Industry and Indolence: Aesop’s Fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper

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black ants crawl amid dry leaves and twigs“How we spend our days,” wrote Annie Dillard “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And there are few examples of how we spend our lives more appropriate to the season than Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. On the surface merely a harsh lesson in thrift and planning, on a deeper level it becomes a koan which opens up the questions of what it means to live and what it means to truly be alive.

In 1879, a clearly disenchanted Leo Tolstoy would write,

One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.

Winter has often been portrayed as a time of cold and brutal reckoning, as the end of this fable shows. But in coming to this point, your assumptions about the characters, the moral, and even the origin might steer you wrong. Is it actually a grasshopper, and was it indeed a Greek tale?

Come along if you wish to discover how this fable came to be a lesson about altruism that’s been altogether forgotten today and an improbable yet formidable paradigm that demonstrates what might be one of the noblest qualities of humanity.

a cicada sits on the trunk of a pine treeMany people might not be aware that the original Greek form of the story has a cicada, but until I looked into it, I also didn’t realize this fable came from languages and cultures older than ancient Greece. And where were they? Here’s a hint: located to the east of the Aegean.

An older written source can be traced from the people known to us as Israelites or Hebrews. And do you know what? They probably received this story from the Sumerians. Few cultures might seem as remote to us as that of ancient Sumeria, but their cultural influence has come down to us through that collection of ancient writings commonly known as the Bible.

Whether you’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist, you’ve probably read the Book of Proverbs, which mentions the ant in the same way twice. The first instance comes in Chapter 6. Verses 6 through 9 say:

Take a lesson from the ants, you slacker! Learn from their ways and get a clue! They have no commander, officer, or ruler, yet they work hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. So how long will you just lie around, you lazy bum?

In Chapter 30, known as the sayings of Agur, Verse 24 tells us, “There are four things on earth that are small but unusually wise: Ants aren’t a strong species, yet they spend all summer storing their food.” Verse 27 goes on to mention locusts, but as another positive example, not a warning about sloth.

The Ant and the Grasshopper, illustration by Milo Winter from The Aesop for Children (1919).
“The Ants and the Grasshopper,” illustration by Milo Winter from The Aesop for Children (1919).

Whatever its origins, the fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” has come to us most directly through Greek and Latin writers who told the tale both in verse and prose. But unless you can read Greek or Latin, you probably encounter those words as most of us do: in translation.

The clichéd complaint has warned us how much gets lost in translation, but not everyone sees it like this. For instance, the Cuban-born Italian writer Italo Calvino reminds us of the cross-cultural perspective we can gain when we venture beyond the bounds of a limit we tend to accept and not question, that of our language: “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” And the passionately beloved and abominated British Indian writer Salman Rushdie reminds us he sees two sides to translation, not only one. “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.”

title page of the Fables by Jean de La Fontaine from 1668In modern times, the cultural resonance of this story would be greatest in French-speaking parts of the world. “The Cicada and the Ant” became very well known in France since it was the first fable in Book I of Jean de La Fontaine’s first collection of fables, published on March 31, 1668. This collection is dedicated to Louis, the Grand Dauphin, then aged six and a half. In case you don’t remember this segment of history, his parents were Louis XIV, the Sun King, and Marie-Thérèse, Archduchess of Austria.

"The Cicada and the Ant" by Jean Grandville (1803–47)
“The Cicada and the Ant”
by Jean Grandville (1803–47)

In the 19th Century, two illustrated editions would help La Fontaine’s Fables reach a large and enthusiastic audience. One published by Henri Fournier, Sr. in 1839 had drawings by Jean Grandville (1803–47). Another appeared in 1868: the Louis Hachette edition, with drawings by Gustave Doré (1832–83). This edition would soon become known to English speakers in the verse translation by Walter Thornbury.

As book illustration helped develop the audience for Aesop’s fables, our knowledge of the natural world was developing, too. This led some science writers to insist on accuracy in what we told our children.

In his Entomological Recollections (Souvenirs entomologiques, 1879–91), the French naturalist and science writer Jean-Henri Fabre would note the errors of La Fontaine concerning the cicada:

to “eat” it has only a straw [with which to drink; without a mouth] it has nothing to do with flies or worms [it doesn’t eat them because it cannot chew]. There are other fantasies [falsehoods]: The cicada dies at the end of the summer and can not cry famine when the cold wind blows. The ant, who sleeps through winter in its anthill, can not hear it; on the other hand, an ant is carnivorous and does not amass grain . . .

It is clear that the traditional French version of the story has some entomological errors.

In most Romance languages, the words for both insects are feminine, so the cicada or grasshopper and the ant are generally portrayed as women or female. And where did this lead?

The Little Cicada (La Petite Cigale) by Albert Pénot (1862–1930)
The Little Cicada (La Petite Cigale), undated
by Albert Pénot (1862–1930)

Due to the popularity of the La Fontaine and Hachette editions, a subgenre of art arose showing nude or lightly dressed women in autumnal or wintry settings, often looking unhappy or desperate. Suggestions such as an insect title or references such as “the north wind blew” would be enough to identify the intent. But there was another connection that took place, and the musical motifs in the pictures above should point the way.

