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Short Works Voltaire - This unique collection of Voltaire's most iconic romances has been designed and formatted to the highest digital standards. François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit.
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André Des Touches was a very agreeable musician in the brilliant reign of Louis XIV., before the science of music was perfected by Rameau, and before it was corrupted by those who prefer the art of surmounting difficulties to nature and the real graces of composition.
Before he had recourse to these talents he had been a musketeer, and before that, in 1688, he went into Siam with the Jesuit Tachard, who gave him many marks of his affection, for the amusement he afforded on board the ship; and Des Touches spoke with admiration of Father Tachard for the rest of his life.
In Siam he became acquainted with the first commissary of Barcalon, whose name was Croutef, and he committed to writing most of those questions which he asked of Croutef, and the answers of that Siamese. They are as follows:
DES TOUCHES.—How many soldiers have you?
CROUTEF.—Fourscore thousand, very indifferently paid.
DES TOUCHES.—And how many talapoins?
CROUTEF.—A hundred and twenty thousand, very idle and very rich. It is true that in the last war we were beaten, but our talapoins have lived sumptuously and built fine houses.
DES TOUCHES.—Nothing could have discovered more judgment. And your finances, in what state are they?
CROUTEF.—In a very bad state. We have, however, about ninety thousand men employed to render them prosperous, and if they have not succeeded, it has not been their fault, for there is not one of them who does not honorably seize all that he can get possession of, and strip and plunder those who cultivate the ground for the good of the state.
DES TOUCHES.—Bravo! And is not your jurisprudence as perfect as the rest of your administration?
CROUTEF.—It is much superior. We have no laws, but we have five or six thousand volumes on the laws. We are governed in general by customs; for it is known that a custom, having been established by chance, is the wisest principle that can be imagined. Besides, all customs being necessarily different in different provinces, the judges may choose at their pleasure a custom which prevailed four hundred years ago or one which prevailed last year. It occasions a variety in our legislation which our neighbors are forever admiring. This yields a certain fortune to practitioners. It is a resource for all pleaders who are destitute of honor, and a pastime of infinite amusement for the judges, who can, with safe consciences, decide causes without understanding them.
DES TOUCHES.—But in criminal cases—you have laws which may be depended upon?
CROUTEF.—God forbid! We can condemn men to exile, to the galleys, to be hanged; or we can discharge them, according to our own fancy. We sometimes complain of the arbitrary power of the Barcalon, but we choose that all our decisions should be arbitrary.
DES TOUCHES.—That is very just. And the torture—do you put people to the torture?
CROUTEF.—It is our greatest pleasure. We have found it an infallible secret to save a guilty person, who has vigorous muscles, strong and supple hamstrings, nervous arms, and firm loins, and we gayly break on the wheel all those innocent persons to whom nature has given feeble organs. It is thus we conduct ourselves with wonderful wisdom and prudence. As there are half proofs, I mean half truths, it is certain there are persons who are half innocent and half guilty. We commence, therefore, by rendering them half dead; we then go to breakfast; afterwards ensues entire death, which gives us great consideration in the world, which is one of the most valuable advantages of our offices.
DES TOUCHES.—It must be allowed that nothing can be more prudent and humane. Pray tell me what becomes of the property of the condemned?
CROUTEF.—The children are deprived of it. For you know that nothing can be more equitable than to punish the single fault of a parent on all his descendants.
DES TOUCHES.—Yes. It is a great while since I have heard of this jurisprudence.
CROUTEF.—The people of Laos, our neighbors, admit neither the torture, nor arbitrary punishments, nor the different customs, nor the horrible deaths which are in use among us; but we regard them as barbarians who have no idea of good government. All Asia is agreed that we dance the best of all its inhabitants, and that, consequently, it is impossible they should come near us in jurisprudence, in commerce, in finance, and, above all, in the military art.
DES TOUCHES.—Tell me, I beseech you, by what steps men arrive at the magistracy in Siam.
CROUTEF.—By ready money. You perceive that it may be impossible to be a good judge if a man has not by him thirty or forty thousand pieces of silver. It is in vain a man may be perfectly acquainted with all our customs; it is to no purpose that he has pleaded five hundred causes with success—that he has a mind which is the seat of judgment, and a heart replete with justice; no man can become a magistrate without money. This, I say, is the circumstance which distinguishes us from all Asia, and particularly from the barbarous inhabitants of Laos, who have the madness to recompense all kinds of talents, and not to sell any employment.
