Sweet Stories, the Philosophy of “Le Petit Prince,” and the Value of Non-attachment.



I’m a sucker for stories, especially the simple yet touching variety (Himalaya, for instance). Hence, I was delighted to come across a philosophy text by Joseph Raz wherein he expounds upon parts “The Little Prince.” Raz was writing about the importance of attachments for creating value in our lives. The example he uses to illustrate this is the discussion between the Little Prince and the fox (chapter 20), where the fox is asking the prince to tame him.

As the fox notes taming is about forming ties and right now, there is little connection between him and the little Prince.

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”

The fox continues, explaining how attachments with others imbue our environment with meaning.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . .”

It’s true, especially in the early stages of attachment and connection, that one’s world suddenly becomes rich with signs of the one we value. Is that not a good, albeit inexhaustive, description of love: namely, a passionate belief in the value of another being? So much so, in fact, that at the outset do we not tend to devote long hours to the savouring of the experience that is essentially the recognition of another person’s specialness/value?

As this passage shows, moreover, part of what makes this experience so magical is the way our environment lights up and sparkles with signs of significance. Fields of wheat suddenly represent the other’s wondrous existence, a pop song we’d barely noticed before or thought trite is suddenly laden with meaning because she taught us to hear in differently, mundane places, familiar smells and even times of year make one’s heart swell because these evoke thoughts of the beloved other.

When Buddhists recommend non-attachment do they mean we ought to eschew or abstain from such experiences? I, for one, would abhor an existence that is devoid of the rich new world that unfolds into being with the formation of attachments. Hence, I simply cannot believe that this is what the Buddhists are counselling us to do. Practicing this kind of abstinence, or seeking to exercise this brand of control has a strong puritanical flavour that I have difficulties reconciling with Buddhism. Rather, what they must mean, or the interpretation that makes sense to my mind, is not to become so attached to these experiences that we end up trying to control either them, or the object of our love. For, of course, there is the darker side to love that is both omnipresent in the background, and which is likely a necessary condition for the more pleasurable aspects discussed. The reason I suggest this darker aspect is necessary is that it provides the contrast that allows us to even see, and hence appreciate, those brighter parts.

When we, like the fox, surrender ourselves and become tamed by another we do behave very much like a naive, trusting and enthusiastic dog. Effectively we roll onto our backs to expose our soft and vulnerable underbellies (and kick a leg wildly, of course, in the event that our tummies get rubbed just right). As experience has taught us, however, there is no guarantee that the other to whom we are issuing this invitation will be gentle, or even give our belly a rub at all. The ultimate effect of harsh treatment, or simply being ignored of course is that those signs that had previously been a source of euphoria now stab at us where we are the most tender.

There are two kinds of consequences that can follow from having this background knowledge and they are both caused by trying to hang on to the pleasures of forming attachments. Firstly, we sometimes aim to control the experience and in so doing, drain the world of the very meaning we are aiming to sustain because every little sign that could be causing us delight becomes a source of distrust and suspicion. Secondly, we often seek to either manipulate or control the object of our love as a means of ensuring that these experiences will persist. Again, however, this strategy is self-defeating as we can become so preoccupied with ensuring that other cares for us and will not harm us, that we haven’t even a minute to fully appreciate their value and uniqueness that we could be so richly savouring.

Representing people as a means to an end, that is, as the source of our pleasure, often means that we cannot really see that person in all her particularities. Furthermore, seeing people as means can also make some seek to dominate or control that person, behaviour that tends to strip away or quash those values that initially drew us close.

Hence, in my view, non-attachment is not really about trying to detach oneself from others, or to distance oneself from one’s own emotions. Rather, it is to accept that those experiences and persons that stand to enrich our live lie beyond our active control. Accepting this, moreover, means that we will not seek to grab at them or hold on to them so tightly that we deprive them of all life.

Moreover, even if we are not hurt by another most everyone knows that the signs that give us such delight are ephemeral. They sparkle in and out of existence and fade into the background with time. If we come too attached to these experiences, however, then we are prone to get caught in an endless pursuit of new connections  due to a desperate need to keep our environments sparkly and alive with meaning. Often this involves abandoning relationships once they cease to charge up our world or when, due to constant exposure, we become accustomed to those values we were initially so excited to discover. Casting relationships aside this way, however, is to deprive oneself of the opportunity to admire and appreciate the way that old attachments seep into us, become part of who we are and saturate our lives. Sure, these lose their initial sparkle, but old friendships take on deeper richer hues, become the backbone of one’s environment and effect important changes in us, and it is only via the passage of time that this can occur. In fact, as the fox suggests, the very fact that these relationships persist through time it what makes them valuable.

