Learning to philosophize with Nasruddin Hodja

By Oscar Brenifier

A - Introduction

 Nasruddin Hodja, a master of the negative way

Nasruddin is a myth more than anything else, even though in the city of Akshehir (Anatolia) in Turkey, some will pretend to show you the grave where he was apparently buried in 1284.. If such a historical being did exist, he was only the starting point for a very large body of stories. The hero of those numerous funny and absurd tales encounters many situations and can alternately be a peasant, an imam, a boatman, a roaming predicator, a king’s councellor, a a teacher, or a judge,

Like Ulysses, Nasruddin is no one and everyone, he represents a tradition – oral and written – more than a specific person, from which he

draws his strength as a school of life more than as a petrified hero or a petrified opus. Even his name changes totally, since in his fame around the Mediterranean and beyond, even outside the Muslim world, he will come to bear different names such as: Jiha in Maghreb, Afandi in China, Nastradhin Chotzas in Greece and Hersch’le in Israel. The tales being told are efficient and pedagogical. Out of those stories, each listener will hear and understand what he can, with his own means. The apparent lightness of many of them reveal and hide a profound understanding of the reality of being, even if one can easily remain on a superficial external apprehension of them.

A. The negative way

In the beginning of the Hippias minor dialogue, a discussion sets in between Hippias and Socrates, on the question of who is the best man in the Iliad, between Odysseus (Ulysses) and Achilles. The debate centers on the issue of lying, and Hippias claims that Achilles is a better man because he does not lie, contrary to Odysseus, who is the most cunning and does not hesitate to hold a false discourse. At a certain point, Socrates shows that Achilles makes as well statements which are not true, but Hippias then uses as a defense of his hero the fact he does not lie consciously: he just changed his mind, but he is very sincere. A debate Socrates concludes by claiming that Odysseus is better than Achilles, since when he lies, he very well knows that he is lying, so he knows the truth more than Achilles.

We would like to use this example of a classical philosophical text to introduce what we can call the ‘via negativa’ – negative path – of philosophical practice. We call it ‘via negativa’ just like the traditional concept of ‘via negativa’ used in particular in theology which is commonly used to determine for example the nature of God through the denial of what he is not. Thus Socrates defends lying in order to defend the truth, with the same irony that he claims his own ignorance in order to teach. And what is here used in a more conceptual and rational way is encountered as well in more playful way by the clown, the actor, the novelist, the caricaturist, the humorist, etc. All these very common modes of expression describe or stage certain schemes, behaviors, characters and situations, as a way to denounce them and obviously prone the opposite of what they represent. Thus the pretentious, the selfish, the hypocrite, the ambitious or any other typical defect will be presented in such a ridiculous, gross or exaggerated fashion, that this scenic posture will evidently criticize the ones who are affected by these defaults in order to encourage the quality opposite to it. Or at minimum, it represents a ‘Know thyself’ injunction.

An interesting aspect of this scheme is the large proportion of ‘unsaid’ in those modalities of expression, which leaves tremendous room to ambiguity, and at the same time a lot of space for freedom, since it does not saturate meaning, since it permits multiple representation and interpretation. The emergence of the comedy in renaissance Europe is a clear example of this freedom to criticize, both society and the power in place, therefore giving permission to think. Or what allowed the court jester to play his role of mocking even the king while going unpunished was precisely the dimension and tremendous ambiguity, that for example allowed the punning, the spirited playing with words. Harsh criticism came out of the fool's mouth, but in such an indirect way that if one would get offended, he would reveal himself and become the laughing stock of all. The baroque conception where world and stage become one single entity, making us a distant spectator of our selves, is a good illustration of this general principle.

1. Philosophy and antiphilosophy

But negative theology is mystical and comedy is a mere show, when philosophy is supposed to be of a rather scientific order: it should found itself on reason, on logic, on demonstration, draw a system, therefore ambiguity, innuendos, allusions, exaggeration and other such ‘literary tricks’ are not exactly welcome. We can here just remember the Hegel lectures on Plato, where the mere fact that Plato tells a story like the Allegory of the cave signifies that at this time he is not producing a philosophical discourse. Philosophy can only be rational and scientific, and this Hegelian heritage will definitely model the face of philosophy. Therefore the image of the philosopher, as the nature of his productions, tends to be wise and direct, more than foolish and indirect. After all, in a culture founded within the matrix of Christian values, let us not forget that the ‘oblique’ is the devil, for the devil is crafty. In French, the word ‘malin’ means smart or shrewd, but it refers as well to the devil, since it comes from ‘malus’: bad. The English word ‘devious’ has something of that order, since what is not straight seems suspicious, and what is deviant is devilish.

To be moral therefore means to say the truth, to say things the way they are, and to behave according to established standards of the good and the recommendable. In fact, in the mentioned Plato dialogue, Hippias shows a rather often occulted but fundamental aspect of the sophist: the sophist is the one who knows, he says the truth, he is the specialist of the good, the technician of knowledge, the keeper of rightness and morality. Callicles claiming that one has to follow his impulses and desires and Gorgias reducing speech to mere rhetoric is only an attempt by Socrates to show the fundamental immorality of such a position. Since, as Pascal said, true morality laughs at morality. And knowledge is in itself immoral, for its pretensions and hypocrisy, its fundamental negligence of virtue, its disdain for the good, and moreover its ignorance of being, its absence of being. The rational and moral speech is merely the discourse of convenience and convention, of good conscience, the philosophical correctness that Nietzsche criticizes as the ‘small reason’, in opposition to the ‘great reason’ of life, or when he denounces the illusory concept of human conscience. For even though this trend of negative philosophy is not the hegemonic one and is even contrary to it, it maintains itself as the regular ‘other’ of philosophy: its enemy brother, its shadow and denigrator.

