People are Flowers: The Art of Morality as Painted in The Little Prince

Roughly once a year, I grab some coffee, settle comfortably in a sofa, and re-read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It serves as a transcendental gateway between who I am and who I want to be; that is, in Kierkegaard’s language: “The measure of a person’s fundamental disposition is determined by how far is what he understands from what he does, how great is the distance between his understanding and his action.” It allows me to bridge the vast chasm between what I think and what I do.[1] The book reminds the child that I once was—and, maybe, still am!—that I must constantly reevaluate what I do, how I do it, and why I do it. In the following pages, I wish to reflect upon this book as a piece of art that introduces us to “the little prince,” who, I will argue, is a moral leader; one who reminds us, time and time again, what it is we really need to focus on while living on earth. Moreover, many of the fictional characters in the story are also involved in providing witty and ingenious remarks on what it means to lead a moral life.

Reading The Little Prince is like being ripped from the delusional reality most of us have grown callously accustomed to. In the first few pages, the text demonstrates this rather memorably. The narrator describes a time when he was a young child and drew a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. He was aspiring to be an artist. When he showed “grown-ups” his drawing, all they could see was what looked like a hat; they had lost what children still had: imagination. The narrator eventually became a pilot, his dreams of becoming an artist crushed by the cold comments made by the grown-ups that surrounded him. Eventually, the now-adult narrator ends up in a plane wreck in the Sahara Desert. He awakes only to find a golden-haired boy, from a distant planet, whom he calls “the little prince.” The prince asks the pilot to draw a sheep for him. When the pilot attempts to draw sheep he ends up drawing his “hat.” The prince immediately recognizes it for what it is: a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, of course! The prince is not yet a grown-up; he is able to see more than the mundane things grown-ups see. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.”[2]

In the discussions that ensue, the prince reminds the once-child (who is only now a “grown-up”) what is truly important in life: “[a]nything essential is invisible to the eyes.”[3] The objective mumbo-jumbo that adults find themselves caught up in is not what makes life beautiful or meaningful. Things like friendship, beauty, and love make the world go ‘round—and all such things are invisible. When the pilot, attempting to fix a part of his plane’s engine, becomes angry and short-tempered with the prince—while the prince is describing something “important”—the prince responds appropriately:

“You confuse everything…You’ve got it all mixed up!” He was really annoyed. He tossed his golden curls in the wind. “I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman. He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all—he’s a mushroom!”

The prince was asking the pilot if his sheep—one which the pilot drew—would be able to graze on flowers. The pilot was unaware of the subjective importance of this question. The prince, living on a small planet, took great care of a rose with four thorns. He watered it daily, spoke with it, and loved it. The rose was threatened by a wild species of weed called baobabs. These baobabs would kill the rose if they were left to grow on their own; the prince’s job was to maintain his planet and protect his rose. In contemplating bringing a sheep to the planet—albeit, one which may potentially threaten the rose’s survival—the prince was profoundly distressed at the thought of a rose-eating sheep.

“If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn’t important?”[4]

Once the pilot realized the context of the prince’s question, he immediately ran to the prince, hugged him tightly, and suggested he draw a muzzle for the sheep.

Due to some “pretensions” between the rose and himself—one’s which he later would reflect upon with remorse and guilt—the prince left the rose on his planet to explore other planets. He felt as if the rose did not need him.

“In those days , I didn’t understand anything. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life. I should never have run away!…Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her.[5]

Saint-Exupery, in writing this, implied that people are flowers; and that sometimes we are immature and do not know how to love them.

Even the rose functions as a moral agent by telling the prince that, “I need to put up with two or three caterpillars if I want to get to know the butterflies.”[6] (This was said in response to his wanting to destroy the caterpillars prior to his departure.) In this quotable aphorism, Saint-Exupery implicitly suggests that some suffering can sometimes lead to beauty.