As the fox notes in saying goodbye to the Prince:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .”

“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

Four little thorns might not seem so scary, unless you’re a rose



There’s another interesting section in “The Little Prince” that caught my attention. This is from chapter 8, where the Little Prince explains how he came to meet his rose and their falling out. The falling out occurs after she appears on his planet and reveals herself to him in her full radiant beauty.

So, too, she began very quickly to torment him with her vanity–which was, if the truth be known, a little difficult to deal with. One day, for instance, when she was speaking of her four thorns, she said to the little prince:

“Let the tigers come with their claws!”

“There are no tigers on my planet,” the little prince objected. “And, anyway, tigers do not eat weeds.”

“I am not a weed,” the flower replied, sweetly.

“Please excuse me . . .”

“I am not at all afraid of tigers,” she went on, “but I have a horror of drafts. I suppose you wouldn’t have a screen for me?”

“A horror of drafts–that is bad luck, for a plant,” remarked the little prince, and added to himself, “This flower is a very complex creature . . .”

“At night I want you to put me under a glass globe. It is very cold where you live. In the place I came from–“

But she interrupted herself at that point. She had come in the form of a seed. She could not have known anything of any other worlds. Embarassed over having let herself be caught on the verge of such a naïve untruth, she coughed two or three times, in order to put the little prince in the wrong.

“The screen?”

“I was just going to look for it when you spoke to me . . .”

Then she forced her cough a little more so that he should suffer from remorse just the same.

So the little prince, in spite of all the good will that was inseparable from his love, had soon come to doubt her. He had taken seriously words which were without importance, and it made him very unhappy.

“I ought not to have listened to her,” he confided to me one day. “One never ought to listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance. Mine perfumed all my planet. But I did not know how to take pleasure in all her grace. This tale of claws, which disturbed me so much, should only have filled my heart with tenderness and pity.”

And he continued his confidences:

“The fact is that I did not know how to understand anything! I ought to have judged by deeds and not by words. She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me. I ought never to have run away from her . . . I ought to have guessed all the affection that lay behind her poor little strategems. Flowers are so inconsistent! But I was too young to know how to love her . . .”


I find the story of the rose’s cockiness quite interesting because unlike many people, the Prince has some sense of that deep affection drives the rose’s apparent delusions of grandeur, or the notion that she can take on the fiercest of creatures. In fact, many find it off-putting I think, when a woman shows a man her claws or otherwise postures in a threatening way. In essence, she seems to be say, “Bring it on! I am strong. I have no need of you.”  (except, perhaps, to protect her from a draft).

It is when the claws come out, however, that we know there’s something at stake. To allude to the previous dog metaphor, she’s shown you her soft spots and what this tough talk likely is, is an expression of her own sense of vulnerability as opposed to representing any true assessment of her own strengths. In fact, her seemingly delusional notion of the extent of her strength probably has a direct relation to the size of the threat she suddenly realises she faces, and that’s because you’re gotten under her skin. 

What might it mean to get under another person’s skin? Interestingly, in the “Divided Self,” R.D. Laing wrote a lot about the defensive measures that schizophrenics will employ to keep others at a distance or to stop this from happening. His hypothesis is that like most people, schizophrenics crave love and acceptance, but that they also fear losing themselves in relations with others.

What could it mean to lose oneself to another, however, and why might this be bad? Don’t we often use expressions such as “she lost herself in her art” which seems to have a positive connotation? Laing describes how disconnected a lot of patients feel from their everyday activities. They feel that their behaviour is mechanical, which, in reality, much of the “pleases” and “thank you’s” we issue in everyday life are. These are not typically genuine or spontaneous expressions, but are rather ritualised forms of behaviour we use to satisfy other people’s expectations. It is a form of self-control, not self-expression, or so it might seem to someone who is barely restraining the impulse to behave in a completely contradictory manner. What is it that effects this control? The desire for approval from others. Due to the desire for this approval then, some many behave in inauthentic, mechanical or ritualised ways which only serve to further alienate them from their true selves or genuine ways of being in the world. As a result, for many patients the true self becomes something that must be preserved and protected from others as the gaze of love that could potentially comfort it also threatens to devour the self. In other words, someone gets under our skin and we lose part of self when we internalise their perspective of ourselves such that this operates as a constraint on our own actions and behaviour.

