Of Flies and Men

By my calculations, my room, recently renovated, currently contains two flies. Each seems to be of a different make. There are 217 different kinds of flies, a critter with two sets of wings. I do not know to which species these two flies belong. One strikes like a baseball; the other is more flighty. Each, no doubt, has a scientific name. Though mostly invisible, they constantly buzz me from out of nowhere. With my hand, I bat my head or desk when either lands on said objects. But I am not fast enough to eliminate any.

I have not yet named them individually, like Sid and Lester. They may be females. I have consulted companions who tell me to get a fly swatter. But I have also been reading about utilitarian economics. It tells me that all my actions are for my pleasure. It upsets me to think that my killing a fly gives me occult pleasure. Besides this compassionate concern would cast some shadow on a vaunted school of economic theory. Moreover, a good utilitarian has to weigh the cost of purchasing a fly swatter with the time it takes against the annoyance of the two flies. Is it cost effective?

Another friend gave me some anti-insect spray made out of citrus fruit. The trouble with that method is that you have to hit the fly with the juice to do any damage. As Schall only has one eye, the dang flies seem to know where my blind side is. I tested the spray gun’s functioning. My chances of hitting either fly with it are near zero. The resultant spray on my hand and desk was a mess. So I ditched the spray gun. In utilitarian theory, the spray was more bothersome than the flies, and less pleasant too.

Now, I am sure that creatures such as birds and salamanders find the fly to be a rather juicy morsel. But also I think, again according to the utilitarians, that inducing a sparrow or two into my monastic cell to eat the flies would have unwanted disincentives. Sparrows, like other winged friends, are known to create problems in confined quarters.


The following question next comes up: “Is it moral to kill a fly in the first place?” After all, the little bugger has a “right” to be on this planet. I have considered making pets of these two pesky flies, if I ever can catch them. I recall as a boy in Iowa that we used mason-jars with lids to catch slower bees and fireflies. But we ignored the speedier flies.

Likewise, several decades ago, California suffered the invasion of a beastie called the “Med-fly.” As I recall, Jerry Brown was in one of his early stints as governor. The Browns, father and son, are becoming the closest thing we have in this country to kings ruling by divine right. Their house has ruled California almost as long as the House of Stuart, which thought up the divine right idea.

Anyhow, I once recall being on the famous Venice Beach in Southern California in the days of roller-skate craziness. Sure enough, down the walk, amidst hundreds of skaters, came a man with a huge statue of a Med-fly attached to his helmet with the sign “Save the Med-fly.” In California, in case no one has noticed, you pretty much have a “right” to anything you want.

After missing these flies for some time, I was forced to ask the question about their intelligence. This question came up in connection with an ex-student of mine who is now employed at a working cattle ranch in Colorado. There, she tells me, they still do most of the herding on horseback. I recall reading someplace that, in divine providence, horses and cattle have tails to swoosh-away flies.

She told me a local Indian story. Once all animals had close relation to each other, including humans. But along the way, as they will, humans, being – so it is said – endowed with reason, abused their trust. Most animals then cut off relations with the two-legged marauder. Two animals, the horse and the dog, kept some contact, however. They remain more on the human side. They can be talked to and “reasoned” with, after a fashion.

Well, I am not convinced that these two flies have been near any dogs or horses, though it is possible they attack the four donkeys we have on the property. The title of these reflections, though with overtones about The Lord of the Flies, recalls Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men. This title itself refers to Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse” – the “best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.”

Man is by nature a rational animal. As I write, Sid and Lester enjoy their “right” to be flies on this planet. The best-laid plans still oft go awry.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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