People are Flowers: The Art of Morality as Painted in The Little Prince

Roughly once a year, I grab some coffee, settle comfortably in a sofa, and re-read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It serves as a transcendental gateway between who I am and who I want to be; that is, in Kierkegaard’s language: “The measure of a person’s fundamental disposition is determined by how far is what he understands from what he does, how great is the distance between his understanding and his action.” It allows me to bridge the vast chasm between what I think and what I do.[1] The book reminds the child that I once was—and, maybe, still am!—that I must constantly reevaluate what I do, how I do it, and why I do it. In the following pages, I wish to reflect upon this book as a piece of art that introduces us to “the little prince,” who, I will argue, is a moral leader; one who reminds us, time and time again, what it is we really need to focus on while living on earth. Moreover, many of the fictional characters in the story are also involved in providing witty and ingenious remarks on what it means to lead a moral life.

Reading The Little Prince is like being ripped from the delusional reality most of us have grown callously accustomed to. In the first few pages, the text demonstrates this rather memorably. The narrator describes a time when he was a young child and drew a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. He was aspiring to be an artist. When he showed “grown-ups” his drawing, all they could see was what looked like a hat; they had lost what children still had: imagination. The narrator eventually became a pilot, his dreams of becoming an artist crushed by the cold comments made by the grown-ups that surrounded him. Eventually, the now-adult narrator ends up in a plane wreck in the Sahara Desert. He awakes only to find a golden-haired boy, from a distant planet, whom he calls “the little prince.” The prince asks the pilot to draw a sheep for him. When the pilot attempts to draw sheep he ends up drawing his “hat.” The prince immediately recognizes it for what it is: a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, of course! The prince is not yet a grown-up; he is able to see more than the mundane things grown-ups see. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.”[2]

In the discussions that ensue, the prince reminds the once-child (who is only now a “grown-up”) what is truly important in life: “[a]nything essential is invisible to the eyes.”[3] The objective mumbo-jumbo that adults find themselves caught up in is not what makes life beautiful or meaningful. Things like friendship, beauty, and love make the world go ‘round—and all such things are invisible. When the pilot, attempting to fix a part of his plane’s engine, becomes angry and short-tempered with the prince—while the prince is describing something “important”—the prince responds appropriately:

“You confuse everything…You’ve got it all mixed up!” He was really annoyed. He tossed his golden curls in the wind. “I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman. He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all—he’s a mushroom!”

The prince was asking the pilot if his sheep—one which the pilot drew—would be able to graze on flowers. The pilot was unaware of the subjective importance of this question. The prince, living on a small planet, took great care of a rose with four thorns. He watered it daily, spoke with it, and loved it. The rose was threatened by a wild species of weed called baobabs. These baobabs would kill the rose if they were left to grow on their own; the prince’s job was to maintain his planet and protect his rose. In contemplating bringing a sheep to the planet—albeit, one which may potentially threaten the rose’s survival—the prince was profoundly distressed at the thought of a rose-eating sheep.

“If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn’t important?”[4]

Once the pilot realized the context of the prince’s question, he immediately ran to the prince, hugged him tightly, and suggested he draw a muzzle for the sheep.

Due to some “pretensions” between the rose and himself—one’s which he later would reflect upon with remorse and guilt—the prince left the rose on his planet to explore other planets. He felt as if the rose did not need him.

“In those days , I didn’t understand anything. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life. I should never have run away!…Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her.[5]

Saint-Exupery, in writing this, implied that people are flowers; and that sometimes we are immature and do not know how to love them.

Even the rose functions as a moral agent by telling the prince that, “I need to put up with two or three caterpillars if I want to get to know the butterflies.”[6] (This was said in response to his wanting to destroy the caterpillars prior to his departure.) In this quotable aphorism, Saint-Exupery implicitly suggests that some suffering can sometimes lead to beauty.

Once the little prince departs his planet, he finds himself landing on the “first” planet. There he finds a rather sensible “king” who only commands that which his “subjects,” and objects he oversees, are already doing (or are prone to do). The king explains why he commands what someone or something is already doing. “One must command from each what each can perform.” For “[a]uthority is based first of all upon reason. If you command your subjects to jump in the ocean, there will be a revolution. I am entitled to command obedience because my orders are reasonable.”[7] When the king commands the little prince to become a minister of justice, the prince asks whom he’ll judge, if there’s no one on the planet. The king suggests that judging oneself is much more harder than judging others.[8] But then the king remembers that there may be a single rat on the planet, one he hears ever so often.

“You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.”[9]

In saying this, the king succinctly reminds us all that we first begin with judging ourselves; and, if we ever do judge others, we should be merciful—for, “there’s only one rat.” Also, another concept is at play here: the concept of inter-dependent existence. The king’s suggestion reveals that it is good to be in “need” of other people. The judge “needs” a criminal; the criminal “needs” a judge. Both must exist in order for their roles to be played out.

