The Free Will of Balaam's Ass

Naive readers often claim that story tellers should just summarize the point they want to make in a few sentences rather than dress it up in a story where the reader has to do the work of extracting meaning. The answer to that is that most of the time writers are doing other things than making particular points. They are describing the customs of a society or giving you a sense of a particular character or showing how dialogue advances or impedes people understanding one another. They are rarely making philosophical points and the ones who do, like Saul Bellow or other writers of the midcentury, will simply pause in the story to tell the reader what is on his or her mind. For the most part, writers will use their learning to give their descriptions greater detail rather than the other way around, use the detail to help make an abstract point. That was certainly true of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers”. Mann was steeped in all the Biblical scholarship of his time and that allowed him to create a story where the reader is enveloped in the ritualistic culture of the ancient Middle East and sees striking characters in actions detailed enough so that the reader gets a sense of how their minds work and the reader can draw from that the observation that in some ways all people whatever the age think alike while also thinking differently. That moral is drawn by the reader as a way to organize the material in hand rather than the purpose of the author, which is to describe what life is like. But there are exceptions, times when authors are indeed trying to give you a handle on a philosophical question. One of these is the story of Balaam and his ass, told in the Book of Numbers 21-23, where the author seems intent on resolving a philosophical dilemma, which is the nature of free will, even though, for the most part, the Old Testament is not given over to metaphysical speculation but, rather, avoids it.

The story begins when the Israelites are encamped before invading Canaan. This is the same scene in which Deuteronomy is set. Moses has to negotiate with his allies about how to proceed. The Balaam story, however, is toldfrom the point of view of the Canaanites, the equivalent of telling the story of the settlement of the American West from the point of view of the Indians. Bad things are going to happen. Balak, the King of Moab, wants to raise allies to help him repel the invaders and so sends a messenger to Balaam, a potential ally. The story emphasizes how difficult is this journey as well as the later journeys through which Balak appeals for allies. The Canaanites are not a rich people. The leader of a clan rides an ass and, in the case of Balaam, one he has had for some time and grown familiar with, and so the Canaanites are not as formidable as the Egyptians, who had horses and chariots. Moreover, Balak wants those he appeals to to see the expanse of the Israelite army, urging them to see the full size of the encampment. This might be thought to frighten people from joining the resistance but may signify instead just how desperate their cause is, that they will be overwhelmed once battle is engaged, and so it is necessary to be destroyed to honor your people.

Balaam resists these entreaties more than once and then he is summoned to make another journey to meet with Balak at his own camp, which suggests that things are getting very serious and that he might be punished for his refusal to join the resistance. But he has been instructed by God not to do so. This is most curious. The God of the Canaanites seems to be the same God as the God of the Israelites and has clearly made a choice about which side to favor. It is as if the author or authors of the story could not really conceive of there being more than one god even though other books will record the religious places all over Canaan that are not devoted to the invisible God of the Israelites. It isn’t a matter of the author espousing monotheism or applying the idea that all gods are essentially the same. Rather, it is that the Israelite God is the ruling god for everyone.

When Balaam proceeds to his meeting with Balak, he is anxious to get there. The ass finds that there are walls to the left of him and walls to the right of him and that in front of him is an angel with a sword who will not let him proceed. So the ass stops and Balaam proceeds to beat him for not moving forward. Then the ass bursts out in speech to express his frustration and anger. He says ”What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”. A reader can imagine the grotesque shapes that the ass’s snout takes as he struggles to utter these thoughts. The chastisement does its work and Balaam moves no further towards his meeting. The speech was unexpected, the reader not prepared for it by what happens in animal fables where creatures have the power of speech. The ass bursts out, breaks into the world of words, because he has been so offended by Balaam’s blindness to the obstacles in his path. It would take an unworldly interjection to make Ballam realize the forces with which he was contending.