Once the little prince departs his planet, he finds himself landing on the “first” planet. There he finds a rather sensible “king” who only commands that which his “subjects,” and objects he oversees, are already doing (or are prone to do). The king explains why he commands what someone or something is already doing. “One must command from each what each can perform.” For “[a]uthority is based first of all upon reason. If you command your subjects to jump in the ocean, there will be a revolution. I am entitled to command obedience because my orders are reasonable.”[7] When the king commands the little prince to become a minister of justice, the prince asks whom he’ll judge, if there’s no one on the planet. The king suggests that judging oneself is much more harder than judging others.[8] But then the king remembers that there may be a single rat on the planet, one he hears ever so often.

“You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.”[9]

In saying this, the king succinctly reminds us all that we first begin with judging ourselves; and, if we ever do judge others, we should be merciful—for, “there’s only one rat.” Also, another concept is at play here: the concept of inter-dependent existence. The king’s suggestion reveals that it is good to be in “need” of other people. The judge “needs” a criminal; the criminal “needs” a judge. Both must exist in order for their roles to be played out.

By the time the prince visits all the small planets—six in all—he realizes that only on the fifth planet lived a man who cared about something other than himself. The fifth planet had a lamplighter who lit the lamp every minute, since day and night all occurred within the short span of sixty seconds. As to why he was doing what he was doing, the lamplighter could only say: “Orders.” Here was a man who was almost as ridiculous as the inhabitants of the other planets—but in a way less so.

Finally, the prince arrives to earth. It is on earth that he meets the pilot. It is also on earth that he meets a fox, one which explains to him the meaning of friendship and time. The fox tells the little prince that he is not “tamed.” The prince wonders what “tamed” means. The fox explains that it means “to create ties.”[10] If one creates ties, according to the fox, one tames the animal, and the animal becomes your friend. No longer would the fox be just an ordinary fox, one in a billion; rather, the fox would become the only fox for you in the world. “But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…”[11] The fox goes on to teach the little prince a thing or two about human relations and friendship. “The only things you learn are the things you tame…People haven’t time to learn anything…” It is because of a lack of friendship, time, and involvement that humans don’t really “tame” anything or really know anything anymore. In other words, they are lazy and boring.

The prince, on his way towards finding human beings, encounters a field of five thousand roses, just like the one on his own planet. He is shocked to discover that his rose isn’t the only rose in the universe, as he previously thought. He begins speaking to the roses:

“You’re lovely, but you’re empty,” he went on. “One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”[12]

The prince, in finding this field of roses, realizes something important—something all of us could empathize with: the importance of our subjectivity. Sure, the roses were similar. But there was a rose out there, far above all the other stars, on a small planet, that belonged to the prince; it was his rose. They have had a long relationship. They went through thick and through thin together. They had a shared history, a “we-ness” about them. The prince races back to the fox in time to hear him disclose “secrets” to life: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”[13] For what is invisible? Time. “It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important,” the fox finishes.

The Little Prince is a literary achievement of immense moral significance, being a museum of moral aphorisms, witty jokes, and touching tales. How, then, does it compare to the likes of, say, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics? Is it possible to relay morality by means of art and literature? I’m not sure what an agreed-upon answer may be, one which functions as some universal truth, but I think that this book does an excellent job reminding all of us regarding what it is that makes us live and thrive. In writing this “children’s tale,” Saint-Exupery really meant to remind us that we were all children once, and that most times a child’s simplicity and honesty is better than a million quantum equations.

In dealing with love and friendship, the book points out—I think, correctly—that we have to spend time with people. We have to “tame” people in order to begin understanding them. And when we love, we must do so by recognizing that the Other may be like the rest of the “five thousand,” but the Other is ultimately ours. In loving, the book gently urges us to learn “how” to love the Other. And not only that. Love requires the ability to think about someone other than yourself. It was the rose that made the prince’s world light up. It was his rose that made it worthwhile to look up at the stars at night, knowing that somewhere out there the love of his life waited for him. Aristotle, likewise, spends a great deal of time talking about friendship in a vein akin to the sense Saint-Exupery is trying to convey.

