One of my favourite Fables from Aesop is The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Did you know that his stories were used by ancient philosophers? It was said that while in prison, awaiting execution, Socrates turned several of Aesop’s Fables into verse. This little story can also help us to understand certain aspects of Stoic philosophy. Seven centuries after Aesop, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was meditating upon:
The country mouse and the town mouse, and the alarm and trepidation of the latter. – Meditations, 11.22
Elsewhere, Marcus also briefly mentions “the scurrying around of frightened little mice”, perhaps also with the same fable in mind, as he goes on to say that we should remember “every man is worth just as much as the things with which he concerns himself” (Meditations, 7.3).
This is my retelling of the fable… A town mouse once visited his cousin in the countryside. The country mouse welcomed his cousin with a simple meal of rustic food: a crust of bread and some dry oats. However, the town mouse laughed at his unsophisticated tastes and peasant fare. Boasting of the luxury and abundance to be found in his townhouse he insists that the country mouse should come back to the city with him for a taste of the good life. Sure enough, they do so and feast like kings upon the finest scraps from the owner’s table, in the house where the town mouse lives hidden. However, suddenly two dogs who hear them scratching around come hurtling into the room barking and send them scurrying for cover, in fear for their little lives.
Once they’ve caught their breath and things have calmed down, the shaken country mouse thanks his cousin for his hospitality but says he’ll be returning to his humble country dwelling right away. He says that although the fare is simple he prefers the safety of his own home to the dangers of the city. The town mouse’s perilous habits aren’t really the good life at all. He’d rather eat like a peasant than risk being eaten by a ravenous dog, thanks very much!
The Roman poet Horace, who was also a student of Stoicism, among other philosophies, discussed this Fable at length (Satires, 2.6). It’s an allegory about simplicity and “moderation in all things”. Sometimes greed brings more trouble than it’s worth. Many people live more contented lives by learning to enjoy what they have rather than desiring what they don’t have, or what’s just beyond their reach.
Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the most pleasant from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. – Meditations, 7.27
The Stoics advised us to bear in mind that focusing on having what we don’t have creates longing, and that can be painful when its unfulfilled. By contrast, fewer people tend to contemplate not having what they do have, which is the prerequisite for gratitude, a much healthier state of mind in many cases, although Marcus warns himself not to become overly-attached to things in this way.
This gratitude is one form of the rational joy in life that Stoics considered to be healthy and a characteristic of the wise man. Epictetus likewise advised his students to cultivate it by imagining that life is a banquet or festival they’ve been invited to, which will only last a short time. Rather than grumble that it will soon be over, or find fault, they should cheerfully make the most of the opportunity.