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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The ant and the grasshopper: behavioral implications of an age-old fable

Posted by: danish Ahmed 3:08 AM


Everybody, or at least most of us who have gone to the school have read Aesop's tale of the Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper plays, has fun on a summer day while the ant labors to store up food in its dwelling. He even mocks the ant for slogging instead of having fun. But when the winter sets in the grasshopper finds himself starving and begging at the doorstep of the ant who has enough reserve to last the winter. The moral of the story is clear- there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. In other words, hard work pays and also, if you are idle and are having fun now,you will have to pay for it in the future.

An interesting aspect of this tale is the ant's perspective. While the earliest version has the ant rebuking the grasshopper,later versions have her taking in the dying grasshopper out of kindness. In any case, it can be safely assumed that the ant finally has an almost sadistic pleasure when nature proves her right. We can almost hear her saying,"I told you so!". Indeed, vindication of her stand would not be complete with her having reserve of food only,the grasshopper should suffer too. Without that, her hard work during summer won't be justified!
However,things don't turn out the same all the time, Somerset Maugham's version of the Ant and the Grasshopper has two brothers, the elder brother, George is a hard-worker while Tom the younger one is an idler and a spendthrift. George lives a life of discipline, does all the right things, saves a third of his earnings so that he could retire bit early and live a comfortable life. Tom, on the other hand, lives to enjoy the present, he cares too little for the future and his expenses often have to be borne by the hard-working George.

However, as the narrator of the story finds from George, Tom doesn't really suffer in the end for all waywardness in youth. Just when George thinks that Tom is about to pay for not planning or saving money for the future, the latter goes on to marry a rich lady who dies within a few years leaving her fortune to Tom! George is outraged that his spendthrift brother has actually been rewarded for all his vanities and indulgence! Does George hate his brother? After all, he has, time and again spent his own hard-earned money to keep Tom out of trouble! Yet the narrator finds him unhappy at the good fortune of his younger brother! What has probably annoyed George the irony of fate that his own hard-work pays him far less than his brother's loose ways. It is a feeling all of us have had at some point in time.

This is such an integral part of human emotion that it can be seen in our casual behaviour too. And it doesn't always have to be hard work only, it could be anything which requires a certain amount of dedication, diligence and more importantly self-denial.
Indian society is going through an exciting phase, the traditionally subdued segments are asserting themselves and over-running elite bastions by sheer numerical superiority. It is not surprising to find the upwardly mobile middle class outraged by Rakhi ka Swayamvar or Mallika visiting Twitter headquarters. Rakhi at least, doesn't represent us (yes,i count myself too) in anyway! It takes a lot of hard-work and diligence to develop intellectually, so it is but natural that somebody so uncouth and crass gaining such fame and wealth be considered outrageous!

Which brings us back to the question, would the ant's retribution be complete if the grasshopper does not suffer?

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