In China, all pupils will learn this story in their first or second grade in primary school: there was an elephant and a group of blind men. The blind men wanted to know what exactly an elephant was like, so they fumbled the elephant. The one who touched the ivory declared that elephant was like a carrot; the one who touched an ear of the elephant said that elephant was like a fan, or a winnowing basket; the one who touched the head of the elephant opined that elephant was like a rock; the one who touched the nose of the elephant reported that elephant was a creature in the shape of a tube; the one who touched a leg reported elephant likening a pillar; the one who touched the back believed that elephant was like a bed; the one who touched the belly thought that elephant was like a jar; and the one who touched the tail understood elephant as a rope. Finally, a man with vision came and told all of them that they were all wrong. The story, which sounds very Platonic, can be traced back 2,000 years in the classics of Buddhism and Persian scripts. Obviously, there is plenty of philosophizing behind the story. But the story itself may also have plenty of variations, depending on the nature of the people and the elephant.
Let us add some delimitations to make the story less ambiguous and foreground the main argument: These blind men can only fumble the elephant once since if they could do it multiple times, one would finally touch all parts of the elephant to come up with what an elephant is. They are all elephant maniacs that cannot suspend the discussion: they have to reach a conclusion no matter what the price is, and their reports are identical to their perceptions since they understand this as the only way to reach a conclusion. More importantly, they know that they are blind – therefore once a man who can see comes, the blind men will believe him.
Variation 1: Direct Democracy
These blind men were all good friends. They played chess together and gossiped with each other. They also helped each other in difficult times. Therefore, they decided to sit down and have a thorough discussion about what exactly an elephant is like. They respected each other so everyone had the right to speak, and, with acquiescence, they came up with rules for speaking and the whole process went as smoothly as one could imagine. In an ambience of amiability and harmony, the debate went as such:
“Elephant is in the shape of a carrot…”
“No, no, I respect your findings, but according to my perception, elephant is like a fan…”
“My dear friend, I would say that elephant is more like a rock…”
“Isn’t it like a tube? Long and soft…”
In the end, one of them stood up and said: “Enough. Can we say that we are all right and elephant is at the same time like a carrot, a fan, a rock, a tube…” And everyone else would stand up, saying: “My dear friend, we respect everyone here, sed veritas magis amicas. We believe in the truth that elephant is like a carrot / fan / rock / tube / pillar / bed / jar / rope, because that is our observation!”
Therefore, the discussion would start all over again. The first one said: “Elephant is in the shape of a carrot…”And the ouroboros began to rotate again. Where was the man with the vision? He was already flabbergasted by the sacred yet exclusive discussion, so he decided not to intervene!
Variation 2: A Traitor
Among the blind men, there was one who was actually not blind. He also fumbled the elephant and attended the discussion. While the hot debate went on, he spoke in his mind: “How stupid is this debate! I will tell them that they are all wrong, but I shall not reveal that I am not blind since I still want to be in this cohort.”
He stood up and said: “Enough. Can we say that we are all right and elephant is at the same time like a carrot, a fan, a rock, a tube…, since every one of you just touched a mere part of the whole elephant!”
His friends, with a zeal for truth, all stood up and said: “My friend, we all love truth no less than you do, but according to our perception, elephant …”
The man sat back in his seat, waiting for his round to make the speech again. And when his turn came, he stood up and repeated the same thing. Being a little bit annoyed, his fellows shouted:
“Traitor! Do you think we are less knowledgeable than you? You are ruining the golden rules that we have set for this discussion! You are poisoning every one of us here, planting the seed of suspicion, and the lovable discussion towards a sacred truth will no longer proceed!”
Therefore, another vote was made in deciding the poor man’s status. Since he was believed to be poisoning the Golden Rules, he was given a poison hemlock. No one knew his whereabouts since then. The discussion went on and on and on…
Variation 3: An Opinion Leader
Among the blind men there was a leader. He was taking care of everyone else, and the rest of the cohort respected him and sought advice from him when needed. Therefore, when they were encountered by an elephant and joined the endless debate on what an elephant is like, the leader, let us suppose he is being the tube-guy, found out the discussion would be going on endlessly. Therefore, when it was his turn to speak (maybe at a point when the participants started to forget the precise perception that they had towards the elephant), he stood up and said: “My friends, the discussion seems to go endlessly. Can we have a representative to come to the final conclusion, since we really want one for describing the elephant?”
Or it might not be him, but another one stood up and said: “My friends, the discussion seems to go endlessly. Can we have a representative to come to the final conclusion, since we really want one to describe the elephant? I think Mr. Tube is the right one to represent us; he is always helping us around!”
