Kindergarten Stoics

Do you remember that song about the Itsy-Bitsy Spider? It came up in my theory class yesterday, as an example of how fables and nursery rhymes are used to socialize and instill values in the wee ones. In this case, we were supposed to learn about perseverance, and maybe a bit of hand-eye coordination (that thumb-to-forefinger thing is not as easy as it looks). In this reading, the spider is just another little-engine-that-could as he makes his way back up the spout. Everyone in my class agreed that the moral was "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Everyone, but me. I saw the spider's tale as a case of "life sucks and then you die." Allow me to explain...

The itsy-bitsy spider begins the song, presumably at the top of the waterspout ("...climbed up the waterspout" is past tense, indicating that he has already completed this action). He is knocked down by the rain, and can only wait for the sun to come dry things out again. The song concludes with him climbing right back to where he was - no net gain. In fact, it is only by dedicated effort that he can even attain his former position. The sun/rain cycle is a continual one; presumably, he will be washed from the waterspout again and again. Certainly, he can climb up again each time the sun returns, but his task takes on a Sisyphean quality - what is the point? Sun and rain are beyond his control, and each success is met with another defeat.

The spider's only hope is to make the climbing itself his desired life. This is quite a mental feat - as Sheryl Crow put it, "it's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got." Seneca would be proud of Ms. Crow, as this is an excellent encapsulation of the Stoic doctrine. Of course, the Stoics also held that the sage - a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection - is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. They also contended that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage would not undergo them.

Obviously, these teachings are completely at odds with our current Western lifestyle. To constantly climb the waterspout, only to be knocked back by the rain would infuriate most Americans - I imagine there would be litgation. The manufacturer of the waterspout would be sued for making a faulty product that lacked the proper rainguards, and the Environmentalists would then have to get involved on behalf of the endangered rainspout ecosystem... but I digress.


The previous message was brought to you by the Committee to Let Linus Graduate. This problem has been brewing for several semesters, but in recent weeks it has boiled over into a full-blown case of PTSD (Post Theoretical Study Disorder). Linus is no longer able to enjoy literature, television, movies, or as we see above, even simple nursery rhymes - everything he takes in is now filtered by Otto, Durkheim, Freud, and a host of others.

Won't you help? For only pennies each day, you can help pay for the strong drugs that he needs to fight back the theorists who have colonized his mind. Your generous donations can make it possible for him make it to graduation day without going on a multi-state killing spree... Make your checks payable to CLLG, and mark the envelope "ATTN:Liquor Fund". Thank you for your support.


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