Let us begin with a simple image: reeds blowing in the breeze. In the hands of a painter, we have the beginnings of a new landscape. In the hands of a filmmaker, a calm opening shot.
In the hands of a writer, the seeds of a practical philosophy.
Aesop famously uses this image of wind-blown reeds in one of his fables, “The Oak and the Reeds.” As translated by Vernon Jones, the story goes like this:
An Oak that grew on the bank of a river was uprooted by a severe gale of wind, and thrown across the stream. It fell among some Reeds growing by the water, and said to them, “How is it that you, who are so frail and slender, have managed to weather the storm, whereas I, with all my strength, have been torn up by the roots and hurled into the river?” “You were stubborn,” came the reply, “and fought against the storm, which proved stronger than you. But we bow and yield to every breeze, and thus the gale passed harmlessly over our heads.”
In his introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Aesop’s Fables, D. L. Ashliman says that this fable may well be “the capstone to the pragmatic moral philosophy of Aesop” (xxix). Time and again, the fables instruct us to accept our circumstances, whatever they may be, rather than railing against them; examples include “The Ass and His Masters” (“Why wasn’t I content to serve either of my former masters…now I shall come in the end to the tanning vat”) and “The Crab and the Fox” (“I had no business to leave my natural home by the sea…”).
Yet it is “The Oak and the Reeds” that presents Aesop’s brand of pragmatism in its most generally applicable terms. The wind stands in for any obstacle or hardship that one may face, not just one’s station in life. Low or high, weak or strong, everyone encounters a strong gale at some point. The best that one can do, it would seem, is go along with such events, rather than resisting them and breaking down.
Had Aesop not predated them by a good three centuries, I would be tempted to group him with the Stoics, who advised taking a similar approach to hardship. Consider the following passage from the Enchiridion, Epictetus’s manual for Stoic living:
If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner, with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.”
Epictetus’ bather could get worked up regarding the unpleasant behavior of his fellow citizens, could stand as stubborn as the oak. But their actions are outside his control. Better that he accord his will with nature, bending in the breeze like the reeds, and take the behavior of others as a given. He will thus keep his own mind untroubled.
Certainly this is prudent advice. So long as the difficulties concern you and you alone, it is difficult to refute. Indeed, whenever I read the likes of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, I find myself wishing I had their cool and dispassionate resolve.
But suppose the breeze is something more than a personal obstacle. Suppose it’s something which affects a large swath of society: an authoritarian government, or systemic injustice. To bend like the reeds, as the Stoics would suggest, may well make an individual’s life more bearable. But it does little for everyone as a collective. One might say that the lives of fellow sufferers are as beyond our control as those of the oppressors, and at any rate we lack the power to actually resist. But I feel that merely rationalizes passivity.
For comparison, let us turn from Ancient Greece to the 20th-century United States. “Small Song,” a short poem by A. R. Ammons, also uses the image of reeds bending in the breeze. In its entirety, it reads:
The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away.
I plan on doing a full dissection of the poem in a later post, but for now let’s note the difference between Ammons’s and Aesop’s reeds. For the fabulist, the wind acts upon the reeds and not the other way around. Indeed, the reeds only ever act by lecturing the oak for not letting the wind act upon it. For the poet, the apparent passivity of the reeds is in fact an action. Their bending makes it obvious that the wind is present.
What do we make of Ammons’s twist on the reed image? Considered in isolation, it is a pleasing little paradox, a short sentence dense with potential meaning. Considered in the context of Aesop’s fable, though, and one might find a message about resistance. Absorbing the wind’s abuse consequently makes it visible. Think of the specific phrase “give / the wind away.” To be given away, one must be trying to hide something, to sneak it by without notice. Those reeds, because they bend, prevent that from happening.
Sure, when the oak falls to the banks, it does so with a great crash. But reeds do not bend in silence; they flap and rustle, and they do so for as long as the wind is blowing. The oak’s resistance leads to one loud crunch, and then nothing. The reeds, on the other hand, will not be silenced until the wind is silenced. Unlikely heroes though they may be, they resist, and they endure.