Friday, December 30, 2011

Buridan's Ass and the Major

Thus it was to-day, at my friend Marmaduke Langdale's. The last course was no sooner removed, than the fermentation of wit and humour began; and the first display was elicited by the major, who observed, that "he was not like Buridan's ass (as General Sibthorpe used to say), for he had both eaten and drunk to his heart's content."

"I dare say you don't know the origin of Buridan's ass," interrupted Burlingham.

"I can't say I do," replied the major; "but I know what it means—that I have made a good dinner."

"Buridan," continued Burlingham, "was one of the schoolmen; and, in order to prove the existence of free will, he supposed a hungry ass—or an ass equally hungry and thirsty—"

"As you were, major, when you sat down," interrupted Jeremiah Chesterton; "only my friend Burlingham did not like to say so."

"Buridan," pursued Burlingham, "supposed such an ass placed between a bushel of oats and a tub of water, each being equi-distant from him; and then inquired—what the ass would do?"

"Nothing at all," said the Rev. Jonas Dankes, "for equal powers must produce equal results, and the ass would be starved to death; his hunger and thirst would be suspended between co-ordinate attractions."

"When that was the answer," observed Burlingham, " Buridan derided it as a palpable absurdity: but when it was contended that the ass would both eat and drink, then he maintained it had free will—else it followed, that of two equal attractions one was greater than the other, which involved a contradiction of terms."

"Buridan was a magnificent ass himself," exclaimed Jeremiah, "to suppose he proved anything by such an argument."

"I am not going to defend Buridan," replied Burlingham; "I merely wished to explain to Major Bagot tbe origin of the expression."

"Thank you," said the major; "it is very curious, and I'll try and recollect it, please the pigs—"

"I dare say," interrupted Burlingham again, " you don't know the origin of that phrase either; and little think, while using it, that you are employing a corrupt formula of popish adjuration."

"God forbid !" exclaimed the major, "for I hate the pope and all his works."


From "The Chudleigh Papers: A Dinner Scene in the Reign of George the Second," The Canterbury Magazine, vol. 2, no. 9 (March 1835), p. 103.

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