André Des Touches, who was a little off his guard, said to the Siamese that most of the airs which he had just sung sounded discordant to him, and wished to receive information concerning real Siamese music. But Croutef, full of his subject, and enthusiastic for his country, continued in these words:
“What does it signify that our neighbors, who live beyond our mountains, have better music than we have, or better pictures, provided we have always wise and humane laws? It is in that circumstance we excel. For example:
“If a man has adroitly stolen three or four hundred thousand pieces of gold we respect him, and we go and dine with him. But if a poor servant gets awkwardly into his possession three or four pieces of copper out of his mistress’ box we never fail of putting that servant to a public death; first, lest he should not correct himself; secondly, that he may not have it in his power to produce a great number of children for the state, one or two of whom might possibly steal a few little pieces of copper, or become great men; thirdly, because it is just to proportion the punishment to the crime, and that it would be ridiculous to give any useful employment in a prison to a person guilty of so enormous a crime.
“But we are still more just, more merciful, more reasonable in the chastisements which we inflict on those who have the audacity to make use of their legs to go wherever they choose. We treat those warriors so well who sell us their lives, we give them so prodigious a salary, they have so considerable a part in our conquests, that they must be the most criminal of all men to wish to return to their parents on the recovery of their reason, because they had been enlisted in a state of intoxication. To oblige them to remain in one place, we lodge about a dozen leaden balls in their heads, after which they become infinitely useful to their country.
“I will not speak of a great number of excellent institutions which do not go so far as to shed the blood of men, but which render life so pleasant and agreeable that it is impossible the guilty should avoid becoming virtuous. If a farmer has not been able to pay promptly a tax which exceeds his ability, we sell the pot in which he dresses his food; we sell his bed in order that, being relieved of all his superfluities, he may be in a better condition to cultivate the earth.”
DES TOUCHES.—That is extremely harmonious!
CROUTEF.—To comprehend our profound wisdom you must know that our fundamental principle is to acknowledge in many places as our sovereign a shaven-headed foreigner who lives at the distance of nine hundred miles from us. When we assign some of our best territories to any of our talapoins, which it is very prudent in us to do, that Siamese talapoin must pay the revenue of his first year to that shaven-headed Tartar, without which it is clear our lands would be unfruitful.
But the time, the happy time, is no more when that tonsured priest induced one-half of the nation to cut the throats of the other half in order to decide whether Sammonocodom had played at leap-frog or at some other game; whether he had been disguised in an elephant or in a cow; if he had slept three hundred and ninety days on the right side or on the left. Those grand questions, which so essentially affect morality, agitated all minds; they shook the world; blood flowed plentifully for it; women were massacred on the bodies of their husbands; they dashed out the brains of their little infants on the stones with a devotion, with a grace, with a contrition truly angelic. Woe to us! degenerate offspring of pious ancestors, who never offer such holy sacrifices! But, heaven be praised, there are yet among us at least a few good souls who would imitate them if they were permitted.
DES TOUCHES.—Tell me, I beseech you, sir, if in Siam you divide the tone major into two commas, or into two semi-commas, and if the progress of the fundamental sounds are made by one, three, and nine?
CROUTEF.—By Sammonocodom, you are laughing at me. You observe no bounds. You have interrogated me on the form of our government, and you speak to me of music!
DES TOUCHES.—Music is everything. It was at the foundation of all the politics of the Greeks. But I beg your pardon; you have not a good ear, and we will return to our subject. You said that in order to produce a perfect harmony—
CROUTEF.—I was telling you that formerly the tonsured Tartar pretended to dispose of all the kingdoms of Asia, which occasioned something very different from perfect harmony. But a very considerable benefit resulted from it; for people were then more devout toward Sammonocodom and his elephant than they are now, for, at the present time, all the world pretends to common sense, with an indiscretion truly pitiable. However, all things go on; people divert themselves, they dance, they play, they dine, they sup, they make love; this makes every man shudder who entertains good intentions.
DES TOUCHES.—And what would you have more? You only want good music. If you had good music you might call your nation the happiest in the world.
