The entire passage is: “Do you know the fate of the praying mantis? It angrily stretches out its arms to arrest the progress of the carriage, unconscious of its inability for such a task, but showing how much it thinks of its own powers. Be on your guard, be careful. If you cherish a boastful confidence in your own excellence, and place yourself in a collision course with another, you are likely to incur the fate of the praying mantis.”
This is an excerpt from a conversation between the recently appointed tutor to the Crown Prince (who was the son of a duke) and a consultant named Ch’ü Po-yü, recorded in Zhuangzi’s (Chang Tzu) collection of works, with the oh-so-original name of “The Zhuangzi” (or “The Chuang Tzu”)… This means that this passage is from the Taoist tradition, and dates from the third century before the common era (BCE), and carries with it a few inherent assumptions.
The backstory to the discussion had by Yen ho and Ch’ü Po-Yü is that, essentially, Yen Ho was afraid of his pupil’s nature, and didn’t know how to handle the situation, which he summed up by saying: “Here is a man who by nature is lacking in virtue. If I let him go on with his unruliness, I will endanger the state. If I try to impose some rule on him, I will endanger myself. He knows enough to recognize the faults of others, but he does’ know his own faults. What can I do with a man like this?”
Admittedly, I didn’t really understand everything about this allegorical story, but even as a young man I knew that it’s clearly a passage about hubris and recognizing one’s limitations – no matter how powerful you think you are, or even actually are, there are forces that exist in the world that trump you. Ch’ü would then tell Yen Ho about trying to harmonize with his charge, but to be cautious about how he went about it for fear that he would either be pulled into the issues himself, or be blamed when things went wrong. A warning about being put into an impossible position if he wasn’t careful…
The story continues: “Do you not know how those who keep tigers proceed? They do not dare to supply them with living creatures, because of the rage which their killing of them will excite. They do not even dare to give them their food whole, because of the rage which their rending of it will excite. They watch till their hunger is appeased, dealing with them from their knowledge of their natural ferocity. Tigers are different from men, but they fawn on those who feed them, and do so in accordance with their nature. When any of these are killed by them, it is because they have gone against that nature.”
Both of these portions of the story are obviously Taoist in nature, as they reference the natural order of things, as in the Tao – the inherent rules for the world… The latter story cautions the reader about forgetting that nature. No matter who you appease, and how you appease them, never forget that nature…
What does this tell us today? Have we really changed much as a species in 2,300 years? Arguably, no; which is why these parables and stories still intrigue us – they still have meaning!
Know your limitations, yes…but one cannot fault the mantis for standing strong against the odds!