Logic, Wisdom and Riddling Tales
What is wisdom? Believing and doubting are basic to the human mind. The human mind, like logicians in India (Kanada and Gotama) and Greece (Aristotle) we will be covering in the next few weeks, seeks basic constant truths (or atomic truths) about its world in order to know things that are certain and constant (like “Fire is always hot” or “Water is always wet”). However, the human mind can both believe and doubt its truths. Wisdom is the ability to see beyond knowledge, to know when to question truths that are often true but not always true. Hegel tells us that we start with categorical truths (“Fire is simply hot so it is not cold at all”) and grow in wisdom to understand the relativity and context of our truths (“Fire is quite hot for the human being, but fire is cold relative to a star”).
Consider the story of the man who goes to his rabbi and complains that his house is too noisy. The rabbi is wise, and tells the man to bring his livestock into his house. After the man is at his wits end, the rabbi tells him to remove the livestock, and the man is pleased with how quiet his house has become. The house is just as noisy as it was before, but the rabbi has shown the man how relatively quiet his house is compared to a barnyard.
In myths and riddles from around the world (many often traded between many cultures) we see an appreciation of wisdom and questioning knowledge, assumptions and intuitive understandings. While positivistic thinking seeks constant and necessary truths, skeptical thinking seeks to overturn and find counter examples. We will see this in the skeptical thinkers of India (Jainism and Buddhism), Greece (Heraclitus and Pyrrho) and China (Zhuan Zi and Gong Zi).
Questioning truths is not simply for mysticism or skeptical philosophy. Wisdom and skepticism have real and practical value in science and technology. Consider that a refrigerator cools by heating. The back of a refrigerator heats up, and this draws the heat from the inside of the refrigerator. If you believe that heat does not cool, you would not be able to invent the refrigerator. Consider that the Wright Brothers wrote to the US Army and told them of their glider, but it took the Army three years and the accounts of others to believe it because it was understood that humans could not fly like birds (and the US now has air superiority in the world).
In early human tales, there are often trickster characters who steal, cheat, lie and deceive, and through this bring about the necessary sustenance of life. Crow and Coyote are examples from Native American tales. Lot’s daughters are examples from the Torah or Old Testament of the Bible: by committing incest with their father they keep the Israelites’ line and covenant alive, though the covenant explicitly prohibits incest as a crime.
In the readings from Riddling Tales from Around the World, we have several stories that show us the human and global appreciation of wisdom and seeing the relative rather than the categorical.