Grasshoppers and Ants: Diligence in the Year of the Ox

By Randy Jackson

After that major bummer of a year – 2020 – we now have the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Ox for 2021. Not wanting to cast aspersions on the Zodiac animal of last year (the Rat), I think it’s time we moved on. But not so fast: Just what are we supposed to be getting into in this Year of the Ox? The ox is supposed to represent the characteristic of diligence. That makes sense, I guess, from what I imagine of an ox-like character. But is diligence a good thing?

The origin of the word “diligence” was the Latin word diligere, which meant to “value highly” and “take delight in.” Over centuries the English meaning of the word morphed into “careful” and “hardworking.” The word diligence was held in high enough regard in western Europe that it become one of the heavenly virtues of Christianity, along with chastity, temperance, patience, humility, kindness and charity. The seven heavenly virtues were clarified as a balance to the seven deadly sins set out by Pope Gregory I in CE 590 – diligence counterbalanced the sin of “sloth.”

Diligence seems to be the one Christian virtue that isn’t passive. To be diligent implies overtly doing something rather than embodying any (or all) the other virtues in one’s actions. Diligence as a virtue cannot stand by itself as a “good thing” without the other virtues. Otherwise, being diligent while committing a crime would be virtuous. The ambivalence of diligence as a Christian virtue has provided fodder for stories and even paintings over the centuries.

There are a surprising number of fables and fairy tales that deal with diligence. “The Three Little Pigs” is an obvious one. As we know, the third little pig worked diligently on his house of bricks while the other two little pigs spent more time playing, singing, and dancing. We all know how that turns out. The third little pig saves the day, as his house is too strong for the wolf to blow down. The moral of the story: hard work (diligence) wins the day.

“The Ant and the Grasshopper” is another fable dealing with diligence. However, this fable has inspired different interpretations on how diligence can be viewed. Originally, the hard-working ant who saved up for the winter was seen as cruel and miserly when he refused the more whimsical grasshopper’s (usually depicted as a musician) request for food in the winter. The diligent ant was seen as lacking in Christian charity.

In the Victorian era, French artist Gustave Doré produced a painting titled “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The painting depicts a young woman musician with head bowed at the door of a house.

Two children from the house are looking up with sympathy at the young woman. There is a lack of pity shown by the lady of the house as portrayed by her knitting. This is a reference to the French tricoteuses – women who knitted and jeered as the guillotine lopped off the heads of the French aristocrats during the French Revolution.

“The Ant and the Grasshopper” poses two important philosophical questions: should hard work be valued over the enjoyment of life? And, what responsibility do the “haves” bear for the “have nots”? In the United States, Walt Disney’s original cartoon portrayal of ‘The Ant and Grasshopper” (1934) was a political statement against the New Deal as proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the cartoon the impertinent grasshopper sang the song “Oh the World Owes Me a Living,” expressing a sentiment that many Americans held at the time – they saw the New Deal as giving something to people who did nothing to deserve it.

In literature and film, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” fable has inspired a large number of stories exploring differences between the life of someone who is diligent and hardworking, and someone who mostly seeks the enjoyments of life. In Somerset Maugham’s story “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” there are two brothers, one diligent and hard-working, the other carefree yet likeable. In this story, the carefree brother lucks out in the end (much to the chagrin of the diligent brother) by marrying a rich widow (who then dies and leaves him a fortune). For those familiar with Maugham’s most famous work, On Human Bondage (thought to be largely autobiographical), the main character, Philip Carey, is grasshopper-like, living a bohemian lifestyle against the wishes of his strict and diligent guardian uncle.

John Updike’s short story “Brother Grasshopper,” which specifically references the original fable, contrasts the characters of two brothers-in-law. One is diligent, hard-working and socially awkward. The other is charming, carefree and extravagant, but struggles with money. In the end the diligent man comes to realize the carefree man had enriched his otherwise restricted life of diligence.

Another, and different, angle on the concept of diligence, ironically, is the Japanese concept of inemuri – referring to sleeping on the job. This cultural phenomenon is more nuanced than just having a nap at work. A better translation would be “sleeping while being present.” It refers to diligent hard-working employees that are so busy and working such long hours they need a little inemuri to keep going: inemuri is thus seen as an indicator of diligence. In the west we might refer to this as a “power nap,” but without any notion that diligence is involved.

As for diligence as a characteristic of the Year of the Ox, there is no ambivalence, it’s only a good thing. The Zodiac predictions are for a year of advancement and success in 2021. After 2020, we can all use some of that. Happy New Year.

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