Little Prince Lectures

This entry is a based on lectures I used to give in my introduction to philosophy classes.

In the beginning, the little prince, you might say, has an ecological-moral problem. When he is first on the planet with his flower, at least as he recounts the story to the pilot, he has to clean his volcano every day and weed out the baobabs. As he understood environmental conditions on his planet and what was required for him to treat them, it was simply a matter of discipline. If he did not weed out the baobabs, they would ruin the planet. If he failed to clean the volcano, it would explode and cause a huge mess. But no matter how much attention be gave to the environemnt, there was something missing in this daily routine. And so, he ended up sad, alientated.

Finding himself in an sorry state, the little prince had to leave his flower and his planet, in search of whatever it was that he was missing. Like the pilot, the little prince had something to learn. The more the little prince revealed his life and travels to the pilot, the more the pilot saw something of his own struggles in the mysterious story of the little prince.

Once we flesh out the rest of the story and its details in the light of Saint-Exupéry’s own life, we will better understand the reactions from university professors, or really anyone for that matter, when they hear that a colleague is reading The Little Prince as part of an introduction to philosophy course.  Two typical responses represent two of the three differnet approaches that one can have to philosophy.

One, someone will say “Oh the Little Prince, nice story, but that’s just a children’s story, why would you read a book like that in a philosophy class?” That’s the answer of an adult. But, if you read the book carefully, adult represents something, and it is not just those who are mature. It is, rather, those who think they are mature, and yet, in reality are not, because they have let a passion overly dominate their lives, clouding their capacity to see the essences of things.

In the book, the adults are people who are serious. They are people who are interested in numbers. Rationalist science or rationalist humanities or social sciences always rely on numbers, quantitative methods, to explain things because supposedly that’s all there is. Explanations stop once we see the numbers.

Within the context of the history of philosophy, adults represent the hyper-materialist and rationalist. A rationalist basically says the only thing that’s true is what’s material, what he can see with his eyes or touch with his hands. There is something to this approach. We can start from some material fact and proceed geometrically to produce incredible systems, science, that explain many aspects of material reality. And, once we see and understand those systems, we can use them for very practical purposes, to succeed in the world. But, if we limit ourselves to this, all we will end up doing is talking about golf, politics, and neckties all day long.

Not eveyone is happy with the world of the adults, the world of materialistic capitalism. By the time that Saint-Exupéry is living in the 1940s, the question got posed in terms of alienation. The pilot is alienated. Whatever might be the causes of alienation, it is a fact, something the adults should account for, but don’t, that a certain number of people do not feel at home in the world of the adults. Some questions that they might ask are: Why do I feel out of sorts with society? Why do I feel society is always breathing down my neck? Why do I feel unhappy about things, out of place?

These questions and some almost cliche-like anwers are common images by now in modern literature, film, music, television and fashion. It would not take anybody too long who has lived from the 1920s to the present to identify movies, songs, TV shows, musicals, and plays that give a sympathetic portrayal of the alienated rebel or the anti-hero decrying the oppression that he feels weighing down on him from the world of the adults.

Somehow, I am the victim. I am oppressed. I have an artistic element in me that the rest of the world cannot recognize. A criminal conspiracy made up of political institutions, economic institutions, the Church, my parents, etc., is victimizing me. That band of robbers is commanding me, making me do my duty even though I don’t want to. This is the pilot when we first meet him. The pilot is alienated in the world of the adult, the world of materialistic rationalism. But the pilot does not understand why he is alienated. All he knows is that when he was a child he drew certain pictures, and the adults could never identify the essence of pictures. He also knows that he got tired of trying to give explanations. He did not like giving explanations, found it difficult to give them, and so he eventually stopped trying to give them. He did not understand that he, too, had a problem.

It is true that the modern west by the 1940s and 50s is by and large a rationalist endeavor. By and large it is rationalism that impregnates the business world, most modern cultural institutions, modern literature, modern politics, modern universities, journalism, and even the military. Modern life, is, by and large, capitalist, materialist, and rationalist in its orientation and its foundation. Material reality is all we can know.

Therefore, we interpret material reality in a geometrical or scientific way, trying to create the most pleasurable, comfortable, and secure life that we can. If you don’t like the darker side of this picture, you must admit that the pleasure, comfort, and security that rationalist and materialist capitalism has to offer is better than any alternative that you can think of. So, put away your drawings and at least become a pilot. You can dream all you want on your  night flights. That’s a kind of summary of modern rationalism.

