Jack and I had just failed to find common ground in our discussion whether a man who had gone through several marriages and subsequent divorces should be called a sequential monogamist or a sequential polygamist? We hadn’t reached the point of officially agreeing to disagree, but we knew that it was pointless to carry the discussion forward without further mature reflection. Not that the point mattered in any substantial way, mind you, but it’s nice to be able to name things. It’s considered a sign that you know what you’re talking about. As one of my teachers used to say: “if you can’t express yourself; if you don’t know the right words for things, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
So there was a minute of silence as we mopped up the remains of our lunch, with Jack looking at a bit of confectionary that he’d added to his tray at the last minute.
“Here’s another poser for you,” Jack said. “When does a tart become a pie?”
I said “what do you mean?”
Jack said “look at this little butter tart here. How much bigger would it have to be to be considered a pie?”
I said “Ah, one of the paradoxes of Eubulides of Miletus.”
Jack said “You bullies of Miletus?”
“No,” I corrected him, “Eubulides of the town of Miletus, a long-ago Greek settlement on the Western coast of Turkey. Eubulides lived a few centuries before Christ.”
“And did ‘Bully-for-you’ solve the problem? Could he tell a big tart from a small pie?” asked Jack.
I said “I’m not sure he ever attempted; he merely pointed out the problem.”
Jack said “BFD”, as he made a singularly inappropriate pumping motion with his right hand. “Come to think of it, the tallest dwarf could probably be taller than the smallest normal person.”
I said “I guess so.”
Jack said “you said Whatshisname had several paradoxes…”
I said “I can only recall one other besides that one, and I don’t think it really is all that different. Suppose you have man with a full head of hair who is beginning to lose some hair every day. At what point would you call him bald? Or going the other way, by adding water to a puddle, at what point does it become a pool, a lake?”
Jack said “So Whozit from Miley Cyrus became famous for asking stupid questions like that?”
“That’s one of the main elements of philosophical inquiry,” I said. “These questions go to the heart of distinctions – differences of degree or differences of kind – quantity or quality. Some people would call it hair-splitting, but when you come down to it, it’s only when you split a hair that you get to the essence of it.”
“That reminds me of an old story,” said Jack. “There once was a farmer who thought he’d try saving some money by giving his mule a little less food. And so every day the mule was fed less hay. This went on for a few weeks, and the mule was down to getting by on a mere handful of hay. ‘But unfortunately,’ said the farmer to the veterinarian, ‘just when I had weaned it off hay entirely, it suddenly died’.”
I said “I don’t think Eubulides ever heard that one, otherwise I’m sure he would have used it in his writings.”
“And the world would have been that much richer in wisdom,” added Jack.
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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