This minority current of philosophy, this antiphilosophy, which pretends to show and shock more than it pretends to tell and explain, is already very present and visible within philosophy itself, for example in the character of Socrates, and its devastating irony, this form of speech that says the contrary of what it says. What a historical joke we have there in Socrates, that we can recognize as the founding figure of philosophy, its hero and martyr, with someone that preaches the false to know the true, and even worse, someone that shows that we are condemned to falsehood since truth cannot be known. He had necessarily to be killed, he who preached an antilogic, for example in the Parmenides dialogue where every proposition and its contrary is both tenable and untenable. If the false is true and the true is false, we don't know anymore where we stand, we don't know anymore if we exist: the carpet has been pulled from under our feet. But what amazing freedom is given to us: the right to think the unthinkable, all the way into absurdity. Nevertheless, the agonistic dimension of this otherness, the crossing over on the other side of the mirror, the fragmented ‘this sidedness’ of reality which refuses the establishment of any system, of any conceptual and ethical map, is unbearable for both the common man and the knowledgeable man, since both compose, as raw or cultured as they are, the hierarchy of self evidence and good horse sense, a worldview where coherency has to be granted.

The cynic, with its total lack of respect for anything and anyone, provides in this context an interesting historical example: it is the rare case of a philosophical school whose name is used as well as a moral condemnation. Alongside with nihilism, although someone like Nietzsche will try to show that contrary to the appearance, the nihilists are not the ones who appear so to the superficial understanding. And what both cynicism and nihilism indicate, what they have in common with the Socratic method, is their power of denial, their heavy dose of contempt. It is not so much here the place to learn, but the place to unlearn. One should not teach principles, but on the contrary corrode those principles in order to think. Knowledge is here largely conceived in opposition to thinking, the former conceived here as a possession of fixed ideas that crystallizes, rigidifies and sterilizes mental processes. So the main task of the teacher, if teacher be, is to untie or break the knots that knowledge represents, a knowledge that is characterized as opinion – be it common opinion or educated opinion, as Socrates distinguishes – in order to free the mind and allow thinking. Just like in eastern practices such as Zen, what is needed is to short circuit the usual paths of thoughts, seize them through some shock effect, by mean of some conceptual paradox, critical analysis or some strange behavior, which should hopefully produce some illumination. And when the mind will wake up to itself, it will know where to go, since mind is naturally inclined to think, unless it is hindered in its proper activity.

2. Methods

‘It is not doubt which makes one crazy, it is certitude’ says Nietzsche. Even though the Nietzschean abrupt interpellation is definitely not the Socratic laborious questioning, they both agree on this idea that one's mind should not be jailed within its own thoughts. The thoughts we entertain necessarily stop us from having other thoughts, especially if those thoughts are the kind of general principles that determine what is acceptable and what is not. This has an echo in Heidegger, when he writes: ‘What gives the most to think in our time which gives us a lot to think is that we do not think yet.’ So we have to become a stranger to ourselves in order to think, we have to alienate ourselves in order to be.

The way Socrates operated this cognitive shock was through questioning, provoking the interlocutor into discovering his own incoherency and ignorance, a process which allowed the person to give birth to new concepts: maïeutics. For Heraclites, the struggle of contraries engenders being, so the emergence of those contraries allowed us to think and to be. For the cynics, man is so deeply entrenched in conventions that the only way to get him to think is to behave in the most abrupt fashion toward him: by fornicating in public, eating with the hands, going around naked or living in barrel, by pretending men are not men, etc. All these theatrics should affect the individual mind more than any speech should do. In the Far East, the master would produce a strange paradox, or act in a strange way, and the student should by himself meditate on the meaning of it, without any explanations ever given to him. And in some schools, the master would not hesitate to become violent in order to produce the desired ‘pedagogical’ effect. A rather rash perspective which comes as a repellent for those that think philosophical practice is geared at making one feel at ease or happy! And a very ‘unethical’ posture indeed since the individual does not constitute his own end anymore: he is the mere instrument of truth. In a more subdued and formal fashion, Kant's antinomies are a conceptual reduction from the same inspiration.

B. The case of Nasruddin Hodja

There are different reasons why among a number of case studies of the negative way or antiphilosophy figureheads we chose Nasruddin Hodja. The first reason is that he did not exist as an actual person, and one of the requirements or our practice is precisely to develop the capacity of the person not to exist. Nasruddin is a myth more than anything else, even though in the city of Akshehir (Anatolia) in Turkey, some will pretend to show you the grave where he was apparently buried in 1284. If such a historical being did exist, he was only the starting point for a very large body of stories. The hero of those numerous funny and absurd tales encounters many situations and can alternately be a peasant, an imam, a boatman, a roaming predicator, a doctor, a teacher, or a judge, he can have no wife, one wife, two wives and does not hesitate to practice homosexuality, but more conclusive on the mythical aspect of his existence is the fact he is portrayed periodically as the jester of Tamerlane, when the latter conquered Turkey only at the end of the fourteenth century. Like Ulysses, Nasruddin is no one and everyone, he represents a tradition – oral and written – more than a specific person, from which he draws his strength as a school of life more than as a petrified hero or a petrified opus, a nature that is more conform to his being. Even his name changes totally, since in his fame around the Mediterranean he will come for example to bear the name of Jiha in Maghreb. And even his original Turkish name Nasruddin is very common in this part of the world: it means ‘glory of religion’, Hodja referring to the vague title of ‘master’.

The second reason we chose him is the popular aspect of his person and what is told about him, for the nature of the tales that are told easily make him a folk hero, if only because they are funny and lively, and therefore efficient and pedagogical. Out of those stories, each listener will hear and understand what he can, with his own means, a phenomenon that is interesting to watch when one tells those different tales to different public. The reactions to the different contexts, to the degrees of subtleties, to concreteness or absurdity, will reveal more than many words who the listener is and how he thinks. Even the incomprehension of the story will be useful, since it will send back each one to his own ignorance or blindness.

The third reason is the width of the field covered by those stories, precisely because they represent a tradition more than a particular author. Questions of ethics, of logic, of attitudes, existential issues, sociological issues, marital issues, political issues, metaphysical issues, the list is long that can be drawn of the type of far ranging problems or paradoxes posed to the person that comes in contact with this body of critical knowledge. The apparent lightness of many of them reveal and hide a profound understanding of the reality of being, even if one can easily remain on a superficial external apprehension of them. But if the ‘classical’ philosopher will claim that the conceptualization and analysis – like the one we indulge in – is necessary in order to constitute philosophizing, one can as well respond that this formalization of the content can accomplish a sterilizing function and give the illusion of knowledge. But let's leave for another occasion the debate about the nature and form of philosophy. Although one hint that can be useful as a contextual information, is the close relationship of Nasruddin to the Sufi tradition, the latter which helped transmit the stories of Nasruddin, contemporary and neighbor of the great mystique poet Rumi.

