The surprising philosophy of Winnie-the-Pooh

Pot of honey: In the new film, Christopher Robin has grown into a disillusioned businessman.

Should we all live like Pooh? As Christopher Robin hits cinemas, the friendly bear has been hailed “a philosopher to rival Plato and Confucius”. What can we learn from his nuggets of wisdom?

“I wouldn’t ever forget about you, Pooh, I promise. Not even when I’m a hundred,” said Christopher Robin after an adventure in the Hundred Acre Wood. But the adult Christopher we meet in Disney’s new film did forget. Now middle-aged, he “has lost any sense of play or joy” before he rediscovers his old friend. One reviewer said the film has “an unexpected sense of existential dread”.

Critics are not the first to recognise a depth beneath Pooh’s honeyed surface. A recent article declared he could “rival Plato and Confucius”. But how does a bear “of very little brain” really compare to the great philosophers?

Dr Catherine McCall says that, like them, Pooh teaches us “how to live a good life”. His aphorisms include lessons on persistence, like: “If the string breaks, try another piece of string.” He also emphasises patience, suggesting that when someone is not listening, “it may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear”.

Unlike Plato, however, Pooh might get a bit muddled in the challenging discussions of morals and society found in the Republic. After all, “it is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’”

Pooh’s spontaneity sets him at odds with another Greek. Aristotle tells us that to reach fulfillment we must cultivate virtues. For example, you can learn to be courageous by diligently replicating courageous acts until they become a habit. But Pooh takes a more instinctive approach. For him, “a good reason for going to see everybody is because it’s Thursday.”

Taoism is closer to Pooh’s philosophy. In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff used the character to illustrate the basics of the ancient Chinese belief. Hoff says that Pooh’s contentment shows the importance of appreciating “who you are and what you’ve got”. His friend Eeyore, meanwhile, constantly complains about his life, unable to enjoy the moment. Pooh also tells us to “do a good thing without thinking”, which exemplifies the Taoist principle of “effortless action”.

Should we try to live like Pooh?

Best of friends

It’s impractical, say some. As nice as it may be to sit around eating honey all day, eventually you’ll have to get up and face the real world. To be a good person, you need to care about more than your next meal and having fun. The world of the Hundred Acre Wood is great to get lost in, but not to live by.

Absolutely, others argue. In our anxious, 24-hour age, we could all learn to appreciate the moment more: taste the honey, laugh with your friends and go on an adventure. His words may seem simple, but perhaps we pay too much attention to seriousness and long words when what we really need in life is small joys.

You Decide

  1. Is Winnie-the-Pooh a good role model?
  2. Is philosophy important in the 21st century?

Activities

  1. Research the philosophers named in this article. Write a paragraph on who is your favourite one and why.
  2. Write your own story about Pooh and his friends, including philosophical phrases you think Pooh might say.

Some People Say...

“Don’t be late for whatever you want to be in time for.”

Winnie-the-Pooh

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The original four Winnie-the-Pooh stories were written by AA Milne. They were immensely successful, to the extent that they caused trouble for their author as they overshadowed his career as a playwright. The stories also soured his relationship with his son, the real-life Christopher Robin Milne, who felt exploited by his father. The real Christopher Robin was estranged from his parents for much of his adulthood. This story was told in a film released last year, Goodbye Christopher Robin.
What do we not know?
On the internet, it’s often hard to separate the real Winnie-the-Pooh quotes from false ones. Many of the phrases now attributed to AA Milne were in fact written for Disney TV shows or films, or were simply made up as they spread around the internet.

Word Watch

Existential
Relating to the state of human existence. Existential dread can refer to grappling with your own experiences of responsibility and death.
Confucius
A Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 BC. He founded Confucianism, which focuses on being merciful, conscientious and humane. It also emphasises obedience and the importance of obeying the hierarchies in society. For example, showing respect to your parents.
Aphorisms
A short or clever statement that is meant to express a general truth.
Republic
A text by Plato, who was born in 427 BC. We know his teachings through his writings about conversations between his mentor, the philosopher Socrates, and others. Socrates used logic to challenge the assumptions and show flaws in the thinking of others.
Diligently
Approaching a task with intention, dedication and care.
Taoism
An ancient Chinese philosophy that emphasises the importance of appreciating things as they are. It says people should act in accordance with the “Tao”, or “Way”, which is hard to describe but is a guiding force responsible for the order of the universe.

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