If you hire a donkey, do you hire its shadow?

This week, a fun philosophical question inspired by a favourite fable.

Stimulus: The donkey and its shadow, Aesop (Greece, c. 6th century BCE, retold by Graeme Kent)

A traveller hired a donkey to take him to the next town. He agreed a fee with the owner of the donkey. The donkey’s owner went with him to bring back the donkey.

It was a hot day, but the two men made good progress, with the traveller riding on the donkey and the owner walking behind. In the middle of the day, with the sun at its hottest, they stopped for a rest. 

“I shall sit in the shade of the donkey,” said the traveller, dismounting.

“Oh no you won’t,” snapped the donkey’s owner. “That’s where I’m going to rest. It’s the only shade for miles around.”

“I’ve hired the donkey, so I should sit in its shade,” argued the traveller.

“Not at all,” shouted the owner. “You only hired the donkey, you did not hire its shadow. That belongs to me!”

The owner was so angry that he gave the traveller a push. The traveller pushed back. The owner hit the traveller. The traveller hit the owner back. While the two men fought over his shadow, the donkey grew bored and trotted off over the hill, taking his shadow with him. 

A question with legs: When the traveller hired the donkey, did he hire its shadow?

Here’s a menu of ideas for this question:

  • For high-energy debate: Putting students into pairs, assigning each a side and let them debate before moving them into fours to continue the argument. Consider throwing in a “brainstand” half-way through – where everyone has to argue the opposite to their assigned side. Then move into a whole-class discussion where everyone can say what they really think.
  • For younger children: Get the whole class to come up with reasons for each side together using Phalanx Philosophy
  • Something more elaborate: give half the class the role of lawyers for the traveller, and the other half for the owner and set up a small-claims court on who deserves the donkey’s shadow. Or divide them into thirds and give the donkey a legal team too. Keeping with this format, you could also let them argue about whether the traveller is liable for loss of the rental vehicle!

You’ll probably find your discussion moving to new questions about ownership However, here’s some for your back-pocket if you want to extend the enquiry:

  • Do we own our shadows?
  • Can we sell our shadows? Or is that capitalism gone mad?
  • Can the donkey owner reasonably say he owns the donkey in the first place?
  • Transfer the question to a new scenario: you’re on a school trip/outdoor expedition and it’s baking hot. There’s only space in the shade for x number of people. Who should get it?

If you’re interested by the philosophy of shadows – then Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things looks a great read. Any book that describes its subject matter as “metaphysical amphibians with one foot on the terra firma of common sense and the other in the murky waters of non-being” is probably a winner with me. 

Also, check out Vincent Bal’s Shadowlogy – a super way to make art and worth a go in class too!

Best wishes,


PS: The moral of this particular fable is: “Most arguments are useless.” If you’re feeling brave after your session, ask your class whether that could be said for the one they’ve just had!

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