The fourth reason is the terribly provocative personality of this living myth. At a moment where political or philosophical correctness tries to promote ethics and ‘good behavior’ to varnish the civilized brutality of our society, Nasruddin can be very useful, since he is endowed with about all major defaults of character. He is a liar, a coward, a thief, a hypocrite, he is selfish, gross, abusive, lazy, stingy, unreliable and impious, but especially he is an idiot and a fool, and a very accomplished one. But he generously offers all those grotesque traits of character to the reader, who will see himself just like in a mirror, more visible in its exaggerated deformity. He invites us to examine, accept and enjoy the absurdity of our self, the nothingness of our personal being, as a way to free our own mind and existence from all those pretensions that are geared at giving us a good conscience, but that do more to induce personal and social compulsive lies than anything else. His way of being deals a terrible and appropriate blow to the idolatry of the individual self, so characteristic of our occidental modern culture, to our factitious and permanent search for identity and happiness. Through his atrocious ‘small lies’, Nasruddin helps us set up in broad daylight the ‘big lie’. And little by little, we would like to take the place of his best and eternal friend: his donkey.

The fifth reason is his free relationship with authority, whatever its nature. In front of religious, political, judiciary, academic or even domestic authority, Nasruddin remains at once free and respectful. He is not afraid of revealing the hyprocrisy or the lies of the ruling power, be it big or small – Foucault spoke of ‘micro-powers’ – and still acknowledges its real and necessary status. When he criticizes Tamerlane, it is for the latter to act with more justice or reason. When he criticizes the believers or an imam, it is in order that they better conform to the spirit of religion. When he criticizes a scholar, it is to invite him to be wiser. For, to Nasruddin, the real question of authority is that of self authority, the authority we grant ourselves, on the basis of truth and authenticity and not on artificial, arbitrary and conventional bases.

But for now let us cut short the rationalization of our own choice in order to comment and analyze some key stories of Nasruddin Hodja, from which we can get a sense of the significance of his philosophical content and the implications for life and understanding. Let us note however that the philosophical dimension has often been eclipsed by the mere narrative dimension. But our hypothesis is that the pleasure we experience in this vis comica includes an intuitive perception of the issue at stake, the transmission of popular but deep wisdom. 

C. The Punch line

There is general paradox in the character of Nasruddin. He is terrible with us, he is devastating and pitiless with our egos, but we love him for it. In a period where reigns philosophical correctness, where we are supposed to be so nice and make everyone happy, when there is so much discourse on ethics probably because there is so little ethics, Nasruddin does not try to ‘value’ the individual and make him feel good. To philosophize is for him to show the nothingness of the particular being, so egocentric and blind. But then, why do we accept from him the kind of terrible criticisms we would not accept even from our best friend? One reason might be that he is actually pitiless for himself as well, which makes him our own brother, our better self. A brother that sacrifices himself to show us how foolish we are, who laughs at himself in order to laugh at us, a thwarted and funny kind of compassion.

As a sort of inverted “Saint” like figure, who goes one step further than Socrates on the irony, as a good humored cynic, he takes on his own back all the stupidity, lies and mediocrity of the human species. But in spite of his “sacrifice” – he seems like such an idiot and a fool - Nasruddin is not a martyr! He laughs at us for such silly and sentimental ideas. Just one more trick we invent to feel good!

Thanks to the wild spirit of our hero, let us be free, let us entertain silly and absurd perspectives. For it seems to us that the Nasruddinian perspective is not so much that men won't be fools anymore, but that they will know a little bit more how they are great fools. That is called wisdom. The question here is not to cure, if only because there is no way to cure, or because there is nothing to cure...

So there is nothing left to do but to watch the wonderful spectacle of the pathology, and to enjoy it as a Punch and Judy show, as grand theatre. Let us be entertained by this comedy of errors, let us laugh at the human drama. Much to do about nothing. That would be an excellent title. So let's keep on being foolish and enjoy it. Maybe something will come out of all this joke and laughter. Maybe true therapies come in the least expected form...



B - Exercises


Each chapter (story) has the following structure:

A: Story

B: Analysis

C: Questions (Comprehension questions - Reflection questions)

D: Exercise




1 – The poet – Image and recognition

2 – It must be true – Wishful thinking

3 - Eat, My Coat, Eat – Appearance

4 - The donkey - Truth and friendship

5 – Inch Allah – Words and thinking

6 - The toothache – Identity

7 – The scholar – Knowledge, wisdom and ignorance

8 – The preacher - Learning

9 – The key – Knowing and finding

10 – The two wives - Choosing

11 – The turban – Responsibility

12 – The pumpkin  - Reasoning

1 – The poet - Image and recognition

A – The story

A man of the town who indulges in poetic pretensions asks Nasruddin to listen to some of his poems to get his appreciation. Knowing by experience this is a risky affair, Nasruddin tries to avoid the exercise, acknowledging his fundamental ignorance of poetry. But the man insists, arguing that he has a profound trust for Nasruddin and his renowned wisdom. Under constraint, the latter finally accepts. He patiently listens to the long declamation, and once finished does not say anything. “So !” says the poet. “So what?” says Nasruddin? “Well, what do you think?” “Do you really want to know?”. But once more, under pressure, Nasruddin is forced to obey. So he renders a very frank judgment: the work is turgid, pompous, vain and boring. At those words, the poet becomes red with anger, and for five good minutes, he screams at Nasruddin, throwing at him all the possible insults and most horrible names.

When the man calms down, Nasruddin comments: “Well, your poetry is atrocious, but your prose is really excellent!”

