Study Guide

The Phantom Tollbooth Philosophical Viewpoints

By Norton Juster

Philosophical Viewpoints

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have. (1.2)

Milo's got some major apathy going on here. He's the epitome of the "grass is always greener" guy, mixed with the "glass is always half-empty guy." In other words, he's an envier mixed with a pessimist. Is that any way for a young boy to live his life?

"BALDERDASH!" shouted a booming voice. And from around the wagon stepped a large beetlelike insect dressed in a lavish coat, striped pants, checked vest, spats, and a derby hat. "Let me repeat – BALDERDASH!" he shouted again, swinging his cane and clicking his heels in mid-air. (4.39)

This moment actually tells us a lot about the Humbug as a character. If his philosophy could be summed up in one word, "BALDERDASH" would be it. "BALDERDASH" is a nonsense word, and it usually means that our Humbug thinks that whatever the other person is saying is totally useless. The joke on the Humbug is, of course, that he doesn't have anything to back up his view of things. He's all ready to offer up Milo on a quest to save the princesses, but would never dream of taking on something like that himself. Shmoop thinks <em>that's</em> balderdash.

"Words are more important than wisdom," said one privately.

"Numbers are more important than wisdom," thought the other to himself. (6.9-10)

Hmm. That definitely doesn't sound right. No wonder these people are in such trouble. See, what both of them don't realize is that you shouldn't separate "wisdom" from either words or numbers. Doing so makes these two a little less wise.

"I didn't know that I was going to have to eat my words," objected Milo.

"Of course, of course, everyone here does," the king grunted. "You should have made a tastier speech." (7.52-53)

In Dictionopolis, people are very careful about what they say at banquets because they have to "eat [their] words." Can you imagine if this were true in everyday life? What a way to live. It seems like one of the philosophies of Dictionopolis is to be very careful about what you say. But this doesn't quite jive with their imprisonment of the Which, who's all about being careful what you say.

"It is a little [inconvenient]," replied Alec, "but it is quite important to know what lies behind things, and the family helps me take care of the rest. My father sees to things, my mother looks after things, my brother sees beyond things, my uncle sees the other side of every question, and my little sister Alice sees under things." (9.33)

If someone asked you to explain how you look at the world, what would you say? Would you be able to identify your bias or point of view? Alec's saying here that everyone he knows has a specific way of looking at the world. In this case, he means it literally. But what Alec's saying can also be a metaphor for the fact that we all have our own way of looking at the world.

"I'm sorry you can't stay longer," said Alec sadly. "There's so much more to see in the Forest of Sight. But I suppose there's a lot to see everywhere, if only you keep your eyes open." (11.23)

Keep your eyes open? Or maybe keep your <em>mind</em> open? Alec shows Milo all the different ways you can look at the world, and here he encourages him to take it all in, without prejudice. Sounds like good advice. Does Milo follow it?

"How terribly confusing," he [the Dodecahedron] cried. "Everything here is called exactly what it is. The triangles are called triangles, the circles are called circles, and even the same numbers have the same name. Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things? You'd have to say Robert plus John equals four, and if the four's name were Albert, things would be hopeless." (14.22)

This quote is hilarious. But the more we think about it, the more we realize it's actually pretty fascinating, too. Ironically, the Dodecahedron is both right and wrong. It is confusing when things aren't called by their proper names. So Digitopolis makes more sense in that way. But numbers aren't the same as people. Two 2's are the same as each other, but two people definitely are not. 2 may equal 2, but Robert doesn't equal John, right? Phew, where's that rhyme or reason when you need it?

"Because, my young friends," he [the blank man] muttered sourly, "what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you'll never get to where you're going." He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh. (17.14)

The Terrible Trivium is kind enough here to tell us his philosophy straight up: "what could be more important than doing unimportant things?" Indeed, what could? This idea probably sounds familiar to anyone who's been most inspired to organize a sock drawer instead of finishing her homework.

"I'm the demon of insincerity," he sobbed. "I don't mean what I say, I don't mean what I do, and I don't mean what I am. Most people who believe what I tell them go the wrong way, and stay there, but you and your awful telescope have spoiled everything. I'm going home." And, crying hysterically, he stamped off in a huff.

"It certainly pays to have a good look at things," observed Milo as he wrapped up the telescope with great care. (17.43-44)

Milo puts Alec's earlier advice to good use here. He has learned that if you really look closely at something, you can see it for what it really is. And it's this ability that saves Milo and his buddies. If they didn't see the demon of insincerity clearly, they might be stuck in this pit forever.

"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons." (18.61)

At last, we get some of the philosophy of Rhyme and Reason, and it sounds pretty darn wise to Shmoop. Their names alone should give us a clue that they are the most sensible and balanced creatures in the book. Fittingly, their philosophy is kind and encouraging. They're not perfectionists, but they are moral. Do you think they'll help save the Lands Beyond?