When the hospital of the Quinze Vingt was first founded the pensioners were all equal, and their little affairs were concluded upon by a majority of votes. They distinguished perfectly by the touch between copper and silver coin; they never mistook the wine of Brie for that of Burgundy. Their sense of smell was finer than that of their neighbors who had the use of two eyes. They reasoned very well on the four senses; that is, they knew everything they were permitted to know, and they lived as peaceably and as happily as blind people could be supposed to do. But, unfortunately, one of their professors pretended to have clear ideas in respect to the sense of seeing; he drew attention; he intrigued; he formed enthusiasts, and at last he was acknowledged chief of the community. He pretended to be a judge of colors, and everything was lost.
This dictator of the Quinze Vingt chose at first a little council by the assistance of which he got possession of all the alms. On this account no person had the resolution to oppose him. He decreed that all the inhabitants of the Quinze Vingt were clothed in white. The blind pensioners believed him, and nothing was to be heard but their talk of white garments, though, in fact, they possessed not one of that color. All their acquaintances laughed at them. They made their complaints to the dictator, who received them very ill; he rebuked them as innovators, freethinkers, rebels, who had suffered themselves to be seduced by the errors of those who had eyes, and who presumed to doubt that their chief was infallible. This contention gave rise to two parties.
To appease the tumult, the dictator issued a decree declaring that all their vestments were red. There was not one vestment of that color in the Quinze Vingt. The poor men were laughed at more than ever. Complaints were again made by the community. The dictator rushed furiously in, and the other blind men were as much enraged. They fought a long time, and peace was not restored until the members of the Quinze Vingt were permitted to suspend their judgments in regard to the color of their dress.
A deaf man, reading this little history, allowed that these people, being blind, were to blame in pretending to judge of colors, but he remained steady to his own opinion that those persons who were deaf were the only proper judges of music.
There can be no doubt that everything in the world is governed by fatality. My own life is a convincing proof of this doctrine. The earl of Chesterfield, with whom I was a great favorite, had promised me that I should have the first living that fell to his gift. An old incumbent of eighty happened to die, and I immediately travelled post to London to remind the earl of his promise. I was honored with an immediate interview, and was received with the greatest kindness. I informed his lordship of the death of the rector, and of the hope I cherished relative to the disposal of the vacant living. He replied that I really looked very ill. I answered that, thanks to God, my greatest affliction was poverty. “I am sorry for you,” said his lordship, and he politely dismissed me with a letter of introduction to a Mr. Sidrac, who dwelt in the vicinity of Guildhall. I ran as fast as I could to this gentleman’s house, not doubting but that he would immediately install me in the wished-for living. I delivered the earl’s letter, and Mr. Sidrac, who had the honor to be my lord’s surgeon, asked me to sit down, and, producing a case of surgical instruments, began to assure me that he would perform an operation which he trusted would very soon relieve me.
You must know that his lordship had understood that I was suffering from some dreadful complaint, and that he generously intended to have me cured at his own expense. The earl had the misfortune to be as deaf as a post, a fact with which I, alas! had not been previously acquainted.
During the time which I lost in defending myself against the attacks of Mr. Sidrac, who insisted positively upon curing me, whether I would or no, one out of the fifty candidates who were all on the lookout, came to town, flew to my lord, begged the vacant living and obtained it.
I was deeply in love with an interesting girl, a Miss Fidler, who had promised to marry me upon condition of my being made rector. My fortunate rival not only got the living, but also my mistress into the bargain!
My patron, upon being told of his mistake, promised to make me ample amends, but alas! he died two days afterwards.
Mr. Sidrac demonstrated to me that, according to his organic structure, my good patron could not have lived one hour longer. He also clearly proved that the earl’s deafness proceeded entirely from the extreme dryness of the drums of his ears, and kindly offered, by an application of spirits of wine, to harden both of my ears to such a degree that I should, in one month only, become as deaf as any peer of the realm.
I discovered Mr. Sidrac to be a man of profound knowledge. He inspired me with a taste for the study of nature, and I could not but be sensible of the valuable acquisition I had made in acquiring the friendship of a man who was capable of relieving me, should I need his services. Following his advice, I applied myself closely to the study of nature, to console myself for the loss of the rectory and of my enchanting Miss Fidler.
CHAPTER II. THE STUDY OF NATURE.
