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Sour grapes

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

The Fox and the Grapes - a fable of Aesop


A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox's mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.

The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain.

Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust.

"What a fool I am," he said. "Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for."

And off he walked very, very scornfully.


Our friend Nietzsche liked this fable. So much so that he used it* to develop a genealogy of morality in the Western world. But to do that, he wrote a fable of his own. Here's his:


There are two races, Masters and Slaves. The Masters value the body - health and sex and living well; they like to be wealthy and proud and powerful. They just love life and fun and showing off. I'm not sure he put it quite like this, but that's the idea. Think of a group of young bankers on a skiing holiday. Do you loathe them? Well, so did the Slaves. The Slaves were jealous and resentful. They had no power or wealth or apres ski parties with sexy blondes (of any gender). So what they did was invent a new religion which inverted the values. Instead of wealth, they praised poverty; instead of sex, chastity; instead of pride, humility; instead of power, meekness. In fact, they went the whole hog. Suffering is just dandy because this life gives you nothing - all the rewards come when you're dead, so don't bother about the three score years and ten.


In Nietzsche's view this is just awful, because the resentment leads them to stop living. To say 'no' to everything that this life, the only life we have, offers. He thought we should dance and celebrate the fact that we're alive; that we should develop our power - as in our capacities and potentials. He thought that all this meek inheriting the earth nonsense was just sour grapes.


I can see where he's coming from. I've explained that I do believe that learning and growing are valuable ends in themselves. I do believe that life offers great riches - ideas and wonder and chances to say 'yes!'.


I can also see that resentment can be poisonous. I think it plays a problematic role especially in conditions of felt or real scarcity.


However, I also feel that there is much to be said for humility. It's an interesting and ambiguous concept. I'm not convinced there's merit in false modesty - which seems deceptive and has a taint of virtue signalling to it. Humiliation and shame are toxic. But the sense of humility as an awareness of one's inevitable limitations, of the ongoing defeasibility of one's beliefs, of the equal right of other's to state their case is critical. It is this which inspires us to learn and improve; it is this which encourages us to listen; it is this which allows us to love and to forgive and to feel compassion.


The psychologist and philosopher Neel Burton wrote an interesting article on this, which you can find here. He relates real humility to a suppression of the ego - which aligns it with Iris Murdoch's conception of unselfing. Interestingly, he also believes that the truly humble, because they are so concerned with ideas rather than self, can appear arrogant - and for that reason they need a healthy dose of 'real' modesty, which he describes as a means to protect the egos of others.


Daniel Fincke, the philosopher, also stresses the value of humility, which he regards as a virtue. But he also sees it as co-existent with a certain form of pride. This is interesting. The point that he is making is that one can and should have pride in one's genuine achievements and excellencies while at the same time being humble as one also recognises the ways in which one is limited, dependent and deficient. You can read his argument here - and I think it is well worth exploring.


Neither of these thinkers has any time for sour grapes, but both, I happen to know, do, like me, enjoy wine.


NOTE


Added on 13th July - I listened to Robert Solomon's Great Courses on the emotions some years ago and started listening again recently. He describes resentment as a feeling that comes with a sense of impotence: you feel there is nothing that you can do to achieve the goods (wealth, beauty, power) and so you feel resentment and, indeed, relish a sense of schadenfreude if the better off are brought down. This knowledge that you cannot get what they have, as with the fox, leads to the turning-upside down of the value structure. I am poor, and as I can't be rich, I will claim that to be poor is morally better. It allows for self-righteousness. It strikes me that, rather obviously, this is the root of inverted snobbery - whereas of course the root of snobbery is a sense of 'being better' and deserving one's superiority. Actually, that's not quite correct: snobbery used to refer to the tendency of those just below the aristocracy to mimic aristocratic behaviours and mores in order to try to be like them. Snobbery were the purlieu of the upper-middle classes rather than the nobs. Its meaning has subsequently changed to encompass the demeaning attitude of those above to those below, rather than the mimetic attitude of those below to those above.


*Added on 15th August 2020 - Nietzsche did NOT use this story - Sartre did. In later blog posts referring back to ressentiment I have clarified this.

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