
This fable is particularly delightful in that regard.
While his fable — on the surface — does illustrate the general idea that persistence wins out in the end, this theme is NOT the main (hidden) idea.
This fable is a story of our individual human nature, and the internal struggles which must of necessity arise within each of us as we attempt to achieve significant results in our lives – that is to say, to win the race of living. Well, at least run it well. What constitutes “winning” is a subject for another diatribe — right now we will simply talk about this fable.
Aesop existed circa 620 to 554 BCE – that’s over 2500 years ago for those of us (including me) not good with math. Even back then, however, there was a recognition that humans possessed differing levels of intelligence.
Pythagoras, a contemporary to Aesop, believed that humans found at the Olympic Games could be classified into three categories or types – the lowest type were those who were seekers of pleasure and fame, the competitors. The next highest type were those who sought to benefit from buying and selling of goods, and the highest type were the lovers of wisdom, who came to observe the games.
Siddhartha Gautama would have been an approximate contemporary to Aesop, as he lived from 563 to 483 BCE. His ideas of the “threefold training” and the division of human being into Mind, Virtue, and Wisdom are compatible to those of Pythagoras.
Even older traditions were developed in Vedic (Indian) thought, such as Chapter 14 of the Bhagavad Gita, where the discussion concerns the “The Three Qualities of Material Nature” – which are ignorance, passion, and goodness.
If you examine the ontogenetic unfolding of our neurological system during fetal development, the human brain is clearly delineated into three distinct sections (Rhombencephalon, Mesencephalon, Telencephalon) – for the sake of illustrative brevity and as a simple tool for reference, we will label these the reptilian, mammalian, and distinctly human sections of the threefold neurological continuum. A nod to Paul M.
While a more scientific rendition of this is called for (and exists in explication) you must — for this particular exposition — grant me the boon of accepting this structure as valid. Besides, using all those big words gives me a headache.
Our human being is a threefold continuum, and most of us exist within the realm of one of the triune parts of this continuum – it is the rare individual who can synthesize all three levels and emerge as an integrated human.
That is the fable’s true meaning.
The hare is that part of our human nature which is the lowest. It is pure physicality. The only thoughts at this level are survival and reproduction. The hare is the perfect symbol, as the reproductive capacities of that creature are legend; and its speed permits it to survive in the wild. But the hare has no other attribute worthy of consideration – the only thing the hare can do is boast about the one thing it can do well – and this is not even a learned trait, it is a genetic trait – speed of foot. We won’t mention breeding prowess, but that is also innate and not acquired or learned.
But even the genetic trait of speed is only of value if it is properly used.
It is no accident in the fable that the fox selects the course where the race will be run.
The fox has — symbolically — always represented social cunning and thinking skills designed to benefit one’s self.
If we regard the fox as the social part of our own human nature, it is that aspect which must select the course upon which we are to race with our own lives – and here the story gets a little more complex.
If we are rely solely on our genetic abilities alone (without contemplative introspection), we would always pick a course that suited our lowest nature, and such a decision — though the easiest by way of effort — would represent a minimal accomplishment. In the fable the hare was always teasing the tortoise about its lack of speed – only someone of low intelligence and minimal skills would belabor the obvious – what accomplishment is it for a hare to beat a tortoise anyway? The hare will win that race every time, without a doubt.
It is the natural inclination of humans to denigrate their genetic abilities though idleness and indolence – this happens if you allow the hare-aspect of your human nature to predominate.
The tortoise-aspect represents our wisdom and adaptability — it must not only subtly guide the fox-aspect in selecting a course most well-suited to our individual nature, but make the hare-aspect of our human being apply itself to achieving meaningful results. The hare-aspect represents our raw abilities, and the tortoise-aspect is the will and perseverance that puts those raw abilities to use in a manner that the fox-aspect helps devise within the world of our social reality.
However, even here the road is fraught with danger, for just as a heavy reliance on the hare-aspect will lead to bad results, a heavy reliance on the fox-aspect will lead to a result that is beneficial to the self, but without regard to the impact on others. It is only the guiding hand of the tortoise-aspect – the thoughtful and self-conscious “application” of will in reality — with an understanding of how all humans are linked — that helps the fox-aspect select the proper course upon which the hare-aspect, now being forced to actually apply itself, can unify with the other parts of human nature to achieve success.
Another simple truth is this — you can have all the speed, intelligence, good looks and charm in the world, but if you sit around napping (like the hare) you won’t accomplish a damn thing.
And there you have it.
My hare nature wants a nap, my tortoise nature needs to tend the garden, and my fox nature wants you to buy a copy of my book, Exophobe.