Our minds are “story processors”, not “logic processors”, Jonathan Haidt once observed. The social psychologist knows how we use narratives to make sense of our lives. It’s not always possible (or desirable) to be the protagonist in a story that teaches us a valuable life lesson. Fortunately, there are time-tested archetypal narratives, sometimes based on tropes, to help us gain those teachable insights. Here are eleven fables, parables and other stories with a moral everyone should know.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Fox and the Grapes
- 2. Chinese Farmer Story
- 3. The Drunkard
- 4. The Scorpion and the Frog
- 5. Poseidon
- 6. Two Little Mice
- 7. The Hanoi Rat Bounty
- 8. A Useless Life
- 9. The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf
- 10. St George in Retirement
- 11. The Blind Men and an Elephant
- BONUS: Learning to Be Silent
- Closing Thoughts
1. The Fox and the Grapes
The Fox and the Grapes is a popular fable about grit by Aesop, an ancient Greek storyteller.
A famished fox saw some clusters of ripe black grapes hanging from a trellised vine. She resorted to all her tricks to get at them, but wearied herself in vain, for she could not reach them. At last she turned away, hiding her disappointment and saying: “The Grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought.”Aesop’s Fables
The moral of the story: If you think something is not worth having, ask yourself: “Is that only because I think I’m unable to achieve it?”
2. Chinese Farmer Story
The Chinese Farmer Story is a Zen narrative about perspective and humility. It has been attributed to philosopher Alan Watts:
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. All the neighbours came around that evening and said, “That’s too bad.” And the farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbours came around and said, “That’s great, isn’t it?” And the farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day his son, who was attempting to tame one of these horses, and was riding it and was thrown broke his leg. And all the neighbours came around in the evening and said, “Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it?” And the farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army. They rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the neighbours came around that evening and said, “Well, isn’t that wonderful?” And the farmer said, “Maybe.”Alan Watts (edited for clarity)
The moral of the story: We should be careful labelling the things that happen to us as good or bad. The causal chain of the universe is complex and infinite. Real-life stories continue even after the happy ending.
3. The Drunkard
The Drunkard is a story with a moral about seeking truth and wisdom.
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.David H. Freedman, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us
The moral of the story: Truth and wisdom are found where you least want to look.
4. The Scorpion and the Frog
The Scorpion and the Frog is a fable about trust, human nature and malevolence. One of the many versions goes as follows:
A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog then agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature.Unknown
The moral of the story: You can’t outsmart human nature. Be realistic about changing vicious people; sometimes they even act against their own interests.
Poseidon is a Kafkaesque short story about ego and hubris by, well, Franz Kafka.
Poseidon was sitting at his desk working. The administration of all the waters was a huge task. He could have had as many assistants as he wanted, and in fact he did have a large staff, but since he took his job very seriously and went through all the calculations himself anyway, assistants were of little use to him.
One couldn’t say that the work made him happy either; he only did it because it was his to do. Yes, he had often requested happier work, as he put it, but whenever they came back to him with suggestions, it turned out that nothing appealed to him as much as what he was doing. It was actually very difficult to find anything else for him.
It was hardly possible to put him in charge of a particular sea, quite apart from the fact that the calculations involved were no less onerous, just more trivial, since great Poseidon was only ever in line for an executive post. And if he was offered a job in a different department, the very thought of it was enough to turn his stomach, his divine breath became restless, his bronze thorax quaked.
Not that they took his complaints all that seriously: if a great power kicks up, then you have to be seen to give into him, even in the most hopeless cause; no one seriously thought of having Poseidon removed from office, he had been god of the seas from the beginning of time, and would have to remain such.
The thing that most angered him — and this was the principal cause of his unhappiness in his job — was when he got to hear what people thought it involved, that is, forever parting the waves with his trident. And when all the time he was sitting at the bottom of the ocean up to his ears in figures, the occasional visit to Jupiter was really the only break in the monotony; a visit, moreover, from which he usually returned in a towering bad temper.
He hardly ever clapped eyes on the seas, only fleetingly on his hurried way up to Olympus, and he had never sailed them as such. He tended to say he was waiting for the world to end first, because there was bound to be a quiet moment just before the end when he had signed off on his last calculation and would be able to take himself on a little cruise somewhere.Franz Kafka, Poseidon
The moral of the story: The only thing more insane than the modern office workplace is what we make of it. Too often, it’s our ego that’s keeping us from walking away.