I would suggest that there is a similar logic behind the show of claws in more mundane relations with others. That is, instinctively we know that someone who has the power to make us feel delight by seeing us in a positive light, can also cause us pain if they censure us or judge us harshly. This implicit understanding, however, could effectively tempt one to behave in ways that she knows will guarantee a positive assessment from him whose love she craves. A show of thorns then, can be seen as her way of protecting her genuine self by showing her dark side and finding out quickly whether another has the capacity to accept this side of her. If not, then she probably knows that she either faces a deadened and inauthentic way of being in the world if she is to hold onto his love or the pain of losing that love. Both such outcomes, moreover, can threaten selfhood. This first way, as I’ve shown, comes about when one ceases to act in ways that are in harmony with, or which spring from, her deep self. Secondly, if she ends up losing the love she craves, then, and I have seen this acted out both by both myself and others, often she will blame her Self and judge her Self harshly. In other words she comes to direct those little thorns in on herself and while they might not appear such a threat to the world at large, four little thorns can do a lot of damage to one little rose.

Now, I confess, I am writing here from long years of experience whereby I once habitually flaunted my thorns in front of every man who has ever gotten close to me. As I note in my journals from these times:

“I have the uncanny ability to take all the wonderful aspects of love and romance, twist them up together into a sharp point and stab myself with them repeatedly in the chest.”

Perhaps then, in the event that a rose shows you her claws, my dear readers, you might take pause and consider if she is not testing you to see if you are wise enough or strong enough to protect her from herself.

A Back Door into Fairness


, , ,

“The man who just came in the back door, why don’t you come around to the front of the streetcar like everyone else,” a transit driver recently said over the vehicle’s announcement system.

The driver repeated this statement several times, each time with a growing sense of irritation. I glanced up to see that a man on crutches and wearing nothing more than flip-flops and socks on a chilly November day had come on the back.

“I have a transfer” the man told the driver, and given that he was on crutches, it would have been much easier to go through the vehicle to show the driver rather than to hobble back down the stairs, go around the vehicle outside, and then get back on again. It’s worth mentioning, moreover, that generally speaking, transit drivers in Toronto are inconsistent about whether or not people can get on by the back doors. Some insist and invite people with passes and transfers to use the back door, others yell at people for this. So it’s not even necessarily the case that the man should have known better.

And yet, the transit driver insisted.

“Driver, he’s on crutches!” I called out from the back of a packed vehicle, having, I suppose, lost all sense of decorum in my old age. Just in case there was any room to doubt that I was a crazy lady screaming to herself on public transit, I repeated myself even more loudly a second time. Meanwhile, the poor man had obeyed the driver, and gingerly made his way down the steps, around the vehicle up and back up the steps. Yes, he had a transfer after all.

While the driver’s obstinate jackassery might be of some interest, what caught my attention was his emphasis on fairness. “Come through the front door like everyone else,” he said over and over. ‘This, right here is the problem with an inflexible principalist forms of ethics!’ I thought to myself. The thing is, no one is “just like everyone else.” When one is so concerned about treating everyone in an identical fashion that they lose sight of this fact, the end result doesn’t come out looking very fair at all. A one-size-fits all conception of justice that fails to recognize particularity, so as to better accommodate persons’ individualized needs is both sterile and potentially harmful. For no one in that man’s position should have been humiliated that way, and forced as he was to hobble around that streetcar as he did.

Interestingly, however, at the time I merely stared out the window embarrassed, my face flushed and wondering if I was nuts for speaking up, and calling out for compassion for another like that so publicly. Fortunately, a lady leaned in towards me to say incredulously “the driver saw the crutches,” which helped to reassure me somewhat that I wasn’t just being a cantankerous old broad. In spite of her dismissing the entire episode as what she described as a “power trip” her words also gave me hope that more generally speaking, there are some out there who realise that treating others well does not mean treating them all the same.

Bigger Herrings to Fry and Meta-Fallacy Smackdowns

So who do you have to talk to around here to get a new kind of fallacy passed? I’s like to propose a particular variety of fallacy that is somewhere between a red herring (an irrelevant distraction) and tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy). What I have in mind here is when one person seeks to critique or trivialize a proposal by pointing to broader, more serious issues the solution fails to address. This is especially problematic when the person making a particular proposal has little means to undertake or address the larger issue, or when addressing the smaller problem in no way interferes with others who might take action to solve the larger problem.