B – Analysis

As we all know by experience, it is quite difficult to engage in a real discussion, where interlocutors really say what they think. For a simple reason: like the poet of the story, we all have pretensions, we all want to be admired to a greater or lesser degree, and we all are doubtful and anxious about ourselves. Therefore, when we engage in a verbal exchange with someone else, we are always more or less looking for his consideration, for his approval of our words, of our deeds and actually of our whole being. We are begging for the eyes of others, because we are worried about the worth and meaning of our own existence. Of course, these expectations are not always as explicit as in the poet of the story, but they are present in filigree, as a sort of fundamental matrix of all human preoccupation and dialogue.

The reason for this is not a very mysterious one: human existence is a construction. The animal is what he is: a rabbit is a rabbit, a tiger is a tiger, his life will look just like the one of his parents, except if the circumstances change. But by himself, he will act in exactly the same way: he has no capacity of free will, he will not criticize the way his parents live, he is engaged in a mere reproduction and imitation procedure. But the human being is quite different from this. Each one of us has known in a way or another the rejection of his parents, the criticism of the society he lives in, we have all thought at some point that we could do better than the others. Even though in the final results we might look a lot like the people that surround us, we all know this little drama inside of us where we try to articulate something that is “really” ourself, some kind of individuality that is specific to our being, and that always bears some pretension to be better than others. Be it morally, intellectually, socially, artistically, we all search for some kind of particularity that provides us with an identity.

There are different ways to address this question. The French philosopher Sartre speaks about a project: what we want to do and we will accomplish, we project our self in the future and the sum of the actions we commit will ultimately resume the reality and substance of our existence. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant speaks about what he calls regulatory ideal, an idea that we use as a guide for our thoughts and actions, even though we will not be able to really and completely fulfill this ideal. In both cases, there can be, and most likely will be a big difference between what we wish to accomplish and what we will actually accomplish. This gap is often quite wide, and it gives us what another German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel calls “bad conscience”: the consciousness that we are not what we want to be, we are not what we could be, we are not what we should be. Plus we naturally and often compare ourselves to the others, these others who in our eyes have sometimes less than us, but often have more than us. And we become jealous because we generally are more preoccupied by what we don’t have rather than what we have. Just like children who see what the others have that they don’t have, rather than enjoying what they have already.

We have different ways to deal with this terrible feeling of existential lack and failures, which takes the form of sadness, of despair, or anger. Sometimes, out of spite, we claim that we don’t care, that everything is fine with us, when rage is in our heart. Sometimes, we get depressed, since we cannot manage to be what we desire: we feel impotent, and we become even less what we want to be. Sometimes, we pursue everyone, desperately searching for some approval, begging everyone to grant us some kind of comforting words, even if they are not true. Sometimes again, we engage in some compulsive activity that will make us forget what we would hope for, in a sort of flight forward obsession. Sometimes, we transpose on others all our hopes and desires, for example on our children, loading on them all the pressure that we put on ourselves. Then we can ask ourselves: why can’t we accept the simple reality? But it is true than after all, the human soul needs to think perfection as a way to give meaning to its own existence.

C – Questions about the text

Comprehension questions

Why does the poet want to read his poem to Nasruddin?

Why does Nasruddin try “to avoid the exercise”?

Is Nasruddin a liar?

Was Nasruddin right to give his honest opinion about the poem?

Is the poet right to be angry?

What is the problem of this poet?

Why does Nasruddin say the prose of the poet is better than his poetry?

Reflection questions

Why do we want to show our accomplishments to other persons?

Why does one write in general?

Why does one write poetry?

Why is it difficult to make judgments?

Is it sometimes difficult to express our judgments?

Why do people get angry when they disagree?

Do we always expect something when we speak to other people?

Can we say everything we think to other people?

Why do we fear rejection?

D – Exercise: Quarreling


Because Nasruddin says the truth about what he thinks, a dispute breaks out. Should he have lied, like we often do? In daily life, there are many reasons to quarrel, sometimes necessary or legitimate, sometimes vain and frivolous, some are avoidable others are not. The context and the reasons of this quarrel will determine the validity of the dispute. Even though we learn that in general disputes are bad, some are unavoidable or necessary, maybe even useful or good.

In this exercise, different reasons or explanations are given to justify a quarrel. The student must examine those different situations and determine which ones are more legitimate than others. He should then choose the three most acceptable and the three less acceptable, and motivate in each case his choice. 


In the following list of reasons to have a dispute, choose the three that are the most legitimate and the three that are less legitimate, and give reasons to explain each choice you make.

To quarrel

In order to defend yourself

In order to obtain what you want

Because of jealousy

Because of anger

To bother someone

To defend truth

To have the last word

Because you don’t like someone

Because you are in a bad mood

To protect a friend

Because you had no real argument

Because you are scared

Because you are nervous

To scare someone

To provoke a fight

Because you hate injustice

2 – It must be true – Wishful thinking

A – Story

Nasruddin is taking a nap. But some children are playing outside, disturbing his sleep. Irritated by the noise, he goes out and in order to get rid of the children, he tells them: “You know, there is a lady on the other side of the village who is getting married, and because of this, she is distributing all kinds of sweets, halva and lokums!”. When the children hear this, they immediately run away with their mouth watering. After a while, still not sleeping and noticing that the children are not coming back, Nasruddin tells himself: “I think I will go there too: what I said must be true”.

B – Analysis

We utter many statements on a day-to-day basis. Some are thought through and well founded, some are impulsive or reactive, some are mainly the expression of feelings or emotions, some are information that we want to transmit, some are mere repetitions of what we heard or read beforehand, and some strange statements even come to us in spite of our own volition, that we often regret. But in one way or another, we necessarily think all these words that cross our mind and come out of our mouth, otherwise we would not pronounce them. To declare that the proposition “Paris is the capital of England” is false, I must first think and understand the idea that “Paris is the capital of England”, otherwise I could not criticize this statement and declare it false. But many persons will then use the following objection: “Yes, I can think it but I don’t believe it”. Or they use another formulation: “Yes, but I don’t really think this way”, considered as an equivalent. This implies that we put together the act of “thinking” and the one of “believing”, “believing” meaning “really thinking”, or thinking with certainty, thinking with a strong impression of being certain. Thus, to be certain of what we say would make our thinking real, and we call this “knowledge”: a sure and unquestionable thinking. But when we think in this way, we forget that the history of “sure and unquestionable thinking”, as shown in the development of science, is a mere endless series of rectified errors and modified hypotheses. But human beings need certitudes, we need to be sure, otherwise doubt and insecurity would make our life miserable, since we want to control and master everything.