“The base person is held to do everything for his own sake, and the more corrupt he is, the more he does this: people accuse him of doing nothing apart from what concerns his own [good]. The decent person, by contrast, acts on account of what is noble; and the better a person he is, the more he acts on account of what is noble and for the sake of a friend, while disregarding himself.”[14]

Aristotle recognizes, as many Christian theologians do, that there is something intrinsically good about caring for someone other than yourself; there is something good about caring enough to lay your life down for your friends.

What in particular stands out for me are the many ways in which moral instruction—such as Aristotle’s Ethics, The Little Prince, or the Parables of Jesus—take form. It could easily be argued that all three offer relatively similar teachings regarding friendship. Living in a post-Freud world, we know that childhood experiences have a profound effect on children’s later adult life. Being able to instill morals from an early age is, arguably, a huge benefit, one that enriches the life of a child. Reading Aristotle presupposes a grown-up; whereas the parables of Jesus and The Little Prince are not limited to age as much. Specifically, The Little Prince is easily digested by a two-year-old child. It invites children to begin thinking about morality and the meaning of life. It invites children to think about their “flowers”—what matters to them? And, as grown-ups, we know that people are flowers.

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden…yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…”

“They don’t find it,” I answered.

“And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”

“Of course,” I answered.

And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”[15]

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore (Farmington: The Plough Publishing Co., 1999), 265-6.

[2] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harcourt Publishing, 2000), 2.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 24-5.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, trans., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 200.

[15] Ibid., 71.

The Voyeurization of Knowledge

It could be said today that our society has become inundated with many forms of knowledge. At the mere click of a button, one can access scholarly articles published by Cambridge University, ten thousand miles and an ocean away. Accessibility has become commonplace; in a way, accessibility functions as a necessity for the voyeurization of knowledge. But what do we mean when we say “the voyeurization of knowledge”? In short, the voyeurization of knowledge is to be taken to mean the following:

In the face of commonplace, accessible knowledge (transmitted within a democratic context and being handled by a mostly lazy population), people adopt a certain way of superficially engaging with all knowledge with which they make contact with; this knowledge is engaged with in a noticeably passive manner—knowledge that is mostly voyeurized by a population of “peeping Toms.”

That is, to be quite frank, people engage with knowledge (or call it “information”) in a very limited fashion: they read a brief article (something that usually “tickles” their ears), they dogmatically assert some kind of judgment, feel satisfied with themselves, and move on with life. Instead of actually engaging intimately with a given text, document, or argument, people merely gaze at it “from afar.” Like peeping Toms, they do not actually have intercourse with their victims; they merely stand there gazing. Knowledge is something they passively are attracted to. It’s not so much an attraction as it is a natural drive. Being akin to the sex drive, people have developed a way in which they engage knowledge by adopting a “one-night-stand-mentality”; they use it for a brief moment, engage with it for a split second, and then they leave her heartbroken to fend for herself.

As any good scholar should know, a little bit of knowledge—of any sort—is usually quite dangerous. It is not a conclusion the scholar came to easily; it is a conclusion one reaches after countless nights spent pouring over the pages of an ancient text. It is the “thing” a scholar comes to after learning four different languages just to “get” to it. Our society, in essence, is missing this ability to deeply study and really “know” something. We have voyeurized knowledge. We have become distant lovers. We no longer write her; we no longer remember her mailing address. All we really “know” is which loophole to jump through, which crack in our window to look through, just to get a glimpse of here denuded body. In such a way, I believe, we have actually reduced real knowledge—that intimate kind—to one-night-stands and peeping Toms.

