2013-14 Retrospective
The Allegory of the Pen

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
You return to the source of being.
– Lao-Tzu

The simplest solutions are the most elegant. We witness this in solving mathematical equations, personal dilemmas or even the telling of a tale. Often the process and problem involved in reaching these solutions are neither simple nor elegant. They are a tangled thorny mess of overlapping grey hues that we must unravel if we are to move forward. It takes a wealth of resources, thoughts and a bit of bold action to work our way through the briar of our existence. Those that are able reach an elegant solution did not get there alone. They borrowed and stole the tools they needed from many predecessors and contemporaries. In order for our best work to be done we must be welcomed into the minds of others as friends and neighbors, free to partake of the wealth we find there. Conversely we must leave the doors of our vaults open for others to explore and extract. We do a great favor to all when we package our insights for easy transport in the forms of stories, songs, and equations.

All the great thinkers are thieves, they simply cannot help themselves, like a crow when it sees the shiny marble of an idea they must pick it up. When many ideas have accumulated they begin to look over their cache. They compare each gem, looking not at the stark contrasts, but at the many shades and values that can be connected and combined to form another vision of what lies beyond the briar and how we might get there. It is not a compromise between extremes that we seek, but commonality. No one person or society is truly absolute. We are all made up of many and often conflicting truths.

Culturally we have conventions for expressing and comparing our truths, parables about marbles and crows, stories of caves and gardens of metaphors as lush and varied as Eden. These are packages that contain our ideas and experiences. Why not grab one of these bundles and tuck it under an arm? Don’t be afraid, the thinker left it there for us and we are engaged in an ancient and noble form of larceny. Now that it is liberated from that dark and dusty attic perhaps we should open it and see where it takes us. The label says, “The Allegory of the Pen” and this is what is inside…

Imagine a pen. It is a very large pen, full of sweet grass, fresh water and sunshine. There is shelter to get out of the wind and the rain and warm dry bedding available. The pen is completely surrounded by an electric fence and in the pen there are two goats. The first goat loves the pen. It makes her feel safe. She spends her days eating sweet grass and enjoying the feel of the sun on her back. It is her joy in these simple pleasures that makes her feel alive. She has no desire to leave the pen or test its borders.

The second goat loathes the pen. He sees it for exactly what it is; a prison, a false environment of dangerous contentment. He longs to know what lies beyond its borders. What other plants and animals might exist. He longs to know what it would be like to be wild, to be free. He spends his days testing the perimeter. He is searching the border for breaks and weaknesses in his captivity. He spends his life pushing the fence. Each time he pushes he is stretching and weakening the electric wire, microscopically expanding the parameters of his world. Each time he tests, each time he pushes, he is shocked by the electric fence that contains him. It is the pain experienced from challenging his limitations and expectations that reminds him that he is real. It is the pain that makes him feel that he is alive.

The allegory just described leads us to ask the questions; which goat’s life has more meaning? Which goat is free? And finally are freedom and happiness mutually exclusive or intrinsically intertwined? If we were to present these questions to Lao Tzu the philosopher from the sixth century B.C. and author of the Tao-te Ching, we would find answers as poetic as they are opaque, but consistent in their commitment to the Tao. The Tao is sometimes translated as “The Way” it embodies the philosophy of the middle path. A method of living that is centered and balanced in harmony, humility and compassion. It is a path of least resistance as Lao Tzu reminds us “The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side paths. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Tao” (29). The Tao is as much a manifesto for the governance of a great society as it is a prescription for personal fulfillment and meaning. It does not differentiate between the individual and the whole for in its full manifestation they are one. “If a country is governed wisely” Lao-Tzu promises, then:

People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of their neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it. (33)

This description of life as it could be reminds us of our goat at the center of her pen. Living a life of contentment and simple pleasures she is free. Free from want, free from pain, free from the questioning discontent that torments her brother. As Lao-Tzu puts it “The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle” (26). There is no pursuit in her happiness or her freedom by the means of her existence, it simply is.

But what about the dogs barking and the roosters crowing in that country so near? Is it not a shame to live an entire life without ever knowing or experiencing anything beyond one’s own existence? It could even be argued that it creates a mentality that is potentially dangerous. In his essay “The Individual in the Chains of Illusion” Erich Fromm, a twentieth century sociologist and humanist, describes how primitive clan mentality translates its self in nation states and world cultures. He explains:

There are moral laws governing the members of the group, and without such laws no group could exist. But these laws do not apply to the “stranger.” When groups grow in size, more people cease to be “strangers” and become “neighbors.” Yet in spite of the quantitative change, qualitatively the distinction between the neighbor and the stranger remains. A stranger is not human, he is a barbarian, is not even fully understandable. (333)

Thus regardless of how large or well-connected a person or a nation is by never experiencing the inhabitants in the countries nearby they never have a chance to become “neighbors” and will remain “strangers” thereby creating an isolationist mentality rife for defensiveness and brutality. Ignorance is the mother plant of fear and fear an invasive weed that chokes out both freedom and happiness.

This brings us to the question of the fence its self. To fence something in or to fence something out is an act of segregation. In “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. asks his detractors “Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement” (3)? This question asks us that by allowing socially constructed fences to exist, have we been “strangers’ to one another and is segregation both a symptom and the cause of our estrangement? Segregation is one of many social constructs dictated by the written laws and unwritten codes of our cultural infrastructure. This suggests a moral imperative to disobey any “code that is out of harmony with the moral law” as an unjust law (3). Dr. King explains this:

In the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. (3)

Returning to our allegory, the goat that feels compelled to test the fence also questions his segregation and isolation from the other creatures of the world.