What are these forces? It is the disapproval of God which is objectified as a matter of walls and angels with swords. That disapproval, however, is invisible to anyone but the ass. So of what does it consist? The author is giving a sense of the meaning of free will. You will do or not do what you feel commanded to do by your conscience and it will seem to you that you cannot move ahead, are prohibited from moving ahead, by walls and angels which only a talking ass can notice. It is an internal matter, not an objective one, and it is represented as an external one. So if a person says “I cannot do that”, it doesn’t mean that the person cannot physically do it, but that the person feels as if he cannot do it just as strongly as if there were physical barriers preventing him from doing it. Balaam’s ass is asking why he is being punished for no doing something he cannot do and, presumably, that is the argument Balaam would make to Balak: that he should not be punished for doing something which he cannot bring himself to do however much pride or self interest might lead him to accept his superior’s request to join the resistance. That is a very high level of moral reasoning, whereby we do not punish people even if they resist doing something for moral reasons because it is sort of impossible for them to do otherwise even though it really isn’t. Balaam is a conscientious objector before his time.

Gottfried Leibniz, the seventeenth century philosopher, had his own take on the story of Balaam’s ass and used that to illuminate his own perspective on free will. Leibnitz pictures the ass as moving down a path and there is a bale of hay on each side of it. They are equidistant from the path and otherwise identical. Balaam’s ass can’t make up his mind which way to go and so starves to death. Leibniz solves this paradox by suggesting that there are always slightly advantageous circumstances in choosing one bale over the other: one smells slightly better or glistens more in the sun. Decision made. It is only when things are absolutely equal that one cannot make up one’s mind. There are philosophical problems here. It is always possible to increase the valences on both sides by appealing to values or custom. The ass is used to eating to the left, and people can decide some act is moral to the degree necessary so that they choose one side over another. When Nixon said loudly enough so that the taping devices could hear him that he could raise the money to pay off the Watergate burglars but that such an action would be wrong, that just means that he could make morality an important consideration or that he might neglect it. So there is no way of postulating a situation of absolute equality and, after all, people make up their minds all the time even in close calls by recalibrating their moral evaluations. The importance of Leibnitz’s insight here into the nature of free will, however, is different from the issue of how people evaluate their options. The key issue is that the causes that lead a person to do one thing rather than another are always external, whether that is immediate utility or a moral code or some combination of the two and so free will consists of doing what circumstances dictate and therefore regarding that as a free choice. We cannot do otherwise.

That is also the message of the Numbers’ telling of the story, except that the restrictions are not external but internal. Leibnitz, for his part, believes in a deterministic universe, everything subject to the physical laws of the universe, and so people cannot do other than what they do from weighing the balance of forces before them, the universe beneficent in that it could not have been created in any other way than it was and that people experience their determinism as free will in that they do not externalize the fact that malevolent forces in their character lead them to do bad things and these are as objective as anything else. Leibnitz may have thought he was choosing a worthy adversary and so retold the Balaam story in a way that would make his own point.

And indeed Leibnitz did pick a worthy adversary. I can think of few stories that take up metaphysical issues. Rather they show the world from the point of view of one character or another and those characters may consider metaphysical issues, as when Stephan Daedelus considers what Hell would be like. Dante doesn’t really consider the paradox that the people consigned to Hell do not seemed changed by the suffering they undergo but are ever fresh for more punishment. He is interested in other matters, such as the nature of temptation. “The Odyssey” does not try to rationalize the various ways in which the gods intrude in human life. However, there are exceptions. One that comes to mind is Mark Twain in “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg”. The story is a mental experiment to investigate the nature of evil and how it develops among people and concludes that there is nothing else to evil but the machinations that people living in communities go through, this naturalistic explanation of evil either very uplifting or very disappointing depending on your view of faith. But Twain’s investigation is one of human nature rather than a strictly speaking metaphysical question, like free will or whether anything has to exist at all, and so we leave the imagination of impossible situations to philosophers who can think of six impossible things before breakfast.