In ancient Greek mythology there is a story that tells of a wealthy landowner named Erysichthon who came across a great oak tree that was sacred to the goddess Demeter. His men recognised the tree and responded appropriately, with reverence and awe. Erysichthon, by contrast, saw only the potential for profit which the tree represented and ordered his men to cut it down. When they refused, he decapitated the foreman who had stood to protect the tree, and then proceeded to cut it down himself. When Demeter heard of this sacrilege, she placed a curse on him: Whatever he ate would only increase his hunger. He consumed everything he had including his own children and eventually himself.
Open-mindedness is a strength or capacity that is referred to as judgement and critical thinking. It is the ability to search for evidence against your beliefs, plans and goals, and to be able to weigh that evidence fairly. To do this we must be able to see many different points of view. We must assess those points of view critically, in order to be able to make wise judgements. Good judgement is fulfilling because it leads to good decisions and allows us to hold a coherent view of the world. Open-mindedness is what makes the examined life possible.
In judgement, we make rational and logical choices. We analyse and evaluate ideas, opinions and facts. People who are strong in this area think things through and examine the evidence from all sides. They refrain from jumping to conclusions. Good judgement means being open to changing one’s mind when new evidence comes to light. All positions are tentative; we remain open to other arguments and perspectives.
To understand what something is, it is often best first to consider what it is not. In the tale above poor judgement leads to the protagonist’s self-destructive demise. Poor judgement often leads to disaster. This theme is reinforced in the next story:
One day a poor farmer discovers that his goose has laid a golden egg. He can’t believe his luck! The next day the same thing happens and the farmer is in celebratory mood, unable to believe his luck. Day after day this miracle goose lays golden eggs for the farmer who becomes fabulously wealthy. But soon his attitude changes from one of gratitude to greed. He becomes impatient, wanting to get richer quicker. So, he decides that instead of waiting for the goose to lay the eggs, he will cut the goose open and take the eggs directly from inside the animal. When he opens up the goose he finds that there are no golden eggs – and now that the goose is dead there is no way to produce more in the future. The farmer has squandered the means of producing his fortune.
What can these two cautionary tales teach us? Where have you (perhaps in subtler ways) played out these roles in your life? How can we avoid jumping into this kind of poor judgement?