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Three Fables

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

I. The Garden of Epicurus

In the old days the garden of Epicurus was a pleasant place. On the right there was a slope covered with olive trees. Most of this belonged to a neighbour, but the wall between Epicurus’ property and the neighbour’s property was low, and was easy enough to get over, so that Epicurus could use the slope as an open-air study on summer days when the heat in his villa was stifling. The neighbour did not object, though his dogs sometimes did, so Epicurus carried a handful of stones, to use in case of emergency. His villa lay at the foot of the slope, and was old-fashioned, damp and dark. In front of it were two or three rusty cypresses, a few excellent fruit trees, a marble-walled pool, two mossy statues, and a profusion of lizards and shrubs. At the foot of the garden was a wall, with a door in it, leading out to the rocks of the coast, where Epicurus said you could hear the songs of the sirens on moonlit nights. To the left lay the vegetable garden, tended by one old slave, the last remnant of an earlier domestic establishment, who slept in an outhouse at the back and was continually recalling his previous master, a retired merchant. Beyond the slave’s quarters, the road went uphill and down till it reached the city three miles away.

Here Epicurus lived, and here he wrote his philosophy. In ten years he had written his philosophy in three different ways, first as prose, second as poetry, and third as a series of algebraic symbols. The old slave tended the vegetable garden, prepared meals, dusted the villa, and occasionally went on errands to the city, always groaning and complaining at the distance, and almost refusing to go unless threatened with a beating. There was nothing for Epicurus to do but to write his philosophy. Unfortunately, as fast as he wrote one chapter, the rats ate what had already been written, so at the end of ten years he was exactly where he had started, except that he now knew his own ideas by heart. Occasionally some old friend from the city would stop on his way down the coast, and Epicurus would go down into the cellar, fish out a flask of wine, and while his friend drank it, sit and talk philosophy by the hour. The guest would depart duly impressed the next day, assuring Epicurus that he preferred the sound old teaching to all the new-fangled ideas that were now being discussed in the world.

So time went on, but at the end of ten years Epicurus decided one fine day that it was time to acquire another slave. His study was never dusted, and his meals had become so bad as to give him constant indigestion. So he went back to the city, intending to stay there only for a few days. Unfortunately, when he arrived there, he discovered that philosophy was getting popular, and had become a fashionable pursuit. At the north end of the town, Heraclitus was lecturing every week, declaring that life was a tragedy and that people ought to feel miserable. At the south end, Democritus was similarly holding forth, asserting that life was a farce and that people ought to be shown up as absurd. Epicurus despised both these philosophers. He was not interested in life or in people, but in ideas. And so he found himself once more on a lecture platform.

He soon enough acquired a following, particularly as there were a certain number of people who were already tiring of listening to Heraclitus and Democritus. But after lecturing for three months, he suddenly decided that what he was saying was just simply nonsense, and left for his villa again. But the camp-followers by this time were thoroughly aroused and insisted on following him, led by one Kreon, a hatchet-faced young man who had deduced from Epicurus’ favourite axiom, that the development of ideas was alone important in philosophy, the corollary that the development of the body was the only important thing in life. They bought the neighbouring farm, cut down the olive trees, and invaded the villa. And short of becoming blind, deaf, and dumb, Epicurus let them stay. If you go to Epicurus’ garden now, you will find it totally changed. The old villa has been rebuilt in a modern form, bearing across its front a brass plate proclaiming this to be “Kreon’s Institute of Social Hygiene and Philosophy.” The cypresses have been uprooted, the statues are turned to lime, shrubs and lizards have been ruthlessly eliminated. The outhouse and the old slave have alike disappeared, and the students dust their own rooms. They also descend, at stated hours, into the enlarged bathing pool for swimming exercise under the eye of an instructor. Kreon still runs the place, and has been known to shatter the top of a desk with his fist in his enthusiasm. The only thing left unchanged is the wall which divides the villa from the adjoining coast. Above the door, now always kept locked, is fastened the following inscription:

Through This Gates
Went Epicurus
Preferring the Song of the Sirenss
To His Philosophy.s
Reader! Follow His Philosophys
And Shun His Example.

II. The Three Lookers

Three men walked through the world looking for what there was in the world. But each saw the world differently, because each looked for different things. The first man kept staring at the pavement, and he saw only people’s feet. In consequence, his own feet became so hard and heavy that he could scarcely lift them. When he stood still, nothing could move him, and when he stamped across the pavement, everyone ran away. The second man looked at people’s stomachs so hard that his own stomach became enormous; he finally could not walk, but had to travel around in a car. The third man looked over people’s heads continually. So he saw nothing but a veil of smoke in which the images of gods kept ascending and descending.

The first man became an archbishop, and in a voice that travelled up from his feet, went about exhorting the world to be saved. The second man became a great merchant, and made an enormous fortune out of groceries. But the third was so good-for-nothing that he became only a beggar holding his hat at the street corner.

One day the three men met under the following circumstances. The car driven by the merchant with the enormous stomach, tried to avoid running over the archbishop’s feet, which were crossing the pavement, and swerved into the spot where the beggar was standing. The archbishop was knocked down and his coat torn, the merchant was slightly cut by flying glass, and the beggar found himself under the car looking upwards. Whereupon the following conversation ensued:

“I hope you are not hurt,” said the merchant to the archbishop. “I am afraid it was my fault. I was looking at my watch and thinking it was about lunch time, so I did not really see you.”

“Not at all,” replied the archbishop. “It was really my fault. I was walking along thinking of the state of the church, and did not really see you. But what about this poor man?” and he indicated the beggar, lying under the wheels.

“I was waiting for the gods to descend, and did not really see either of you,” murmured the beggar, and died.

III. Knowall and Believeall Find the Truth

Once upon a time two men, Knowall and Believeall, decided to go and look for the truth. Now Knowall lived in a desert and Believeall lived in a rich fertile valley. But both started on their travels on the same day.

Knowall went forward, shaking his fist and shouting, “Where is the truth? Where is the truth? I know all this and all that, but I don’t believe the truth exists!” And he disturbed everybody with his shouting and stamping.

Believeall walked along silent, with his head sunken on his breast, and remarked now and then softly, “I believe the truth must exist, but I don’t know where to find it. I must first get to know my way about.” So he asked everybody who seemed to know anything, the way to the truth, and everybody told him wrong.

Finally, however, the two men met, after travelling for a long time. Between them was a well, and in the well stood truth as a naked child. But Believeall was too busy recalling all the countries he had seen on his way to the truth, and Knowall was too busy with a fine new disproof of the truth’s existence to notice anything unusual, and before they could remember what they had come for, or where they were, Truth stretched out her wings and sailed away.


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