Having characterized rationalism, let us turn to the second response that I get when I mention that I read The Little Prince in my philosophy classes. It is a minority response, but one that is significant enough that we should try to explain it. I have already gestured to it. It is a position, that, to some degree, depends on the existence of rationalism. Rationalism helps give birth to this position.

The reaction to rationalism is what is now called post-modernism, but, when Saint-Exupéry wrote would have been called existentialism, nihilism, or maybe even materialist marxism. The reaction goes something like this: “Oh, the Little Prince! It’s a nice book, but, in the end, it just about the meaninglessness of our existence. The little prince dies and there is nothing. Everyone is really just an adult in the end.” A colleague once told me that not only are the adults oppressors, but that the fox is also an oppressor. This same colleague also said he learned everything he really appreciated in life from MS NBC and would never admit that Galileo might have gotten some things wrong, even if he did get one or two things correct, but that is another story.

One Spring day at the lake next to the Grotto on the University of Notre Dame’s campus, this same colleague yelled at me. He had heard that I was giving a lecture at the lake on Nietzsche, and, while I did not think of it at the time, the Grotto and the lake ended up being the perfect backdrop for the high point of the lecture. At the moment when I explained to the class the idea from Nietzsche, in which he says that he wants to replace love for the celestial Virgin (as I gestured towards the Grotto) as the model of the relationship between men and women with that of the savagery of animals or the war between the sexes, two ducks in the lake behind me began to fight, and the male duck began to seemingly drown the female duck in the water.

After this auspicious lecture, my colleague intecepted me at the Grotto and he started yelling at me, how could I doubt the genius or dare point to any defect of any revolutionary author over the last 500 years, beginning with Galileo! And, what is more, how dare I suggest to my students that MSNBC might not be objective!

Anyway, Nietzsche, to my mind, represents the most rhetorically powerful rejection of modern rationalism. There are those who take versions of Nietzsche’s conclusions and apply them in whatever might be more modern circumstances, be it 1940 or now, insisting that all reality is appearances, that we need to liberate ourselves from the sources of power that imprison us, but, at the same time, all there is in the end is nothing. Though, it is interesting that they never really fully address the relationship between alienation and violence.

The sign of liberation usually involves a shooting, at least in the American context. As that song from the 80s that so well expresses the spirit of alienation goes, “nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters to me.” That’s existentialism. He shoots somebody, and then sings a song about how he feels now that he is going to be punished. I suppose more recently it would be “Pumped up Kicks.”

I am sure it would not take us too long to find similar expressions in the pop songs of our own days. Most contemporary pop, hip-hop, rock, or whatever you want to call it music, is a re-hashing of the musical forms established in the 1950s and 1960s.

Much of the humanities these days is post-modern, a form of existentialism. For those of you who weren’t alive in the early 1990s, that was when post-modernism started to become popular. It wasn’t born in 1990, but it became popular. By 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, it was not really fashionable to call yourself a Marxist anymore. So, at that point, many alienated intellectuals started calling themselves post-modernists. I remember attending a conference in October 2008 in which a fairly large group of political philosophers looked with glee at the economic figures showing the economy crashing as it was the sign that they could take off their masks…

Turning back to the book, in the beginning, the pilot is an alienated existentialist, or a post-modernist. He is an alienated artist before he meets the Little Prince. He lives and breathes in the world of the rationalist, but he does not feel at home in that world. His problem is that he cannot really see why. …

Now, there is a second layer, a more objective layer, to the problem of the pilot. It has to do not just with philosophical alliances, but it has to do with the difference between art and philosophy. In the opening pages of the book, the pilot as a child draws a picture of a snake that has eaten an elephant. Artists attempt to capture some element of reality, some element of the essence of things, and to re-present that aspect of reality to others.

But, going back to the ancient world, and Plato identified this problem, artists have difficulty explaining to others exactly what it is they are doing, exactly what it is they mean by what they are doing. It takes someone else to come up with an ordered way of explaining reality or helping us grasp and explain the essence of things.

The adults are not ultimately going to provide the explanation that helps us get to and explain in an ordered way the essence of things, nor, for that matter, will the best alienated artists. For that to happen, something else is necessary. And, to get to this third way, we need again to reconsider the end of the book in light of the beginning.

