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Review: Frog and Toad Together

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 1(1): 4.

Many of Arnold Label’s stories, both in this collection and elsewhere, make wry comments on language, on life and on human nature. One of my all-time favorites is a story in this collection called “Cookies” (pp. 30-41). It goes this way.

Frog and Toad begin eating cookies Toad has baked. They eat and eat, until Frog finally says (with his mouth full of cookies), “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.” Toad agrees, but wants to eat one last cookie; they do. Then they eat one very last cookie. Frog says that what they need is will power. To Toad’s question, “What is will power?” Frog answers, “Will power is trying hard not to do something that you really want to do.”

Frog puts the remaining cookies in a box and announces that they will eat no more. “But we can open the Box,” says Toad.

“That’s true,” admits Frog. So Frog ties a string around the box. “But we can cut the string,” Toad points out. “That’s true,” admits

Frog. Frog gets a ladder and puts the box on a high shelf. “But we can climb the ladder,” Toad points out. Finally, in desperation, Frog goes outside and gives the remaining cookies to the birds.

“Now we have no more cookies to eat,” says Toad sadly, “Not even one.”

“Yes,” says Frog, “but we have lots and lots of will power.”

The notion of the will, and the associated notion of will power, are philosophically both vexed and vexing. Some of the vexations have to do with the idea of determinism and whether determinism is compatible with free will. But others have to do with the idea of weakness of will, incontinence (akrasia) – lack of will power.

Frog says that will power is “trying hard not to do something you really want to do.” There is something very puzzling about the idea of trying not to do what you really want to do. If you really want to do it, you won’t really try not to. On the other hand, if you really try not to, it will be because you want not to do it. What Frog (and we) describe as a lack of will power begins to look like a case of conflicting desires. Toad wants to stop; but also (and even more strongly) he wants to continue to eat cookies.

At this point, it is easy to think of Toad as a collection of desires, including the desire to stop eating cookies (not very strong just now) and the desire to continue (very strong). Suppose Toad continues to eat cookies. Who is to blame? The desire to stop – for being too weak? Or the desire to continue – for being too strong? Or is it silly to blame a desire for being too strong, or too weak?

When St. Paul says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me,” (Romans 7:20) he seems to be identifying himself with his good desires and disowning the others as alien and subversive (sin). But isn’t the person, St. Paul, as much the bad impulses as the good ones? As much the ego, or id, as the superego?

Arnold Label’s gentle and loving mockery of Frog and Toad invites us to reflect on the phenomenon of weakness of will and to join philosophers from Aristotle (see Bk. VII of his Nicomachean Ethics) to the present in trying to understand it. The phenomenon is as familiar as it is difficult to be clear about.