Author: J. Jon Muth
Publisher: Scholastic Press.
Traveling down a mountain road, three monks, Hok, Lok, and Siew, inquire what it means to be happy. They come upon a small famine-ridden and war-torn village in the mountains that seems to be empty. Upon closer inspection they find that everybody here is afraid of them and hiding in their homes due to suspicion. To teach these people about happiness, the three monks begin to make “stone soup,” a soup concocted of nothing more than water and three round stones. This entices the villagers out of their homes in the hopes to learn how to make soup from nothing but stones. One by one the monks convince the village people to help them make their soup by sharing with the monks their spices, vegetables, and other valuable ingredients. This act of sharing brings kindness and trust to the village, and together they make a feast for the three monks who have now discovered what it means to be happy.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The story of Stone Soup proposes some very interesting philosophical ideas about the nature of happiness and sharing. On the outset, the three monks discover a village of suspicious individuals who “worked hard but only for themselves.” Due to war, famine and flooding, these people had become highly introverted and dared not to even answer their doors when the monks come knocking. To this one monk states, “These people do not know happiness.” Here we have reached a philosophical issue of what it truly means to be happy. The monks have developed an idea of what they feel is happiness and decide that they should impart this definition of happiness upon the village people. This definition is that sharing and communitarian practices such as cooperation bring about happiness and thus should be seen as ethical. To convey their opinion, the monks set about an exercise in sharing that they refer to as “stone soup.”
The philosophical issue being raised here is if and why sharing is an ethical action. The monks see a village of individuals and determine that “these people do not know happiness.” They think that in order to bring about this happiness the village should become a community through sharing. The people of the village “work hard but only for themselves,” embodying a society without happiness. This suggests that their actions in some way are wrong, and the only way to correct this is through sharing. So what is it about sharing that makes it an ethical choice? What is the power of sharing, and why is it the right thing to do?
As the monks encourage the people of the village to share, they are supposedly giving them happiness. This seems to indicate that sharing creates happiness on one level or another. The idea that sharing brings about happiness is the basis of the monks’ actions. So is happiness what makes an action ethical? If so, why should sharing make us happy?
The basis of discussion on the grounds of ethics of this story should follow the idea of sharing. Getting children to discuss if they share, and why they share are good places to start. Some children may feel that sharing is easy and rewarding while others may feel the opposite. Differences of opinion should be encouraged as this promotes discussion. Furthermore, no opinion should be invalidated as this may alienate and discourage children from taking part in the discussion. Exploring why sharing is considered good should allow the children to enter a philosophical discussion based on actions that they may face in everyday life, and thus serves as a good stepping stone into the world of ethics and philosophy as a whole.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
The following questions are only meant as a guideline for discussion. They do not all need to be utilized nor are they the only questions that can be used to encourage discussion. First some questions about the basic plot are provided to ensure that the children fully understood the events of the story. General questions about the story:
- What kind of things did the villagers contribute to the soup?
- Who taught the villagers how to share?
- Did the stone soup make the villagers happy?
- What did the three monks see as they traveled down the mountain?
- Were the villagers happy to see the monks?
- What did the villagers do when they saw the monks?
- Why did the monks decide to make stone soup?
The pursuit of happiness: When the monks entered the village, they were met with a village of suspicious folk, non-trusting and self-reliant. They decided that the villagers were not happy.
- Why do you think the villagers were so suspicious of the monks?
- Why did the monks want to make the villagers happy? What is happiness anyway and why did the monks think it was important for the village?
- How does the stone soup make the villagers happy?
- Did the monks know what it meant to be happy?
- What role do the stones play in the story?
- Why were the villagers curious when they found out about the stone soup?
- Why do you think the little girl was not like the rest of the villagers? Do you think it took courage for her to stand out?
The act of sharing: When the monks encouraged the villagers to make stone soup, the villagers gradually opened up to each other to share what they each had.
- How many of you have ever shared something with someone? What did you share? Why did you share this with them?
- Why do you think the villagers started to share?
- What makes sharing important? How do you know that sharing is important?
- Do you think that the villagers should have shared their own ingredients? Why or why not?
- Did the monks do the right thing by encouraging the villagers to share?
- Why was sharing good for the village? Were the villagers happy after they learned to share?
- As more and more villagers contributed, did the soup become better or worse?
- At the end of the day, how did the villagers celebrate their sharing?
- Were they kind to the monks at the beginning of the story? What about at the end? Why did they change their minds?
- Does sharing make a person “rich”? Why or why not?
- Did the villagers learn how to share? Do you think the villagers would continue sharing after the monks have left?
- When is it okay not to share?
As an advanced exercise, get the children to break into small groups and task them with creating a rule for sharing: when should we share and when shouldn't we? Then after allowing them to converse on this subject, bring the groups back together and have one member from each group share their rule with the group. Allow time for the groups to ask questions about each groups's rule. This exercise should challenge the students and provide them with the opportunity to share their opinion if they fear to do so in very large groups. A wider variety of opinions should spark more meaningful discussions.
When it comes time to end the discussion, give a brief restatement of what results the children have come to and how they got to them. This should help them to remember what they have accomplished during this first foray into the world of philosophy.