The Parable of Buridan’s Ass; and, in Other News, There’s Apparently a Delinquent Ruffian Named “Skeeter.”
by David Kennedy Bird
Abstract: In which the Blogger takes on the timeless parable of ‘Buridan’s Ass’… with some helpful contributing material from Buridan himself, as well as from his ass, by which of course we mean his donkey, heh heh…as well as a few contributions from a delinquent ruffian named, and i am not kidding you, Skeeter.
This post is about insoluble dilemmas. Well, i mean. Okay. Yes. It is. Never mind. [sigh]
On Facebook, one of my friends–Marcy–which rhymes with ‘parsee,’ as in, ‘a member of a certain south Asian priestly class,’ hardly a coincidence–posted a challenge on her page, to the effect that her readers were to grab the nearest book, find page 56, read the 5th complete sentence on that page, and post it.
Here is what i came up with.
“His words leapt forth in explosive pulses, not entirely unlike the bursting of an egg that has been hurled against a red brick schoolhouse wall by an incorrigible young ruffian named either ‘Charlie’ or ‘Freeman’, or ‘the Biff-ster’, or ‘Your Mom’ or even ‘Sir Your Mom,’ or perhaps ‘Skeeter’.”
My friend’s Facebook challenge was a bit more problematic, in my case, than it may have been for some of her other readers. As i sit here at my computer desk i am literally sur-ROUN-ded by books, and in attempting to select among them, i found myself confronted with the same sort of dilemma Buridan’s Ass was faced with. You might well reply that Buridan just needed to get his Ass in gear, which might have been a workable solution had the hapless animal been of a mechanical sort, some sort of motor vehicle that just happened to have the term ‘ass’ in its name, for instance, the fuel-injected ASS-495, but regrettably, the donkey was an actual flesh-and-blood critter whose inability to choose between the two bales of hay located equidistant from him resulted in the unhappy animal’s demise.
Oh dear. It occurs to me that before we continue i’m afraid i’ll need to school the good reader in a bit of Medieval Philosophy.
The Good Reader: This post has already descended into almost pure chaos. I have no idea what’s going on.
The Blogger: Well, for the aficionado of philosophical thought, i’m certain my material has presented no difficulties.
A Randomly Selected Aficionado of Philosophical Thought: An absolute pile of incoherent hash from beginning to end, my good man. No sense in it whatsoever.
The Good Reader: [grins to herself, says nothing]
The Blogger: Oh poo, we’re just wasting time here. Back to the topic. Um, whatever that is. We were talking about…Buridan’s Ass.
You are perhaps familiar with the parable of Buridan’s Ass from your studies in Medieval Philosophy. But if not, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.
Our protagonist, in the present instance, is a man named John Buridan (c. 1299 – c. 1360), one of the key philosophers of the late middle ages. Mr. Buridan was noteworthy for his work in epistemology and impetus theory, but what he is perhaps chiefly remembered for among today’s students of philosophy is his parable of “Buridan’s Ass.” In this little story, a hungry donkey ambles into a hayfield and finds himself, inexplicably, evenly placed between two equally delicious-looking bales of hay. Poor hapless donkey! What is he to do? For each bale is as tasty-looking as the other, and each is equally far from him, so he is left with zero basis on which to make a decision in favor of one or the other. The poor donkey, logical to the last, languishes between the two haybales until he dies of starvation.
But here’s the question: Was Buridan himself responsible for the parable of Buridan’s Ass? Nearly overwhelming evidence seems to suggest that the parable was developed by one of his detractors. Nevertheless, it remains to this day the one thing he is *sigh* best remembered for.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Ahem. Here’s the point in our narrative at which i find i must sheepishly confess to having made up the quotation, above identified as having been taken from page 56 of one of the books that surround my desk.
Since i could not choose from among the grousands* of books among which i am ensconsed here in my man-cave, no one of which is measurably closer to me than any other, i have elected to generate a sentence which, i am reasonably sure, MUST be featured on page 56 of at least ONE of these books. Consider, by way of comparison, the story of the grousands of monkeys iconically working away on grousands of typewriters, and the likelihood that one of them will come up with Hamlet.
But we have wandered afield of the point.
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: But iff’n it weren’t no real quotation, then you done lied to yer trusting readership.
The Blogger: Wha- Huh? Who the stink are you?
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: I’m Skeeter. I was listenin’ and it sounded interestin’. So i done came over and inserted myself-like in the proceedins.
The Blogger: Oh. Um, how did you even get into my house?
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: I grokked my way in. It weren’t hard.
The Blogger: Oooooo-kay.
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: So do ya have a book that says that thing about Charlie or Skeeter–that’s my name, Skeeter–or don’t ye?
The Blogger: Um. No. I don’t think so.
