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Dubious Maxim 8: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Dubious Maxim 8-Tortoise and the Hare

Really? The best way to win a race is to run slowly and to never vary your pace?

This dubious maxim is from Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” in which Hare boasts that he has never been beaten in a race, and challenges anyone to take him on. “I accept your challenge,” says Tortoise, and the race is on. Versions from later times have Fox enlisted to determine the winner, but Aesop’s racers run on the honour system. Hare dashes ahead and, when he’s within sight of the Finish line, “to show his contempt for the Tortoise,” he lies down to take a nap. Tortoise passes him as he sleeps, and by the time Hare wakes up he is too late to beat Tortoise to the line. Aesop’s moral: “Plodding wins the race.” Possible other morals: “Don’t be an asshole.”

The fable has been taken up by every ploddingly unimaginative worker who ever resented being passed over for promotion by the flashy newcomer with the bright ideas. No sucking up to the boss for me, thinks Tortoise; I’ll just do my job as I’ve always done and get ahead at my own pace. This is usually followed by: I actually like working in the stock room. It’s also the fond hope of the boy next door who sees his childhood sweetheart climbing into the sports car belonging to the captain of the football team. She’ll come back, says the spurned boyfriend, as the car disappears over the horizon.

They both forget that the only way Tortoise could possibly have won the race was for Hare to stop running and take a nap. In life, I’ve noticed, that rarely happens: banking on the co-worker with the bright ideas to suddenly dry up is not a winning strategy, and even if she does, she’s already a manager and you’re not. Marathoners say it’s good to pace yourself, to not run full-out from the beginning but to set a steady pace and stick to it. But that pace need not be a slow one. And it need not last the entire race. The race will usually go to the runner who sets a fairly brisk pace and picks up speed towards the end. “Here’s an interesting statistic,” writes Coach Jeff on the website Runners’ Connect: “every world record from 1500 metres to the marathon has been set by running negative splits – that is, running the first half of the race slower than the second half.”

Aesop either was not a marathoner (possibly because the Battle of Thermopylae hadn’t happened yet) or was not a reliable narrator. Born in 620 BCE in Phrygia, as an adult he was a slave on Samos, an island situated in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, and famous for its wine. Just saying. He was given his freedom when he interpreted an omen for the Samians, and was later sent as an emissary between Samos and King Croesus. Apparently he was successful, and in 564, Croesus sent him to Delphi to deliver another message. While there, he apparently told a few fables that the Delphinians took as insults. Maybe he advised Leonides I, the King of Sparta, to go slow and steady when holding off the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. In any case, the Delphinians executed him by forcing him to leap off a cliff.

“Leap slowly,” I imagine them saying, “and fall at a steady pace.”

Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, lived at about the same time as Aesop, and said much the same thing, but means something much bleaker: “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, for time and chance happeneth to them all.” Qohelet acknowledged that the swift don’t always win races; not because plodding pays off, however, but because the world is unfair, often meaningless. In Robert Alter’s lucid translation of the Torah, this pessimistic (as distinct from Aesop’s strategic) view of life is more clearly stated: “…not to the swift is the race and not to the mighty, the battle, nor to the wise, bread, nor to the discerning, wealth, nor to those who know, favour, for a time of mishap will befall them.”

Alter alters the King James’ phrase “time and chance” to “a time of mishap,” which suggests that losing the race when you’re obviously the fastest runner is not an accident, it’s a bloody disaster. It means something is wrong with the universe. Alter comments that “the phrase is probably an oblique reference to death,” and adds that Qohelet “is not saying that the fastest runner will lose the race, or that the mighty warrior will be defeated in battle,” because of course the fastest runner and the strongest warrior will more often than not prevail. Ecclesiastes is saying “that all human triumphs are temporary and therefore illusory, for death obliterates everything.”

It’s a good thing Qohelet didn’t go to Delphi.

Greek mathematicians used Aesop’s fable to illustrate a self-evident truism: nothing can happen in the universe. Progress is an illusion. Zeno of Elea, a student of Parmenides, turned the hare into Achilles, and set out to show mathematically that fleet-footed Achilles could not possibly catch up with the tortoise. Achilles, Zeno stated, could run ten times faster than Tortoise, and so he gave Tortoise a ten-metre head start. In the time it takes for Achilles to run ten metres, Tortoise runs one metre. When Achilles runs that one metre, Tortoise has run a decimetre; Achilles runs that decimetre, but Tortoise has run a centimetre; and so on “ad infinitum,” writes Jorge Luis Borges, who was fascinated by this immortal paradox: “Achilles can run forever without catching up.”

Borges notes that several subsequent philosophers have tried to disprove the paradox, without success. Tortoise always wins the race. Borges notes that if Hare/Achilles runs one metre per second, then the time needed to catch up with Tortoise can be expressed by the equation:

10 + 1 + 1/10 + 1/100 + 1/1000 + 1/10,000…

“The limit of the sum of this infinite geometric progression,” writes Borges, “is twelve (plus, exactly eleven and one-fifth; plus, exactly eleven times three twenty-fifths), but it is never reached.” It is the nature of infinite geometric progressions that Tortoise always wins. “Will this bit of Greek obscurity affect our concept of the universe?” Borges anticipates his reader asking. Well, no it doesn’t, this reader replies. Because a prior observation continues to tell us that in real life, Achilles would pass the Tortoise in about 10.1 seconds flat.

Here’s the proof: Borges’s pace for Tortoise, one metre per second, is slow for a hare. Hares can run 75 kilometres an hour, which comes to about 20 metres per second. But even so, one metre per second is a steady pace. So Borges is saying Hare runs at a slow and steady pace, and still never catches up to Tortoise.

Which is my point.

I prefer the version of Aesop’s fable written by Lord Dunsany. Lord Dunsany – full name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany – was an Irish writer born in 1878 and, by the time he died in 1957, one of the most prolific and influential literary figures of his day. He pioneered the fantasy novel (the 1968 movie If was based on one of his 90 books). He also wrote for television and the stage, and was the chess champion of Ireland. Maybe, just maybe, he played a slow and steady game of chess, but I suspect he played quickly and blew hot and cold on the Sicilian Defense.

In his “True History of the Tortoise and the Hare,” written in 1915, he makes a nonsense of the fable. In his version, Hare begins the race with Tortoise, then realizes how ridiculous the whole contest is, and refuses to continue. Tortoise, not knowing he was competing against no one, plods on until he eventually crosses the finish line and is declared the winner.

But the story doesn’t end there. “The reason that this version of the race is not widely known,” writes Dunsany, “is that very few of those that witnessed it survived the great forest-fire that happened shortly after.” The fire, fanned by a great wind that came up during the night, roared towards the village where the race had taken place. A few of the village animals, including the Hare and the Tortoise, saw it coming and “hurriedly called a meeting to decide what messenger they should send to warn the beasts in the forest. They sent the Tortoise.”

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