Voltaire's Story Of The Good Brahmin

One of the commonest criticisms of philosophy is that it doesn't bear fruit -- that despite years of speculating and reasoning, philosophers have very little to show for themselves. Science can of course make headway on a myriad of fronts, leaving footprints toward any number of desired destinations, but not so for philosophy. Some even believe it the better part of wisdom not to probe too deeply into the nature of things. "To question everything is the beginning of wisdom, until one questions the wisdom of questioning everything," a professor of mine once said to me.

There's the example of those who live their life in the usual pragmatic way, undisturbed by rumination, who are "happy" by every outward appearance. No one obviously needs philosophy to do well in life -- to fall in love or to succeed in business or to derive pleasure from leisurely activities.

Voltaire's "Story of the Good Brahmin" is an eloquent defense of the lowly philosopher. On the one hand, the Brahmin is upset that so much time pondering the big questions has left him nowhere; but on the other hand, he wouldn't trade places with his happy but unknowing neighbor. Here's a condensed version of the story, lifted from Durant's Story of Philosophy:

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"I wish I had never been born!" the Brahmin remarked.

"Why so?" said I.

"Because," he replied, "I have been studying these forty years, and I find that it has been so much time lost...I believe that I am composed of matter, but I have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought. I am even ignorant whether my understanding is a simple faculty like that of walking or digesting, or if I think with my head in the same manner as I take hold of a thing with my hands...I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking I remain confounded and ashamed of what I have said."

The same day I had a conversation with an old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made? She did not even comprehend my question. She had not, for the briefest moment in her life, had a thought about these subjects with which the good Brahmin had so tormented himself. She believed in the bottom of her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu, and provided she could get some of the sacred water of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women. Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom I thus addressed:

"Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?"

"You are right," he replied. "I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were but as ignorant as my old neighbor; and yet it is a happiness which I do not desire."

This reply of the Brahmin made a greater impression on me than anything that had passed.

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Questions: Imagine the woman in this story living in an affluent neighborhood, and having an estate, a Mercedes Benz, and a Hanging Gardens of Babylon to show for her "happiness." Would the Brahmin still insist that this "is a happiness which I do not desire"? John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, said that it is "better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."  Is it better to be the Brahmin dissatisfied than the ignorant but "happy" neighbor satisfied? On what grounds is the assertion defensible? How many of us, forced to choose, would trade places with the Brahmin rather than with the woman? If philosophy doesn't make us either happy or wealthy, of what use is it -- and what do sages like Voltaire know that the rest of us don't?


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