After making many profound observations upon nature (having employed in the research my five senses, my spectacles, and a very large telescope), I said one day to Mr. Sidrac: “Unless I am much deceived, philosophy laughs at us. I cannot discover any trace of what the world calls nature; on the contrary, everything seems to me to be the result of art. By art the planets are made to revolve around the sun, while the sun revolves on its own axis. I am convinced that some genius has arranged things in such a manner that the square of the revolutions of the planets is always in proportion to the cubic root from their distance to their centre, and one had need be a magician to find out how this is accomplished. The tides of the sea are the result of art no less profound and no less difficult to explain.
“All animals, vegetables, and minerals are arranged with due regard to weight and measure, number and motion. All is performed by springs, levers, pulleys, hydraulic machines, and chemical combinations, from the insignificant flea to the being called man, from the grass of the field to the far-spreading oak, from a grain of sand to a cloud in the firmament of heaven. Assuredly, everything is governed by art, and the word nature is but a chimera.”
“What you say,” answered Mr. Sidrac, “has been said many years ago, and so much the better, for the probability is greater that your remark is true. I am always astonished when I reflect that a grain of wheat cast into the earth will produce in a short time above a handful of the same corn.” “Stop,” said I, foolishly, “you forget that wheat must die before it can spring up again, at least so they say at college.” My friend Sidrac, laughing heartily at this interruption, replied: “That assertion went down very well a few years ago, when it was first published by an apostle called Paul, but in our more enlightened age the meanest laborer knows that the thing is altogether too ridiculous even for argument.”
“My dear friend,” said I, “excuse the absurdity of my remarks; I have hitherto been a theologian, and one cannot divest one’s self in a moment of every silly opinion.”
CHAPTER III. GOOD ADVICE.
Some time after this conversation between the disconsolate person, whom we shall call Goodman, and the clever anatomist, Mr. Sidrac, the latter, one fine morning, observed his friend in St. James’s Park, standing in an attitude of deep thought. “What is the matter?” said the surgeon. “Is there anything amiss?” “No,” replied Goodman, “but I am left without a patron in the world since the death of my friend, who had the misfortune to be so deaf. Now, supposing there be only ten thousand clergymen in England, and granting these ten thousand have each two patrons, the odds against my obtaining a bishopric are twenty thousand to one; a reflection quite sufficient to give any man the blue-devils. I remember, it was once proposed to me to go out as cabin-boy to the East Indies. I was told that I should make my fortune. But as I did not think I should make a good admiral, whenever I should arrive at the distinction, I declined; and so, after turning my attention to every profession under the sun, I am fixed for life as a poor clergyman, good for nothing.”
“Then be a clergyman no longer!” cried Sidrac, “and turn philosopher. What is your income?” “Only thirty guineas a year,” replied Goodman, “although at the death of my mother it will be increased to fifty.” “Well, my dear Goodman,” continued Sidrac, “that sum is quite sufficient to support you in comfort. Thirty guineas are six hundred and thirty shillings, almost two shillings a day. With this fixed income a man need do nothing to increase it, but is at perfect liberty to say all he thinks of the East India Company, the House of Commons, the king, and all the royal family, of man generally and individually, and lastly, of God and His attributes; and the liberty we enjoy of expressing our thoughts upon these most interesting topics is certainly very agreeable and amusing.”
“Come and dine at my table every day. That will save you some little money. We will afterwards amuse ourselves with conversation, and your thinking faculty will have the pleasure of communicating with mine by means of speech, which is certainly a very wonderful thing, though its advantages are not duly appreciated by the greater part of mankind.”
CHAPTER IV.DIALOGUE UPON THE SOUL AND OTHER TOPICS.
GOODMAN.—But my dear Sidrac, why do you always say my thinking faculty and not my soul? If you used the latter term I should understand you much better.
SIDRAC.—And for my part, I freely confess I should not understand myself. I feel, I know, that God has endowed me with the faculties of thinking and speaking, but I can neither feel nor know that God has given me a thing called a soul.