A pen is related to a penitentiary and to be incarcerated in one whether it is complacently or against one’s will, is to have one’s freedom denied. Anyone cognizant of their captivity should feel compelled to take action against it. To challenge their constraints and test their limits is both a direct act of disobedience and the greatest act of hope. Just as we have seen that ignorance is the mother of fear, we must acknowledge hope as the seed of freedom. In reminding us of the virtue of “the capacity for disobedience,” Fromm draws upon the Hebrew and Greek myths (332). He uses Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods to illustrate how “Disobedience was the first act of freedom” (332). Just as Adam and Eve were punished and Prometheus chained to the rock for their daring, so too is the goat punished when he does not obey the limits of the pen. Not only is he experiencing physical punishment, but even more deeply, the emotional and spiritual malaise caused by the unjust fact of his segregation. Still as long as there is continued struggle there is continued hope. For him the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of freedom are in no way exclusive from one another, but intrinsic in that happiness is impossible and irrelevant without freedom. Fromm validates these struggles when he writes:

Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience not just in the sense that his spiritual development was possible only because there have been men who dared to say “no” to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or of their faith. His intellectual development was also dependent on the capacity for being disobedient, disobedient to the authorities who try to muzzle new thoughts, and to the authority of long-established opinions which declare change to be nonsense. (332)

What do Erich Fromm, Martin Luther King Jr. and our revolutionary goat all have in common? They all have their freedom, freedom to think for themselves, freedom to act with integrity, and freedom from fear. They are aware that there will be recourse and punishment for their thoughts and actions, but continue on their path with “simplicity, patience, [and] compassion” (Lao-Tzu 32). The value of their beliefs is of greater importance to them than the fear of punishment or the allure of comfort. This makes them extreme in their integrity and free in their thinking. Lao-Tzu writes that “There is no greater illusion than fear” once we dispel this illusion we are free to be direct in our actions and generous in our thoughts (28). Free to remove the battered walls that protect our fragile hearts and be defenseless in our happiness. All great thinkers are thieves of ideas. The questioners are invaders laying siege to our castle walls. Upsetting and destroying the safe and ordered sovereignty of our established beliefs. These are the forces for personal growth and social evolution.

What do these two goats have to teach us? Should we strive for the peace and contentment of Loa-Tzu’s goat or the sacrifice and passion of Fromm’s and Dr. King’s? If we step back we can see that both are fully and honestly experiencing their worlds. While one fights to destroy the fence that he perceives to be a barrier to his true self, the other takes a different path, one that goes within to discover her true self and the fences cease to exist. Each is gaining a greater understanding of themselves and their world through their experience. The methods and ideals that they both represent “have given us the intellectual tools to break through the sham of rationalization and ideologies, and to penetrate to the core of individual and social reality” (Fromm 336). They demonstrate that the pen is of our own construction.

We build fences around ourselves, our communities and our nations to protect what is inside, but in fact we are segregating ourselves from the world at large, from our fellow humans and our greater selves. History has shown us through countless wars and personal heartbreaks, that no good can come this. As long as we maintain the territorial mentality of protecting what is “ours” our fellow man will always remain “strangers” having never been allowed to become “neighbors.” In order to free ourselves from this self-imposed segregation we must be brave and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. The Yin and Yang of our convictions balance us on a center path toward our ideals, but in order to maintain this balance we must be both brutally honest and compassionately empathetic with ourselves and others. Lao-Tzu states it more elegantly when he writes “Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world” (32). Inspired by the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha who was a contemporary of Loa-Tzu’s, Fromm addresses this in his own way when he introduces his One Man ideal:

As long as any fellow being is experienced as fundamentally different from myself, as long as he remains a stranger, I remain a stranger to myself too. When I experience myself fully, then I recognize that I am the same as any other human being, that I am the child, the sinner, the saint, the one who hopes and the one who despairs, the one who can feel joy and the one who can feel sadness. I discover that only the thought concepts, the customs, the surface are different, and that the human substance is the same. I discover that I am everybody, and that I discover myself in discovering my fellow man, and vice versa. In this experience I discover what humanity is; I discover the One Man. (336)

In order to discover the One Man we must first fully emerge as individuals. We must eliminate the fences within ourselves only then will we have the strength and the sovereignty to know all men as neighbors and the whole world as a community.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Erich Fromm and Lao-Tzu were each in his own way working to end segregation. Dr. King fought for civil rights on a physical and political plane. Erich Fromm writing about the “One Man” ideal connected the individual in “One world, One nation” on a cultural and national level and Lao-Tzu teaches that spiritual oneness is possible through the Tao. All these great thinkers were thieves and they hoped for their ideas to be freely plundered. They have shown us a path through the briar. A solution as simple and elegant as it is challenging. That with an open mind and a generous heart there can be both freedom and happiness, but only if we can overcome both the internal and external fences will our pens cease to exist. No longer strangers to one another we can be free to each travel our own paths and find a place at the center of the circle.


Works Cited

Fromm, Erich. “The Individual in the Chains of Illusion.” A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2010. 328-337.

King Jr., Martin Luther. The Letter From the Birmingham Jail. DeAnza College: Mary Schultz. 2011. Web. 23 January, 2014.

Lao-Tzu. “Tao te Ching.” A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2010. 24-33.