The Parable of the Slovenian Farmer

“You can be good today, but instead you choose tomorrow.”

Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180)

Once there was a Slovenian farmer who worked on his farm. One day, a god-like figure approached the farmer and offered him a deal. The god-like figure says “I will do whatever you request to you, but whatever I do to you, I will do twice that to your neighbor.” The farmer thinks for a moment then replies, “Take one of my eyes.”

I originally heard this story from Slavoj Zizek, a Solvenian philosopher and researcher at the department of philosophy at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts, to explain his pessimistic view of human nature and how we will actively work for destruction of our kind.

The story is pretty short, but I was surprised by the ending. I didn’t expect the farmer to be willing to lose an eye to blind his neighbor. I knew that people were willing to hurt themselves to bring about their version of justice, but to lose an eye seemed too extreme for me.

Maybe the story needed a little background between the neighbors. Maybe it didn’t. Either way, I thought it was surprising that the farmer chose what he had but that led me to the question:

What would I have told the god-like figure?

I probably would not have chosen to hurt myself or my neighbor. I like to think that I would have requested something that brought us both prosperity and fulfillment.

But…after thinking about it longer I would want to be more specific. I couldn’t simply ask for $200,000,000 or an 8 bedroom house for my future family. Honestly, I would want something that benefitted my neighbor, but I also want to be able to benefit from their benefit. Is that selfish? Probably. But I think it’s more moral than telling the figure to take one of my eyes.

Assuming I didn’t have to answer the figure immediately (because it took me a while to think of this), I would probably tell him to give me a strong desire to take responsibility for everything in my life. If I were able to do this, I think I’d be able to effortlessly design my life, but better yet, my neighbor would be even more responsible than me! This means he would not only be living life by his design but also would be consistently helping me find ways to solve my problems! His benefit is my benefit.

If I did have to answer the figure immediately, I probably would have regretfully asked for the 200 mil or the big house. I heard somewhere that people are terrible at predicting what they would do in spontaneous situations. I think that’s true, but I believe that we are excellent at predicting our behavior if we have thought it through thoroughly before hand. So, if some god-like figure or God himself were to appear to me and ask me the same question, hopefully I’ll be prepared.