We can oppose to this idea of certitude a different perspective: the idea that knowledge is constituted as a set of “well justified beliefs”. This means that we have arguments in favor of this or that idea, or that the idea is coherent, that it is founded on some objective facts, that it emanates from some appropriate authority, or that it is supported by some coherent theoretical foundation, all this without any degree of certitude. But in opposition to this we should mention as well the idea of the American pragmatist philosopher William James, who thinks that truth is determined in relation to what is most advantageous to us, therefore a very subjective foundation. Or course, most advantageous can have different meanings and values: it can imply what is most practical, what is the most efficient hypothesis, what fits better what we already know, or it can mean simply what pleases us the most in an immediate way. And the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard asserts in such a direction that truth is necessarily subjective, and not objective.

Now, let us go back to the “truth” of Nasruddin. He tells the children something that has a purpose: to chase them away by attracting them somewhere else, so he can sleep. Even though his marriage story is false, because he just made it up, it has in a way a certain “truth”, since it is efficient: it works and the children leave. This idea that an invented story might be true will seem probably strange to our reader, but at the same time, that is how we think and speak commonly everyday. That is the whole point of the present story, the idea of its punch line: the invented idea works so well, since the children don’t come back, that Nasruddin starts believing it. That is exactly how myths are created: we invent a story, either from scratch, or by embellishing and transforming some more basic fact or tale, and when we see the effect it has on the listeners, through admiration or by what it makes them do, we end up adopting this story, making it true in our own mind, believing it. That is the same way by which societies create founding myths, about some hero or some event, transformed to speak more to the collective mind. So do we personally function, with our own childhood stories for example. And we are surprised when someone who had previously known these events has a totally different version of it. We are so “certain” about what we know.

Let’s not forget another reason for Nasruddin to believe the story: just like the children, he is gourmand, he loves eating. It is not an accident that the way he thought of in order to chase the children was not some kind of reasonable explanation or the classical threat of punishment, but rather appealing to the sweet-tooth tendency of the children. In fact, he is all ready to believe his own words, since it comes from the bottom of his heart: such an argument seems so advantageous to him that he cannot resist believing it. And the simple fact that the children don’t come back from their wild goose chase constitutes a sufficient “objective” fact for him to completely swallow his own lie. Of course, the way it is told in this story is made to sound ridiculous by showing us the process in a short and blunt way, but let’s not forget how this way of thinking is commonly practiced in a very stupid and naïve way. We invent stories and end up believing them. But after all, why would not we believe our own words if they please us and if they seem to fulfill their task?

C – Questions

Comprehension questions

Why does Nasruddin invent the story of the wedding?

Why do the children believe Nasruddin?

What other ways could Nasruddin use in order to make the children go away?

Why does Nasruddin believe his own story?

Is Nasruddin lying?

Is Nasruddin stupid?

Reflection questions

Should a child always believe an adult?

Why do people lie?

Do we sometimes tell ourselves lies?

Can we end up believing our own lies?

What is the difference between telling a story and lying?

How can we decide if what we hear is true or false?

Do you like to invent stories?

D – Exercise: To believe or not to believe?


The typical school and home environment does not really incite the child to cultivate critical thinking, neither to practice personal and argumentative expression. In school, the student is in general not invited to produce a constructed judgment: when he is asked to give his personal advice, he often merely expresses his subjective and unreasoned sensitivity: his wish and desires. At the same time, we expect him to learn how to assess what he hears; we want him to judge in a wise manner, a capacity than can be developed only through exercising it. It is difficult to determine how much we should believe what we hear: it must be learned.

The realization of the following exercise first bases itself on a good comprehension of the words used and the ideas expressed, then on a rigorous assessment of their implications and their limits. The child should therefore not read them in an immediate and naïve way, but must evaluate their soundness, judge them and justify his judgment.


Must you believe?

Your father who tells you the dog speaks to him.

Your grandfather who tells you your favorite football team will certainly win the next game.

Your mother who tells you that the music you like is not beautiful.

Your grandmother who tells you that what you eat is not good for the health.

Your brother that tells you that your teacher is a bad teacher.

The scientist that tells you that there are elephants living on the moon.

Your teacher that says there is no school on Monday.

Your best friend who tells you that you are the best of all friends.

Your aunt that tells you that she is too old to change.

A stranger who tells you that he will take you to the zoo.

A child who tells you that when he will be older he will be President of the Republic.

A child who tells you that when he will grow up he will have three children.

The neighbor who tells you it will rain tomorrow.

A friend who pretends he knows what you think.

Your father who tells you that you are insolent.

The newspaper that claims that the end of the world is coming.

A movie star that advertises on television which car is the best.

A famous singer who explains which perfume is the best.

3 - Eat, My Coat, Eat – Appearance

A – Story

The Hodja was invited to a banquet by one of his neighbor. Since it was not a formal event, he decided to wear his everyday clothes and went to the feast. Once arrived, he realized after a little while that no one paid any attention to him, including the host, who did not even greet him or offer him anything, as should normally occur. Annoyed by this situation, he went back home, put on his fanciest coat and pants, and then returned to the banquet. Suddenly, everything had changed: as he came to the stairs everyone already greeted him cordially, then he was invited to sit down, he was served the best food and drink.

But when the soup was served to him he deeply dunked the sleeve of his coat into the bowl and loudly said: "Eat, my coat, eat!". The startled host immediately asked the Hodja to explain his strange behavior. "When I arrived here wearing my everyday clothes," explained the Hodja, "no one offered me anything to eat or drink. But when I returned wearing this fine coat, I was immediately offered the best of everything, so I can only assume that it was the coat and not myself who was invited to your banquet."