This is fallacious because it distracts from the merits of a particular proposal or course of action, for instance by skirting the question as to whether the proposal actually stands to effect the desired changes. Another way in which the fallacy is in the red herring family is that merely pointing out another bigger problem is not enough to show that what is being addressed by a proposal is not itself a worthwhile problem to tackle. Showing that a problem is, in fact, trivial, ought to be accomplished on independent grounds. For instance, by providing reasons to believe that the problem has no serious consequences or by showing that it is not particularly widespread. Stating that there are other bigger problems in the world, is not by itself sufficient for demonstrating that issues being addressed by one’s opponent are necessarily trivial.

These look like arguments, they smell like arguments, but they’re not. They also have the mark of tu quoque since this form of argumentation seems to carry an implicit accusation of hypocrisy against a person because they’ve selected a smaller problem to tackle despite the existence of others. That is, there is an underlying sense that someone should practice what they preach by addressing “real” issues rather than those upon which they have chosen to focus.

Here’s one example:

In some countries people abort female fetuses, practice female circumcision and refuse to educate young women, and she wants to start a program to improve Canadian high school girls’ self esteem? Ridiculous!


Councillor Morgan is organizing a group of fellow council members to pick up litter in the park outside City Hall. Unbelievable! The Don Valley river is filthy and Lake Ontario is overflowing with garbage, and he thinks cleaning up a park is worthwhile? Give me a break.

What the hell, while I’m at it, I’d also like to propose the:

Meta-Fallacy Smackdown

The MFS occurs when one aims to shut down an argument by stating, but not demonstrating, that one’s opponent has committed a logical fallacy. This is similar to poisoning the well if it is intended to make one’s opponent feel stupid and therefore submit. In the wild, this fallacy is most often observed among first-year critical thinking students during pub nights.

The Space Between

There’s this brief instant, or maybe what the Buddhists mean when they talk about the space between breaths that one should strive to inhabit in meditation. If you’re very quiet, patient and attentive to the workings of your own mind, you’ll notice it, and it is difficult to see because it is marked by an absence. It’s the space between perceiving another person, and forming a harsh critical judgment. It’s a window of opportunity, the opportunity to choose to see that person in a different, truer light. A perception that invites contextual understanding instead of outright rejection based on mere projection. I find that my own mind is a healthier, happier place to live when I accept that invitation and make the choice to suspend judgment in favour of compassionate understanding.

Jerry Springer hosts Hippolytus: some pedagogical reflections


, , ,

There are certain parallels between Jerry Springer and Greek tragedy.

Unless my students have laughed out loud at least once, I typically consider my tutorials an abject failure. It’s not that I’m the funny guy or anything, rather, I try to induce laughter by design. That is, I usually try to devise something that is interactive while also encouraging students to take small social risks. Such risks, combined with an attendant air of giddiness and excitement, is such that students eventually make each other laugh. One of my favorites for creating this type of mood is my newly minted Jerry Springer activity, and, believe it or not, it’s got some demonstrated pedagogical value to it as well. Janice Rehner’s “Practical Strategies for Critical Thinking” inspired this activity which takes around 1.5 hours from set-up to finish. I use it to encourage students to look at a complex issue from various points of view and thereby enriching their perspective. Most recently I applied it to Euripides’ play Hippolytus, but, with enough imagination, it can be adapted for use with most moral issues.

In the play Hippolytus Aphrodite instigates a complicated plot to punish the young virginal man who gives the play its name. The goddess of love is miffed because Hippolytus not only fails to give her her due, but actively shuns her in favour of that uptight virgin-loving tomboy Artemis. A large number of characters play a role in the tragedy that unfolds, and all will have various degrees of culpability for the eventual death of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. (spoiler alert!). Aphrodite made the poor woman fall in love with her unresponsive stepson, such that Phaedra kills herself to avoid shaming her family.

Anyway, you get the picture, it’s a complicated plot but with just enough characters to make oh say, 5 or 6 groups, while assigning one character to each group. The first thing I do when I get to class however, is play a clip from Springer to confuse the students and set the mood. I love confusing my students for short periods as I believe that confusion is an essential state for learning, plus it’s just fun to watch the expressions on their faces.

