A Little Happier:  What’s the Real Lesson from the Tortoise and the Hare? It’s Not What You Think

I love aphorisms, Secrets of Adulthood, paradoxes, and teaching stories of all kinds. So of course I love fables.

The most famous collection of fables are “Aesop’s Fables,” which are teaching stories credited to an ancient Greek storyteller named Aesop—although modern scholars believe that Aesop probably never existed.

One of the most famous of Aesop’s fables is the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. In case you don’t remember it, here’s my version of that well-known story:

Once upon a time, a Tortoise and a Hare met each other on a road.

As the Hare jumped back and forth in front of the Tortoise, he said, “Tortoise, how can you stand being so slow? Do you ever go anywhere?”

The Tortoise replied, in his deep, patient voice, “Yes, Hare, I get anywhere I want to go.”

“I don’t believe it,” said the Hare, and made ready to bound off to find more exciting company.

“I’ll prove it,” answered the Tortoise. “I challenge you to a race.”

The Hare thought this idea sounded hilarious, so he agreed.

The Fox agreed to act as a judge, so that very afternoon, they set the course, the Fox gave the signal, and the racers started off.

The Hare immediately leaped out of sight, and before long, he started to feel that it had been beneath his dignity even to agree to such a challenge. To demonstrate his confidence in his victory, he decided to take a short nap.

Meanwhile, the Tortoise plodded on. Time went by, and he passed the Hare asleep by the side of the course. He kept going.

The sun was hot, and the Hare slept much longer than he’d intended. When he woke with a start, the Tortoise was approaching the finish line. The Hare jumped up and raced as fast as he could, but the Tortoise crossed first.

The Fox declared, “The Tortoise is the winner!”

The classic moral of this story is “Slow and steady wins the race,” and the fable is often evoked to illustrate that point.

But I think that’s actually the wrong lesson to draw from this story. Instead, I’d argue that a more appropriate moral would be: “Those with great abilities can be defeated by their own arrogance and idleness.” Or perhaps, “Over-confidence can foster carelessness.”

Another possible lesson comes from one of my favorite aphorists, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. She wrote: “Since its famous victory over the hare, the tortoise thinks it’s a sprinter.” In other words, it’s easy to attribute a good result to our own abilities, when in fact, that result may have been the consequence of circumstances or someone else’s mistake.

When we consider them deeply, even very familiar stories can hold unexpected meanings.




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