B – Analysis

Who are we for others, our appearance or ourselves? The French philosopher Blaise Pascal claims that in general we are not loved for who we really are, but for our beauty, our character, our utility, for the pleasure we provide, etc. An idea that poses the problem of our identity: is there anything but appearance in who we are? Do we ever know our “real self”? Do we know and appreciate the “real self” of others? Are we even interested in knowing who we are and who they are? Like usually with the Nasruddin stories, a common problem is presented in a caricatural or exaggerated way, in order to make it more visible. Because what happens everyday tends to become invisible: the ordinary disappears, it becomes neutral, usual and banal: it constitutes reality. In this context, Nasruddin’s function is to accomplish what the British philosopher Bertrand Russell claims about philosophy: it makes the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary ordinary.

But of course, when hearing this story, some readers will claim that they are not like that, they will pretend that they don’t treat people according to their appearance or by the clothing they wear. Well, if we are honest with ourselves, in the rare occasions we encounter or meet a celebrity for example. Does not our attitude change, comparing to our normal way of behaving toward people? Don’t we feel something strange, which impresses us and makes us react differently? Even though we might think in a rational way that our strange reaction makes no sense. How about when we speak to our boss, to our banker, to a professor, to some kind of expert or authority, or else? And fundamentally, is there any difference between the function or the title, and the clothing? Are they not both of them mere appearance? Why should we treat differently the celebrity and our next-door neighbor? Why should we treat differently the person that “speaks well” and the “normal person” ? Are we not often seduced or impressed by those mere appearances?

To answer this last question, let’s say that one is more “a person” than the other. Is not this what implies the expression: “he is really someone”? Some persons are “somebody” more than the other: the others are common, they disappear in the crowd, and we don’t recognize them. When “someone” is a special person, he is singularized, he is treated differently. That is the problem the story deals with: recognition. So what is this recognition, this state we all desire and hope for, just like Nasruddin? It is to be identified from previous knowledge or encounter. This means that we are already known and that we are remembered. And if we are not remembered, we feel sad or even insulted. Because implicitly, this recognition signifies the acknowledgment of one's existence. Through recognition, this particular existence is granted a definite value, since it is worth remembering. And we all want our being, our thoughts or our actions, to be appreciated or even acclaimed, as universally as possible, even though we are not conscious of it or we don’t admit it. Often we call this respect, a certain image given to our name.

Of course, we can criticize Nasruddin for his lack of humility, for not accepting his “anonymous” statute at the feast. In this way he is very human, just like us: full of expectations. But the difference between Nasruddin and us is that he takes his “drama” with distance, with laughter. His “humanity” makes him a critic of society, in a very insightful way: he is not a victim of impotence and resentment. Thus his story is worth recognition. As well, paradoxically, it is when Nasruddin treats badly the other persons, making fun of them, criticizing them, that he is finally recognized. Just like in the law of the jungle: we instinctively respect the stronger, the one who imposes himself on us, we respect the one who does not respect us.

A last point, which should be brought up, is the paradoxical nature of appearance. The question is to know if the appearance hides who we really are, or if it shows who we really are. Does appearance reveal or hide reality? Since the appearance is what we see of something, we could think that it represents the reality of this thing made visible. There is no reason to think that the appearance of an apple betrays the “real” nature of the apple. There is no reason a priori to think that if someone looks like a fool he would not be a fool. 

C – Questions

Comprehension questions

Why is Nasruddin disappointed with his first visit to the feast?

Why did Nasruddin change clothes?

Why is Nasruddin greeted well the second time?

Why did Nasruddin soak his coat in the soup?

Did Nasruddin behave in a proper way?

Reflection questions

Does our clothing reveal who we are?

Why is the way people dress so important?

Should we trust appearance?

Should we respect equally everyone?

What is most important: appearance or reality?

What is the difference between appearance and reality?

Do we love people for what they are or for the way they appear to us?

4 – Exercise


Everyday we observe how appearance is important. At the same time, we periodically notice that it can be deceiving. Nevertheless, all appearances are not misleading, and when they are, it can be for very different reasons. Therefore we should try to identify different manners by which we find discordances between what things seem and what they are.

Different propositions are made concerning appearance and reality. In each case, we propose they don’t concur, and the student must find some reason that could account for this discrepancy. In order to give a substantial account for this situation, the student should explain sufficiently his hypothesis and if possible give different reasons. At the end, we could compare the different reasons to make a false judgment based on appearance.


Answer in a reasoned manner those different questions about reality and appearance.

Can someone look like a foreigner and not be one?

Can someone seem nice and be the opposite?

Can someone seem selfish and be the opposite?

Can the teacher seem strict and be the opposite?

Can an object seem to be what it is not?

Do false things exist?

Can you wrongly believe someone is angry with you?

Can you sometimes take a person for another?

Can you believe you know something and not know it?

Are there true Santa Claus and false Santa Claus?

Can you wrongly be scared about something?

Can you wrongly trust someone?

Can something look good and be harmful?

Can I be mistaken about myself?

Can we believe what we see?

4 - The donkey - Truth and friendship

A – The story

Ahmet, Nasruddin’s neighbor, wants to borrow Nasruddin’s donkey. He goes to Nasruddin’s house to ask if he can borrow the animal, explaining he needs it, because he has some important and very hard work to accomplish. “My donkey is not here”, answers Nasruddin, bothered by the request. But as they are talking, Ahmet hears from behind the house the bray of the donkey. Hee-haw! Hee-haw!

Ahmet gets angry: “What kind of friend are you, you who claim your donkey is not there when it is actually right here, in your garden! I just heard him!”

And Nasruddin answers: “And you, what kind of friend are you, who prefer to believe my donkey, rather than believe me!”

B – Analysis

There are two main problems posed by this story. The problem of truth and the one of friendship. Let us remember at this point the warning of Plato, his idea that truth and friendship do not go very well together, since the last thing we expect from friends is to tell us what they really think, which would at length risk to make us uncomfortable and produce mutual irritation.

About truth, let us examine the statute of the donkey “speech”. Of course, we laugh because one would not expect to believe a donkey, since “believing” applies only to human speech, or God’s, but not to the animal. Then why does it not apply to animals? Now that we think about it as we read the story, we realize that in fact animals always tell the “truth”, however strange this idea seems. And the reason they always tell the truth is because they cannot lie, although some will object that animals are sometimes cunning, like when they want to catch a prey. But even though it is rather true, for all practical purposes, let us leave this path on the side, if only because lying implies a certain form of consciousness and moral responsibility that does not apply to the animal.

