The Taoist Heart of The Little Prince
The little prince and Chinese philosophy
In Saint-Exupery’s The little Prince 1 the little prince famously remarks in the 25th chapter: “But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart…”. A little bit earlier, in chapter 21, another character - the fox, teaches that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”.
Ordinarily one wouldn’t assign too much importance to these, admittedly easily digestible, remarks, if it wouldn’t be for an interesting coincidence: If we turn to a Chinese Book of Wisdom called the Secret of the Golden Flower 2, that deals with methods of meditation to achieve eternal life, we discover that very great importance is assigned to the heart. And not only to the heart, as a deeper connection between The little prince and Taoist philosophy becomes increasingly apparent.
In this essay we will dive deeper into this topic, we will try to devour any resemblance of credence to the idea of there existing a parallel between The Little Prince and ancient Chinese Philosophy, and who knows, perhaps we will find the secret of eternal life, that philosophers and alchemists alike, in the East and West tried to search for, for millennia.
On page 13 (page 30 in the linked pdf) of the golden flower, the English translation of which, by the way, is based on the German translation by Richard Wilhelm, we find the following passage:
The heart, according to the Chinese idea, is the seat of emotional consciousness, which is awakened by the five senses through unreflecting reactions to impressions received from the external world. That which remains as a substratum when no feelings are being expressed, but which lingers, so to speak, in a transcendental, supraconscious condition, is human nature.
While this might seem complicated at first, it ultimately, and according to my very own interpretation of those words, embodies a simple idea: When one doesn’t distract oneself with thinking in the first place, then one is able to perceive an objective or in other words outside ’truth’. Generally this is an idea very close to the Taoist school of thinking and often appears in their writings, most famously in Laotse’s Tao Te Ching. In other words, we often tend to distract ourselves by thinking, especially rational thinking, whereas the truth is already surrounding us. Often, this is the centerpiece of meditation.
The idea of transcending the blindness of our minds by not thinking, but rather relying on the heart to do the perceiving, can be, hence, seen in the words of the little prince, when he talks about looking with the heart as opposed to with the eyes. This can be seen in conjunction with the general Taoist idea that there is a Way (which is the literal meaning of the Chinese character) that guides us humans, and we have to ’let go’ in a certain sense in order to be able to follow or, more precisely, to be guided by it it better (pdf page 28).
As I have mentioned earlier, in the little prince it is the fox that first brings this idea of looking with the heart. Now what if I told you that in Chinese folklore the fox as a very special symbolic meaning in that regard? Maybe a coincidence, maybe not. In any case on page 46 (golden flower) in the footnote we discover the following text:
According to Chinese folk-lore, foxes can also cultivate the Elixir of Life; they thus attain the capacity of transforming themselves into human beings. They correspond to the nature demons of Western mythology.
While the idea of demons is, most likely, still different than the idea of demons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it is still an interesting observation and worthy of in-depth exploring in a future essay. Two pages later we see a confirmation that there is at least some parallel to demons in Christianity, especially in regards to the dangers of fantasising: The goal of demons seems to be to lead us astray, by presenting an alternative reality that tempts to weaken the human spirit, and make us loose the correct path.
The parallel to Christianity is worth mentioning when comparing the little prince and Chinese philosophy, because arguably there are some hints at Christian symbolism in the little prince. Hence it gives us more of a foothold in this admittedly far-fetched comparison, also in terms of examining the immortality of the human soul. Because, yes indeed, according to the golden flower, the human soul would be able to be(come) immortal. Coming back to those demons, they would definitely not like an immortal soul.
Whether the fox in the little prince is indeed an evil spirit is, of course, highly unlikely. After all, the fox reminds the prince of his responsibility for his flower. While an existential sadness befalls the prince, it is not necessarily because of the fox. The symbolism of the fox and its cultural as well as symbolic traits, is also something worth a deeper exploration, especially in regards to the little prince. The foxes’ generally ascribed traits of “cunningness, cleverness, slyness, passion” can score points on either side of the good-evil spectrum.
Whilst finding parallels between two seemingly unrelated topics is not always senseful, a lot of surprising findings may open up when asking the what if question. However, it is generally always wise to simultaneously maintain a degree of conservatism when approaching radically new philosophies. After all, even well-intended ideas, that haven’t yet stood up to the test of time, can lead to strange and unforeseen results. The same goes for philosophies and meditation practices that aren’t native to one’s culture: The golden flower goes into precise details of the aforementioned meditation practice. But caution is always advised, as sometimes the risks of opening up one’s soul can be very real. Thus, even eastern philosophies have to be approached with a degree of, if not mistrust, then at least very due diligence.