Silly Questions

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Theodore Dalrymple discusses silly questions:

When I was a small boy adults used to say to me, ‘If you ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer.’ This irritated my nascent sense of logic: for if I genuinely did not know the answer to my question, how could I possibly be expected to know that it was silly? And could anything be silly in the absence of knowledge that it was? This was my childish equivalent of Socrates’ or Plato’s doctrine that no one does wrong willingly: a doctrine that does not accord with my clinical experience as a doctor, let alone with my experience of life. But at the time, the accusation of silliness seemed to me worse than merely wrong: it was unjust. I did not appreciate at that age that there could be such a thing as a responsibility to know, even if one did not.

One of silliest questions I have ever heard, and heard often, is why some or many countries are poor. This is to get everything exactly the wrong way round, as if Man were born rich and had somehow to achieve poverty. Of course, it is possible for those who were formerly rich to become poor, for example by improvidence or the spoliation of others; but immemorial poverty requires no explanation. It is wealth that needs explaining, mankind not having been born in marble halls with a silver spoon in its mouth.

I once bought a slender volume entitled Why Bad Dogs? This set out to explain why some dogs barked incessantly, bit the postman, wouldn’t walk to heel and so forth. I am such a dog-lover that I find it difficult to put myself in the place of those who dislike dogs, but still I wondered whether the question asked by the title was the correct one. Dog-lover as I am, I am not the Rousseau of dogs; I do not think that canine nature, untouched by association with humans, is good; and if I were writing the Social Contract for Dogs, I should not begin ‘Dogs are born good, but everywhere they bark.’


  1. Alrenous says:

    Much as I like Dalrymple, he’s showing a bias here. Children are not always wrong when they conflict with adults. Maturity is not an unalloyed good.

    Certainly there is a duty to know; but asking a question is exactly attempting to carry out that duty. It is perverted and depraved to attempt to to justify deliberately withholding information from a child in this way.

    Moreover, if he truly believed it, he is contravening himself. “One of the silliest questions I have ever heard is why some countries are poor. Thus, I won’t explain.”

    One of the things proggies and paleoconservatives apparently agree on is that curiosity is a vice.

  2. Marc Pisco says:


    It seems to me he is explaining, or at least offering something honestly intended to be an explanation: They are poor because they didn’t do any of the odd and improbable things you have to do to become rich. He’s addressing the question seriously, if not completely.

    To me it reads as if he’s thought about the question and thinks you should as well.

    Dalrymple’s not infallible; I recall him once badly misunderstanding the American slang “I’m good” as some kind of moral assertion rather than a brisk form of “No, thank you”. I don’t see the problem here though.

  3. Alrenous says:

    I entirely agree with his account of poverty.

    But it is linked, in a mutually supporting relationship, to a highly destructive idea about curiosity, one that many readers will gloss over without thinking about. E.g, you, based on the fact you did not mention it all in your response.

  4. Marc Pisco says:

    There’s a lot I didn’t mention, a world of things. What specifically did you have in mind? I’m curious (believe it or not).

  5. Alrenous says:

    I’m tired of adults not answering children’s questions for stupid reasons, especially when they’re clearly bad at telling a honest question from a less-honest one.

    I’m also tired of adults claiming to be morally infalliable as compared to children. Here, Dalrymple was right as a kid and then grew up to be wrong, and now seeks to justify…well, I don’t know what, exactly. Passing on this anti-knowledge?

    He puts these ideas in the place of honour, the first paragraph, but doesn’t honour it with, say, actually supporting it.

    So that’s a double. Not only does he tell any children to stop asking questions, he fails to explain why they might want to do that.

    I suppose it is very British of him. It’s the homeland of ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ isn’t it? I believe it was Toqueville who first noted that England was the worst European country to have to grow up in…

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    It seems to me that Dalrymple isn’t as good as he used to be. His recent column in “Taki’s” on the death penalty was downright nonsensical. He still can write some good stuff, but its not a slam dunk anymore.

  7. Marc Pisco says:


    OK, you were just in a bad mood when you read it. Thanks.

  8. Marc Pisco says:

    Toddy Cat,

    Yeah, he just sort of kept on typing, and damn the torpedoes.

  9. Alex J. says:

    Perhaps it’s his retirement. Rural France has less reactionary inspiration than urban English hospitals and prisons.

  10. Alrenous says:

    By contrast, I consistently regret answering adults’ questions.

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