The rest of the group, being tired of the long haul of discussion, also agreed. Mr. Tube is the right guy representing us! He is charismatic and always helping, and his insights are always sharp and shrewd…
So, they all agreed on this. And Mr. Tube now gathered them all, now not as a discussion but more of a press release, informing his fellows: “As the speaker of this cohort, I would like to declare that elephant is in the shape of a tube…”
One man raised his hand: “But sir, I think that according to my perception, elephant is like a rock…”
Mr. Tube replied: “Oh, you maybe got it wrong. Remember carefully: didn’t you touch a long, tube-like thing that moves swiftly in the air?”
And the man said in fear of being different from the others:
“Ah yes yes, it is like a tube!”
(Another version of the ending:
The man insisted that an elephant likens a rock. The leader was annoyed. He shouted:
“You have chosen a different path from us, and you are no more one of us! Now go! There is no more a place for you here!” The man was then expelled from the cohort. Maybe he went to live in another neighborhood. Of course, there is one possibility that the leader sent an assassin to kill the poor rock guy with an ice axe. But that’s something we don’t know.)
Variation 4: A Prohibited Book
In fact, among the blind men there was one who was a book lover. His blindness did not baffle him from reading books, and he found in one book what an elephant is like. During the discussion he stood up and said: “My friends, you are all right, but you are describing only parts of the elephant. Elephant is a giant animal with a long nose, fan-like ears, strong heads, long tusks, solid legs and back, soft belly and long tails.”
Then he showed the book to everyone. But not all of the group had the patience to read it. Or, put it in a more pessimistic way, maybe he was the only one who was eager to read from books. The others, being mesmerized by their powerful oratory, were more eager to express themselves than reading from what was written in pages. So the debate continued.
Finally, the one-who-knows-all cannot tolerate the discussion. He took out the book again, saying: “The book is right! There is no point debating here! The book tells the truth!”
His fellows were frightened by his hysteria, and they did not understand why. They were grouping together to discuss this ultimate truth of their universe. Still, there is someone constantly interrupting them and trying to reveal to them some unaccepted, frightening paranoia. Therefore, the rest of the group fought back:
“How would you know the book tells the truth? What the book depicts is not what we perceive. How could you prove that it is right? You are intervening in the holy procession, and we are to stone you!”
So, they threw stones at him. He was hit by a stone which nobody knows the culprit. His head started to bleed. With his hands trying to fumble where the wound was, he ran away and shouted:
“You are all mad! You are doomed to be in darkness!”
But nobody paid attention to him. One blind man picked up the book. With nausea in his belly, he now fully believed that the book was cursed. It had the power of driving a decent man mad. After a short discussion, they decided to burn the book. By destroying the devilish book into ashes, they felt that they were safe, again.
Variation 5: A Civil War
This group of blind men were not two-a-penny; they were all armed. Not to the teeth, but still, they had the power beyond debating to fight for the truth. Let us say they had a pistol on their waist in a cowboy style. Even though they were blind, they were well-trained to use their pistols and knew very well how to use the weapon to protect themselves. Since they respected each other, they definitely did not want to kill each other. However, being respectful to others did not indicate that others had the same respect. Therefore, alongside the respect, there was also suspicion. During the debate, there was one man who was over too excited. Of course, it was because he was debating the truth that he believed. But the others did not think so. It was during the third round of the debate, and the man, seemingly a little annoyed, saying: “But I have already told you all that elephant is a pillar-shaped animal!”
Out of excitement he waved his hands, and his right hand coincidentally opened the buckle of the holster. He himself did not notice such a detail, but the others were alerted. He continued saying: “I swear to my dear God above that what I perceived was this sturdy, coarse pillar-like…”
He did not finish his words because a big bang interrupted him. And in one second, he felt numb in his bosom. The world turned grey to him and soon, he could no longer hear anything. The whole group was shocked. They turned to the man whose pistol was with smoke on the muzzle (though they could not see, they smelt it!). The smoke soon flew in the air and the atmosphere was now filled with the smell of powder. With hands shaking, the killer mumbled: “No… it was not me… He wanted to shoot me first… I just wanted to protect myself…”
So, the corpse of that poor guy was removed from the circle. And the discussion continued. It seemed that nothing had changed, but no, everything had changed: everyone put his hand on the buckle of the holster now, and they were speaking louder. They still respected each other, but the amiable air had gone with the wind. The pressuring atmosphere was clouding everyone. The devil had been unleashed, and it would be super difficult to cage it again. Finally, one man could not withstand the endless debate which led to nowhere. He believed that his truth IS the truth, and the others were just talking of nonsense. At least he has a pistol to fight for his truth…
Now the devils started to bite. They all believed their truth, but some truths dimmed earlier than others. In the bloodshed stood the last one, with a ghastly wound on his belly, murmuring:
“Now we come to the conclusion…”
(P. s. Actually, pistols are not needed here. They could also use their fists to fight for their truths. Pistols are merely catalysts for extremizing the situation and accelerating the doomed end.)