I have already mentioned accessibility as a requirement for such voyeurization to occur. I have also mentioned another curious observation: the presupposed democratic society (a requirement for the flourishing of such voyeurization). Why is it that a democracy helps create this atmosphere? Allow me a few attempts to explain this. In a democracy, people—all people—are expected to participate in politics, economics, religion, healthcare, education, etc. The people are expected to make the decisions. Given these presuppositions, people feel they have a right to know about…everything. They feel they not only have a right to an opinion, they have a need to state their opinion. Not only just any opinion, however, they feel as if their opinion is of utmost importance. In a democracy, the doctor’s opinion on healthcare is just as valuable as the engineer’s (one untrained in the medical sciences). This creates a peculiar situation: you have ignorant people making decisions. But it’s not just the ignorance that is the issue here: what is the issue, in particular, is the fact that everybody has this need to state his or her opinion on everything. This creates this particular ethos, this atmosphere, in which we all live and breathe and suffocate. We find ourselves making decisions about everything. We find ourselves experts on economics after partially speed-reading through a Wikipedia article on capitalism. We find ourselves talking about the next presidential candidate after being force-fed bullshit by the lame stream media. We find ourselves talking incessantly about God—a god none of us, to date, have ever laid empirical eyes upon. Democracy is partially responsible for feeding this frenzy. From the moment one awakes in today’s society to the moment one barely falls asleep, the media keeps pumping information, carefully selected, to its target audience. In this non-stop, leave-no-prisoners-behind age of information dumping, none of us is truly free from becoming an active participant in the voyeurization of knowledge.

On top of all of this, another component is necessary for such voyeurization to occur: laziness. Yes, it is a loaded word, and we’ve all experienced it at one point or another. You were writing a document and you failed to check your sources. In fact, this happened to me today. A famous theologian cited Kierkegaard. The quote would have worked for this writing. I asked the theologian to specify the text from which he gleaned this quote. He gave me the text. I looked and looked: I could not find those line anywhere. I wrote back to the theologian and asked him to point me to a specific volume, edition, and page number. I have not heard from him since. This is precisely the issue: it’s not his fault, really. He was probably tired and cited a nice saying attributed to the now-famous Kierkegaard. But Kierkegaard probably never said it. This places us in a peculiar situation yet again: at which point do we stop doubting and begin trusting others? If we continuously doubt everything—as I do when someone attributes a wonderful saying to a person I read quite often (especially when the saying is one I’ve never read before!)—would we ever get anywhere? Would it be possible to begin writing if one doubts everything? Probably not. But this does not mean we simply resort to being lazy. We do what we can. We investigate, we experiment, we learn, and we grow. That’s what makes us become smarter and better people. (At least I think it does.) One simple way of testing yourself for sexual perversion is simply by asking yourself the following question: how lazy am I? If you are lazy, you’re probably committing the sin of the voyeurization of knowledge.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously concluded his seven basic propositions to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by writing: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1] We have broken the silence. We speak about everything imaginable: politics, economics, science, healthcare, and religion. We even have the audacity to voyeurize God. Given this reality, I will now briefly spend a few sentences dealing with religion, my own field of study.

There is something quite interesting about human nature: our inability to believe nothing. Virtually all of us have reasons for virtually everything we encounter or think. Everything we can possibly imagine is interpreted by us to have some kind of cause. Our inability to be agnostic is peculiar in this day and age. Why is it that we must all have an opinion on everything? Why is it the “norm” to say you have knowledge of x when you really don’t? We are, in brief, a society intolerant of agnostics. Be a theist or an atheist; speak some sort of dogmatic truth, give the world an explanation, but please—oh, I beg thee, please!—don’t be an agnostic. I wish I were the only one who’s noticed this, but in my reading of others, I have found good company.

The sociologist Clifford Geertz, in his wonderful essay Religion as a Cultural System, writes the following observations:

“The thing we seem least able to tolerate is a threat to our powers of conception, a suggestion that our ability to create, grasp, and use symbols may fail us, for were this to happen, we would be more helpless…”[2]

Geertz has noticed something I, too, can vouch for: the world would drive us up the wall if it really made no sense. If there really was no rhyme or reason—no, seriously, consider it for a second—all of this, all of our so-called “explaining,” would become utterly futile. There is something about us that cannot tolerate not knowing. Imagine if someone asked you about vaccines today—what your position is on them—what would you say? What if you were responsible and replied: “I’m not a scientist; I don’t develop vaccines; I’ve hardly passed a math class, much less a statistics class, so I can’t even read or interpret the articles summarizing the issues; I really don’t have an opinion.” Would this be normal? Would this be what an honest person would say? Outside of a voyeurizing culture, this would become the norm.

