by Odin Hartshorn Halvorson
“Trying to be witty leads to lying, more or less.” —Antoine De Saint-Exupery
Love, and compassion—which is really just a particularly important form of love—are concepts explored within The Little Prince—easily the most famous novel by the French philosopher and writer Antoine De Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince probes the deepest meanings of love and life, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly—but always, at the core of the work they remain like lit lamps in the darkness. It is these brilliant pinpricks of light that exist as counterpoints to the fall from imagination most adults eventually suffer.
Most of us know the story of the Little Prince who came to Earth and finds, in a stranded aviator, an odd friend. Within The Little Prince, the reader is exposed to philosophical concepts that remain as painfully important in these troubled times as they were during the time of Saint-Exupery’s writing. In the middle of the Second World War, the global consciousness was fraught with division, exploitation, and ever-present fears regarding the future of civilization as it had been known. This is, unfortunately, a cycle of fear which has repeated, and continues to operate in the absence of any sense of unified optimism and society-wide practice of compassion. We live in a world of numbers, and the economics of modern life preclude the exploration of imagination; of laughter and friendship and love; of a future in which a growth into common brotherhood—common love—is possible. I read this tale, wondering where the human species keeps going wrong. Where is our sense of greater responsibility toward one another, and our planet? What might the fox in The Little Prince say to us?
“That’s right,” the fox said. “For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you . . .”
Like the narrator in The Little Prince, who tells us of his first drawing as a child of an elephant inside a boa constrictor, there is a human longing for a type of understanding that transcends the practical adult world. We long for our internal worlds to be visible to others, and theirs to us—and this is one of the reasons we press against the frontiers of existence with such passion. Partly, too, this may be due to our inherent fear of death—which is really just a fear of the ending of things before we’ve had the chance to experience what the fox calls taming; before we’ve had the chance to really explore what it means to be alive.
The adult world is replete with cynical and clinical numeration. Adults detach themselves from the world in an effort to quantify the essence of existence, and in so doing grip existence so tightly that they often choke the life right out of it. Worse, so many adults would answer the question “are you happy” in the affirmative, simply because they have never learned what it means to be truly at peace with the nature of life. They become distracted—force distractions upon themselves—in an effort to provide meaning to life, forgetting that the true essence of life does not require a nine-to-five in order to be meaningful. Like the businessman who the little prince encounters, adults reach out into the universe and claim ownership of what they find, and thereby lose sight of the beauty of what they find. Like the adults the little prince encounters on trains late in the novel, adults of our real world cherish lives which are often just dull projections of an unarrived-at destination.
“Good Morning,” said the railway switchman.
“What is it you do here?” asked the little prince.
“I sort the travelers into bundles of a thousand,” the switchman said. “I dispatch the trains that carry them, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left.”
“What a hurry they’re in,” said the little prince. “What are they looking for?”
“Not even the engineer on the locomotive knows,” the switchman said.
The children (and those who have remembered or relearned this way of seeing the world) gaze gleefully out of the windows of the moving train, appreciating the scenery of life as it flows inevitably past. The supposedly practical adults are concerned only with the destination—forgetting that the ultimate destination is embodied by the little yellow serpent whom the little prince meets when he first arrives in the desert; the serpent which eventually becomes the vehicle for his return to the stars. That is to say: the destination of life is the end of life, so therefore it is the process of life—not the destination of life—which should most concern the living while they are alive.
For an adult to read The Little Prince, if they do so with an open mind, there is a sweet sense of sadness and longing to be found in the story. A parable for life, but also a parable for death—of how to face the prospect of death well, by living a life that is full and filled with love. Adults are also reminded of the beauty and importance of ritual, as when the little fox says:
“...if you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three. The closer it gets to four, the happier I’ll feel. By four I’ll be all excited and worried; I’ll discover what it costs to be happy! But if you come at any old time, I’ll never know when to prepare my heart . . .”
For adults (especially the heart-sick and the weary) it offers a reprieve, solidarity, and a renewed appreciation for not-knowing—for not feeling bad about not knowing.
We are also shown a template for the foolishness of those who trumpet agendas of division and discord—witness the foolishness of the astronomers who refused to listen to their Turkish fellow because of his traditional dress, but who applauded him when he returned in Western garb. Within The Little Prince we adults find deeper meanings that draw us back toward the simplicity of the existence we enjoyed as children.
Children who read (or are read) this tale, will find something wonderful in the way adults are proven to be foolish in the face of those elements of reality that dominate a child’s life. If they are lucky, and the stars are bright overhead, and the moment is just right, the mysteries of life that The Little Prince explores may carry over from childhood into adulthood. Thus, the child may grow up with some of their wonder and imagination intact.
The Little Prince explores the deeper secrets of reality without suggesting answers—or even that answers are possible—beyond those which stem from the act of living a loving life. It opens the way to the well, without bowing to any particular dogma; it suggests that in the shared experience of life—in the sharing of life—we can learn again to be free.