The Gift of Good Character 6 by Charles Debelak

The Elephant and the Rider

The Gift of Good Character 6 by Charles Debelak

cover of the book “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt


The metaphor of the elephant and the rider, representing two aspects of human nature, helps us understand Aristotle’s context for discussing passion and reason. The rider represents reason; the elephant our emotions and passions. While the rider may envision noble goals and aspirations, it is the power and might of the elephant that ultimately determines where this couple goes. If the two do not work as a team, the elephant takes the couple wherever the elephant wants to go to do whatever the elephant wants to do.

Unfortunately, the elephant’s primary objective in life is the immediate gratification of its most basic instincts. He wants pleasure and satisfaction and he wants it now. Just as importantly he has the power to insist on his way. The rider, well, is often just along for the ride. Even if the rider aspires toward some noble achievement or productive end, the elephant can wave his trunk dismissively at the idea and lumber toward the Savannah or watering hole to eat, drink and sleep to his heart’s content.

I love the photograph of an elephant swimming with a rider on his back on the cover of the book “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt, because it so vividly portrays our own personal dilemmas, but more so, it explains the behaviors of our children. If adults don’t impose their will upon children, children will consistently choose whatever it is that gives them the most immediate gratification, enjoyment and pleasure. In other words, the elephant insists upon his way. Shall it be green beans or ice cream? Video games or math homework? Hanging out with friends at a mall or volunteering at a soup kitchen? Completing assigned tasks care¬fully and thoroughly or cutting corners in order to go outside and play? Are these even choices for children? Hardly. The elephant will win every time, and if left unchecked, the instinctual behaviors of the elephant will become habitual. Children will, as a matter of habit, consistently satisfy immediate needs bypassing those efforts that might lead to a more fulfilled and productive life.

The challenge for parents and educators is to get the elephant and rider working together as one unit. The power of passion and emotion must become a partner with reason. Reason must under¬stand the needs of the elephant and reason must also introduce the elephant to higher and greater levels of satisfaction and pleasure. Together they become a team that rides toward a life of achievement, productivity, societal betterment, and above all, personal fulfillment and self-actualization.

Here is where Aristotle’s view of cultivating virtue, and the reasoning inherent in virtue, is so helpful. Let’s assume, and there is much research and history to support this assumption, that one of the highest goals for any human being is self-actualization, that is, realizing one’s potential and becoming meaningfully attached to others. Aristotle’s virtues describe the behaviors and attitudes that enable these aspirations. They inform the rider’s greatest hopes and aspirations. They also become the reigns between these aspirations and the elephant’s visceral instincts and power. When virtue is taught, the elephant discovers new standards of pleasure and satisfaction. The great creature can be taught that there is fulfillment in life that exceeds experiences at the watering hole or savannah. Virtue inspires rider and elephant alike. Reason and passion find common aspirations, and virtuous reasoning guides passion to its highest realization.

The introduction of virtue into a child’s life awakens a child’s humanity, defining human potential and the pathway to realize that potential. Virtue education calls out to the noble and good nature of each child. It inspires both the rider and the elephant within each child toward a life well lived. Virtue education introduces boys and girls to the behaviors and attitudes that educate and train the rider and the elephant toward a life of productivity, fulfillment and societal betterment.

To read more blogs in this series:
1. The Gift of Character
2. The Early Start
3. Early Start a Notion Rooted in History and Modern Research
4. Character that Leads to Growth
5. Good Character: Defining Virtue

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