Grasshoppers in the House: The Return of Bernard Suits


Pam R. Sailors
Missouri State University

Bernard Suits, Christopher C. Yorke & Francisco Javier López Frías
Return of the Grasshopper: Games, Leisure and the Good Life in the Third Millennium
190 pages, paperback, ill
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2023 (Ethics and Sport)
ISBN 978-1-03-220136-8

Seeing a grasshopper in one’s house is considered by some to be a sign of good luck. The superstition doesn’t say whether the luck increases along with the number of insects, but surely sport scholars should take themselves to be doubly lucky to have a second grasshopper in their library. Since the 1978 publication of The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, the text from Bernard Suits has become canonical in the philosophy of sport, provoking debate and discussion and resulting in an almost incalculable number of articles. Finally, forty-five years after the original text, and sixteen years after Suits’s death, the publication of the full and unabridged sequel is destined to set off a new wave of reaction and response.

Return of the Grasshopper: Games, Leisure and the Good Life in the Third Millennium, edited by Christopher C. Yorke and Francisco Javier Lópes Frías, begins with a Foreword by William J. Morgan recounting the history of the sequel, from its rumored existence to the publication of this full version. This is followed by an Introduction written by editors Yorke and Frías that does a very nice job of explaining Suits’s previous work and situating this current text in relation to it. A very short Preface from Bernard Suits notes that one need not have read The Grasshopper before The Return of the Grasshopper and offers a few vocabulary hints to aid in understanding. He concludes with a shorthand version of his definition of game-playing: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” And with those preliminaries out of the way, we are ready to enter the world of the Grasshopper.

 He concludes with a shorthand version of his definition of game-playing: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Chapter one summarizes the main line of thought in The Grasshopper, which led to the insight that “if humans work to avoid having to work, then given an infinite amount of time, they will ultimately arrive at a situation where no work is left to be done” (xxii). For some, this will be Utopia, where all one’s time is spent playing games. But for those who find their ultimate meaning in work, this will be a boring and futile life, so much so that they will be destroyed (or choose to destroy themselves). This seems the opposite of utopian, to say the least, so The Return of the Grasshopper delves more deeply into the conditions of Suit’s Utopia to try to resolve the apparent paradox. Chapter two considers the possibility that utopia could include work if people find work intrinsically valuable (i.e., don’t work only to avoid having to work). Suits suggests this vision of utopia is ultimately no different from the previous one, merely one in which people don’t know that they are playing a game. To explain how this is possible, chapters three and four identify six ways one can play a game without knowing it: (1) “unawareness of an end one is seeking”: (2) “not knowing that one has ruled out certain means”; (3) “not knowing why one has ruled out more in favor of less efficient means to an end”; (4) “unawareness of what a game is”; (5) “not knowing that this is a game”; and (6) “failure to use modus ponens” (i.e., to draw logical inferences) (20-35).

The picture of Suits to the right of the cover of the book (cover image by Paul Hammond) is from the Spanish edition of Suits’ first book, translated by Francisco Javier López Frías. The artist is Lawerta.

Having established the possibility of game-playing without knowing one is playing a game, Suits’s Grasshopper suggests that this is, in fact, the human condition. Chapters five, six, and seven consider what kind of game that might be and how death constitutes the end of the game. These considerations lead to the realization that “while we cannot eliminate death, we can treat it as an opportunity not otherwise available to us and in so doing turn it from liability to asset;” indeed, all the evils of the world “can be overcome by being regarded not as deficiencies in our lives but as opportunities for action” (65).

The book under review is, as mentioned below, illustrated by Paul Hammond, and this is one of the illustrations, courtesy of Francisco Javier López Frías.

Chapters eight and nine argue against the proposition that a more realistic utopia would be one in which people derive meaning from work, which they do because they love instead of merely for instrumental reasons. Suits argues that people in such a utopia would still be playing games and characterizes those games as “occupational methadone,” functioning to wean people from a life focused on work to one focused on playing games. Chapters ten, eleven, and twelve take up and respond to additional challenges to Suits’s Utopia, before the very brief chapter thirteen concludes the text with a vision contrasting the gameplaying Grasshoppers with work-focused Ants, who beg the Grasshoppers for something to do. The Ants are invited in to play games with the Grasshoppers. Those who accept and adapt to a life of game-playing survive happily, while those who cannot remain outside and die.

The editors include three appendices: (1) Suits’s introduction to the first text he wrote as a sequel to The Grasshopper; (2) a deconstruction of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” intended as a criticism of Derrida; and (3) an examination of the notion of fairness, suggesting that “in a perfectly fair competitive game everybody wins; or to put the matter as paradoxically as possible, in a perfectly fair competitive game there is no competition whatever” (132). Of the appendices, the last strikes me as the fertile for further study and response.

Overall, sport scholars owe a debt of gratitude to Yorke and Frías for their labor in bringing Suits’s work to publication. It would be remiss not to celebrate also the glorious illustrations by Paul Hammond, matching perfectly the whimsical tone of Suits’s dialogue. The book is a must-read for those who appreciate The Grasshopper as well as for those who have an interest in the deeper meanings and implications of game-playing.

Copyright © Pam R. Sailors 2023

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