GOODMAN.—Truly, upon reflection, I perceive that I know as little about the matter as you do, though I own that I have all my life been bold enough to believe that I knew. I have often remarked that the eastern nations apply to the soul the same word they use to express life. After their example, the Latins understood the word anima to signify the life of the animal. The Greeks called the breath the soul. The Romans translated the word breath by spiritus, and thence it is that the word spirit or soul is found in every modern nation. As it happens that no one has ever seen this spirit or breath, our imagination has converted it into a being which it is impossible to see or touch. The learned tell us that the soul inhabits the body without having any place in it, that it has the power of setting our different organs in motion without being able to reach and touch them; indeed, what has not been said upon the subject? The great Locke knew into what a chaos these absurdities had plunged the human understanding. In writing the only reasonable book upon metaphysics that has yet appeared in the world, he did not compose a single chapter on the soul, and if by chance he now and then makes use of the word, he only introduces it to stand for intellect or mind.
In fact, every human being, in spite of Bishop Berkeley, is sensible that he has a mind, and that this mind or intellect is capable of receiving ideas; but no one can feel that there is another being—a soul—within him, which gives him motion, feeling, and thought. It is, in fact, ridiculous to use words we do not understand, and to admit the existence of beings of whom we cannot have the slightest knowledge.
SIDRAC.—We are then agreed upon a subject which, for so many centuries, has been a matter of dispute.
GOODMAN.—And I must observe that I am surprised we should have agreed upon it so soon.
SIDRAC.—Oh! that is not so astonishing. We really wish to know what is truth. If we were among the academies we should argue like the characters in Rabelais. If we had lived in those ages of darkness, the clouds of which so long enveloped Great Britain, one of us would very likely have burned the other. We are so fortunate as to be born in an age comparatively reasonable; we easily discover what appears to us to be truth, and we are not afraid to proclaim it.
GOODMAN.—You are right, but I fear that, after all, the truth we have discovered is not worth much. In mathematics, indeed, we have done wonders; from the most simple causes we have produced effects that would have astonished Apollonius or Archimedes; but what have we proved in metaphysics? Absolutely nothing but our own ignorance.
SIDRAC.—And do you call that nothing? You grant the Supreme Being has given you the faculties of feeling and thinking; He has in the same manner given your feet the faculty of walking, your hands their wonderful dexterity, your stomach the capability of digesting food, and your heart the power of throwing arterial blood into all parts of your body. Everything we enjoy is derived from God, and yet we are totally ignorant of the means by which He governs and conducts the universe. For my own part, as Shakespeare says, I thank Him for having taught me that of the principles of things I know absolutely nothing. It has always been a question in what manner the soul acted upon the body. Before attempting to answer this question, I must be convinced that I have a soul. Either God has given us this wonderful spark of intellect, or He has gifted us with some principle that answers equally well. In either case, we are still the creatures of His divine will and goodness, and that is all I know about the matter.
GOODMAN.—But if you do not know, tell me at least what you are inclined to think upon the subject. You have opened skulls, and dissected the human fœtus. Have you ever, in these dissections, discovered any appearance of a soul?
SIDRAC.—Not the least, and I have not been able to understand how an immortal and spiritual essence could dwell for months together in a membrane. It appears to me difficult to conceive that this pretended soul existed before the foundation of the body; for in what could it have been employed during the many ages previous to its mysterious union with flesh? Again! how can we imagine a spiritual principle waiting patiently in idleness during a whole eternity, in order to animate a mass of matter for a space of time which, compared with eternity, is less than a moment?
It is worse still when I am told that God forms immortal souls out of nothing, and then cruelly dooms them to an eternity of flames and torments. What? burn a spirit, in which there can be nothing capable of burning; how can He burn the sound of a voice, or the wind that blows? though both the sound and wind were material during the short time of their existence; but a pure spirit—a thought—a doubt—I am lost in the labyrinth; on whichever side I turn, I find nothing but obscurity and absurdity, impossibility and contradiction. But I am quite at ease when I say to myself God is Master of all. He who can cause each star to hold its particular course through the broad expanse of the firmament can easily give to us sentiments and ideas without the aid of this atom called the soul. It is certain that God has endowed all animals, in a greater or lesser degree, with thought, memory, and judgment; He has given them life; it is demonstrated that they have feeling, since they possess all the organs of feeling; if then they have all this without a soul, why is it improbable that we have none? and why do mankind flatter themselves that they alone are gifted with a spiritual and immortal principle?
