So I did it. I finally got around to reading The Little Prince, a book I’ve heard about and heard about my whole life. It seems obvious (to me at least) that the book was written simultaneously for children and adults. Many of the opinions evinced are stated with a wink toward knowing adults. It is a book with a definite moral point of view, but not one based on the dogma of a particular organized religion.
To have a morality is to believe that some behaviors, goals, or ideals are better or more valuable than others. The title-character of the book, The Little Prince, is convinced that grown-ups are very strange creatures, who have lost all sight of what’s TRULY important, and so largely spend their precious allotted minutes with their heads down counting things– products, properties, money– near-oblivious to million million wonders of the Universe surrounding them.
The morality of our author, Antoine De Saint-Exupery, can be summed up in a quadrinity of values: 1) friendship, 2) creativity, 3) curiosity & exploration, and 4) the contemplation of the Beauty of Nature
Now, any morality which creates “Good,” simultaneously creates “Evil,” Evil being that group of choices which stand in opposition to the Good. Or, to put another way (a way with which many of the Scholastics of the Middle Ages would have concurred), Evil is the absence of the Good.
For our author, then, the implied evils would be center around Loneliness and Close-Mindedness, as well as the dismissal or unacknowledgement of Beauty.
When it comes to judging one’s behavior as Good or Evil, one might think that (besides God) the only judge who can accurately praise you for your virtues or condemn you for your sins is yourself. No one else can be sure of your intentions, but they can only judge you by the results you produce or by what you claim were your intentions. The trouble is, we’re not any more truthful with ourselves than we are with others. As the King tells our Little Prince, “it is much harder to judge yourself than to judge others.” In fact, judging yourself is “the hardest thing of all.”
SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read any farther if you don’t want to know the ending to the story.
The Little Prince is basically a tragedy. It is a tale populated with very lonely characters, and it ends with a violent death.
The book immediately starts on a sad note, with our narrator, The Pilot, opining that the drawings he has given us in the book perhaps could have been better, but when he was a child the grown-ups in his life discouraged him from his drawings and instead encouraged him to study things like math and geography. This weighs down the book with a heavy-hanging regret. The narrator is obviously sad that– instead of encouraging his creativity– the grown-ups disheartened him concerning his art. In fact, I felt that one of the reasons he is telling this tale is to encourage children not to let go of their creativity and innate curiosity, in spite of what the grown-ups consider, in their strange way, “important.” Grown-ups seem to think that if you can’t pile it up and count it, then it isn’t important. However, it turns out that, at least according to our Little Prince, no matter what the grown-ups say (or even actually believe), that the truly important things in life are invisible… things like friendship or faith in one’s self.
The narrator of the story, The Pilot, has crash-landed his aeroplane in the middle of the desert– where he meets the wandering Little Prince. The Little Prince explains that he comes from another planet (actually a tiny asteroid) and that he has visited several interesting places during the year of his voyage and that he has met several interesting people. For instance, there was the King (mentioned earlier), who had no subjects (except perhaps for an unseen rat). The King has the habit of only giving commands for things which are inevitable. In this way, his ego does not have to suffer the shock of not being obeyed. This is a peculiar quirk, indeed, but then again, as The Little Prince knows, “Grown-ups are certainly very, very strange.”
And then there was the bookkeeping landlord-of-sorts who claimed to own all the stars simply because he was the first one to THINK of owning them. As preposterous as this sounds– that a single man could own a chunk of Nature– I wonder if it is really any different in kind from the idea that a person or company could own a mountain or a lake? Perhaps Chief Seattle was more correct than naive when he chastised Europeans for falsely thinking that they– such small and short-lived creatures– could own the Earth. Is it not obvious?– the Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.
For his part, The Little Prince believes that any owner should be “useful” to his property. Therefore, the accountant was being immoral by laying claim to the stars since he was not useful to them in the least.
