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The Grasshopper in Suits (2)

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

After scolding Wittgenstein in the Preface to The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits begins the real work of figuring out what games are in Chapter 1.

Chapter 1: Death of the Grasshopper

Suits picks up the story where Aesop left off. It’s winter, and the Grasshopper is dying of starvation. But Suits also introduces a new group of characters: the Grasshopper’s disciples. Only two of them speak, however: Prudence and Skepticus.

Platonic Background

The setup here is supposed to recall Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo. Plato’s dialogues are usually fictional(ized) accounts of conversations between his teacher, Socrates, and one or more other “interlocutors” (who, as far as I can tell, are almost always historical individuals). They read very much like plays, and I dearly hope one day someone will stage them as such.

Usually the dialogue in Plato’s books centers around a particular philosophical issue. In the Phaedo, which Suits is immitating, the topic is death and the immortality of the soul.

Instead of being about to be executed for denying the gods and corrupting the youth (as Socrates was), the Grasshopper is about to die of starvation. And just as Socrates’s friends gathered around him to try to convince him to escape his impending execution, the Grasshopper’s disciples try to convince him to take some of their food so he can survive the winter.

Not Yet Grasshoppers

On pages 6 and 7, the Grasshopper scolds Prudence for offering him her food. She, understandably, is hurt. But the Grasshopper explains that if Prudence were to work so that he could live, she would be contradicting both the Grasshopper’s own teaching — “that you ought to be idle” (p. 7) — and her own ideals.

The Grasshopper’s disciples, you see, were once ants but have been inspired to follow the Grasshopper. Unfortunately, the Grasshopper now sees that his disciples have yet to become true grasshoppers (pp. 6, 7).

At this point, another disciple — named Skepticus — apparently becomes frustrated with both Prudence and the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper won’t accept Prudence’s food, says Skepticus, because he expects those who agree with his way of life to be willing to die for it.

The Grasshopper responds that all he wants is for his disciples to “approve” of his dying for his principles. However:

Neither of you is quite prepared to grant that approval, though for different reasons. You, Prudence, because, although you believe the principles are worth dying for, you do not believe they need to be died for; and you, Skepticus, because you are not even sure that the principles are worth dying for.

Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, ch. 1, p. 7

Were There No Winters . . .

Skepticus admits that he does not yet believe that the Grasshoppers way of life is best. So, he asks the Grasshopper to provide “a clearer vision of the good life as [the Grasshopper] sees it” (p. 8).

The Grasshopper says that the only reason the ants’ way of life seems to be correct is that there are winters. If there were never lean times, you could live off the fat of the land and it would be foolish to waste time working (p. 8).

When Prudence prudently objects that there are winters, the Grasshopper says that may be a temporary problem. The “accelerating advances in technology” may eventually lead to a world without scarcity — and thus without a need to work (p. 8).

The Grasshopper drops this argument almost immediately and moves on to a deeper one. But I think we should think about what the Grasshapper has just done.

Necessary or Contingent?

In philosophical discussions, we often draw a distinction between “necessary” and “contingent.” Necessary things are unquestionable. You can’t challenge them and it does no good to complain about them. They are how they are because they have to be that way. If something is necessary, there is no alternative.

The clearest cases of necessity might be found in math. “2 + 2” equals “4.” There’s no way around it. It’s not like 2 and 2 just happen to be 4 sometimes. If you add one 2 to another 2, you will end up with 4 whether you like it or not.

But mathematical necessities are abstract. There are also concrete, physical necessities. “Humans can’t live without food.” “If you want to get from London to New York City, you’ve got to find a way to cross the ocean.”

The Grasshopper’s Gambit

So, here’s what the Grasshopper is doing. He’s trying to get us to see a life of work as something contingent. It’s something that could be otherwise. In fact, it might one day be otherwise.

And we could go further: back when retiring was a thing, those who retired could live without working. And it has always been the case that those born into wealthy families have no need of work.

So, if something is contingent, then it is in need of explanation. If something could be different, then you have to ask why it turned out the way it did. And if something could be otherwise, you begin to wonder why it shouldn’t be otherwise.

Conclusion

The starving Grasshopper’s point is this: we have a choice to make, between the life of work and the life of leisure. Next time, we’ll examine his argument in favor of choosing his path, rather than the ants’.

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