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Another Helping of Smullyan

June 30, 2016


“Imagine a group of four people, each of whom is strenuously engaged in some charity work or some useful social or political activities, each from purely altruistic motives. Someone asks them: “Why do you work so hard helping your fellow man?” We get the following responses: The first says, “I regard it as my duty and moral obligation to help my fellow man”. The second replies: “Moral obligations? To hell with moral obligations! It’s just that I’ll be God damned if I will stand around seeing my fellow man oppressed without my doing something about it!” The third replies: “I also have never been very much concerned with things like duties or moral obligations. It’s just that I feel extremely sorry for these people and long to help them”. The fourth says: “Why to I act as I do? To tell you the truth, I have absolutely no idea why. It is simply my nature to act as I act, and that’s all I can say.

I should like to compare these four responses. The last one delights me utterly! He seems very Taoistic or Zen-like. He is the true Sage or saint who seems completely in harmony with the Tao. He is the one who is completely natural,spontaneous and unself-consciously helpful. If there is a God, I hope he lets him into heaven first! Close at his heels, I hope, would be the third man. He strikes me as sort of Buddhistic– not “moral” but compassionate, though perhaps a little too self-consciously so.

It is of interest to compare the first and second men. Both are being ego-assertive, but what a difference! The second, though somewhat gruff, is really kind of charming and humorous. He strike me as a “tough man with a heart of gold” (like some of the roles played by Humphrey Bogart). He is really a very sympathetic person who somehow ashamed to admit the fact and does not wish to appear sentimental.If I were God, I would, of course, let him into heaven too.

But the first man! Good heavens, what a monstrosity! I’m sorry to offend those readers brought up in a puritanical tradition, but I can no more help feeling as I feel than you can. People like the first man are so often pompous, vain ego-assertive, puritanical, inhuman, self-centered, dominating and unsympathetic. They are the people who act out of “principles”. In a way, they are even worse than people who don’t help others at all! Now if I were God, I would, of course, let him into heaven too, but not for awhile! I would first send him back to earth for a a few years for a little more “discipline”.

Some pragmatic readers may well say:”Why this emphasis on how a person phrases it; does it not really all come to the same thing? Isn’t the important thing how helpfully a person acts rather than his motives or reasons for doing so?” My answer is “No”. I feel that if people’s actions are helpful, but engaged in the wrong spirit, they can–in the long run–be as harmful as no helpful actions at all. I guess I have been very influenced by the Chinese proverb: “When the wrong man does the right thing, it usually turns out wrong”.”

–from The Tao Is Silent, by Raymond Smullyan

Of all the writers I have read, Smullyan remains, for me, the greatest breath of fresh air. I love him completely.


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