Variation 6: A Foreigner
After a long discussion, which definitely led to nowhere, the men decided to resort to foreign help to determine who was right, since an outsider did not have a business in this debate and surely, he would be objective. Therefore, they turn to the neighboring district to find another blind man as an advisor to take part in the discussion. The foreigner approached the elephant and touched the elephant’s back. The conclusion was therefore instantly made that elephant was like a bed. The rest of the cohort, except for the bed-guy, were of course not satisfied with the situation. So, they continued this debate. Realizing that he would not help in clarifying the truth, the foreigner decided to go back to his house. But he was stopped. The whole group said to him:
“Please, don’t leave. You are very important here. You are providing precious observation from the outside and it would be very helpful to be here…”
The foreigner replied: “But I still have work to do! I have laundries and the dishes were not washed yet!”
To persuade the foreigner to stay, the group decided to pay him two steamed breads a day, with side dishes.1 The laundries and dishes would be going to washing machines, which would be split equally to every local blind man. The foreigner therefore stayed. He had now the position of arbitrator, and more than that, he had his own position of knowledge to share. The previous bed-guy was no longer participating in the discussion. He was now the person who was taking care of the foreigner’s well-being, for example, putting the laundries in the washing machines…
So, the discussion continued. All of them believed that they had one step forward towards the ultimate truth. Maybe the foreigner would be part of the cohort. But that would not be very soon…
Variation 7: The Elephant Speaks
Discussion and debates take energy, indeed, not only for our debaters but also for the elephant. As the discussion went on, the elephant could no longer withstand the situation. It said angrily: “I am the elephant! I am an animal that has tusks like carrots, a head like stones, ears like fans, legs like pillars, a belly like a jar, a back like a bed, a tail like a rope!”
Here we have three occasions. Let us go through them one by one:
First, the elephant thought that it was speaking, but to human ears it sounded no more than a normal elephant snoring. One man noticed it and said: “What an epiphany! The elephant is speaking to us! Let us try to understand what it says!” The whole group was then divided into two parts: one believed that the elephant was trying to speak to them, and the other thought that the elephant was just making noise. The former sooner or later built up a religion worshipping the elephant, and the latter remained their suspicion. The group still maintained their discussion, but it seemed that one day, the two fronts would have a conflict. Elephant be thanked that this time they did not have weapons on their belts!
Second occasion. The elephant spoke in a language that everyone could understand. “What an epiphany!” Everyone exclaimed. They all gathered around the elephant, waiting for more relevance. But the elephant was too tired, so it went to sleep. They were waiting and waiting, but the elephant slept for so long as if it would never come back awake. Finally, the group lost their patience waiting and they gathered again. One of them said: “Did we mishear? Was the elephant really speaking? Elephant is not like us; it cannot speak at all!” The other one refuted in anger: “How dare you, blasphemer! The elephant was definitely speaking, and we are here to wait for HIM to speak again!”
Obviously, the group was again divided in two. Elephant be thanked that this time they did not have weapons on their belts.
Third occasion. The elephant speaks in a language that part of the cohort understands. “What an epiphany!” Some of them exclaimed. The others were confused: the elephant was merely making normal noises, but these people seemed to be spellbound. Those who understood the elephant decided to establish a religion to disseminate the knowledge, whereas the others thought the religion was nonsense. Again, elephant be thanked…
Variation 8: An Extraterrestrial Elephant
So far, we have 7 variations with the same theme. We are judging these poor blind men for being partial and can never grasp the whole image. But we are judging them by believing that the elephant IS what we perceive. But what if, the elephant is an extraterrestrial figure, that it contains more than the concept “elephant” that we have, and that we cannot perceive them because we are all “blind”? Like the blind men in the story, are we all blind that we can only perceive part of its ontology?
Variation 0: Zhuangzi and the Elephant
Zhuang Zhou, or Zhuangzi, had a famous debate on a fish being happy or not. When he was traveling alongside a river with Hui Shi, he said: “The fishes are swimming freely in the water. How happy they are!” Hui Shi questioned: “But you are not a fish. How would you know that a fish is happy?” Zhuangzi replied: “But you are not me. How would you know that I do not know that a fish is happy?”
In fact, the conversation could go further as “How would you know that I know that you know that a fish is happy,” but the sophistry is not our concern here. What matters was that they continued their journey, and they met a group of blind men debating about what an elephant is like. He said: “You are not everyone else but you. And all of you are not the elephant itself. Now come, travel with me! The elephant is already in your heart since you have already known it. Tonight, you will dream of being an elephant…”
- Under Chinese context, this could also be understood metaphorically as being paid regularly. But of course here the interpretation is not limited.
Photo: “Blind monks examining an elephant” by Itcho Hanabusa