June 3, 2011


Yellow Brick Philosophy: A review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniversary Edition (Books of Wonder) by L. Frank Baum (Ellen Handler Spitz, New Republic)

Beyond this -- beyond magic, fantasy, and psychological verisimilitude -- Baum brings to his pages a plenitude of intellectual puzzles. Subtly and with great charm, he explores in children's terms the realms of ontology, epistemology, and ethics. He actually helps children learn to think. The philosopher Gareth Matthews, in Philosophy and the Young Child, points especially to the Tin Woodman. This character may trouble children, who cringe inwardly at the thought of limbs being chopped off and cannot help wondering whether they could still be themselves if their parts were replaced. In a similar way, Matthews observed, Plutarch recounted the ancient paradox of the ship of Theseus, which, on display at Athens, had its planks supplanted when, one after another, they rotted away, until the entire ship was replaced, whereupon, the question arose as to whether what was now on display could still be deemed the ship of Theseus. Even a young child can thus grasp the power of Baum's metaphor. A welter of complex emotions arises when we cannot hold fast to a stable and continuous identity.

Dorothy and her readers learn similarly from encounters with the Lion. After she slaps his nose and he withdraws weeping (and, in Denslow's illustration, wiping his tears away with his tail), she asks him what makes him a coward: this is a child's quintessentially philosophical question. The Lion answers that it is a mystery: he was born that way. But when the Tin Woodman intervenes to suppose that, since the Lion's heart beats so fast when he is afraid, maybe he is suffering from a heart disease, the Lion responds meditatively: "Perhaps ... if I had no heart I should not be a coward." It is easy to miss the gravity of this line.

Later in the same scene, Dorothy makes an observation to the Lion that all the other beasts in the forest must be more cowardly than he, since they allow him to scare them so easily. To which, the Lion replies: "They really are ... but that doesn't make me any braver." Thus Baum asks to us to consider whether virtue may be a matter of absolute rather than relative standards: a sophisticated idea for a children's book. His Lion wants to feel his bravery on his own terms.

Toward the story's end, the Wizard's actions raise serious questions in the domain of ethics. Dorothy, now bitterly disappointed and justifiably angry at the apparently fierce, chameleon-like Wizard for his failure to keep his promises to her and her friends (even though they have fulfilled his demand and have destroyed the Wicked Witch of the West) tells him he is "a very bad man." He answers her by saying that in fact he is really a very good man but a very bad wizard. This answer, as the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle might have pointed out, is a category mistake. Whereas, Dorothy is speaking of goodness in a moral sense, the Wizard is referring to badness or incompetence in a purely technical sense.

Later in the story, after the hot air balloon has burst its strings and ascended, leaving Dorothy stranded in Oz with Toto, and the Wizard has vanished beyond the clouds, Dorothy, despite her disillusionment and remorse, absolves the Wizard and forgives him. She says that, after all, he was a good man, even though he was truly a bad Wizard. She does this with the thoughtful justification that "he had done his best." Thus, Dorothy -- wise child -- helps sort out the category confusion by intuitively grasping that, whereas, in ethics, intention is central to our judgment of what is good and what is not and must be taken into account, in the realm of action we weigh results, quite apart from intention. Wanting to do well does not carry the same weight as wanting to do good.

Another philosophical theme: Dorothy's three friends, as we realize almost from the start of their journey, possess unawares the boons they seek from Oz. By employing this conceit -- the "brainless" Scarecrow, for example, turns out to be the one who conceives the ingenious idea of chopping down a tree to make a bridge across the gulf they must cross in order to escape the ferocious Kalidahs -- Baum asks us to ponder the value of self-knowledge and self-awareness. He makes us reflect on the relevance of these capacities in education and in other spheres of life and, indeed, in any pilgrimage that can be conceived as an adventure along a yellow brick road. He treats here, in his way, the theme made famous by Eliot's luminous lines from The Four Quartets, penned over forty years later: "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time."

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Posted by at June 3, 2011 4:54 AM

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