The Fox and the Cat

Dear reader, there is a tale,

A cat once happened upon a fox in the forest. While shy of such a dangerous creature, she thought to herself: “The fox is said to be full of arts and experience, and so clever that he is esteemed by all in the world. Perhaps I can learn something from him.” So she called to him in a cordial manner, “Good day, dear Fox, how is it getting on in the forest?”

The fox, who was napping among the leaves, lifted his pointed snout to gaze at the cat. Slowly he looked from head to tail, then he sneered and sighed, and after a long time said, “Oh, you wretched little pet, you barn staffer, you foolish paw licker. What can you possibly be thinking of? Do you really have the nerve to ask how I am getting on? Do you even know how to hunt, or do you beg the humans to feed you? Tell me: How many arts of the world do you understand? Do you know anything at all?”

The cat kept her feline grace despite this torrent of insults, and calmly said, “I understand but one artful thing: When I am chased I climb a tree, and wait for danger to pass me by.”

At this the fox laughed, “Is that all? I know one thousand arts and ways, and have also in the bargain a sackful of cunning. Come with me little cat, and I will show you a thing or two about the art of the world.”

Just then a hunter’s horn was blown, and they heard a pack of hounds approaching. In haste the cat climbed a tree and hid among the canopy, while the fox thought of what to do. “Open your sack of cunning, Mr. Fox!” cried the cat, but it was too late, for the hounds already seized him and tore him to pieces on the very spot where he boasting.

And so the cat did learn something, after all.

~ ~ ~

This is a retelling of a very old tale, based on Grimm’s telling, though it is included in Aesop’s Fables and doubtless older than that. There is probably a related tale from the 7th century BC, though the poet Archilochus gives us only this fragment:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

No one knows the tale. I have always constructed a simple one: The fox for all his clever tricks cannot attack the hedgehog, who has thought very hard about his own defense.

(I relate another tale with the hedgehog, about the Sun’s marriage to the Moon, here.)

The lesson is simple: We must resist being too clever. Every programmer, or investor, or gardener, or urban planner, etc, must learn this lesson eventually, or else be bit in the bum by hounds of their own making. When complex systems work, they work. But when complex systems fail they fail in complex ways. Often we cannot even spot our disasters until long after we’ve boasted of success.

There will be a philosophy post soon, but I cannot promise when. I feel a few weeks ago as if I have had half a thought, and now I sit here waiting for the other half to arrive to me.

Until then,

s s