Monday, October 23, 2006

(Do not) answer a fool...

I remember being puzzled when I came upon this for the first time:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26.4-5
What is this? Is the author baiting the "Bible is full of contradictions" crowd? Is he just dumb?

I don't think so. I think what we have here is a warning: both courses of action have dangers: because of compassion, you don't want to leave the fool in his foolish state (wise in his own eyes); you don't want to sink to his level either.

There is, in other words, no sure-fire formula. What a disappointment! This looks like something that belongs in the "BUGS" section of a manpage.

Here's what I mean by that. UNIX™ computers are generally supplied with an on-line manual; you read it by typing the command "man". The manual section for a particular command or file is referred to as a manpage, even though it may contain dozens of pages.

Anyway, a typical manpage has a one-line summary (something suitable for an entry in the table of contents), a SYNOPSIS section outlining the command syntax, etc. Near the end, there is an AUTHOR section and maybe a SEE ALSO section. And sometimes a section labeled BUGS, which is supposed to describe known shortcomings or defects in the software. This section, when found, sometimes contains wisecracks. For example, the manpage for tunefs (a command used to tune filesystem parameters), the BUGS section says this:
You can tune a file system, but you can't tune a fish.
So if there were a manpage for dealing with fools, these two verses could fit quite nicely in the BUGS section:
There is no risk-free formula for dealing with fools:
  1. Don't answer him according to his folly, lest you sink to his level;
  2. Answer him according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes
Come to think of it, though, there is no risk-free formula for dealing with anyone.

Which I guess is just another way of saying that we humans are living beings, not machines, and certainly not UNIX™ software modules!

Politically incorrect section

Some wag wrote that it's easy to deal with a pregnant woman: just give her what she wants when she wants the way she wants it. This formula fails because it assumes that you can figure out what she wants, not to mention when and how.

No comments: