Philosophy Phridays: Asshoppers and Grants – Playing at Being Human?

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the fortieth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Amber L. Griffioen.

Asshoppers and Grants: Playing at Being Human?

‘Parables, my dear Skepticus,’ replied the Grasshopper, ‘ought to come at the end, not at the beginning, of serious inquiry; that is, only at the point where arguments fail. But speaking of parables, you may be sure that the ants will fashion one out of my career. They will very likely represent my life as a moral tale, the point of which is the superiority of a prudent to an idle way of life. But it should really be the Grasshopper who is the hero of the tale; it is he, not the ant, who should have the hearer’s sympathy. The point of the parable should be not the ant’s triumph, but the Grasshopper’s tragedy. For one cannot help reflecting that if there were no winters to guard against, then the Grasshopper would not get his come-uppance nor the ant his shabby victory. The life of the Grasshopper would be vindicated and that of the ant absurd.’

In this passage from Bernard Suit’s immensely entertaining (and woefully under-read) philosophical dialogue, The Grasshopper1, the eponymous Grasshopper (true to the Aesopian fable from which he hails and which has already been discussed at least once on this blog) is dying from hunger. Unlike the industrious ants (who scoff at the grasshopper’s imprudence), he has failed to store up food for the winter, having instead played the summer away without a concern for his future wellbeing. Yet Suits’ Grasshopper is no whiner. In true Socratic form, he courageously accepts his fate and goes out philosophizing. In regard to his (theo)logical predicament, he claims resignedly: “I was put on earth just to play out my life and die, and it would be impious of me to go against my destiny. […] If I am improvident in summer, then I will die in winter. And if I am provident in summer, then I will cease to be the Grasshopper by definition. […] But since I am just the Grasshopper, no more and no less, dying and ceasing to be the Grasshopper are one and the same thing for me” (GH 9). Yet with his dying breath, the Grasshopper tells of his recurring dream that “everyone alive is really a Grasshopper […], engaged in playing elaborate games, while at the same time believing themselves to be going about their ordinary affairs”. Whatever occupation or activity one might consider, he fancies aloud, “it is in reality a game” (GH 9-10).

A tale as old as time.

On the face of it, the suggestion that we are all mere grasshoppers seems like the kind that only a nihilistic Grasshopper in a position of extreme privilege could make. The large majority of people in the world do not have the luxury of being grasshoppers, one might think, since they need to work – and work hard – just to eke out a living. To such persons, the Grasshopper’s utopian musings that the prudential ideals of the working ant-life would be absurd “if there were no winters” might be of little consolation. Even if it is true that, like preventative medicine, prudential activity necessarily aims at its own extinction by seeking “to reduce the number of good things requiring sacrifice […] to zero” (GH 9), what good is such a thought to one whose survival in fact depends on such sacrifice? Likewise, the claim that we will all inevitably die and are thus all really “grasshoppers in ants’ exoskeletons” is not particularly helpful to those who would like to prolong the inevitable as long as possible. As Johan Huizinga noted in the Foreword to Homo Ludens,2 “It is ancient wisdom, but it is also a little cheap, to call all human activity ‘play’” (HL ix).

It is for this reason, I suspect, that one of the Grasshopper’s companions, Skepticus, suggests that, in general, human beings are not “wholly grasshoppers or wholly ants, but a combination of the two; people are and want to be (if you will forgive a regrettably vulgar but spooneristically inevitable construction) asshoppers or grants. We can, of course, all cease to work, but if we do then we cannot play for long either, for we will shortly die” (GH 9, my emphasis). On Skepticus’ proposal, then, we are not best understood as either grasshoppers or ants, homo ludens or homo laborans, but rather as some kind of “asshopping”3 hybrid, since “while all work and no play undoubtedly makes Jack a dull ant, all play and no work makes Jack a dead grasshopper” (GH 14).

Skepticus’ main point seems to be that although play is good for us, work is necessary to make play possible: Engaging in ant-like activity creates the conditions under which one can undertake grasshopper-like activity. Yet Skepticus’ claim goes further than this: Not only are we asshoppers of this sort, he maintains, we have a preference for being asshoppy in this way! This might seem a bit puzzling: Is it not more plausible to suppose, as the Grasshopper suggests, that if we didn’t have to work to make ends meet, we would all just play the day away in true grasshopper fashion? Is not the ant life a mere necessary evil? Are we not really ants by force and grasshoppers at heart? I think that the perspectives of both Skepticus and the Grasshopper have something valuable to contribute to our understanding of the relationship of work and play, but to see how each claim has merit, we need to investigate the nature of work and play in a bit more detail.

