The Nature of the Scorpion

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
– Ernest Hemingway

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

There’s an old fable that tells of scorpion that begs a frog for a ride across the river. The frog replies, “if I give you a ride on my back, you’ll sting me!”

The scorpion assures him, “if I sting you, we’ll both drown!”

The frog accepts this as logical, and agrees to take him across the river on his back. About half way there, the frog feels a sharp pain, and his legs go numb – they both begin to sink.

“Why did you do it?” asked the frog, “Now we’ll both die!”

“I couldn’t help it,” replied the scorpion, “it’s in my nature!”

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In other variations, the frog is replaced with a fox. Perhaps this was to illustrate that even a creature as clever and resourceful as a fox is not immune to the cruel indifference of nature.

A modern retelling has the fox place the scorpion on the end of his snout where he can keep an eye on him, flinging him off at the moment he raises his stinger. Interesting, but I think it misses the point (pun intended); The fox learns no lesson and instead, confirms only what he already knew to be true.

The last variation of the story replaces the scorpion’s fellow traveler with a tortoise. According Bidpai (as retold by Maude Barrows Dutton):

Halfway across he was startled by a strange rapping on his back, which made him ask the scorpion what he was doing.

“Doing?” answered the scorpion. “I am whetting my sting to see if it is possible to pierce your hard shell.”

“Ungrateful friend,” responded the tortoise, “it is well that I have it in my power both to save myself and to punish you as you deserve.” And straightway he sank his back below the surface and shook off the scorpion into the water.

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The scorpion pretends to understand logic and can parrot reasoned arguments, but he is and will always be a slave to his nature. Is there any point to being upset at a scorpion for being a scorpion?

The lesson here (if there is one) is this: You can only trust a scorpion to be himself. And if you are going to try help him, you’d better have thick skin.