Therefore, man lies because he is free to invent to reality, because he is not condemned to the acceptation of ruthless and objective facts, as we often observe in the words we hear every day: illusion, feelings, hopes, fear and desires determine a lot what we say about reality, even when we pretend to be objective. One reason for this is that pure facts hardly exist for us, since everything has meaning, and this meaning, be it symbolical, emotional, spiritual, rational, scientific, or else, transforms “natural” reality into “human” reality. The other reason is that this very potential of man to transform reality gives him as well a strong capacity to wishful thinking, as well as a capacity to say the opposite of what he “really” thinks. In other words, there is duplicity in man’s heart and mind, for the better and for the worse, and even confusion, between subjectivity and objectivity.

Thus, in a funny way, the donkey’s “speech” is more reliable. If only because through his braying he is stating his own presence, when a human being is capable of the statement “I am not here”, a gross performative contradiction, between the content of our speech and the speech itself. Although indeed the latter can have a plausible sense when taken in a second-degree interpretation, or when the “here” has different meanings.

About friendship, we sense in the narrative how this term can become meaningless. Is a person coming to borrow something from you really your friend? Is a person that lies to you really a friend? Is a person that refuses - selfishly or legitimately - to lend you something you need really a friend? Are people really your friend because you are useful to them? Friend is a word that is so much used that it becomes meaningless, as we see in the popular Facebook concept for example: “I have 353 friends...” We all behave in a way like school children that from one day to the next change their mind: we declare someone to be a friend, who then become a sort of “worse enemy”, according to the circumstances: we apply this term in a very indiscriminate way. Thus Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle distinguish friendship based on utility, friendship based on pleasure, and true friendship. We are quite familiar with the first two types: but what defines the third is rather a mystery. Who does not have terrible stories about friends that revealed themselves not to be friends? Because in general we have expectancies in our relationship with people, that turn a lot around convenience and needs, whatever their nature: material, relational, psychological or else. Thus the narrative sends back to back the two neighbors through their mutual recriminations against each other, showing the fragility, the shallowness or even the emptiness of their friendship, which is nothing else that being convenient or inconvenient neighbors, being pleasurable or not, being useful or not.

Then of course comes the trust problem, fundamental in friendship or any human relation: should you trust a friend because he is a friend, or because he says things that make sense? How much can you trust a friend that states crazy things, even though he guarantees or swears it is true? Here comes the moment when we have to determine if we have more trust in ourselves, our experience and our capacity of judgment, or in the other person. A tough decision, where friendship and reason are at odds. Followed by the second problem: if we don’t believe our friend, should we tell him, or should we lie in order not to hurt his feelings, in order not to loose him? That is the moment where our relationship to our friend and to truth will show their true face and reveal themselves.

C - Questions

Comprehension questions

Why does Nasruddin not want to lend his donkey?

Are Nasruddin and Ahmet friends?

Why does Ahmet call Nasruddin “friend”?

Why does Nasruddin call Ahmet “friend”?

Should Ahmet believe Nasruddin or the donkey?

Is Nasruddin a liar?

Is the donkey telling the truth?

Reflection questions

Do animals always tell the truth?

Why do human beings lie?

Can we lie for good reasons?

Should you always believe your friends?

Should you always believe your family?

Can people be friends for bad reasons?

Why are people friends?

Would you believe more a friend, or yourself?

D – Exercise: Reasons to lie


In this story, Nasruddin is apparently lying, but maybe he has good reasons to do it. Of course, there are many reasons to lie, some better than others: some might be necessary, some might be good, some might be useful, some might be important, others might be silly, bad, evil, or just useless. Whatever the reason is, the act of lying has to be distinguished from the reason why we do it. Even though we want to call a lie with some other name than a lie, when we think that it is legitimate or innocent: for example oversight, mistake, invention, joke, compliment, embellishment, defense strategy, euphemism, etc. Of course, the motivation of the “untruth” will help to qualify or pronounce a moral judgment on the act of lying in itself.

In this exercise, different reasons not tell the truth are listed. The student must examine those different situations and determine which reasons are legitimate, which are not. Then decide if each of those situations should be called lies, or rather by some other name.


Is it a good or bad reason not to say the truth?

Is it a lie or something else?

To avoid wounding someone

By ignorance

To gain time

To obtain something

Because it is ugly

In order not to scare a person

Because you are scared

In order not to hurt someone

When you have made a mistake

To keep your illusions

When you fear to be misunderstood

Because it is too hard to say

Because you want to be loved

Because you want to receive a gift

Because you respect your interlocutor

Because it is a secret

Because you are ashamed

Because you are not sure

To protect yourself

Because you would have to explain everything

5 – Inch Allah – Words and thinking

A – The story

One day Nasruddin was going to the market to buy a donkey. On the way, he met his friend Ali, who asked him where he was going.
Nasruddin answered: " I am going to buy a donkey from the market."
His friend scolded him: “You shouldn’t speak like this! You should always add “Inch Allah!” at the end or your sentence."
Nasruddin answered hastily. “This time, there is no need to say “Inch Allah!” Because the money is in my pocket and there are lots of donkeys in the market, so I know for sure what will happen!" And off he went.
Some time later, Nasruddin was returning from the market when he saw his friend again.
Ali asked him: "So, what happened at the market? Why do you not have a donkey with you?"
Nasruddin answered sadly: "Somebody stole my money, Inch Allah!"

B – The analysis

There are different aspects to this story, which deals before all with the matter of words, what they are and how we use them. First, there is the idea that we must speak in a certain way, not only because of language but as well because of customs, forms or rituals. This is what in general we call politeness, or respect: we have to speak like it must be, by following the established rules. Not to behave according to the tradition is a lack of respect for society in general, for our specific interlocutor in particular. Plus in this case, there is the added feature of religious belief, which brings some extra weight on the formula that should be used.

