Thursday, 14 February 2013

Is “I don't know” the first step to wisdom?

Heinrich Zimmer's “The King and the Corpse” is one of my favourite books. Although the English version is not the best written one, those who get past the clumsiness of the language will be well rewarded by rich meanings and beautiful metaphors.

The story is about a king whose judgement and wisdom are put to the test – he is given the grim task of finding the corpse of a hanged man on its execution ground and bring it into the magic circle of a sorcerer. Along the way, the corpse tells him a story, at the end of which the king has to answer a question. The rights and wrongs in the story are so tangled, the opposing sides of the argument so closely matched, that – if the king truly understands the complexity of situation – he will not be able to call it. The only way he can possibly come up with an answer is by deferring to custom, tradition, and borrowed “wisdom”. This is exactly what he does and, as soon as he answers the riddle, the corpse flies off his shoulder, back to the tree where it had been hanged.

There are twenty-four riddles in all. Twenty-three times the king is confident he has the answer, and twenty-three times the corpse returns to its tree. Until finally the king is presented with a riddle he cannot solve. As he goes on puzzling over it in silence, the corpse is finally satisfied that the king has reached the point of wisdom. Not only that the king is then able to complete his task, but he is also given the all-important knowledge that will enable him to defeat the evil sorcerer and become a truly great king.

The morale of this story appears to be that the king is wiser in his silence than in his replies. That admitting ignorance is better than giving simplistic answers based on prejudice.

Being realistic about the limitations of human knowledge safeguards our ability to better that knowledge. Every scientific theory is valid till proven wrong. Staying open to factual evidence and being ready to reconsider ideas that we have once held as truths is where the strength of science lays. Resilience through flexibility: the fact that bricks are replaceable makes the edifice as a whole long-lasting and stronger.

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