GOODMAN.—Perhaps this idea arises from their inordinate vanity. I am persuaded that if the peacock could speak he would boast of his soul, and would affirm that it inhabited his magnificent tail. I am very much inclined to believe with you that God has created us thinking creatures, with the faculties of eating, drinking, feeling, etc., without telling us one word about the matter. We are as ignorant as the peacock I just mentioned, and he who said that we live and die without knowing how, why, or wherefore, spoke nothing but the truth.
SIDRAC.—A celebrated author, whose name I forget, calls us nothing more than the puppets of Providence, and this seems to me to be a very good definition. An infinity of movements are necessary to our existence, but we did not ourselves invent and produce motion. There is a Being who has created light, caused it to move from the sun to our eyes in about seven minutes. It is only by means of motion that my five senses are put in action, and it is only by means of my senses that I have ideas, hence it follows that my ideas are derived from the great author of motion, and when He informs me how He communicates these ideas to me, I will most sincerely thank Him.
GOODMAN.—And so will I. As it is I constantly thank Him for having permitted me, as Epictetus says, to contemplate for a period of some years this beautiful and glorious world. It is true that He could have made me happier by putting me in possession of Miss Fidler and a good rectory, but still, such as I am, I consider myself as under a great obligation to God’s parental kindness and care.
Sidrac.—You say that it is in the power of God to give you a good living, and to make you still happier than you are at present. There are many persons who would not scruple flatly to contradict this proposition of yours. Do you forget that you yourself sometimes complain of fatality? A man, and particularly a priest, ought never to contradict one day an assertion he has perhaps made the day before. All is but a succession of links, and God is wiser than to break the eternal chain of events, even for the sake of my dear friend Goodman.
GOODMAN.—I did not foresee this argument when I was speaking of fatality, but to come at once to the point, if it be so, God is as much a slave as myself.
SIDRAC.—He is the slave of His will, of His wisdom, and of the laws which He has Himself instituted; and it is impossible that He can infringe upon any of them, because it is impossible that He can become either weak or inconsistent.
GOODMAN.—But, my friend, what you say would tend to make us irreligious, for, if God cannot change any of the affairs of the world, what is the use of teasing Him with prayers, or of singing hymns to His praise?
SIDRAC.—Well! who bids you worship or pray to God? We praise a man because we think him vain; we entreat of him when we think him weak and likely to change his purpose on account of our petitions. Let us do our duty to God, by being just and true to each other. In that consists our real prayers, and our most heartfelt praises.
In the year 1723 there was a Chinese in Holland who was both a learned man and a merchant, two things that ought by no means to be incompatible; but which, thanks to the profound respect that is shown to money, and the little regard that the human species pay to merit, have become so among us.
This Chinese, who spoke a little Dutch, happened to be in a bookseller’s shop at the same time that some literati were assembled there. He asked for a book; they offered him Bossuet’s “Universal History,” badly translated. At the title “Universal History”—
“How pleased am I,” cried the Oriental, “to have met with this book. I shall now see what is said of our great empire, of a nation that has subsisted for upwards of fifty thousand years; of that long dynasty of emperors who have governed us for such a number of ages. I shall see what these Europeans think of the religion of our literati, and of that pure and simple worship we pay to the Supreme Being. What a pleasure will it be for me to find how they speak of our arts, many of which are of a more ancient date with us than the eras of all the kingdoms of Europe! I fancy the author will be greatly mistaken in relation to the war we had about twenty-two thousand five hundred and fifty-two years ago with the martial people of Tonquin and Japan, as well as the solemn embassy that the powerful emperor of Mogul sent to request a body of laws from us in the year of the world 500000000000079123450000.”
“Lord bless you,” said one of the literati, “there is hardly any mention made of that nation in this world. The only nation considered is that marvellous people, the Jews.”
“The Jews!” said the Chinese; “those people then must certainly be masters of three parts of the globe at least.”
“They hope to be so some day,” answered the other; “but all we have here are those peddlers you see going about with toys and nic-nacs, and who sometimes do us the honor to clip our gold and silver.”
“Surely you are not serious,” exclaimed the Chinese. “Could those people ever have been in possession of a vast empire?”
Here I joined in the conversation, and told him that for a few years they were in possession of a small country to themselves; but that we were not to judge of a people from the extent of their dominions, any more than of a man by his riches.
“But does not this book take notice of some other nations?” demanded the man of letters.
