Pooh, Taoism and Cottleston Pie

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

“It’s the same thing,” he said. 

The Tao of Pooh is an interesting book which seeks to illustrate the teachings of the Eastern philosophy of Taoism (pronounced ‘dow-ism’) through the figure of A. A. Milne’s Pooh Bear. Pooh, explains Benjamin Hoff (the author), embodies a kind of Taoist ideal. He joys in the present moment, as the quote above shows, and takes happiness from the simplest of things. What is really magnificent about him is that he is thoroughly himself, top-to-bottom Pooh; in short, Pooh just exists, taking in the world with eyes wide open in a beatific state of naturalness.

Pooh is set in contrast with, for example, Owl, who is always being frightfully Clever and Impressive but, importantly, also Slightly Wrong. Tuesday is, according to Owl, spelt ‘Twosday’ because it’s the second day of the week. The following day is of course ‘Thirdsday’…. Hoff sees Owl as the archetype of a particular kind of scientific, or ‘modern’, person, slave to the need to categorise and subdivide. This too-tight focus on justifications and Reason leads to them missing the bigger picture (or indeed the point) entirely, as when Owl thinks that Pooh (and not the wind) might have blown his tree-house down. 

The most interesting three lessons I learnt in the book about the teachings of Taoism are encapsulated in Pooh’s little ditty ‘Cottleston Pie’, repeated here in full: 

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply: 
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.

Each stanza sets out a lesson. 

In the first stanza, Pooh sings “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.” You might say “well obviously”, and that’s the point; one can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, so don’t try to. Everything has its own place and function. Lean into what resonates with you and you are on the right path. 

In the second stanza, Pooh sings “A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.” This means essentially that we are aware of our limitations; just as we wouldn’t expect a fish to be able to whistle, if you can’t whistle at the moment then that is the status quo. This knowledge then becomes a freedom, because knowing where you are (ie understanding your limitations) allows you to plan where you are going, and take the next steps to get there. The alternative is thinking that you already can whistle (or do anything else), and then becoming disappointed/disheartened/disatisfied (not to mention most likely getting into what Pooh might describe as ‘a spot of bother’) when you try to whistle and can’t.  

In the third and final stanza Pooh sings “Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.” The point is that there are things which defy rational explanation. Why does a chicken behave as it does? A scientist might tell you it’s because of instinct, but trying to define ‘instinct’ leads you down an impossible rabbit hole. There are some things we need to know, and some things we don’t. Being able to recognise the difference is very important. To that end, “Cottleston Pie” is as good an answer to a riddle as any, so that’s what Pooh sings. 

The above three lessons are the clearest the theory of Tao (also known as ‘The Way’) is ever articulated in the book. Hoff never describes it with particular analytical rigour, largely, I think, because to do so would miss a central point of this philosophy (as explained by Hoff); Tao is the way of nothingness, of forgetting Cleverness and Knowing Things in favour of Taking Things As They Are, being Natural and finding time for Contemplation. Teaching through stories and other examples, rather than dogma, makes Taoism more accessible and comprehensible. 

One criticism of this method, and the philosophical standpoint behind it, is that is a bit passive, certainly from our busy 21st Century Western perspective; Pooh would never have the drive to build the next Amazon or Facebook. Rather, things just seem to happen to Pooh and though they always seem to work out, you might say that this is only because he’s the hero of his own story; there are no such guarantees in real life. The Taoist would say “Ah but of course good things will come to you. The universe will provide when you follow The Way.” 

As this isn’t an argument you can ever win, or even resolve, let’s consider the following: Taoism’s passivity is a good antidote to the modern world, to the teeming brain it encourages, and to the cognitive dissonance which inevitably springs up in each of us from a continuous, and endlessly frustrated, urge to rationalise. Now to my mind this isn’t about pointing a finger – and at its worst The Tao of Pooh becomes a bit didactic, moaning (slightly reductively) about the problems with the modern world, or at least the getting-and-spending attitude of so many living within it – but about finding ways of framing the world which are practically useful in each of our day to day lives. This I think The Tao of Pooh does quite well, in its gentle, meandering, Pooh-like way. 

A final thought: towards the end of The Tao of Pooh is a rather inspirational section which I think is worth quoting in full:

“Do you want to be really happy? You can begin by being appreciative of who you are and what you’ve got. Do you want to be really miserable? You can begin by being discontented. As Lao-tse wrote,

A tree as big around as you can reach starts with a small seed; a thousand mile journey starts with one single step.

Wisdom, Happiness and Courage are not waiting somewhere out beyond sight at the end of a straight line; they’re part of a continuous cycle that begins right here.”

I think it’s interesting that while these ideas are supposedly drawn from Taoism (via Lao-tse and, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh) this passage reads almost as Stoic text (Seneca wrote, “It is not the man who has to little, but the man who craves more, who is poor”), perhaps showing that wisdom is common across the globe. (I also note in passing that the criticism of passivity mentioned above is one also commonly levelled at Stoicism.) I’m hoping to find out more about this development of ideas in East and West (and Past and Present) when I read The Art of Self Improvement by Anna Katherina Schaffner, so I’ll report back soon! Thanks for reading. 

PS a reader looking for a more rigorous practical philosophy might look to Stoicism, in particular Ward Farnsworth’s fantastic book The Practicing Stoic, which I have just thoroughly enjoyed reading. 

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