Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Aesop fable, presented without a moral (because questions are more interesting than answers)


(Retold from this version by the Rev. George Fyler Townsend (1867))

There was once an old woman who had become totally blind. She hired a physician who promised he could cure her, and in front of witnesses, made the following agreement: If he succeeded in curing her, and restoring her sight, she would pay him a set fee, but she would only pay him after the cure was complete.

The physician made several visits to her house, and applied his ointment to her eyes each time. But then, before he left, he would quietly steal one item from her house, until, at last, he had stolen everything she owned.

Then, he came for a last treatment, applying the ointment to her eyes, and removing the bandages.

The old woman looked around her house, and said nothing.

The physician demanded his payment.

The old woman refused.

The physician brought her before a judge, and told his story, to compel her to pay his fee.

Before the judge rendered his verdict, however, he asked the old woman for her side of the story.

"Well," she said, "This doctor claims to have cured me. But he hasn't."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. I know for a fact that my house is full of valuable things; I remember everything I own, from before I went blind. The doctor's cure is not complete yet, because I still can't see a single one of them."



This fable reminds me of the "Logic puzzle" that was fairly well-known when I was growing up in the 1970s, and the first time I heard it, when I was about 10 or 12, I was completely stumped:

(Quote) A doctor and his son were in a car crash. The doctor was killed, and the boy was rushed to the hospital. The attending surgeon in the emergency room looks down at the boy on the operating table and announces that another doctor must perform the operation, "Because this is my son." How is this possible? (Unquote)

The answer, of course, is that the ER surgeon is the boy's mother. This story is only a "puzzle" because of the cultural bias we have that all doctors are men.

The "twist" in this fable only works if, like the physician in tale, you assume that the elderly and blind are helpless and clueless about what is going on around them -- that an old, blind, woman can only sit in the middle of her house and wait to be cured, that it's even possible for the doctor to "quietly steal" all her worldly possessions, over an extended period of time, and she'd know nothing about it until the blindness was removed from her eyes.

Now, go back and read that story again. And this time, assume that she knows the physician is stealing from her from the first time he slips that silver teaspoon into his pocket.

Why would she decide to remain silent, and pretend to be ignorant until she's brought before a judge as a defendant? Could it be that she's afraid the cure would be withheld? Or maybe that she wouldn't be believed, because it would be the word of an old blind woman against that of a successful male doctor? And what about the assumption that a cure for blindness is so desirable that she'd put up with such a long, drawn-out thievery in the first place?


This story may have had its two thousand years ago, but all these questions are still being wrestled with by the disabled and the elderly who have to wade through a medical-judicial-economic system.


  1. Here are my three morals:

    We consider what "valuable" is very differently.

    Cures are seldom complete.

    And a cure can be a distraction.

  2. And what was the doctor doing stealing SPOONS?

  3. @Adelaide:

    (regarding Spoons) Ha! That specific detail is one of my personal additions, playing on the old: "Be careful of the servants -- they're liable to steal the family silver" trope in stories (Plus, as a logistical thing, a teaspoon is easy to steal as a first attempt). I hadn't actually considered the "Spoons as disability metaphor" as I was writing this up.... Though the Medical Establishment[tm] does do a good job of swiping our spoons, doesn't it?

    The "official" moral at the end of Rev. Townsend's version is:

    "He who plays a trick must be prepared to take a joke."

    But that seems to assume that story is more about the physician than it is the old woman.

  4. @CapriUni:

    You added that detail (about the spoons). Yes, details are important in fables, both for logistical and for other reasons.

    Remember lots of servants stealing the family silver, in stories.

    Some of the morals have that very authoritative "He" like "He who hesitates is lost". It would be good to have "That" or "Those" to make sure it applies to everybody and nobody.

    Also you or I might see ourselves in the moral.

    And in modern times it might well be: "You dish it out but you can't take it!" which is often thrown around in an argument.