On Something/On Thruppenny Bits

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
On Thruppenny Bits

Philip, King of Macedon, destroyer of the liberties of Greece, and father to Alexander who tamed the horse Bucephalus, called for the tutor of that lad, one Aristotle (surnamed the Teacher of the Human Race), to propound to him a question that had greatly troubled him; for in counting out his money (which was his habit upon a washing day, when the Queen's appetite for afternoon tea and honey had rid him of her presence) he discovered mixed with his treasure such an intolerable number of thruppenny bits as very nearly drove him to despair.

On this account King Philip of Macedon, destroyer of the liberties of Greece, sent for Aristotle, his hanger-on, as one capable of answering any question whatsoever, and said to him (when he had entered with a profound obeisance):

"Come, Aristotle, answer me straight; what is the use of a thruppenny bit?"

"Dread sire," said Aristotle, standing in his presence with respect, "the thruppenny bit is not to be despised. Men famous in no way for their style, nor even for their learning, have maintained life by inscribing within its narrow boundaries the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, while others have used it as a comparison in the classes of astronomy to illustrate the angle subtended by certain of the orbs of heaven. The moon, whose waxing and waning is doubtless familiar to Your Majesty, is indeed but just hidden by a thruppenny bit held between the finger and the thumb of the observer extended at the full length of any normal human arm."

"Go on," said King Philip, with some irritation; "go on; go on!"

"The thruppenny bit, Your Majesty, illustrates, as does no other coin, the wisdom and the aptness of the duodecimal system to which the Macedonians have so wisely clung (in common with the people of Scythia and of Thrace, and the dumb animals) while the too brilliant Hellenes ran wild in the false simplicity of the decimal system. The number twelve, Your Majesty...."

"Yes, yes, I know," said King Philip impatiently, "I have heard it a thousand times! It has already persuaded me to abandon the duodecimal method and to consign to the severest tortures any one who mentions it in my presence again. My ten fingers are good enough for me. Go on, go on!"

"Sovran Lord!" continued Aristotle, "the thruppenny bit has further been proved in a thousand ways an adjuvator and prime helper of the Gods. For many a man too niggardly to give sixpence, and too proud to give a copper, has dropped this coin among the offerings at the Temple, and it is related of a clergyman in Armagh (a town of which Your Majesty has perhaps never heard) that he would frequently address his congregation from the rails of the altar, pointing out the excessive number of thruppenny bits which had been offered for the sustenance of the hierarchy, threatening to summon before him known culprits, and to return to them the insufficient oblation. Again, the thruppenny bit most powerfully disciplines the soul of man, for it tries the temper as does no other coin, being small, thin, wayward, given to hiding, and very often useless when it is discovered. Learn also, King of Macedon, that the thruppenny bit is of value in ritual phrases, and particularly so in objurgations and the calling down of curses, and in the settlement of evil upon enemies, and in the final expression of contempt. For to compare some worthless thing to a farthing, to a penny, or to tuppence, has no vigour left in it, and it has long been thought ridiculous even among provincials; a threadbare, worn, and worthless sort of sneer; but the thruppenny bit has a sound about it very valuable to one who would insist upon his superiority. Thus were some rebel or some demagogue of Athens (for example) to venture upon the criticism of Your Majesty's excursions into philosophy, in order to bring those august theses into contempt, his argument would never find emphasis or value unless he were to terminate its last phrase by a snap of the fingers and the mention of a thruppenny bit.

"King Philip of Macedon, most prudent of men, learn further that a thruppenny bit, which to the foolish will often seem a mere expenditure of threepence, to the wise may represent a saving of that sum. For how many occasions are there not in which the inconsequent and lavish fool, the spendthrift, the young heir, the commander of cavalry, the empty, gilded boy, will give a sixpence to a messenger where a thruppenny bit would have done as well? For silver is the craving of the poor, not in its amount, but in its nature, for nature and number are indeed two things, the one on the one hand...."

"Oh, I know all about that," said King Philip; "I did not send for you to get you off upon those rails, which have nothing whatever to do with thruppenny bits. Be concrete, I pray you, good Aristotle," he continued, and yawned. "Stick to things as they are, and do not make me remind you how once you said that men had thirty-six, women only thirty-four, teeth. Do not wander in the void."

"Arbiter of Hellas," said Aristotle gravely, when the King had finished his tirade, "the thruppenny bit has not only all that character of usefulness which I have argued in it from the end it is designed to serve, but one may also perceive this virtue in it in another way, which is by observation. For you will remember how when we were all boys the fourpenny bit of accursed memory still lingered, and how as against it the thruppenny bit has conquered. Which is, indeed, a parable taken from nature, showing that whatever survives is destined to survive, for that is indeed in a way, as you may say, the end of survival."

"Precisely," said King Philip, frowning intellectually; "I follow you. I have heard many talk in this manner, but none talk as well as you do. Continue, good Aristotle, continue."

"Your Majesty, the matter needs but little exposition, though it contains the very marrow of truth," said the philosopher, holding up in a menacing way the five fingers of his left hand and ticking them off with the forefinger of his right. "For it is first useful, second beautiful, third valuable, fourth magnificent, and, fifthly, consonant to its nature."

"Quite true," said King Philip, following carefully every word that fell from the wise man's lips, for he could now easily understand.

"Very well then, sire," said Aristotle in a livelier tone, charmed to have captivated the attention of his Sovereign. "I was saying that which survives is proved worthy of survival, as of a man and a shark, or of Athens and Macedonia, or in many other ways. Now the thruppenny bit, having survived to our own time, has so proved itself in that test, and upon this all men of science are agreed.

"Then, also, King Philip, consider how the thruppenny bit in another and actual way, not of pure reason but, if I may say so, in a material manner, commends itself: for is it not true that whereas all other nations whatsoever, being by nature servile, will use a nickel piece or some other denomination for whatever is small but is not of bronze, the Macedonians, being designed by the Gods for the command of all the human race, have very tenaciously clung to the thruppenny bit through good and through evil repute, and have even under the sternest penalties enforced it upon their conquered subjects? For when Your Majesty discovered (if you will remember) that the people of Euboea, in manifest contempt of your Crown, paid back into Your Majesty's treasury all their taxes in the shape of thruppenny bits...."

At this moment King Philip gave a loud shout, uttering in Greek the word "Eureka," which signifies (to those who drop their aitches) "I've got it."

"Got what?" said the philosopher, startled into common diction by the unexpected interjection of the despot.

"Get out!" said King Philip. "Do you suppose that any rambling Don is going to take up my time when by a sheer accident his verbosity has started me on a true scent? Out, Aristotle, out! Or, stay, take this note with you to the Captain of the Guard" - and King Philip hastily scribbled upon a parchment an order for the immediate execution of the whole of the inhabitants of Euboea, saving such as could redeem themselves at the price of ten drachmae, the said sum upon no account whatsoever to be paid in coin containing so much as one thruppenny bit.

But the offended philosopher had departed, and being well wound up could not, any more than any other member of the academies, cease from spouting; so that King Philip was intolerably aggravated to hear him as he waddled down the Palace stairs still declaiming in a loud tone:

"And, sixteenthly, the thruppenny bit has about it this noble quality, that it represents an aliquot part of that sum which is paid to me daily from the Royal Treasury in silver, a metal upon which we have always insisted. And, seventeenthly...."

But King Philip banged the door.