Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Today’s post is on the philosophy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s seminal work, The Little Prince. Antoine was an interesting if peculiar man who was a writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist and pioneering aviator. I first came across his work when searching for a suitable show to watch with my children on Netflix™.
It was a fun and enjoyable film and its message of focusing on the things that genuinely matter resonated with myself and my children. However, it was not until I came across the book that it made an indelible mark on my life.
The Little Prince’s original form tells the apocryphal story of his 1935 crash in the Libyan Desert while attempting to break the Paris to Saigon Air Race record. During which he and his navigator started hallucinating due to their severe dehydration.
The story begins with us being introduced to the pilot (the narrator), where we learn about his longing to find people who can understand the world’s intangible beauty, which only seems to be visible to children.
As the story progresses, we are introduced to the enigmatic Little Prince, who demands that the pilot draws him a sheep. As we continue on in this remarkable work, we learn more about the Little Prince and his particular origins. I will not ruin the story by giving too much detail here. If you have not read it yet, I strongly suggest you do as it is truly wonderous.
What attracted me to the story was not so much the narrative aimed at children, but the philosophy scattered throughout, which is useful to us in our studies. The first lesson we are presented is the false importance we so often place on appearances. This lesson is imparted through the story of a Turkish astronomer who discovers the prince’s asteroid. When he presents his findings, “nobody believed him because of his costume. The grown-ups are like that”, we are told. With the next few lines recounting how, when the same astronomer being dressed in European clothes presents his findings again, “this time, everyone accepted his opinion”.
This point is expanded on with Saint-Exupéry speaking about what becomes the core philosophical element of his work, the misguided focus on the non-essential. He critiques how we ‘grown-ups’ focus on the tangible over the intangible, or as he puts it, “Grown-ups like figures. When you talk to them about a new friend, they never ask you the essential… What is the sound of their voice? What games do they prefer? [instead] they ask you: How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much money does his father make?” This criticism of the focus on the non-essential is a constant in this work with Saint-Exupéry impeaching us to focus on friends, love and the immaterial over the material.
As the origins and the adventure of the Little Prince are slowly revealed to us, we are treated to a procession of characters that show off the vices which so concern Saint-Exupéry. We meet the king who “was essentially concerned with being respected”. This allegory of the pursuit of power and honours is illustrated with cutting insight by the king boasting of how the stars obey him. With this ‘universal monarch’ stating “They obey me immediately. I do not tolerate indiscipline”. Yet when the Little Prince asks him, “I would like to see a sunset… Do me a favour… Order the sun to lie down…” The king states that he must only give orders that are reasonable, and as such, would order the sun to set when it was going to set already.
Next, we meet the vainglorious man to whom the approval of others mattered most. The Little Prince, being confused by the curious desire of this man to be applauded and his inability to hear criticism on being asked to admire this man, states, “I admire you… but how can it be interesting to you?” This scene is repeated as, on planet after planet, the Little Prince encounters people who are focused on the non-essential. He meets a drinker who drinks to forget his shame in drinking, and a businessman who is entirely focused on counting the stars so that he may own them and be rich to buy more stars. As we go on, Saint-Exupéry repeats in different ways his refrain that we should focus on the essential and fleeting in life.
Saint-Exupéry begins to explain his point when, in Chapter 17, the Little Prince starts to recount his experiences on Earth. We see from the observation of the flowers and the fox how blinded we are by the limited perspective we possess, and how easy it is to jump to conclusions. This is evidenced in the fox’s assertation that man’s only interest is in raising chickens and by the Little Prince himself. After walking through a desert and climbing a high mountain, he thinks he has seen the whole planet, exclaiming, “What a funny planet, it is entirely dry, entirely peaked, and entirely salty. And people have no imagination. They repeat whatever they hear.”
Next, we are introduced to Saint-Exupéry’s conception of friendship, which the fox imparts. “Here is my secret. It is very simple: we see well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes…It is the time which you have spent for your rose which makes your rose so important.” From this principle, the rest of the story flows. Saint-Exupéry shows us how, by perusing the non-essential, we “are never happy where we are” as we don’t know what we are looking for. We don’t realise as children do that a thing is essential as we treat it as being important. We seek after the saving of time yet do not consider what we should spend the saved time on. As the Little Prince says, “Men…cultivate five thousand roses in the same garden. Yet they do not find what they are looking for. And yet, what they are looking for could be found in a single rose or in a little bit of water… But the eyes are blind. They must look with the heart.”
This conclusion of Saint-Exupéry’s is a salve to our hearts. We who seek after the achievement of our Individual Purpose through our families and communities’ welfare would do well to consider Saint-Exupéry’s lessons. Death is always but a moment away, and the span of even the longest human life is short. Instead of focusing on the non-essential, should we not focus on what is essential?
If you believe, like I do, that the purpose of life is fundamentally the continuation of our families, then our task is to seek after their welfare. So, let us take Saint-Exupéry’s advice and tend to our little worlds. Our lives, families, children and partners are unique because they are ours. If you choose to, you can find meaning and purpose in the achievement of the seemingly mundane chores of everyday life. Your work, like the stars for Saint-Exupéry’s pilot, can be transformed into something special by the simple knowledge of their importance.
You do not need to search the world for happiness. You can find the happiness you seek right where you are now. Once you understand that your purpose in life is found not in the possession of wealth, power or the approval of others, but in the welfare of your family and community. You will find, like the Little Prince did, that what is essential is close at hand but too often invisible to the eye.
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