The “blind leading the blind” is an idiom that can be traced back to the Upanishads (late Vedic Sanskrit texts of Hindu philosophy), which were written around 800 BCE:
“Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind.”
A similar metaphor exists in the Buddhist Pali Canon, composed in North India, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE.
“Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see. In the same way, the statement of the Brahmans turns out to be a row of blind men, as it were: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see.”
The saying is in today’s gospel from Luke as well as a parallel passage in Matthew 15. The Dutch Painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “The Blind Leading the Blind” might offer some insight in understanding the gospel verses.
Sixteenth-century Europe was undergoing many societal changes including the Protestant Reformation with its rejection of public religious imagery; Renaissance humanism with its emphasis on empiricism at the expense of religious faith; and the growth of the middle class amidst the rise of mercantilism. It was a time of rapid advances in learning and knowledge, and a move towards the empirical sciences—the age of the heliocentric theory of Copernicus and of Gutenberg’s printing presses.
Bruegel painted The Blind the year before his death. It has a bitter, sorrowful tone, which may be related to the establishment of the Council of Troubles in 1567 by the government of the Spanish Netherlands. The council ordered mass arrests and executions to enforce Spanish rule and suppress Protestantism. The placement of Sint-Anna Church of the village Sint-Anna-Pede has led to both pro- and anti-Catholic interpretations, though it is not clear that the painting was meant as a political statement.
In any case, the six blind men – notably on the other side of the river from the Church – are tumbling off the river bank. Bruegel’s settings tend to be fictional, but here the setting has been identified as the village Sint-Anna-Pede and the church as Sint-Anna Church. Art historians have noted incongruities in that the beggars are well-dressed and carry staves and full purses, perhaps suggesting that Bruegel may have implied that the blind men represent false priests who ignored Christ’s admonitions not to carry gold, purses, or staves. The leader carries a hurdy-gurdy, a musical instrument associated with beggars in Bruegel’s time. This perhaps implies a false minstrel, one who sings praises not for God.
One view holds that the church is evidence of the painting’s moralistic intent—that while the first two blind men stumble and are beyond redemption, the other four are behind the church and thus may be saved. Another interpretation has it that the church, with a withered tree placed before it, is an anti-Catholic symbol, and that those who follow it will fall following a blind leader as do the men in the ditch. Others deny any symbolism in the church, noting that churches frequently appear in Bruegel’s village scenes as they were a common part of the village landscape.
Art history aside, the painting and the gospel both ask the same core question: who do you follow?
The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568 – public domain