Humans: Ants at play? Photo: Alex Wild

Both the Grasshopper and Skepticus agree on the idea that ‘work’ is fundamentally an instrumental enterprise aimed at securing some good, whereas ‘play’ is an autotelic activity4 – one performed for its own sake or as an end in itself. To put it a bit differently, work serves the end of some particular external interest, whereas play is, in some relevant sense, disinterested – i.e., relevantly detached from interests outside of itself. It “[has] its aim in itself and [is] accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’” (HL 28). And while it may thereby contribute constitutively to an individual or group’s overall wellbeing, it does so, as Huizinga notes, “in quite another way and by other means than the [mere] acquisition of the necessities of life” through labor (HL 9). Indeed, playing – and especially playing games – involves adopting what the Grasshopper calls a “lusory attitude”: One voluntarily accepts and allows oneself to be bound by certain presuppositions, behaviors, and rules “just so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur” and not for some further end (GH 35). Now certainly an agent may have other, “extra-lusory” ends that are served by her playing the game, such that the game is additionally instrumentally valuable for her, but she can also use a game by playing it, insofar as she adopts the lusory attitude (GH 146).

What we see here, both in the distinction between work and play and in play itself is a certain tension between necessity and freedom. Central to work is the idea of necessity: Work involves engaging in those activities we must undertake in order to survive and prosper, but which we would not likely otherwise choose to do. One is constrained in this sense by the norms of prudential rationality, namely to implement appropriate (usually laborious) means to enable the realization of survival and other external ends one cares about. In contrast, play has a sense of luxurious freedom about it. Playing is a voluntary activity, one engaged in for its own sake. It is not constrained by the norms of practical rationality in the same way that work is. (If anything, it is often the case that play involves choosing less efficient means to achieving some relatively arbitrary playful end. See, for example, Robin Williams’ NSFW discussion of the origin of golf.) At the same time, the absolute freedom and openness of play almost demands that structure be imposed upon it. While truly free play might just involve a kind of spontaneous, unstructured activity performed for no other reason than the fact that it is simply fun, if the freedom involved in play is to involve genuine action – to be an expression not only of spontaneous freedom but also of agency – such play must be constrained through the imposition of rules constitutive of the play itself. That is, play must transform itself into something resembling a game. In so doing, it loses some of its spontaneity, but it thereby acquires significance for human beings by transforming otherwise meaningless movements into deliberate, consequential behavior.

Sometimes humans play as ants: Formiga (left) & Formica Atomica (right)

In this sense, we might understand Skepticus’ claim that “all play and no work makes Jack a dead grasshopper” as claiming more than merely that onerous work is necessary for us to survive. Perhaps, if we are to take play seriously – to engage in it as agents in the world who act and interact with one another – we must make of it a meaningful activity, one which involves binding ourselves by certain rules and behaviors that carry with them their own instrumentality. In other words, to engage in meaningful grasshopper play, we must perhaps adopt a bit of ant mentality. At the same time, the Grasshopper’s claim that we are, in some sense, all grasshoppers is borne out in the ubiquity of human play and the pleasure we take in its intrinsic freedom. Indeed, the ants betray their desire to be grasshoppers when they make of their laborious, necessitated enterprise something “self-justifying” – an end in itself that rationalizes their callousness toward the grasshopper, who refuses to play their “work-game”. They play, as it were, at being autonomous players.

The mutual insights of Skepticus and the Grasshopper thus point us to the value we place on the human condition: Insofar as we possess the luxury of setting our own ends and determining what counts as meeting them, we demonstrate the power of our autonomy. Yet to translate our free spontaneity into meaningful agency, we creatively impose constraints, transforming the effort into the prize. We create boundlessly by imposing limit; we understand our freedom by imaginatively restricting it. In this sense, then, the ant’s life is meaningless without the grasshopper, but the grasshopper requires the ant for vindication. We should thus all be happy to be asshoppers, located as we are between the dull life of laborious boredom and the exhausting life of leisurely (ant)nihilism.5


1B. Suits (1978). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press). Referred to hereafter as ‘GH’.

2J. Huizinga (1980; 1949). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul). Referred to hereafter as ‘HL’.

3I will stick with the term ‘asshopper’ throughout, since for most academics the free association from ‘grant’ to ‘grant-writing’ may awaken the dreaded sense of onerous (and generally overdue) ant-work and thus threaten to undermine the hybrid work-play aspect of the term in favor of mere (instrumental) work.

4Suits elaborates on this notion in his groundbreaking work in Philosophy of Sport. See, for example, “Words on Play” (1977) and “Tricky Triad: Games, Play, and Sport” (1988), both found in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.

5Although the Grasshopper maintains that parables should come at the end of inquiry, I prefer Big Lebowski references.

Griffioen-2876b.gifDr. Amber L. Griffioen is a Margarete von Wrangell Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Konstanz in Germany. She specializes in Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Emotion and Action, and Philosophy of Sport and spends much of her time thinking about the exciting ways in which these areas overlap. She is currently working on projects concerning religious experience, non-doxastic faith, comparative Christian and Islamic mysticism, the religious imagination, and expanding the historical philosophical canon. She is a committed umpire voluntarist, a longsuffering-but-ever-hopeful Milwaukee Brewers fan, and a diehard believer in the Church of Baseball.