“Undoubtedly,” replied a learned gentleman who stood at my elbow; “it treats largely of a small country about sixty leagues wide, called Egypt, in which it is said that there is a lake of one hundred and fifty leagues in circumference, made by the hands of man.”
“My God!” exclaimed the Chinese, “a lake of one hundred and fifty leagues in circumference within a spot of ground only sixty leagues wide. This is very curious!”
“The inhabitants of that country,” continued the doctor, “were all sages.”
“What happy times were those!” cried the Chinese; “but is that all?”
“No,” replied the other, “there is mention made of those famous people the Greeks.”
“Greeks! Greeks!” said the Asiatic, “who are those Greeks?”
“Why,” replied the philosopher, “they were masters of a little province, about the two-hundredth part as large as China, but whose fame spread over the whole world.”
“Indeed!” said the Chinese, with an air of openness and ingenuousness; “I declare I never heard the least mention of these people, either in the Mogul’s country, in Japan, or in Great Tartary.”
“Oh, the barbarian! the ignorant creature!” cried out our sage very politely. “Why, then, I suppose you know nothing of Epaminondas the Theban, nor of the Pierian heaven, nor the names of Achilles’ two horses, nor of Silenus’ ass? You have never heard speak of Jupiter, nor of Diogenes, nor of Lais, nor of Cybele, nor of—”
“I am very much afraid,” said the learned Oriental, interrupting him, “that you know nothing of that eternally memorable adventure of the famous Xixofon Concochigramki, nor of the mysteries of the great Fi-psi-hi-hi! But pray tell me what other unknown things does this “Universal History” treat of?”
Upon this my learned neighbor harangued for a quarter of an hour together about the Roman republic, and when he came to Julius Cæsar the Chinese stopped him, and very gravely said:
“I think I have heard of him; was he not a Turk?”
“How!” cried our sage in a fury, “don’t you so much as know the difference between pagans, Christians, and Mahometans? Did you never hear of Constantine? Do you know nothing of the history of the popes?”
“We have heard something confusedly of one Mahomet,” replied the Asiatic.
“It is surely impossible,” said the other, “but you must have heard at least of Luther, Zwinglius, Bellarmine, and Œcolampadius.”
“I shall never remember all those names,” said the Chinese, and so saying he quitted the shop, and went to sell a large quantity of Pekoe tea and fine calico, and then, after purchasing what merchandise he required, set sail for his own country, adoring Tien, and recommending himself to Confucius.
As to myself, the conversation I had been witness to plainly discovered to me the nature of vain glory; and I could not forbear exclaiming:
“Since Cæsar and Jupiter are names unknown to the finest, most ancient, most extensive, most populous, and most civilized kingdom in the universe, it becomes ye well, O ye rulers of petty states! ye pulpit orators of a narrow parish, or a little town! ye doctors of Salamanca, or of Bourges! ye trifling authors, and ye heavy commentators!—it becomes you well, indeed, to aspire to fame and immortality.”
Memnon one day took it into his head to become a great philosopher. “To be perfectly happy,” said he to himself, “I have nothing to do but to divest myself entirely of passions, and nothing is more easy, as everybody knows. In the first place, I will never be in love, for when I see a beautiful woman I will say to myself, These cheeks will one day grow sallow and wrinkled, these eyes be encircled with vermilion, that bosom become lean and emaciated, that head bald and palsied. Now, I have only to consider her at present in imagination as she will afterwards appear in reality, and certainly a fair face will never turn my head.
“In the second place, I shall always be temperate. It will be in vain to tempt me with good cheer, with delicious wines, or the charms of society. I will have only to figure to myself the consequences of excess—an aching head, a loathing stomach, the loss of reason, of health, and of time; I will then only eat to supply the waste of nature; my health will be always equal, my ideas pure and luminous. All this is so easy that there is no merit in accomplishing it.
“But,” says Memnon, “I must think a little of how I am to regulate my fortune; why, my desires are moderate, my wealth is securely placed with the receiver-general of the finances of Nineveh. I have wherewithal to live independent, and that is the greatest of blessings. I shall never be under the cruel necessity of dancing attendance at court. I will never envy any one, and nobody will envy me. Still all this is easy. I have friends, and I will preserve them, for we shall never have any difference. I will never take amiss anything they may say or do; and they will behave in the same way to me. There is no difficulty in all this.”
