A MAN AND HIS SON were walking alongside their donkey, on the way to the market: so begins one of Aesop’s fables. “Fools,” muttered a passer-by. “What’s a donkey for if not to ride on?” Of course, thought the old man, and put his son on the donkey. “There goes a callous lad,” muttered another, “riding while his poor father walks.” The boy guiltily got off and let his father ride the donkey. “What a lazy man,” said yet another, “riding while his little son trudges along!” So the boy got on the donkey as well. “Poor, overloaded donkey,” said someone, “carrying a grown man and his hulking son.”
There was nothing else for it. Man and son both got off, tied the donkey’s feet to a pole and resolved to carry it all the way to market, to the laughter of bystanders. As they were walking over a bridge, the uncomfortable donkey managed to get one of his feet loose and kicked out. The boy dropped his end of the stick; the father lost his balance; the donkey, fore-feet still bound, fell headlong into the river and drowned. Try to please all, said a watching wise guy, and you’ll please no one.
You could call that the moral of the story. It’s really an anti-moral, if anything. It is certainly a good rebuke to certain sorts of morality, the ones that hear the voice of judgment in neighbours’ murmurs. But the fable points to something deeper and more radical than that. The muttering passers-by are not exactly wrong. Each possible arrangement of man, boy and donkey will seem unsatisfactory to somebody. The fantasy of a possible arrangement where everyone gets what they want is just that: a fantasy.