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: But you said ya did. In my book, heh heh, get it, ‘book,’ that means yer lyin’ to yer trustin’ readership.
Buridan’s Ass: But if he’s simply using the quotation as a kind of placeholder in order to make his point, does it really matter whether the quotation is a real one or not?
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: Well, seems to me it does. Fella’s gotta mean what he says and say what he means, is how i was raised.
The Blogger: Um. Waittasecond. Who in the name of all that’s biological are YOU?
Buridan’s Ass: I’m Buridan’s Ass.
John Buridan: And i’m Buridan! It’s a pleasure! [shakes hands all ’round, as hearty a fellow as ever broke biscuit or went for a ride on a rickety snowmobile]
John Buridan. At your service.
The Blogger: But…how did you guys even get in here?
John Buridan: Well, your young friend here left the door hanging open when he grokked his way in.
The Blogger: But that doesn’t… i don’t even… what in the….
Buridan’s Ass: You’re focusing on an unimportant side issue. The question before us is twofold: (1) whether the ass will eat of the hay on one side of him or the other, and (2) whether this is even the sort of question that can be resolved.
The Blogger: Those aren’t the questions i’m wanting to explore in this post.
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: But it seems to me, fellas, that if you got a ass–heh heh, i just said ‘ass’–
Buridan’s Ass: [rolls his eyes]
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: –like i said, iff’n you got a ass–heh heh–that’s plopped right down between two equally spaced bales of hay–well, y’know, on my pappy’s farm–
Buridan’s Ass: Yada yada yada. I’m the ass here; seems like i’d be allowed a crack at the question of what an ass would do.
John Buridan: The ass makes a fair point. [pauses significantly] Heh heh, i said ‘ass.’
Buridan’s Ass: [rolls his eyes]
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: Well, all i’m a-sayin’ is–
Buridan’s Ass: Silence, child! I shall now address the question at hand.
[All present direct their attention to the ass, who holds forth from the top of a conveniently placed hay bale]
If i were confronted with two bales of hay, each one looking equally tasty and nutritious, and each located precisely the same distance from me, i’d just arbitrarily pick one and go at it. The idea that i would stand there and starve to death is insulting.
John Buridan: Well, i mean.
Buridan’s Ass: No, c’mon, seriously. I get your need to illustrate a logical principle. Sure. Okay. I just resent your oh-so-easy reliance on a negative stereotype about asses. We may be stubborn, but we’re not stupid.
John Buridan: Don’t blame me for the goofy analogy. I’m not even the one who came up with it. Some shmoe with a low opinion of my work did.
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: I dunno, man, the ones on my pappy’s farm is so dumb you could thow a rock at ’em and not do no damage.
Buridan’s Ass: That…didn’t make any sense.
John Buridan: [laughs heartily, claps his hands]
The Blogger: But if you’re going to tell a parable, it obviously isn’t going to apply across-the-board in all instances. The point of a parable is to illustrate a specific point. I don’t think the story is intended to confirm anyone’s stereotypes about the stupidity of asses.
Buridan’s Ass: The story could have been about an ocelot.
John Buridan: What? I don’t even know what that is.
Buridan’s Ass: Or a weasel. My point is, there’s no reason to select an animal that already is enmired in a struggle against people’s deeply held prejudices.
The Blogger: I think you may be going a bit deep with the cast of characters in the story.
Skeeter the Delinquent Ruffian: Well my only point is, when you got a ass–heh heh–and it’s tryin’ to eat a bale o’ hay, you don’t wanna put no distractions in its way.
John Buridan: Once again, child, that was a completely strange sort of thing to say.
The Blogger: Well! That one went all over the place, didn’t it.
The Good Reader: Your blog occasionally never ceases to amaze.
The Blogger: You have to admit, i actually ventured into the field of real philosophical investigation this time.
The Good Reader: As opposed to…?
The Blogger: Oh, well, you know. Um. Attempting to identify the salient features of a flockbinker.
The Good Reader: Ah. Yes. Well, you sort of did, didn’t you.
The Blogger: Sort of?! I totally did! Axiology, logic, talking asses…it’s all there.
The Good Reader: Well, you didn’t really address the issue that you set out to address. You started out surrounded by a bunch of books and trying to figure out how to pick one. Then you went off onto asses and hay. You never did get back to your original point.
The Blogger: Well, maybe the original point was about the difficulty of making decisions?
The Good Reader: Okay. I remain unsatisfied. I want to know what to do when i’m surrounded by books.
The Blogger: Ah! A delightful dilemma to find oneself in, wouldn’t you say?
[The Blogger and The Good Reader heave a contented sigh together]
*A note on weights, measures, and quantities: The term ‘grousands’ denotes an amount somewhat less than ‘grillions’ but vastly more numerous than, say, ‘a bunch’ or ‘a whole lot’ or even ‘lots and lots.’