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  • Literature as Fable, Fable as Argument
  • Lester H. Hunt


In an ancient Chinese text we find the following exchange between the Confucian sage Mencius and one of his adversaries:

Kao Tzu said, "Human nature is like whirling water. Give it an outlet in the east and it will flow east; give an outlet in the west and it will flow west. Human nature does not show any preference for either good or bad, just as water does not show any preference for either east or west."

"It certainly is the case," said Mencius, "that water does not show any preference for either east or west, but does it show the same indifference to high and low? Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards."1

The subject of this colloquy is a familiar one in philosophy as we know it in the West. Its form and style are also vaguely familiar: it is a clashing exchange of theories, in which the speakers do not seem to be speaking merely to express themselves, but in order to persuade others that they are right. Yet at the same time it seems quite alien to us. It would be hard to find anything in it that a Western philosopher since the time of Plato would recognize as an argument. The participants seem to be speaking entirely in illustrative analogies and clever aphorisms, not in arguments at all. The style seems to be literary rather than philosophical. Yet what they are doing does look curiously like arguing. There is a rhythm of statement and counter-statement, in which each speaker seems to be answering the claims of the other.

A related, though different, sort of ambiguity, in which the author [End Page 369] really does seem to be both arguing and not arguing, can be found in the following text, traditionally attributed to a Westerner of the sixth century B.C.:

Between the North Wind and the Sun, they say, a contest of this sort arose, to wit, which of the two would strip the goatskin from a farmer plodding on his way. The North Wind first began to blow as he does when he blows from Thrace, thinking by sheer force to rob the wearer of his cloak. And yet no more on that account did he, the man, relax his hold; instead he shivered, drew the borders of his garment tight about him every way, and rested with his back against a spur of rock. Then the Sun peeped forth, welcome at first, bringing the man relief from the cold, raw wind. Next, changing, he turned the heat on more, and suddenly the farmer felt too hot and of his own accord threw off the cloak, and so was stripped.

Thus was the North Wind beaten in the contest. And the story means: "Cultivate gentleness, my son; you will get results oftener by persuasion than by the use of force."2

Here Aesop, to use the traditional name for the author of this ancient fable, is plainly doing something "literary": he is telling a story. But narration in the Aesopian mode is never simply telling a story, and in this case what is present in addition to the story seems to have something logical about it. Personally, I read this fable with a certain sense, however faint, that I am being enlightened by it. That of course is Aesop's aim. He is not merely expressing his opinion, but in some way showing us the truth of it. This is the sort of thing that, in philosophy, is done through argument. However, as in the text from the Mencius, it seems there may be no argument here.

Clearly, we are dealing with forms of persuasion that are common at certain times in the development of a culture: namely, those periods when the philosophical muse is a mere suckling babe. We are looking, one might think, at a level of development so rudimentary that the distinction between argument as we think of it today and other forms of persuasion has not been made...


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