Geertz cites the philosopher of mind Sussane Langer, at some length, dealing with this issue:

“[Man] can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with; but he cannot deal with Chaos. Because his characteristic function and highest asset is conception, his greatest fright is to meet what he cannot construe…”[3]

All of this results in our distaste for “dumb astonishment” in facing the world and its complexities:

“But it does appear to be a fact that at least some men—in all probabilities, most men—are unable to leave unclarified problems of analysis merely unclarified, just to look at the stranger features of the world’s landscape in dumb astonishment or bland apathy without trying to develop, however fantastic, inconsistent, or simple-minded, some notions as to how such features might be reconciled with the more ordinary deliverances of experience.”[4]

And in such a way I have brought my readers to the problem of religion, theology, and God. In religion, as in many other arts and sciences, there are certain lexical terms, theories, philosophical presuppositions, that must be understood before engaging in the enterprise. Most people aren’t trained in the necessary fields, and so fail to contribute anything to the ongoing discussion about God. High and mighty philosophical theologians, like Schleiermacher, will tell you that God is outside of the space-time continuum and, as a necessary implication, is never reduced to our subject-object distinctions. Given this (i.e., that God is outside of our empirical senses), one can never “know” God apart from revelation. Of course, apophatic theologians and negative theologians can make somewhat similar (or, maybe, “related”) statements. In religious studies, we spend a lot of time talking about a Being none of us have ever seen. We do it after reading massive books written by others who have commented upon the writings of others who claim to have personally witnessed this Being. This places religion and theology in an odd situation: we are the educated (at least some of us may be), but we are talking a lot about something none of us have access to. Given this—albeit highly simplistic account of the current state of religious studies—I’d say that most of us should be somewhat agnostic (since we obviously don’t really know what God is like). But God has been prostituted to the public via mass media and other means—everyone is entitled to an opinion on God. As one of my professors once put it, a Barthian specialist and a Kierkegaard-lover himself: “There’s no such thing as no theology; there’s either good theology or bad theology.” In other words, we’ve all voyeurized God. We’ve all become a part of the problem. We’ve all spoken where we shouldn’t have spoken. We’ve all made bombastic comments about a Being most (if not all) have never met, spoken with, or even smelled.

I’ve learned the hard way. And it really is hard. You sit down for a conversation with someone about the problem of evil and God. They seem intelligent and interested. They are educated, too (in some unrelated field). Within a few minutes, you realize that their knowledge of the issues boils down to a few minutes spent on YouTube watching, preferably, videos under three minutes. (How do I know this? People have the audacity to send me three-minute clips arguing their position, which pop up when one searches for x topic on YouTube [they don’t even bother to dig through the search results]. They then assume that I’ll probably be blown away and then convert to their position—since they have now become “specialists.”) If it didn’t happen so often, I probably would stick to reading my books and ignoring people. But it happens all the time. I probably secretly invite it. Nonetheless, this approach towards education seems to lack something fundamental: the engagement with knowledge on an intimate level. And it is out of this frustration with people—and myself!—that I am writing. Can we all just, please, stop talking about things we are too lazy to investigate? No, you don’t need to make a comment about economics—you’ve never read squat! No, you are not entitled to an opinion on medical advances in cardiology—you’re not a cardiologist! I guess I would be called mean in this rational society—a society in which people spoke modestly about what they knew and what they had no idea about.

William James remarked that: “As a rule we believe as much as we can. We would believe everything if we only could.”[5] This is true today as it was a hundred years ago. We are obsessed with believing all kinds of things. We want to know. We want to believe. But in all of this, I beg to differ: some beliefs are just plain bad. Some of this voyeurization has made us numb to the reality of how little we really know. It has made us quite arrogant.

I don’t know much. I don’t know much about God. I don’t know much about economics. I don’t know much about religion. I don’t know much about myself. I still surprise me. At least I have not yet voyeurized me—and that has made all of the difference.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1921), 189.

[2] Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Waukegan: Fontana Press, 1973), 99.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 100.

[5] William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1908), 299.