Monday, January 14, 2008

Reflection on The Little Prince

In The Little Prince we meet a pilot who is alienated from the society of adults. The adults represent the culmination of a society built up on the principles to be found in the school of modern rationalism. The school of modern rationalism offers a consistent set of teachings about human nature, God, and the government of the universe. There can be disagreements within this school, but, when seen in contrast with other schools of philosophy, their disagreements are minor. The rationalists tend to accept a divide between the material and immaterial aspects of reality. They tend to give predominance to evidence that reveals to us something about the material aspects of the human person. They tend to claim ignorance of, be suspicious of, or express hostility towards the school of philosophy that sees the human person as composed of body and soul.

How do rationalists approach ethics? In order to characterize how they approach ethics, ask yourself how the adults approach life in the LP. To offer a summary of this approach, a rationalist takes the human person to be a material being alone, or at least, the material aspect is all he can claim to know. The philosopher then tries to identify what is the fundamental fact or starting point from which we can derive our ethical knowledge about the person. This fundamental fact is self-interest. All human beings pursue their self-interest.

The next step in ethics is to derive rules from the first principle. And this is where the disagreement among the rationalists start. The utilitarians, capitalists, socialists, and social contract ethicists will derive rules for personal behavior and social life that conform with perceived self-interest. The goal is to create a society which best represents self-interest or pleasure. For the utilitarian, the rule by which all other rules are to be judged is the rule that we should always do what provides for the most pleasure for the most number of people. The basic disagreements between communists, socialists, capitalists and libertarians has to do with what is the most efficient way to reach the utilitarian goal.

The Kantians, however, diverge at the start. They argue that we should not be pleasure seekers. They agree with the utilitarians that we cannot base morality on more than a materialistic understanding of the person. At the same time, morality should transcend personal self-interest. And so, the Kantian tries to come up with a formula that provides us with the rules for governing our life that conform to a logic prior to experience. This formula, in its most basic element is that each individual should act in such a way that her or his actions can be universalized, everybody should act that way in that situation. This approach to ethics is called deontology. Its goal is to derive the rules of ethics before any experience of reality or without appealing to pleasure.

The pilot finds both utilitarianism and deontology to be what has given us the world of adults or serious people. The biggest flaw of these approaches to life is that they have great difficulty leading people to become friends. Instead, individuals end up pursuing pleasure, money, power, knowledge, or any other form of rule or self-interest independently of the good of the others. Also, friendship is not strictly speaking material. It involves establishing immaterial or invisible ties between two people. These ties cannot be measured by material instruments. An ethical approach that downplays the importance of the invisible or immaterial elements within the human person or that exist between people will never be able to offer coherent advice about how to live. And so, people who follow that approach, as the pilot did for some time in his life, and still are willing to reflect on life, as he also did, will end up feeling alienated.

We have to ask what is the cause of alienation? Is it because there are not good rules? Is it because society is stifling? Is morality learning how to organize society properly so that I can live a pleasant life, or is something else involved. Originally, the pilot thinks that society is not structured right. That is why he is alienated. Originally, the little prince also thinks his planet is not structured properly. That is why he is sad. He sits looking at the sunset, longing for some pleasure he wants but is not getting. He has learned how to serve his flower out of Kantian duty, overcoming his internal desire for utilitarian pleasure, but this approach leaves him alienated. And so, he thinks, as the pilot does, that by leaving where he is, he will be happy.

This is a common thought among people who feel alienated, if they simply move to a new place or get a new job, they will be happy. But this approach does not work for the little prince, and it does not work for the pilot. In fact, as the little prince continues on his journey, he gets more alienated. He eventually sees a field of roses, and he despairs, thinking his rose is unlike all the other roses out there.

His problem is that he is looking at reality from a materialistic point of view. This prevents him from looking into himself to see the cause of his alienation. It also prevents him from understanding what guidelines he should follow, or what he should do, to overcome his alienation. And this is where the fox comes into play. The fox enrolls the little prince in a different school than the rule bound school of the adults. In this school, the person has to overcome his selfishness in order to make himself capable of being a friend of the others. And so, the person has to develop rites or habits of self-giving. The prince has to show up every day at three to meet with the fox. Through developing these habits, the prince and the fox will establish the invisible yet very real tie of friendship between them.

This points to a further reality about the little prince. His real source of alienation is not the adults, it is the disorder that exists within himself. He has to overcome that in order to make himself capable of serving the fox and eventually his rose. There is an ethical school called the school of classical realism which states that the source of alienation, whether it is in an individual or in a society is to be found with the disordered passions and interior dispositions of the person. A big part of ethics, according to this school, is for each person to train her or his soul, or to put order into it, much like a coach would in coaching an athlete, in order to make her or himself capable of being a friend with others and with society as a whole. This is the school that the pilot longed to enter but never did.

The Little Prince also introduces us to the problem of this school. If one cannot accept this problem, one will likely become an adult, a serious person, or a nihilist. Nihilism is represented by the school of Nietzsche. It arises especially as we consider the ending of this book. In the school of classical realism, philosophy begins with the wonder that a child has towards things. Then, like the way the pilot learned from the little prince, the person listens, asks questions, and follows hints and clues, (again, as the pilot learned about the little prince) in order to discover the mystery of the human person, God, and the universe. But mysteries are tricky things. A mystery is something that we wonder at. We can come to know it in part, but we can not fully know the mystery. Our knowledge of mysteries is obscure, but even a little bit of knowledge of a mystery is better than a lot of knowledge about something that is easy to know. That is why the way we know mysteries is not satisfactory to rationalists and nihilists. They are too suspicious, doubtful, scornful, or pessimistic about how such knowledge comes about.

And so, it is a big question whether in the end, the LP is about the meaninglessness of existence or not. For the pilot, the condition of the prince is a mystery. We cannot be sure one way or the other. But, we are going to hopefully await the evidence, keep our eyes open, keep our ears open, to see if there are any hints or clues that could reveal to us the truth of this situation. As the pilot reminds us, it is like a treasure hunt. There is a treasure chest, and clues, and we if we find the chest we will come upon a treasure. But, we do not have the treasure. Rationalist rules will not lead us there. Rules and plans tend to break down on treasure hunts and adventures. Guidelines and clues are more helpful. The rest is up to our ingenuity. Ethics, seen in this way, is the preparation that we have to undergo to make ourselves capable of discovering the mysteries and then living according to the truth that we find, so that we can complete the adventure.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

you might be happy to know that, 3 years later, i've actually found this very interesting, and most helpful to a project on alienation in the little prince. so, i just wanted to say thank you!

6:15 PM  
Blogger TwiceCharmed said...

I'm so happy that others see my favorite book in the same light as I do... From such a high philosophical place and for me there are days as a parent where I remind myself to see things with the eyes of a child. Some might think that means to see things in a simplistic manner, but i recall the narrator, the pilot, showing the adults his drawings in which clearly he was drawing a snake that ate an elephant yet no matter how clear he tried to show the adults, they couldn't see this.

1:57 PM  
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3:37 PM  

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