After assigning a character to each group I explain that we’ll be recreating the Jerry Springer Show using the cast of Hippolytus. “Really get into character!” I tell them, “be Aphrodite!” Each character will go onto the show, pick out the character/s they blame most for what happened, and give these wrong-doers the ‘what-for.’ In other words students work together to draft up statements that they read when they confront the character/s they blame the most. What becomes evident through the course of the show, is that the nature of the tragedy will differ from each character’s perspective. For instance, Phaedra and her loving nurse are going to be much more upset about what happens to Phaedra and won’t be apt to care all that much that Hippolytus comes to such a violent end. Moreover, different characters will each have their own unique set of bones to pick with other characters.

After each character makes his or her statement groups reconvene and work to come up with responses to the allegations made against them. By now students will have warmed up to the activity and we start to see them acting the part a bit more and here is where you start to laughter breaking out. I don’t actually make them get up and act things out or anything (but, I wouldn’t stop them if they chose to do so!).

As I noted earlier, this activity has demonstrated pedagogical value. The reason I chose Hippolytus for this was that students had to write a paper answering the question “who is to blame for the tragedy in Hippolytus.” The trick to this paper is not only to identifying the main culprit/s, but also adequately describing the nature of the tragedy (a lot of students seem to forget that Phaedra dies in this story). According to one TA, typically in the past he ends up getting a pile of generic papers blaming the most obvious candidate: Aphrodite. Interestingly, when I got my students’ papers, only a couple picked out Aphrodite as the prime suspect. Admittedly, it became a problem because there were some who failed to even mention her role. But at least they were encouraged to examine the issue from different angles which I would say is a great start on the road to critical thinking.

On the virtues of connectedness in the classroom

It may seem a small and insignificant thing, but, with smaller classes, I always make a point of learning my students’ names early in the semester. Doing so starts to show them that I am interested in them as individuals. Knowing one’s teacher has such an attitude improves a student’s educational experience, as most people tend to flourish under the light of personal care and attention. Moreover, excellent pedagogy requires something other than a standardized approach. Connecting with students is the best way to get them to connect to the material we are teaching. Obviously, students come into our classes with varying goals, abilities and interests. One must tailor one’s delivery and feedback to meet students’ particular needs and thereby bring out their personal best. As I mature as an instructor, moreover, I have sought to expand my role in helping my students make the most of their time at university by realizing that I can do more for them than pass on course material and assess their assignments.

If new instructors are at all like I was, then many are more concerned to demonstrate that they know enough to stand in front of a classroom, than they are to learn about students’ backgrounds and abilities. Time and experience however has served to shift my focus from myself and onto my students and their particularities. In keeping with this shift, I have devised systems to track feedback on past assignments to which I can refer while grading current work. This allows me to identify obstacles unique to certain students, give them challenges commensurate to their abilities, and recognize when they have made progress in these areas. I also routinely set up one-to-one sessions with my students to learn about their background and goals so that together we can find creative ways to connect essay topics to issues that matter to them. When a writer takes a personal interest in her topic the work becomes less onerous and she is more inclined to focus on crafting an argument she cares about than merely producing the sort of rote 3-point essay students seem to have been trained to write in high school.

As much as good student/teacher relationships facilitate academic success, however, so do interrelations between peers. In interacting with one another, students become more aware of varying points of view and stand to benefit from one another’s knowledge. Hence, I devise class activities that are interactive while also encouraging students to take small social risks such as participating in formal debates, role-playing, or otherwise presenting the results of brainstorming sessions. Due to the attendant air of excitement such activities evoke, it is not unusual to see a class erupt into laughter at least once, say, while bringing the cast of Hippolytus onto the Jerry Springer show, writing online dating profiles for Odysseus, or perhaps while setting up counselling sessions in which Plutarch advises Roman couples. Moreover, when students participate in such activities I see them combing through their texts and animatedly discussing course material, called upon as they are to approach various works in a novel and interesting ways. I have come to understand, moreover, that friendships fostered while interacting in my classes have persisted beyond the end of term for many of my students, providing them with an important basis of support through the course of their university careers. As focused as good educators are upon presenting course content well, many may overlook other small and equally essential pieces of a satisfying and successful university experience. Cultivating a sense of belonging inside the classroom and a sense of relatedness that extends beyond its confines both enriches our students and enhances that scholarly knowledge we impart to them.