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The Bee-Man of Orn

by Frank Richard Stockton


The Bee-Man of Orn introduces the idea from Socrates that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

In the ancient country of Orn lived an old man called the Bee-man who spent his life in the company of bees. All seemed fine in the life of the Bee-man until an unexpected visit from a Junior Sorcerer sends him on a mission to examine himself. The Junior Sorcerer told the Bee-man that he had been transformed into something else. If the Bee-man can figure out his form, the Sorcerer promises to fix him. The Bee-man sets out to discover just what his original form might be.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The story of The Bee-Man of Orn can be read as a journey of self-exploration and examination. When told that he has been transformed into a Bee-man from some original form, the Bee-man is insistent on determining what he is “supposed” to be and becoming that thing. In framing the story this way, one is reminded of the mission of Socrates, the philosopher who emphasized the importance of knowing oneself and examining one’s life. Socrates made a mission out of examining his life and knowing himself. The Bee-man must do so as well.

In his journey to discover to his true self, the Bee-man rules out many possibilities. His intuitions guide him as he immerses himself in various contexts, seeing if they feel natural to him. The Bee-man always does what feels natural and right to him. An interesting philosophical topic that gets raised here is the role of intuitions in doing philosophy. The Bee-man’s quest for his true identity is a philosophical one. The Bee-man seeks to discover his nature, what he is most fundamentally. Yet, in doing so, he is relying on what feels natural, or in other words, what intuitively seems right. Philosophers often make appeals to intuition or common sense. But can we trust our intuitions? Why think they lead us any closer to the truth? Questions like these are important because one needs a sense of the tools available to do philosophy. If the Bee-man had not trusted his intuitions, what tool might he have used in its place? Or are our intuitions indispensable?

A significant event happens to the Bee-man during his adventure. When given a chance to save a baby from the gnashing jaws of a surly dragon, the Bee-man sacrifices his bees to save him. In doing so, the Bee-man stuck to his methodology of doing what seems natural and right. When the Bee-man himself realizes how strongly connected he feels to the baby, he realizes that he has discovered his original form: a human infant. What the Bee-man does not seem to realize, however, even after returning the baby to his mother, is that he had been quite courageous in his act of saving the child. In acting naturally, the Bee-man performs a heroic deed, an act of selfless virtue. This raises an interesting philosophical question: how could the Bee-man be so courageous and not even realize what he was doing was courageous? It seems that there is an underlying assumption about human nature being made in the story, namely that people are naturally capable of doing good and heroic things. Hence, another topic sure to inspire good philosophical discussion is about human nature. Are we naturally capable of doing altruistic things like the Bee-man did, or are we naturally just selfish and greedy?

Shortly before being sentenced to death, Socrates claims that the unexamined life is not worth living. The Bee-man lived a long unexamined life before ever embarking on his quest. But after his examination, his discovery, and finally his return, the Bee-man’s life ends up just as it was before. He is the Bee-man, and nothing, it seems, is going to change that. So what purpose did his journey serve? Is there any value in embarking on a journey if it is only going to lead you right back to where you started? According to Socrates, it is indubitably valuable. So if Socrates is right, even though the Bee-man ends up being the same old Bee-man he always was, there is something profoundly different about him at the end of the story. If Socrates’ claim is true, then the Bee-man’s life is meaningless at the beginning of the story but meaningful at the end. This raises another philosophical point of discussion. Is the Bee-man’s life somehow better for having gone on this quest of self-examination?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

The Junior Sorcerer says that the Bee-Man has been transformed from something else into a bee-keeper.

  1. Caterpillars change into butterflies. What are other living things are transformed in nature?
  2. Bees transform nectar from flowers into honey. What animals transform food they eat into foods for people?
  3. The Junior Sorcerer says that people and animals are sometimes magically transformed. What is the difference between being magically transformed and being transformed through growth?
  4. Growing up has changed you from a baby. How are you different from the baby you once were?
  5. How long does it take you to change into something else? What stays the same as you change?

When the Lord of the Domain kicks him, the Bee-Man decides he could not have been a mean person.

  1. Do people who were once good and kind sometimes become mean and cruel?
  2. What might change them?
  3. Do people who were once mean and cruel sometimes become good and kind? What might change them?
  4. Think of a way that you are different than you were a year ago. What changed you?
  5. How would you like to be different when you grow up?

The Bee-Man throws his bees at the dragon and rescues the baby.

  1. This is a brave thing to do. Is the Bee-Man always brave, or is this the first brave thing he ever did?
  2. The Bee-Man knows what to do. Have you ever been in a difficult situation when you did not know what to do? What happened?
  3. The Bee-Man feels good about saving his baby. Do you feel good about something you did? What? Why?
  4. The Bee-man did not realize that it was brave to save the baby. Can you still be brave, even though you don’t know that you are acting bravely?

The Sorcerer returns to the country of Orn and discovers that the Bee-Man has grown up to be a bee-keeper, just as he did the first time.

  1. Do you think grown-ups might like to start life over and become someone different? Why?
  2. Do you think it might be fun to have more than one chance to grow up? Why or why not?
  3. Can you imagine being born in a different country? Speaking a different language? Enjoying different customs?
  4. What is something about you that might not change? Why?

Original questions by Gareth Matthews and Jayme Johnson. Original guidelines for philosophical discussion by Jayme Johnson. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for The Bee-Man of Orn featuring a colorful drawing of a smiling man with a large red nose and old-fashioned looking clothes on. He's got a beehive in his hands and is about to place it on a table with another bee-hive. A jolly-looking pig sits under the table and looks up at the man. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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