Would you believe that in France the humble cicada soon became the name of a learned society?

It wasn’t long before Aesop’s cicada and ant would come to symbolize the contentious divide between commerce and culture, with the cicada representing the place of the artist in society. Furthermore, it was the colonial nature of ants that would remind creators in the world of their need to associate.

In 1875, painter Eugène Beaudouin, politician and lover of the arts Maurice-Louis Faure, and writer Louis-Xavier de Ricard would found a literary and artistic society in Paris and call it “The Cicada.” Open to men and women from the south of France, it was the first regional learned society created in Paris. But that’s not all . . .

Interest driven by the Louis Hachette edition of Aesop and the literary and artistic society called The Cicada would soon help take the ancient story to its zenith in two adaptations for the stage and a beautiful building that fortunately survived World War 2.

montage by Adrien Marie for The Illustrated Theater showing panels The Cicada (Miss Jeanne Granier)--The Dream of the Cicada--The Ant (Mrs. Thuillier-Leloir)
montage by Adrien Marie for The Illustrated Theater
The Cicada (Miss Jeanne Granier)–The Dream of the Cicada–The Ant (Mrs. Thuillier-Leloir)

First came the comic opera by Edmond Audran to a libretto by Henri Chivot and Alfred Duru. In 3 acts and 10 scenes, it was produced at the Theater of the Gaiety (Théâtre de la Gaîté) in Paris, opening October 30, 1886, then in London (1890) and New York (1891). It would be revived in Paris November 10, 1904 due to the popularity of Massenet’s ballet from earlier that year.

Interior of French restaurant La Cigale (1894-5), photograph by Selbymay (Creative Commons by SA 3.0)
Interior of French restaurant La Cigale (1894-5)
photograph by Selbymay, (Creative Commons by SA 3.0)

The next major product of artistic inspiration would be a restaurant (brasserie) in Nantes called The Cicada. Designed by architect and ceramicist Émile Libaudière, it would open on April 1, 1895. The four dining rooms are richly decorated with paintings by Georges Levreau (1867–1936) and sculpture by Emile Gaucher (1860–1909). This beautiful space would survive the bombings of World War 2 that destroyed 2,000 buildings in Nantes and rendered another 6,000 unusable.

detail of tile work inside French restaurant La Cigale (1894-5), photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (Creative Commons by 2.0)
detail of tile work inside French restaurant La Cigale (1894-5)
photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, (Creative Commons by 2.0)
Atop a clock is a cicada, symbol of the establishment / photograph by Selbymay (Creative Commons by SA 3.0)
Atop a clock is a cicada, symbol of the establishment.
photograph by Selbymay, (Creative Commons by SA 3.0)

Later in the 20th Century, the American psychiatrist David Viscott would state, in an adage often attributed to Shakespeare or Picasso,

The purpose of life is to discover your gift.
The work of life is to develop it.
The meaning of life is to give your gift away.

In the summer of 1902, composer Jules Massenet set an adaptation of the story by French dramatist and librettist Henri Cain (1857–1937). In Cain’s retelling of the fable, he adds an additional character for the cicada to show kindness to–and later be rebuffed by. This girl is referred to only as “Poor Thing” (La Pauvrette), related to the word for poverty, pauvreté. But you know how it goes. At the end, the cicada is left alone to die in the snow.

1904 poster by Maurice Leloir (1853–1940) for Jules Massenet's ballet The Cicada
1904 poster by Maurice Leloir (1853–1940)

The Cain-Massenet collaboration would be produced as a ballet with choreography by Madame Mariquita (1830–1922), the Cicada played by Jeanne Chasles, and the Ant played by tenor Georges-Louis Mesmaecker. It would open at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on February 4, 1904, and after Massenet died in 1912, the ballet would be revived at the Comic Opera the following season, in December 1913. As far as I’m aware, the only recording available is on a marvelous 3-disc set with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on London/Decca Jubilee 425413Richard Bonynge conducts the British National Philharmonic.

the cover of Massenet's ballet The CicadaIn 1911, Massenet also wrote a song called “The Death of the Cicada” and scored versions with piano and with orchestra. The words were by Maurice-Louis Faure (1850–1919), who had been a co-founder of the literary and artistic society La Cigale.

There are three ways this song can be heard: with soprano Sabine Revault d’Allonnes and Samuel Jean, piano on Timpani 1191; soprano Laure Crumière and pianist Evelina Borbei on Malibran 202, or baritone José van Dam with Jean-Philippe Collard, piano on EMI 54818.

The rather agricultural design for the cover of the song "Death of the Cicada" by Jules Massenet.
The rather agricultural design for the cover of the song “Death of the Cicada” by Jules Massenet.

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