Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sleeping Beauty

We all know the story of The Sleeping Beauty, on whom a curse is placed at birth. In the story, the 13th of thirteen wise women, angry because she is not invited to the celebration of Sleeping Beauty's birth, announces a curse upon Sleeping Beauty: she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 15th birthday, and fall down dead. The curse is mitigated by one of the other wise women, who states that, instead of dying, the princess will fall into a deep sleep for 100 years.

The King commands that all spinning wheels in the kingdom be destroyed. After some years, the King and Queen forget about the curse so that on her 15th birthday, Sleeping Beauty is left alone at the place. Exploring the palace, the princess finds a room in which there is an old woman spinning at a spinning wheel. Sleeping Beauty tries it and pricks her finger, falling into the foretold hundred-years sleep.

Sleeping Beauty's philosophical themes include destiny, promises, loss, betrayal, sleep, beauty, awakening, and the nature of time. Why doesn't the King invite the 13th wise woman - does he have a good reason? Why do they royal couple leave their daughter alone when they are aware of the danger to her? Is this a betrayal? Was Sleeping Beauty aware of the curse upon her? Can we escape our destiny? When Sleeping Beauty wakes up after 100 years, is it possible that her kingdom still exists? Can time stop? Where is Sleeping Beauty during the long period of her sleep? Is she the same person when she wakes up that she was when she went to sleep? What does it mean to be "awakened?"

Friday, February 10, 2012


I've been re-reading fairy tales and exploring their philosophical potential. So many questions, especially about ethics, are raised by these stories! I just read a version of the Brothers Grimm story Rumpelstiltskin, as retold and illustrated by Paul Zelinsky. The story can be read, of course, as a morality tale about the greed of Rumpelstiltskin and his willingness to take advantage of the desperation of the miller's daughter, who must spin straw into gold or the king will have her killed.

But the story is more complex than that. It raises many ethical, as well as social and political issues. For example, the absolute power of the king. Is his demand that the miller's daughter spin straw into gold, or die, any worse than Rumpelstiltskin's insistence that she keep her promise to give him her first-born child? And once the miller's daughter (who is never given a name) manages (with the help of Rumpelstiltskin) this feat, the king marries her - again, the miller's daughter clearly has no choice about this either. Who is the real villain in the story - Rumpelstiltskin or the king?

Rumpelstiltskin asks the miller's daughter to promise him her necklace, her ring, and then (when she has no material things left) her first child - are the first two requests morally permissible? Should Rumpelstiltskin help her without asking for anything in return? Is it just the final request that is over the moral line? Should the miller's daughter have made this promise? Why isn't she obligated to keep it?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Extraordinary Egg

Leo Lionni's picture books are wonderful for thinking with children about philosophical questions. I'm working on a paper about Lionni and philosophy for children, and last night I read his An Extraordinary Egg.

In the story, Jessica. a frog, lives with two other frogs. Jessica is "full of wonder," and frequently ventures out on long walks and returns shouting with excitement about what she's found, even if it's "nothing but an ordinary little pebble." One day, she finds what she thinks is a perfect white stone, almost as big as she is. She brings it home, and the other frogs point out that it is not a pebble, but a chicken egg. "How do you know that?" Jessica asks. "There are some things you just know," one of the frogs replies.

Pretty soon, the egg cracks open and a "long, scaly creature that walked on four legs" emerges. The three frogs all shout, "A chicken!" They spend days playing with the "chicken," and the chicken and Jessica become great friends. One day a bird tells the chicken that her mother has been searching for her, and Jessica and the chicken follow the bird to find the enormous alligator that is the chicken's mother. When Jessica returns home, she tells the other frogs that the mother chicken called her baby, "My sweet little alligator." "What a silly thing to say," one of the frogs comments, and they all can't stop laughing.

Like all Lionni's books, the illustrations are marvelous and can themselves raise many aesthetic questions: How do the words and drawings together tell the story? What feelings do the drawings create? How do drawings create feelings? Would the story be the same without the drawings? The words? Etc.

But the story also provokes questions about knowledge and how we know what we know. Why does Jessica believe her fellow frog when told the alligator is a chicken? Why does she continue to believe it even when she meets the mother alligator? Often we believe we have knowledge because of testimony from other people - can such information be knowledge? Do the words of other people give us a basis for believing something? How do we determine which testimony to trust? Does it depend on how the people speaking to us know what they think they know? How often do we hold onto our beliefs even in the face of evidence that they are not true?