Francis Barlow (1626? – 1704)

I want to talk about an ancient fable, “The Hare and the Tortoise,” because it is very appropriate for today’s world – both in terms of our personal lives and our business endeavors.

Everyone is hopefully familiar with that ancient tale but – for the sake of universal clarity and a shared starting point – I will provide a brief refresher. Pause for large inhale of air.

The hare is a fast runner. He brags about this speed and teases the tortoise, who is clearly a slow runner. Technically, a non-runner. More of a crawler. The tortoise finally tires of the incessant badgering (bullying, if you will) and challenges the hare to a race. The fox is chosen to select the course. The race begins. The hare (supremely over-confident) loses the race because he takes a nap and awakes too late to beat the tortoise to the finish line.

While this story is attributed to Aesop, the general thematic ideas and concepts no doubt predate him. It is a tale which speaks of the true nature of human being and has origins which are very ancient.

The real meaning of this fable is hidden and not as easy to discern as one might think. What kind of hidden meaning, you might ask? Well, you did just ask.

Fiendishly good question.

The most widely held conclusions about the fable are the expressions, “slow and steady wins the race” and “the race is not always to the swift.” These are the obvious and most easily attainable interpretations.

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, that 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 (personal or business). That is to say, as we strive 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 awareness.

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 merely 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.

Let’s chat a little about physiology. If you examine the ontogenetic (about origin and development) 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 loosely label these the reptilian (physical), mammalian (social), and distinctly human (rational/intellectual) sections of the threefold neurological continuum. Thank you Paul.

Our human mental structure is, thus, a threefold continuum (not discrete levels), 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 and spiritual human. Such enlightenment and growth is, nonetheless, the real goal of living.

While a more scientific rendition of this is called for (and I am laboring on it), 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.

Integrating all aspects of your true human being to achieve success is the fable’s real meaning.

Let me explain further.

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 legendary; and its speed permits it to survive in the wild. But the hare has no other attribute worthy of consideration – the only thing it (he) can do is boast about the one thing he can do well (speed of foot) – and this is not even a learned trait, it is a genetic trait. We won’t mention breeding prowess, but that is also innate and not acquired.

However (and this is a key concept) even the genetic trait of speed is only of value if it is properly used. This is true of any genetic or innate ability an individual may have.

Moving on, 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 clever thinking skills in any situation where others are encountered.

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 or innate 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 and let’s be honest here, only someone of low intelligence and minimal skills would belabor the obvious – what possible accomplishment is it for a hare to beat a tortoise anyway? The hare will win that race every time, without a doubt. It is no achievement at all to beat a freaking tortoise in a race.

The hare lost because he did not apply his genetic gift of speed in an appropriate manner – it is the natural inclination of humans to misuse their innate abilities though idleness and indolence. This happens if you allow the hare-aspect of your human nature to predominate as you focus on those things which satisfy your physical nature only. You know, like napping your way through life.

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. Harmony lies in internal mental cooperation between those three aspects.

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 possibly negative 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.

And there you have it.

My hare nature wants go out clubbing, my fox nature wants to update all my social media sites, and my tortoise nature is thinking about what post to write next.

Maybe best just to take a nap.


— E

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