Pumbaa the Philosopher

My favorite scene in the movie The Lion King is the one where the three friends—Timon the meerkat, Pumbaa the warthog, and Simba the lion—are lying on their backs looking at the night sky and discussing the stars. Pumbaa asks the others if they’d ever wondered what “those sparkly dots” are. Timon replies that he knows what they are—they’re fireflies that got stuck in “that big bluish-black thing.” Pumbaa answers that he always thought they were “balls of gas burning billions of miles away.” Finally, after much prodding, Simba says, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there watching over us,” and the other two laugh at him.

This is my favorite scene because it’s the perfect way to introduce a class discussion of the beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy. Simba’s explanation is different from the other two. It is mythical, in the original ancient Greek sense of “storytelling”—a mythos is literally a story. Simba even presents it as a story that someone told him (the audience knows it was his father Mufasa): “Somebody once told me” that the stars were “the great kings of the past.”

In contrast, both Timon’s and Pumbaa’s explanations are what we could call scientific—based on observations explained rationally. Timon’s explanation is based on everyday sense experience. Fireflies are sparkly things that fly around at night, so the stars must be fireflies that got stuck in the dome of the sky. Pumbaa’s explanation (which, of course, is the right one—the stars really are “balls of gas burning billions of miles away”) depends on observations made at a distance incorporated into a rational framework. 1

Timon’s and Simba’s explanations are analogous to the ideas of the earliest Greek philosophers. In the 6th century B.C.E., some Greeks who lived in cities in the region known as Ionia (the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey) began to give rational instead of mythical answers to questions about the natural world. “Nature” in ancient Greek is physis, so they are called the “Ionian physicists”—the guys from Ionia who studied nature.2 These early philosophers were convinced that the universe, although apparently chaotic, is actually orderly and can be explained rationally. The Greek word for “chaos” was chaos; the Greek word for “order” was cosmos, which was then extended to refer to the orderly universe (the cosmos has a cosmos). The Ionian physicists thought that the apparent diversity and disorder of the universe could be reduced to a single underlying principle, which they called the arche. Thales, for example, proposed that the arche was water; for Anaximenes it was air.

Herodotus, the first Greek historian (literally, “inquirer”), mostly inquired about human events. But his curiosity was so omnivorous that he sometimes inquired about natural phenomena—physis—as well. For example, in book II of the Histories, where he discusses Egypt, he wonders about the annual flooding of the Nile. He presents three possible explanations, all of which he rejects, but which correspond well to the three friends from Lion King.

One of Herodotus’ explanations, like Simba’s “great kings of the past,” is mythical. The Nile “flows from Ocean,” which flows “round the whole world.” Herodotus says that this explanation “has less knowledge” and is “more wonderful in the telling” than the others because it has its source in poets like Homer: this “story . . . is indeed only a tale” [mythos]that “cannot be disproved. . . . . For myself, I do not know that there is any river Ocean, but I think that Homer or one of the older poets found the name and introduced it into his poetry.”3

In contrast, Herodotus’ other two explanations of the Nile floods are rational, similar to Timon’s and Pumbaa’s understandings of the stars. One is based, like Timon’s fireflies, on everyday sense experience. The Nile floods, some say, because winds from the north prevent the river water from flowing into the Mediterranean, causing it to back up and overflow its banks. Unfortunately, says Herodotus, those winds don’t always blow, yet the river still floods. 4 The other rational explanation, like Pumbaa’s, depends on processes that are far removed from what we can see. It is “more reasonable-seeming than the others yet is the most deceived; for it too makes no sense at all. It declares that the Nile comes from the source of melting snow.” But that is contrary to reason, Herodotus argues, because upstream the Nile flows through climates even hotter than Egypt’s—so how could there be any snow there to melt?5

After debunking the three explanations, Herodotus proceeds to give his own—which is also wrong, as it turns out.6 The Nile actually flooded because of monsoon rains far from Egypt.7 But the first three explanations are a textbook demonstration of the shift from mythical understanding of the cosmos to a rational one. It’s almost like Herodotus saw The Lion King.

Thanks to my colleague Michael Sollenberger for consultation on Herodotus’ language.

  1. The audience always laughs at this one, because it’s “the dumb one” who gets it right.
  2. They are also known as the “Pre-Socratics,” because they lived earlier than Socrates. What we now call “science” continued to be identified as a branch of philosophy well into the modern era. The English title of the book in which Newton presented the law of gravity is Principles of Natural Philosophy.
  3. Herodotus, The History, trans. David Grene (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 2.21 and 2.23, pp. 139-40). All references to Herodotus are from this edition.
  4. Herodotus, 2.20, p. 139.
  5. Herodotus, 2.22, p. 139.
  6. Herotodus, 2.24-27, pp. 140-41.
  7. After the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, the Nile no longer experiences annual floods.