Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: “Story of a Good Brahmin” in The Portable Voltaire

Gareth B. Matthews

The Portable Voltaire

Review of “Story of a Good Brahmin” in The Portable Voltaire (New York: Viking, 1949, pp. 436-38).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 9(1): 1.

A traveler once met an old Brahmin, who, being rich and having all his physical and romantic needs satisfied by three women attendants, spent much of his time philosophizing. To the traveler’s considerable surprise, the Brahmin announced one day that he wished he had never been born.

“Why?” the traveler wanted to know. The Brahmin explained that he considered himself a fraud, someone who undertakes to teach others, but is himself ignorant of everything. “I was born in time;” he went on: I live in time, and yet I do not know what time is. I am at a point between two eternities, as our wise men say, and I have no conception of eternity … I think, but I have never been able to learn what produces thought … ‘Ah Holy One; people say to me, ‘tell us why evil pervades the earth: I am in as great a difficulty as those who ask me this question … After all my  seeking I do not know whence I came, whither I am going, what I am, nor what I shall become.

Disturbed by the words of the Brahmin, the traveler then asked a simple woman who lived nearby whether she had ever been troubled by the thought that she did not know the nature of her soul. The woman failed to under­ stand even the question. She was a woman of naive trust and very little understanding. Yet, apparently, she was totally content.

The traveler then went back to the Brahmin and asked him if he were not ashamed to be so unhappy about not being able to answer questions that the con­tented woman failed even to understand. The Brahmin said he was indeed ashamed. Yet he had to allow that he wouldn’t exchange his superior intelligence for even the contentedness of the simple woman.

How can it be, the traveler asked, that one would not choose to be happy, even at the price of being stupid?

I recently came across this engagingly provocative story while  reviewing Kinder sind Philosophen (“Children are Philosophers”) by Hans-Ludwig Freese for this Journal. [The same story also ap­pears in Freese’s even newer book, Gedankenreisen (“Thought Travels;” Ham­ burg: Rowolt, 1990), which is a collection of stories, jokes and proverbs suitable for philosophical discussion with children.) The Voltaire story is certainly suitable for discussion with children both young ones and old ones like me- though I recommend simplifying and smoothing out the translation used in the Viking Voltaire. (With children one can do this informally as one reads.) It might also be a good idea to say something about the sexism suggested in the story by the contrast between the wise old man, who has three women (!) attending to his needs, and the simple woman, who is so contentedly ignorant.

Sexism aside, this story raises difficult and important questions about happiness. It also encourages us to think about why it is that we do   philosophy.

I recently had a lively discussion with a distinguished British philosopher about whether it would be good to be able to give definitive and final answers to philosophical questions. I said, “Of course not;” and went on  to claim  that I couldn’t even do a decent job of teaching philosophy unless I could awaken in myself the puzzlement that I supposed had motivated the philosophical theory or argument I was about to discuss.

My English friend said he would be pleased to be able to give definitive solutions to philosophical problems, so long as for every philosophical problem solved there was at least one more, equally interesting problem yet to deal with.

I freely admit that I like to puzzle over things, especially when the puzzlement is philosophical. Still, even I have been afflicted occasionally by the Brahmin’s malaise. How can one go on lecturing on questions to which, after centuries of discussion, no one has arrived at a solution that meets with general, let alone universal, acceptance? And especially, how can one go on doing this without feeling, like the Brahmin, that one is a fraud?

Yet I wouldn’t for a moment change places with someone who lacks sensitivity to philosophical puzzlement. (Many people who are seemingly immune to philosophical puzzlement are, nevertheless, I hasten to add, at least as intelligent as the Brahmin and I are; that’s another reason to be bothered by the portrayed of the non-philosopher in Voltaire’s story as someone who is stupid.)

Perhaps what makes the Brahmin so unhappy is that he has allowed himself to be cast in the role of “the wise teacher”- someone who has answers to pass on to others. If he could have seen himself instead as a Socratic midwife-someone who can sometimes help others to work out for themselves at least provisionally satisfactory answers to puzzling questions he might have been much happier. What do you think?