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Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

by William Steig


This story considers a number of metaphysical questions about magic, cause and effect, and identity.

Soon after finding a wish-granting pebble, Sylvester, the donkey, encounters a lion. The lion so frightens Sylvester that he wishes he were a rock. No one in the search party suspects that the rock on the hill is Sylvester. Will Sylvester ever be a donkey again?!

Read aloud video by StorylineOnline

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

When Sylvester finds a shiny red pebble, he wishes for it to stop raining. The rain immediately ceases and Sylvester thinks that the pebble is magic. But how can he know that it was the pebble that caused the rain to stop and not merely a coincidence? This raises a metaphysical issue of what makes something magical. How can we recognize the difference between real magic, like the pebble in this story, the card tricks and stage antics of magic shows, and everyday coincidence? If something is to be a magical occurrence, it is usually thought to involve supernatural forces that defy the laws of physical reality. The rain stopping exactly as Sylvester wished for it to does not defy these laws and could merely have been a coincidence. However, later in the story, Sylvester‘s transformation from a donkey into a rock is not an everyday occurrence and cannot be explained as a coincidence. Could it have been a trick or illusion?

The nature of true happiness can also be discussed through this book. According to Socrates, happiness comes from learning and knowledge, in that knowledge leads to virtue, the only cause of true happiness. Socrates would say that while Sylvester’s pebble gave him the means by which to do good, it did not supply him with the knowledge of what goodness is. Until he obtains the knowledge of good and evil, he will not know virtue or consequently true happiness. Throughout the centuries, many philosophers have disagreed about what happiness really is. Is it a feeling? Is it the fulfillment of all one’s desires? Does one need to be virtuous to be able to experience true happiness? Is it possible that happiness can mean different things to different people? Many have spent their lives in search of the answer to true happiness, yet this discussion remains pertinent and still continues to this day.

When Sylvester saw the lion, “he could have wished for many things, like that the lion would turn into a butterfly or a daisy or a gnat, but he panicked and couldn’t think.” Instead he turned himself into a rock. This raises a metaphysical question about the nature of being. If Sylvester looks like a rock, smells like a rock, and cannot talk just like a rock, what makes him still a donkey and not a rock? Now one might suggest that the thing that distinguishes Sylvester from a rock is the fact that he is able to think. What happens when Sylvester is not thinking, for example when he enters into an “endless sleep”? Is he then still a donkey that has been turned into a rock, or has he now become a rock? How does one qualify this and distinguish the difference? This extends to modern issues concerning medical decisions. If someone is not thinking or conscious, are they still a person? Should we therefore keep them alive?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Magic, Coincidences, and Tricks

In all his young life Sylvester had never had a wish gratified so quickly. It struck him that magic must be at work, and he guessed that the magic must be in the remarkable-looking red pebble.

  1. What makes something magic?
  2. What makes something a coincidence?
  3. The rain stopped exactly as Sylvester wished. Could this have been a coincidence? Why or why not?
  4. How can we tell the difference between magic and coincidence?
  5. Has anyone ever seen a magic trick?
  6. What makes something a magic trick?
  7. How can we tell the difference between real magic and magic tricks?
  8. Could it have been a magic trick when Sylvester turns himself into a rock? Why or why not?

Cause and Effect

  1. How did Sylvester know that it was the pebble that made the rain stop?
  2. How did Sylvester test his idea that the pebble was magic?
  3. If two things happen at the same time, can we know what caused them to happen? Why or why not?
  4. Would you believe someone if they told you they had a magical pebble?
  5. What would they have to do to prove to you that their pebble was magic?

Fear and Decision Making

Sylvester is scared when he sees the lion. He could have wished many things like that the lion would turn into a butterfly or a daisy or a gnat, but he panicked and couldn’t think.

  1. Have you ever had to make a quick decision when you were scared?
  2. Was it a good decision?
  3. Does fear affect the decisions you make? Why or why not?
  4. Would the lion have killed the donkey if he did not make himself into a rock?
  5. Was his decision to turn into a rock a good decision? Was it the best decision?

Omnipotence and Happiness

  1. What would you wish for if anything that you wished came true?
  2. What did Sylvester wish for?
  3. What makes people happy?
  4. Is happiness a feeling, like being tired?
  5. Is there more to happiness than having all your desires come true? Why or why not?
  6. Must someone be a good (virtuous) person to be happy?
  7. Do you think that having every wish granted would make you happy? Why or why not?
  8. At the end of the book, Sylvester and his parents lock the pebble up in an iron safe. Why would they do this? What would you have done?

Metaphysics – What makes Sylvester a donkey?

  1. Is Sylvester still a donkey, even when he has become a rock?
  2. If so, what makes him still a donkey?
  3. Is he still a donkey even though he looks like a rock and smells like a rock? How do you know?
  4. If Sylvester is still a donkey because he thinks, what happens when Sylvester is not thinking?

Voicing Your Mind

When his parents are sitting near him, Sylvester wants to shout out to them; but he cannot, because he is a rock and cannot speak.

  1. Have you ever had a time that you wanted to say something but couldn’t or didn’t know how?
  2. How did that make you feel?
  3. What, if anything, would you do differently if this situation were to happen again?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Mara Gabrielsen. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

Download & Print Email Book Module Back to All Books
Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for Slyvester and the Magic Pebble featuring a donkey in a dress talking to a pig over a fence. Behind her is another donkey wearing a suit and glasses, talking to chickens in front of their house. The donkeys look concerned. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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