Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tale: Who Will Bell The Cat? Piers Plowman; and 14th Century Social and Economic Theory


Who Will Bell The Cat

Where a later elaboration
improves the original.

Free Markets, Intervention Issues.
Aesop's simplistic Fable becomes Philosophical: a Model for Economics;

In Piers Plowman,
Poem by William Langland
1332-1400


Learn what happened after the mice acknowledged that their plan would not work, to save themselves by belling the cat. The idea was to construct an alarm to sound whenever the cat approached. Then the mice in the vicinity could escape. But no-one was willing to risk himself to do the belling. No-one emerged to do the deed.

William Langland was an Englishman in about 1377. He wrote a long poem, "Piers Plowman," and in it is a creative addition to Aesop's "Who Will Bell The Cat?"

But that addition - a kind of a post script - has been largely forgotten and the only tale we remember is Aesop's. It ends when noone will step up to implement the plan.

The Langland addition focuses on philosophy -- the consolation, in a way. What might have happened if the mice actually had succeeded in belling the cat - was it worse than what they were already enduring. If the cat had been saddled with a bell, so it could not catch its mice, would the population of mice so increase that everyone in the community would suffer. Would not many cats then come to enjoy the feast. And those new cats would not be wearing bells. Is it more in the common interest to allow a degree of death and destruction to a few, so the many can survive. Is the solution to watch out for one's own, one's own family, see that they are as safe as can be, and let others do the same.
The story:

A group of mice gets together to address a common problem of attacks on their numbers by the local feline, and decide that the solution is to bell the cat.

Most versions stop with the original from Aesop's fables, the mice unable to find anyone with the will or ability to take on the risk of belling the cat for the greater good, so the idea falls apart. See Aesop's Fables, Belling the Cat, at ://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Aesop/Aesops_Fables/Belling_the_Cat_p1.html/ Aesop had a way of being brief.

Piers Plowman's character's post script:

The story, however, goes on in the later version by William Langland, in about 1377 - but his creativity does not get reported. The reported part also refers to no mouse man enough to bell the cat. See ://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bell+the+cat,+who+will/.

The unreported part of William Langland's version is more important: William Langland, 1332-1400. This is from his "Prologue to the Vision of Piers Plowman, Version B,} at History Guide, ://www.historyguide.org/ancient/langland.html/

.
Langland offers us a look at life among the poor in the 14th Century England.

Read slowly, absorb. Do a "find" for "mouse" to get to this section on belling the cat, because the Prologue is long: Fair use bits here. In the story, there is a mouse who continues with wisdom after the group finds it is unable to get someone to bell the cat. The wise mouse gets them to consider what would have happened, had they prevailed against this particular cat:

* * * * *
`Though we killed the cat yet there would come another,
To scratch us and all our kind though we creep under benches.
Therefore I counsel all the commons to let the cat be,
And be we never so bold to show to him the bell;:
***
:For better is a little loss than a long sorrow;
He's the fear among us all whereby we miss worse things.
For many men's malt we mice would destroy,
And the riot of rats would rend men's clothes,
Were it not for that Court cat that can leap in among you;
For had ye rats your will ye could not rule yourselves.
As for me,' quoth the mouse 'I see so much to come
That cat nor kitten never shall by my counsel be harmed,
Nor carping of this collar that cost me nothing.
Though it had cost me full dear I would not own to it
But suffer him to live and do just as he liketh:
Coupled and uncoupled to catch what they can.
Therefore each wise wight I warn to watch well his own.'
.
* * * * *

II. So, what is the moral?

To each his own interpretation of anything, but try this:

If the damage from a death-dealer is contained, and only the survival of some is at stake, a relatively small group, then apply the rule of tough. Leave the cat alone. A few will die, but the group will live.

If the damage extends too far, to the wellbeing of all, the demise of the entire community and repercussions thereafter, there may have to be a different result.

III. But What Do We Tell Our Children?

Then, see an absolutely ridiculous version of belling the cat: drippy, soft, foolishly surface, watered-down version for kids with no thoughts allowed to enter between their ears, at ://www.kidsfront.com/stories-for-kids/bell_the_cat.html

Note that in the real story, there is more than just the mice who came up with the great solution to the cat problem - a bell on a collar. And more than the fact that the idea failed because noone came forth to actually do it.

IV. What else does it say?

This little tale is also a (would you believe) hymn to the free market, to be wary of interventions that could lead to worse.

So is the mouse's idea to limit any intervention that could be implemented, so it is truly temporary, lest greater evils result? He says that evern if the mice could kill this cat, another arises, is the idea, so be realistic.
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So: Is this the moral for a modern age:

Regulate when needed, clearly needed for the really greater good,. not just to protect a few who were in the wrong place in the wrong time. Each to watch well his own in that case. Fair enough. Here: criteria met. Regulate, find the whatever means needed and available. Bonuses? May be unstoppable in retrospect, because of contract law. But recoup, Obama, recoup it.

Is that it? That works. Do it. A cat out there? Better is a little loss, than a long sorrow.

Fair use finis.