The Elephant

There once were five blind men who were revered in their country as deep thinkers. To get around to the various gatherings where their extraordinary knowledge and insight was in great demand, they employed a young assistant to help them. One day they had no engagements and so decided to go to the zoo. As they were walking about, they made their usual pithy observations about the various animals and their natures. Gradually a large crowd gathered to hear the wisdom of their opinions. Finally they came to the zoo’s newest acquisition, an Elephant, and the crowd asked that they give their observations about what was to them an unknown creature.

As was their custom, the first blind man felt the elephant’s trunk, and after some reflection stated that, “The Elephant is very like a snake for its sinuous curling and strength of grip.”

The second blind man felt the elephant’s side, thought for a while, then said, “No, the Elephant is very like a wall, unyielding and solid as a house.”

The third felt the elephant’s leg all around, and when it was his turn to speak declared, “You are both wrong, for it is clear that the Elephant is very like a great tree, planted solidly in the ground.”

The fourth felt the elephant’s ear, and with great authority spoke up saying, “Surely it is obvious that the Elephant is very like the sail of a great boat, flying before the wind.”

The fifth felt the elephant’s tail and, proud of his own abilities and frustrated by the others’ lack of discernment, told them all that, “The Elephant is no snake, no wall, no tree, and no sail, it is definitely very like a vine—round like a snake, clinging as to a wall or a tree, or being blown about as the wind may do to a sail.”

At that, each of the blind men began to vigorously defend their positions, with the crowd forming factions to cheer on their favorites and argue among themselves. And as they all talked, the day grew late and the sun began to go down, covering the zoo, the sages, and the crowd in increasing darkness, until no one could see the Elephant at all.

Finally, after much heated debate over who was correct about the nature of the Elephant, the blind men turned to the assistant and asked him to decide which of them was right. But the assistant was nowhere to be found, as he had long since gone home to eat his supper.

Home     Back

2005-2017 James Loftus