What is worth most is often valued least.

—Aesop, Fables

This quote is the moral of the fable, “The Stag at the Pool.” The story, like all of Aesop’s fables, is elegant and simple.

A beautiful stag stops at a pool to take a drink of water. But while bending down, he notices his reflection in the pool. “What beautiful antlers I have!” he says to himself, and begins to turn his head left and right, admiring his antlers. “I would be the paragon of animals if I didn’t have such pitiful, skinny legs!” he says.

Just then, a lion spring out of a nearby bush. The stag turns to run. On his skinny legs he is fleet enough to put distance between himself and the lion. He takes cover in a wooded area. The lion is falling behind, and the stag seems to be losing him. But just then, the stag’s antlers get stuck in a tree branch. No matter how much he twists and turns, he can’t extricate himself.

“What a fool I am!” he says to himself. “I despised my legs, which allowed me to escape, and praised my antlers, which doomed me.” But before the late-blooming philosopher can get any further in his thoughts, he is eaten by the lion.

This moral now reminds me of something Bryan Magee said in his intellectual autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher. He is attempting to summarize the central insight of most religions (and many philosophies, I’d say):

The world is governed by false values. People in all societies seem anxious to do what they think is the done thing, and are terrified of social disapproval. They set their hearts on getting on in the world, being thought highly of by their fellows, being powerful, acquiring money and possessions, knowing “important” people.

As I have discussed in my review of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, I think it is, to a certain extent, inevitable that society be governed by these “false values”: wealth, power, attractiveness, coolness, fame, skill, and popularity. Society simply cannot function without them, because society inevitably involves competition: for power, for wealth, for mates, and for fame. Any time there is a competition—with more competitors than prizes—then there arise, ipso facto, standards for determining winners and losers. The competition for wealth causes us to admire the rich; the competition for mates causes us to admire the beautiful; and so on, and so forth.

But these values, which we often put so much stock in, are ultimately superficial and vain. They measure the individual—a constantly evolving, chaotic mixture of virtues, vices, skills, traits, and follies—by external things, like money or power, which are as often as not gotten by luck or villainy. The superficiality of these measures is apparent whenever someone suffers an acute reversal of fortune. A woman in an apparently successful marriage discovers that her husband is having an affair; a young entrepreneur makes a bad choice and goes bankrupt; a one-hit-wonder musician is washed up by thirty. The people themselves did not change; their luck did. And luck is not the measure of a person’s worth.

I do not think society need be condemned for being governed by superficial values. But because this is always so, we must constantly remind ourselves that all these values of the game, these values of the competition for worldly success, and all the relentless, never-ending messages we imbibe every day about the definition of success—all this might as well be a puff of smoke for all its permanence.

The really valuable things are not the prizes of competitions, but are available to anyone. The smell of the air on a chilly autumn day; the chirping of birds and the ringing of church bells echoing through a town; the reds and yellows of a cloudy sunset. Art, love, the pursuit of truth, the laughter of friends—these are what we most enjoy, and it is not a coincidence that enjoying them doesn’t require winning any game.

The story of the stag and his antlers illustrates this point very well. The stag is proud of his antlers, because antlers are what stags use to fight for mates. The stag with the biggest antlers is thus the manliest, the most successful in the eyes of the herd. But the superficiality of this herd value is apparent when the lion attacks. Now what is most valuable? The thing that is given to every stag at birth: his legs.

So remember: never overvalue your antlers at the expense of your legs. When bad luck hits—whether its in the form of a lion or a breakup—then its your legs that will get you through, and your big, impressive antlers will just get in the way.

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