Showing posts with label wisdom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wisdom. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Long ago in Paris, I used to eat often in a small Arab restaurant in the rue des Archives, just up from the town hall, which served an excellent couscous. I was charmed by a mural picture-story, composed of illustrations as in a comic book, which started in a corner of the restaurant and stretched all the way around three walls. The simple drawings, without words, told the story of a wise man who went out into the wilderness to meditate, seated on the sandy slopes.

His meditation session lasted for a long time. For years. Maybe for decades. At the outset, he is all alone: a solitary hermit lost in his profound thoughts. Then a few nomads stop at the oasis at the foot of the mountains, and pitch their tent. Soon, they are joined by other desert wanderers, with herds of goats, and the oasis is transformed into a tiny village of tent-dwellers. Unperturbed, the wise man continues to meditate.

Further settlers arrive, and they build huts on the slopes around the oasis. Alongside these huts, sheds start to spring up, where craftsmen appear to be working. Trenches are dug so that water can be pumped up to these people living and working on the slopes. The wise man, oblivious to this activity, carries on meditating.

Little by little, the slopes around the oasis are covered in dwellings of many kinds. Streets start to appear, with donkey-drawn vehicles moving through the settlement. Some of the settlers get around on small motor-cycles. Later, the first trucks and automobiles appear on the scene. The wise man pays no attention to the changing environment. He is too busy meditating.

Electricity is introduced into the township, and the streets are paved. Smoking factories appear on the outskirts of the town. New houses, built of bricks and stone, are erected. Children play in green parks. Cafés and restaurants have come into existence in the vicinity of the oasis. There is even a cinema and a municipal swimming pool. The wise man, still meditating, is unaffected by this large-scale arrival of civilization.

It is no longer a simple township, but a busy city. Few traces of the desert environment remain visible. It could be a typical small metropolis located anywhere on the globe. Only one small detail makes it different to most other cities. There is a strange individual in the middle of this vast urban environment, and he seems to be meditating.

Suddenly, in several corners of the metropolis, the first signs of decadence have started to appear. A few factories have closed. In several neighborhoods, empty dwellings are falling into ruin. The wise man is not at all worried by this state of affairs, because he is concerned solely by his meditations.

Little by little, the urban environment is rotting away, and citizens are leaving for greener pastures. Everywhere, there are signs of decay, destruction and decrepitude. The sands of the desert have started to cover, not only the former parks, but even various deserted neighborhoods. The wise man is still engaged in his thoughts.

Within a short time, it is becoming more and more difficult to imagine that there was once a thriving city at this spot. Sand, by now, covers almost the entire site. Finally, there are no longer any visible traces whatsoever of the former presence of humans. The place has reverted to its initial state, which corresponds to what the wise man saw when he chose this spot, long ago, for a session of meditation.

Suddenly, he awakes from his meditation. He is surrounded by the silent desert, with a green oasis down at the foot of the slopes. He stands up, yawns, and stretches his arms and legs. He has a contented smile on his face. He looks up towards the heavens, as if he were about to address himself to a divinity. He exclaims with enthusiasm: "Wow, what an extraordinary meditation session!"

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Donkey's tail

Once upon a time, US presidents could be wise men. I'm delighted by this conversation between Abraham Lincoln and a colleague:

Abraham Lincoln: Sir, how many legs does this donkey have?

Colleague: Four, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: And how many tails does it have?

Colleague: One, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: Now, sir, let's suppose we were to call the tail a leg. How many legs would the donkey then have?

Colleague: Five, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: No sir, for you cannot make a tail into a leg by simply calling it one.

If you test this tale about the donkey's tail among friends, you're likely to find out that the situation is not as clearcut as Abraham Lincoln (and I) believe it to be. Many people consider sincerely that, in certain cases, once it is said that X is Y, then X is indeed Y. In our modern societies, we're often required to see things in that way. For example, once a law court has concluded that an individual did in fact commit a certain crime, then everybody sees that decision, henceforth, as a statement of truth. In a more superficial domain, that of sport, once an umpire or a referee [I've never known the difference between these two terms] has determined that a ball is out, the players and spectators are required to consider, henceforth, that the ball was in fact out. In totalitarian societies, too, when a dictator says that something is the case, citizens are expected to act as if that something were indeed the case.

In the same way that somebody might wish to call a donkey's tail a fifth leg, individuals such as George W Bush, gifted with imagination rather than wisdom, are prepared to call an embryonic cell a potential human being. In my recent article entitled Red can be wrong [display], I evoked the invention of so-called reprogrammed pluripotent human cells, which should normally be able, in the near future, to replace embryonic stem cells in medical research. Kind observers have suggested that Bush, through his stubborn outlook on embryonic stem cells, should be credited retrospectively for creating the research context in which this invention was made... by force, as it were. To my mind, that's like thanking the donkey for the non-existence of its fifth leg.

Forgive me, Moshé, for making that silly comparison. I don't need to reassure you, my dear donkey, that you're far wiser than the current US president.