6. Two Little Mice
Two Little Mice is a story with a moral about perseverance. In the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale, Sr. (Christopher Walken) receives the highest honour at his local rotary club. He tells the story at the beginning of his speech:
Two little mice fell into a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter. And crawled out.Frank Abagnail, Sr.
The moral of the story: It’s not over until it’s over. However, Mr Abagnale must have read the Chinese Farmer Story. In an act of foreshadowing, he ends the story by saying: “Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.” He was right. His good luck didn’t last much longer in the movie.
7. The Hanoi Rat Bounty
The Hanoi Rat Bounty is a story with a moral about entrepreneurial spirit and perverse incentives.
At the end of the 19th century, during French colonial rule, Hanoi was plagued by rats. Driven by the desire to modernise the city, the Governor-General instituted a bounty program. Citizens were paid a small amount of money for each rat they killed. However, given the health risks, the colonial government didn’t want piles of rat corpses to be handed over to officials.
So instead they paid locals for every rat tail they brought in. The tails soon became an object of value. The rat hunters soon realised that they didn’t have to kill the rodents. A released rat with a cut-off tail could breed again and produce more valuable tails. Needless to say, the bounty failed to achieve the desired results. The rat plague was now worse than before.Based on the Story of the Great Hanoi Rat Massacre
The moral of the story: Beware of Cobra Effects and the unintended negative consequences of your intervention.
8. A Useless Life
A Useless Life is a Zen story about wisdom and compassion.
A farmer got so old that he couldn’t work the fields anymore. So he would spend the day just sitting on the porch. His son, still working the farm, would look up from time to time and see his father sitting there. “He’s of no use any more,” the son thought to himself, “he doesn’t do anything!”
One day the son got so frustrated by this, that he built a wood coffin, dragged it over to the porch, and told his father to get in. Without saying anything, the father climbed inside. After closing the lid, the son dragged the coffin to the edge of the farm where there was a high cliff.
As he approached the drop, he heard a light tapping on the lid from inside the coffin. He opened it up. Still lying there peacefully, the father looked up at his son: “I know you are going to throw me over the cliff, but before you do, may I suggest something?” “What is it?” replied the son. “Throw me over the cliff, if you like,” said the father, “but save this good wood coffin. Your children might need to use it.”Unknown
The moral of the story: There is almost no limit to the compassion parents have for their children. Having kids makes you care for your family beyond your own death.
9. The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf
The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf is a classic story with a moral about lying. It’s the original moral story of the common phrase to cry wolf.
A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, “Wolf! Wolf!” and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains. The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: “Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep;” but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.
There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.Aesop’s Fables
The moral of the story: Always tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie.
10. St George in Retirement
St George in Retirement is a story about obsession. It’s a variation of the legend of St George and the dragon and was penned by Australian philosopher Kenny Minogue to illustrate the history of liberalism.
After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance.
These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence.
But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped.
As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons — for the big dragons were now harder to come by.Kenny Minogue, The Liberal Mind
The moral of the story: Not knowing when to quit is the first step of the descent into madness. Beware of St. George in Retirement Syndrome, the obsession with pursuing a laudable goal.
11. The Blind Men and an Elephant
The Blind Men and an Elephant is an ancient Indian parable about objectivity.
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it.
The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.Encyclopedia of Perception
The moral of the story: Each of our perspectives can be true yet incomplete. More things can be true at once.
BONUS: Learning to Be Silent
The very last of our stories with a moral is a kōan about the immensely difficult task of holding one’s tongue. A kōan is a puzzling Zen story intended to reveal a greater truth. But it’s as relevant as ever in the age of the social media pile-on.
The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence.
On the first day all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously, but when night came and the oil lamps were growing dim one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant: “Fix those lamps.”
The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We are not supposed to say a word,” he remarked.
“You two are stupid. Why did you talk?” asked the third.
“I am the only one who has not talked,” concluded the fourth pupil.Source: Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
The moral of the story: …
As opposed to logic, stories can mean different things to different people. The moral you take from one of our stories might differ. Perhaps you recognise something else in them depending on how the narrative relates to a personal experience. This is what makes the difference between a memorable life lesson and shallow fridge magnet wisdom. So feel free to collect, memorise and retell the stories; and distil each one into your own aphorism about life.