Having thus laid this little plan of philosophy in his closet, Memnon put his head out of the window. He saw two women walking under the plane trees near his house. The one was old and appeared quite at her ease. The other was young, handsome, and seemingly much agitated. She sighed, she wept, and seemed on that account still more beautiful. Our philosopher was touched, not, to be sure, with the lady (he was too much determined not to feel any uneasiness of that kind), but with the distress which he saw her in. He came downstairs and accosted the young Ninevite, designing to console her with philosophy. That lovely person related to him, with an air of the greatest simplicity and in the most affecting manner, the injuries she sustained from an imaginary uncle—with what art he had deprived her of some imaginary property, and of the violence which she pretended to dread from him.
“You appear to me,” said she, “a man of such wisdom that if you will come to my house and examine into my affairs, I am persuaded you will be able to relieve me from the cruel embarrassment I am at present involved in.”
Memnon did not hesitate to follow her, to examine her affairs philosophically, and to give her sound counsel.
The afflicted lady led him into a perfumed chamber and politely made him sit down with her on a large sofa, where they both placed themselves opposite to each other, in the attitude of conversation, the one eager in telling her story, the other listening with devout attention. The lady spoke with downcast eyes, whence there sometimes fell a tear, and which, as she now and then ventured to raise them, always met those of the sage Memnon. Their discourse was full of tenderness, which redoubled as often as their eyes met. Memnon took her affairs exceedingly to heart and felt himself every instant more and more inclined to oblige a person so virtuous and so unhappy. By degrees, in the warmth of conversation, they drew nearer. Memnon counselled her with great wisdom, and gave her most tender advice.
At this interesting moment, as may easily be imagined, who should come in but the uncle? He was armed from head to foot, and the first thing he said was that he would immediately sacrifice, as was just, both Memnon and his niece. The latter, who made her escape, knew that he was disposed to pardon, provided a good round sum were offered to him. Memnon was obliged to purchase his safety with all he had about him. In those days people were happy in getting so easily quit. America was not then discovered, and distressed ladies were not then so dangerous as they are now.
Memnon, covered with shame and confusion, got home to his own house. He there found a card inviting him to attend dinner with some of his intimate friends.
“If I remain at home alone,” said he, “I shall have my mind so occupied with this vexatious adventure that I shall not be able to eat a bit and I shall bring upon myself some disease. It will, therefore be prudent in me to go to my intimate friends and partake with them of a frugal repast. I shall forget in the sweets of their society the folly I have this morning been guilty of.”
Accordingly he attends the meeting; he is discovered to be uneasy at something, and he is urged to drink and banish care.
“A little wine, drunk in moderation, comforts the heart of God and man”—so reasoned Memnon the philosopher, and he became intoxicated. After the repast, play is proposed.
“A little play with one’s intimate friends is a harmless pastime.” He plays and loses all in his purse and four times as much on his word. A dispute arises on some circumstance in the game and the disputants grow warm. One of his intimate friends throws a dice-box at his head and strikes out one of his eyes. The philosopher Memnon is carried home drunk and penniless, with the loss of an eye.
He sleeps out his debauch and when his head becomes clear he sends his servant to the receiver-general of the finances of Nineveh to draw a little money to pay his debt of honor to his intimate friends. The servant returns and informs him that the receiver-general had that morning been declared a fraudulent bankrupt, and that by this means a hundred families are reduced to poverty and despair. Memnon, almost beside himself, puts a plaster on his eye and a petition in his pocket, and goes to court to solicit justice from the king against the bankrupt. In the saloon he meets a number of ladies, all in the highest spirits and sailing along with hoops four-and-twenty feet in circumference. One of them, slightly acquainted with him, eyed him askance, and cried aloud: “Ah! what a horrid monster!”
Another, who was better acquainted with him, thus accosts him: “Good-morrow, Mr. Memnon; I hope you are well, Mr. Memnon. La! Mr. Memnon, how did you lose your eye?” and, turning upon her heel, she tripped unconcernedly away.
Memnon hid himself in a corner and waited for the moment when he could throw himself at the feet of the monarch. That moment at last arrived. Three times he kissed the earth and presented his petition. His gracious majesty received him very favorably and referred the paper to one of his satraps. The satrap takes Memnon aside and says to him, with a haughty air and satirical grin:
„Mamy usługę, której mógłby pozazdrościć Amazon.”
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