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The Fable of Plato's Horse

Use this story to illustrate that there is often no substitute for facts.

Once upon a time, many years ago (386 B.C. or thereabouts) in Ancient Greece there was a philosopher by the name of Plato. Besides writing his dialogues (sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn't it?) he founded a Training School which he called the Academy. One of his main teaching methods was discussion leading.

One fine Grecian evening Plato and a group of his students were seated around a rock on the shores of the Aegean Sea. (They had taken an Awayday from Athens.) After a while the discussion centred round teeth — horses teeth in fact — and more specifically: “What do you consider to be the correct number of teeth for an adult, male horse to possess?”

Glaucon said that as a horse had such a small mouth it was obvious that there could be no more than fifteen teeth.

‘Nonsense!’ cried Thrasymachus ‘Any fool can see that a horse has a very long jaw bone so it must have forty-two teeth.’

By this time the discussion became very heated and Plato decided that it was time to control the pace of the discussion by summarising: ‘Glaucon has said that a horse has fifteen teeth because it has a small mouth, and Thrasymachus has said that a horse has forty-two teeth because of its long jaw.’ (Notice how careful Plato was not to put forward his own ideas on the subject. Plato was convinced that a horse has eighty-two teeth because of an image that he saw in the shadows of some cave or other.)

But this strategy didn't work. As soon as Plato had finished his summary, Aristophanes threw aside his pet frog, jumped to his feet and exclaimed that a horse must have twenty-three teeth because it takes 23 minutes to eat a bag of hay.

The discussion went on this vein for a further two days and nights. (They had to hitch-hike back to Athens because their Awayday had expired.) Eventually Socrates who was not looking very well and had remained silent for the whole of the discussion (black mark to Plato for not bringing him in earlier) suggested that they should walk over to one of the horses, that were used for giving rides on the beach, open its mouth and count the number of teeth. The class was so amazed at the sagacity of the suggestion that silence reigned for the first time in three days.

The moral of this story is... no I'm not going to tell you — you should be able to work it out for yourself.

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