By the time the prince visits all the small planets—six in all—he realizes that only on the fifth planet lived a man who cared about something other than himself. The fifth planet had a lamplighter who lit the lamp every minute, since day and night all occurred within the short span of sixty seconds. As to why he was doing what he was doing, the lamplighter could only say: “Orders.” Here was a man who was almost as ridiculous as the inhabitants of the other planets—but in a way less so.

Finally, the prince arrives to earth. It is on earth that he meets the pilot. It is also on earth that he meets a fox, one which explains to him the meaning of friendship and time. The fox tells the little prince that he is not “tamed.” The prince wonders what “tamed” means. The fox explains that it means “to create ties.”[10] If one creates ties, according to the fox, one tames the animal, and the animal becomes your friend. No longer would the fox be just an ordinary fox, one in a billion; rather, the fox would become the only fox for you in the world. “But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…”[11] The fox goes on to teach the little prince a thing or two about human relations and friendship. “The only things you learn are the things you tame…People haven’t time to learn anything…” It is because of a lack of friendship, time, and involvement that humans don’t really “tame” anything or really know anything anymore. In other words, they are lazy and boring.

The prince, on his way towards finding human beings, encounters a field of five thousand roses, just like the one on his own planet. He is shocked to discover that his rose isn’t the only rose in the universe, as he previously thought. He begins speaking to the roses:

“You’re lovely, but you’re empty,” he went on. “One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”[12]

The prince, in finding this field of roses, realizes something important—something all of us could empathize with: the importance of our subjectivity. Sure, the roses were similar. But there was a rose out there, far above all the other stars, on a small planet, that belonged to the prince; it was his rose. They have had a long relationship. They went through thick and through thin together. They had a shared history, a “we-ness” about them. The prince races back to the fox in time to hear him disclose “secrets” to life: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”[13] For what is invisible? Time. “It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important,” the fox finishes.

The Little Prince is a literary achievement of immense moral significance, being a museum of moral aphorisms, witty jokes, and touching tales. How, then, does it compare to the likes of, say, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics? Is it possible to relay morality by means of art and literature? I’m not sure what an agreed-upon answer may be, one which functions as some universal truth, but I think that this book does an excellent job reminding all of us regarding what it is that makes us live and thrive. In writing this “children’s tale,” Saint-Exupery really meant to remind us that we were all children once, and that most times a child’s simplicity and honesty is better than a million quantum equations.

In dealing with love and friendship, the book points out—I think, correctly—that we have to spend time with people. We have to “tame” people in order to begin understanding them. And when we love, we must do so by recognizing that the Other may be like the rest of the “five thousand,” but the Other is ultimately ours. In loving, the book gently urges us to learn “how” to love the Other. And not only that. Love requires the ability to think about someone other than yourself. It was the rose that made the prince’s world light up. It was his rose that made it worthwhile to look up at the stars at night, knowing that somewhere out there the love of his life waited for him. Aristotle, likewise, spends a great deal of time talking about friendship in a vein akin to the sense Saint-Exupery is trying to convey.

“The base person is held to do everything for his own sake, and the more corrupt he is, the more he does this: people accuse him of doing nothing apart from what concerns his own [good]. The decent person, by contrast, acts on account of what is noble; and the better a person he is, the more he acts on account of what is noble and for the sake of a friend, while disregarding himself.”[14]

Aristotle recognizes, as many Christian theologians do, that there is something intrinsically good about caring for someone other than yourself; there is something good about caring enough to lay your life down for your friends.

What in particular stands out for me are the many ways in which moral instruction—such as Aristotle’s Ethics, The Little Prince, or the Parables of Jesus—take form. It could easily be argued that all three offer relatively similar teachings regarding friendship. Living in a post-Freud world, we know that childhood experiences have a profound effect on children’s later adult life. Being able to instill morals from an early age is, arguably, a huge benefit, one that enriches the life of a child. Reading Aristotle presupposes a grown-up; whereas the parables of Jesus and The Little Prince are not limited to age as much. Specifically, The Little Prince is easily digested by a two-year-old child. It invites children to begin thinking about morality and the meaning of life. It invites children to think about their “flowers”—what matters to them? And, as grown-ups, we know that people are flowers.

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden…yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…”

“They don’t find it,” I answered.

“And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”

“Of course,” I answered.

And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”[15]

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore (Farmington: The Plough Publishing Co., 1999), 265-6.

[2] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harcourt Publishing, 2000), 2.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 24-5.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, trans., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 200.

[15] Ibid., 71.

4 thoughts on “People are Flowers: The Art of Morality as Painted in The Little Prince

  1. Ran across this article this morning, making reference to “The Prince” in discussing the thought of Sheldon Wolin, whose book, Democracy Inc., I just finished and highly recommend. I fondly remember reading “The Prince” and staring at the winsomely beautiful illustrations as a boy. You have inspired me to revisit it.

    • Sorry, it was Machiavelli that Wolin was talking about, not Saint-Exupery. Never mind.

      Reminds me of when Michele Bachmann opened her presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, and referred to the small community as the hometown of John Wayne. It turned out that it was the hometown of John Wayne Gacy. I still have the newspaper article on my refrigerator door for a good laugh when I need it.

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