I think it will help if we make the distinction between the end and death. Of course, in the history of philosophy death is a reality that helps get philosophy going. And, I think that one of the points that makes philosophy interesting is to start to consider the difference between death and the end. We will all die someday. But, death is not the end. Death is an experience. And the real question is, is there a way of living my life to prepare for that experience?…

So, we really do not know if the little prince died. If he died, we know that his death is not the end. There is something more. The pilot is certain at the end that the little prince continues to live. This leads to some dramatic questions, in addition to a few requests. Whatever happened between the little prince and the snake, it results in an ending, but not the end.

In short, the end of the book presents us with a mystery. And, in the face of a great mystery, at least some readers will now ask the question, is there a way to explain the mystery? If there is a way to explain the mystery, how do we proceed? What are the clues? What are the pieces of evidence we need to follow to get to the essence of what has happened?

The pilot, by the end of the book, represents someone who is making the first steps into realist philosophy, the way of questioning and explaining all of reality, including, but not limited to, its material aspects. The pilot is someone in whom we start to see develop the life of philosophy. By the end of the book he is not an adult, but he is no longer an alienated pilot. He is no longer the simple child who drew pictures. We cannot forget there is something lacking in that depiction of the child, even if, in the beginning, we sense the pilot favors the child over the adult.

Saint-Exupéry is an artist. So, the book as a whole is like the opening scene, the ground-work of philosophy. He is painting with big strokes. He is trying to point to the essence of what is missing in modern life, but cannot fully explain. He gives us a few hints and clues throughout the book, along with some pictures and some clever sayings, that point us in the direction we need to go if we want to start to explain the mystery of human existence. But his position is incomplete. We cannot expect much more from an artist, but we should expect more from ourselves, especially if you are taking my class.

To sum up how the debate might go, the realist says to the rationalist. “You know, you’re right to a degree. You’re right in that there is material reality that we can know. And our knoweldge of it is useful. But, there is more than material reality that we can know. If you really want to be real, if you want to get real, or if you want to really look at all of reality, you should be open to looking at all reality, both material reality and immaterial reality. There is a science for doing so, but it does not involve the same methods that you use for materialist science. The questions are also different, and so are the goals. Be patient, and let’s not give up trying to decipher this bigger mystery.”

The realist, in turn, says to the existentialist or the post modernist or the nihilist. “You are right that material appearances are not everything. The rationalist focusing too intently on the material reality ends up focusing too much on appearances, too much golf politics and neckties. History, geography, things adults can count and measure do have certain limits. But that does not mean that we should entirely abandon all hope for understanding anything.”

The existentialist responds, “Well, there is no reality. There is no meaning in life.  Therefore, I determine what my meaning is. I determine what reality is. I create my own essence. In the end, I need to free myself from your conception of power and create what is just or what is unjust for me in the networks of power that exist on the grid.” When we read the Gorgias, you’ll see that Gorgias is a kind of existentialist, masquerading as a rationalist. And throughout the Gorgias, Polis and Callicles basically reveal the true nihilist position against any kind of rationalist or skeptical philosophy.

That brings us to another point that we will hopefully eventually see more clearly. The realist position was developed in reaction to variants of the modern or post-modern position that existed in the Ancient world. In short, these positions are not new, despite the fact you hear their themes in modern pop songs, and despite the fact that they are presented as new. I think that in general in life, you will find that what is proclaimed to be modern is not really modern. Usually, what is claimed to be modern is something updated from the ancient world. So, Niezsche himself admitted that he was the modern equivalent of Callicles from the Gorgias with a few touches from a passage in the Theatetus, and a clever restatement of things in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde providing the background music (there was no rock n’roll). Modern capitalism needed a scientific ideology to give it some clout in the world, and the scientific ideology that its promoters developed can be traced to the notions that Empedocles used to explain material reality using love and strife.

After we have grasped these three schools or approaches to life in broad outline, we should note that, certainly, there are going to be many distinctions and shades of differences that various philosophers discover over the course of 2,500 years of the mystery that makes up Western Philosophy. You have four years to discover those shades of difference. But, we need a schema to start, and this is mine. If you can identify some clues that lead to a better explanation of the mystery, I will gladly accept them, and will not let go until I get an answer