Second, there is the power of words, what they can provoke or bring on us. Since the dawn of time, there has been the idea that words are not just words, but they bear some kind of supernatural power: especially they can grant us wishes and protect us from evil. They are our natural intercessors with the divine, what we share with the divinity. The divine words are given by the God, or by the gods, and men can pronounce them. Thus to pronounce certain specific words is a must, an obligation toward the forces that power of the universe. The words empower us; deprived of them, we are powerless or even cursed. In this case, Inch Allah! means that it is up to God to grant the wish of buying a donkey: man proposes and God disposes. The one who forgets this is a miscreant, a pagan: he is a bad person, and he will be punished for his pride by providence. And that is what we see in the story. Nasruddin has forgotten his statute, the one of a humble creature, powerless in the hand of God, so he will loose his money and therefore not get the donkey he wanted and was so sure of getting, in a conceited way. Once punished, he will try to use the words, but too late: time does not go back. Words cannot be used in any way and at any moment. There is a proper time to use them, and an inadequate way, even a stupid way. In this case, if you can ask God’s help for the future, you must know that for the past, his wish has already been accomplished, time will not roll back. But Nasruddin ignores all this: he acts in a primitive way. He ignores the nature of words, how to use them, what they can accomplish and not accomplish.

This brings us to the third point: we don’t always understand what we say, we are not always conscious of the meaning of our own speech. Words are not just sounds that we pronounce according to the circumstances, according to the utility. The dog barks when he is angry, squeals when he is suffering; he expresses different emotions with a few different sounds, not so many. Human language is much more complex. The art of “sounds” is very elaborated. It implies understanding and consciousness, not just some instinctive and copying procedure. But that is very difficult: at different degrees, we don’t always master the significance of what we say. Our mastery of language is often very approximate, we don’t fully seize the meaning of words. In particular the different levels of speech, its polysemic potential, its symbolical and interpretative dimension. We repeat, but we don’t know, which produces sometimes awkward results, like in this case with Nasruddin. He is told he has to pronounce the invocation “Inch Allah!” after some specific sentence expressing a wish in the future, he repeats it in a silly way after a sentence concerning the past. Of course, his silliness is not totally deprived of meaning: he hopes the past would be made anew, in order to reestablish a new future where he would not loose his money. He does not realize that words have a way to be used; it is not some cheap trick that one can use without thinking, by imitating someone else in different circumstances. This problem is a common one in different Nasruddin stories, because it is very common in human practice.

That is the last important point of this story: the change of behavior, due to events, as a reaction to what is happening. We can call this the principle of reality. As we already mentioned it, Nasruddin thought that his project was a sure thing, he was in full control, he did not even need to say the usual words: he was careless because of his ignorance and his pride. But reality caught him, showing him his own fragility and excessiveness, his lack of measure. Once punished for this, he tries to catch up and backtrack, but to no avail: too late, there is no return. But this as well he does not understand: he still does not get the principle of reality: he practices an extreme form of wishful thinking. He thinks he can always get what he wants. In this sense, he is very coherent: he cannot learn in a profound way, and his incapacity to learn should make us learn about our own incapacity to learn.

C – Questions

Comprehension questions

What is the general purpose of the invocation “Inch Allah”?

Why does Ali want Nasruddin to say “Inch Allah!”?

Is Ali right to scold Nasruddin?

Why does Nasruddin initially refuse to say “Inch Allah!”?

Why does Nasruddin finally say “Inch Allah!”?

Does the “Inch Allah!” of Nasruddin make sense?

Did something change in Nasruddin?

Reflection questions

Can we go back in time?

Do we master our own future?

Can we claim that we are free?

Is it wrong to be sure about our accomplishments?

Why do we regret sometimes our own behavior?

Is pride a problem?

Is there a right and wrong way to speak?

Should we speak like everyone else?

D – Exercise: Who decides?

Nasruddin thinks he controls everything, but he realized he does not decide everything about what is happening to him. We all have this problem. Every day, we make decisions and act in manners that are more or less deliberate, conscious and free. Thus it seems important to invite the student to investigate this problematic, by interrogating him on diverse gestures and situations of his daily life, in order to determine if the actions he commits are voluntary and free or not. Naturally, as most times in this domain, freedom and determinism are interwoven, an ambiguity that should emerge during the work. Although ultimately, it will be necessary to arbitrate between those two concepts. A couple of questions the teacher can use, to help the student decide is: “Could you have done otherwise?” or “ Were you forced to act in this way?”.

During the work, it will be important to favor the production of diverse criteria allowing to decide how and to what extent these actions depend and don’t depend on our sheer will. For example, here are some criteria for the first question: this depends on me because I could have stayed calm, or it does not depend on me because I am choleric, or it does not depend on me because Myriam provoked me. But whatever the dilemma is, one should finally decide.


Are you the one deciding in those situations, or do you depend on the outside?

I became angry when Myriam called me an idiot.

I go to school.

I don’t remember my lesson.

I dreamed of my favorite movie.

I like the same singer as all my friends.

I have taken the decision to work at school.

I had a fight with Peter.

I watch children programs on television.

I play football.

I take the bus number 18 and it takes me to the park.

I sneeze when there is a draft.

I speak to fast.

I don’t dare to speak in front of the class.

I eat too much at night.

I am distracted in class.

I make noise with my mouth when I eat.

I obey the rules.

I obey my parents.

By Oscar Brenifier

The Author

Oscar Brenifier holds a Bachelor of biology degree (University of Ottawa) and a PhD in Philosophy (Paris IV – Sorbonne). For many years, in France as well as in the rest of the world, he has been working on the concept of ‘philosophical practice’, both from a theoretical and practical viewpoint. He is one of the main promoters of the project of philosophy in the city, organizing philosophy workshops for children and adults and philosophy cafés, working as a philosophy consultant, etc. He has published about thirty books in this domain, including the ‘Philozenfants’ series (Editions Nathan), which has been translated into over twenty-five languages. He founded the Institut de Pratiques Philosophiques (Institute of philosophical practice), to train practical philosophers and organize philosophy workshops in various places: schools, media centres, old people’s homes, prisons, social centres, firms, etc. He is also one of the authors of the UNESCO reports Philosophy, a school of freedom, and of The Arabic Muslim civilization in the mirror of the universal.

Website: http://www.brenifier.com