Funnily enough, back in day-to-day capitalist world, this thinking underlies much of the justification for Rents…The attempt to make the most money possible from held land gives land-owners an incentive to IMPROVE their properties. Otherwise, like a vacant lot whose owner is awol, the land will go under-utilized (in human terms, at least– though I’m sure that even on vacant lots, Nature buzzes right along as perpetually productive and non-wasteful as ever). Worse than under-utilized, an unattended or “common” property could even become a dumping ground which no one takes responsibility for. We’ve all seen first-hand the so-called Tragedy Of The Commons. But back to our story…
The Little Prince tells The Pilot that he also met a sad drunkard. The drunkard drinks because he is ashamed, and when asked what he is ashamed of, he answers, his drinking.
The Little Prince, himself, is also one of the lonely ones. He has left behind on his home planet a beautiful rose with only three caterpillars to keep her company (it is hoped that the caterpillars will turn into butterflies).
Later in the story, The Pilot remarks that The Little Prince has… “the image of the rose shining within him, like the flame within a lamp.” The Little Prince suffers not only because he misses the rose, but because he is worried about her– he has left her all but defenseless, having as she does only “four ridiculous thorns to defend her against the world.”
I couldn’t help but think of the plight of The Little Prince’s rose as being similar to that of humankind… We have only our four ridiculous limbs with which to face and fend off the dangers of our own world. That and our brains, God help us.
There is another lonely character in the story as well, or at least he appears to be alone (which is not necessarily the same thing as lonely, of course). This is a snake which The Little Prince meets in the desert.
And this brings us to another sadness contained within the book. The story of The Little Prince is a very unusual children’s book for probably several reasons, but I think highest on that list of eccentricities would be the fact that our beloved Little Prince– apparently a child– dies from a snake-bite at the end. And not only does he die, but it is basically a suicide (perhaps the ONLY children’s book that ends with a child-suicide). I call it a suicide because The Little Prince invited the snake– very venomous– to bite him, which the snake– for unelucidated reasons of his own– agrees to do at the time and place of The Little Prince’s choosing.
The Little Prince himself believed that by allowing the snake to bite him, he could be freed of the weight of his body and return to his own asteroid and again be with his rose. The word “spirit” is not used, but that’s the basic take-away– the spirit of the boy will be freed from his dead body to travel through space and back to his beloved flower.
At the reading of this, I could not help but be reminded of that cult in America during the 1990s that killed themselves at the approach of a comet, thinking the comet was, if I remember correctly, a cloak for a space-ship which would take them away– but only if the cultists jettisoned their earthly bodies.
The Pilot in The Little Prince, who has just gotten his aeroplane working again, is heartbroken at the loss his new friend. He apparently allows himself to believe that the young Prince’s macabre trick worked and that the little fellow made it back to his home-asteroid and to his dear friend, the rose.
Before “leaving,” the Little Prince had offered the stars as consolation. He said that The Pilot would always have the stars to remember the prince by, and that every time The Pilot looked up at the stars he would be reminded of the sound of the laughter of The Little Prince, which The Pilot had grown to adore.
At the very end of the story, The Pilot begs the reader pathetically that– if we, the readers, ever run into someone meeting The Little Prince’s description: “Please don’t allow me to go on so sad. Send word immediately that he’s come back.” Those final lines are so brimming with pathos that I’m nearly tearful merely recollecting them, for they cause me to contemplate a feeling of a love so deep –a connection so real– that the mere presence of the other person fills us with joy… and their absence leaves us with a hole in our heart for as long as they are away from us. Such joyous connections with others are so rare, so valuable– that they are like sparkling diamonds in our blackness… little stars echoing with the most precious laughter in the universe.
Perhaps, if we gaze up at the stars on a quiet night with our hearts open, we might hear The Little Prince speaking to us from his tiny home-planet where he sits with his love, the rose… Make friends, he may sagely advise. Bravely and naively explore the universe. Be curious; ask questions, and don’t let go of an important question once you have taken hold of it. Release the power of your creativity, and do not be discouraged by the critics or the grown-ups. And above all, contemplate Beauty… It is all around you. Don’t let it get to waste or try to trap it beneath some glass bell. Take it with you everywhere. Carry the image of the rose– YOUR rose– with you wherever you go, and it will warm you and light your path,”like the flame within a lamp.”