Fables of Æsop and Other Eminent Mythologists/Fable VI
A Dog and a Shadow.
AS a Dog was crossing a River, with a Morsel of Good Flesh in his Mouth, he saw (as he thought) Another Dog under the Water, upon the very same Adventure. He never consider'd that the One was only the Image of the Other; but out of a Greediness to get Both, he Chops at the Shadow, and Loses the Substance.
All Covet, All Lose; which may serve for a Reproof to Those that Govern their Lives by Fancy and Appetite, without Consulting the Honor, and the Justice of the Case.
This is the Case of Unreasonable, and Insatiable Desires; as in Love, Ambition, and the Like; where People are still reaching at More and More, till they lose All in the Conclusion.
There are more Meanings of Substance and Shadow; of Mistaking One for T'other; and Losing All by Chopping at More; than the Bare Sense and Letter of the Dog, the Flesh, and the Image here in the Fable. Under these Heads are comprehended all Inordinate Desires, Vain Hopes, and Miserable Disappointments. What shall we say of those that spend their Days in Gaping after Court Favours and Preferments; Servile Flatteries; and Slavish Attendances? that Live, and Entertain themselves upon Blessings in Vision? (For Fair Words and Promises, are no more than Empty Appearances) What is all This, but Sacrificing a Man's Honour, Integrity, Liberty, Reason, Body, Soul, Fortune, and All for Shadows? We place our Trust in Things that have no Being; Disorder our Minds, Discompose our Thoughts, Entangle our Estates, and Sell our selves, in One Word, for Bubbles. how wretched is the Man that does not know when he's Well, but passes away the Peace and Comfort of his Life, for the Gratifying of a Fantastical Appetite, or Humour! Nay, and he Misses his Aim, even in That too, while he Squanders away his Interest, and Forfeits his Discretion, in the Pursuit of One Vanity after Another. Ambition is a Ladder that reaches from Earth to Heaven; and the First Round is but so many Inches in a Man's way toward the Mounting of All the Rest. He's never well till he's at the Top, and when he can go no Higher, he must either Hang in the Air, or Fall; For in This Case, he has nothing above him to Aspire to, nor any Foot Hold left him to come down by. Every Man has what's Sufficient, at Hand, and in Catching at more than he can carry away, he loses what he Had. Now there's Ingratitude, as well as Disappointment, in All these Rambling and Extravagant Motions: Beside, that Avarice is always Beggerly; for He that Wants has as good as Nothing. The Desire of More and More, rises by a Natural Gradation to Most, and after that to All; Till in the Conclusion we find our selves Sick and Weary of All that's possible to be had; sollicitous for something else, and then when we have spent our Days in the Quest of the Meanest of Things and at the Feet too of the Worst of Men, we find at the bottom of the Account, that all the Enjoyments under the Sun, are not worth Struggling for. What can be Vainer now, than to Lavish out our Lives and Fortunes in the Search and Purchase of Trifles; and at the same time to lye Carking for the Unprofitable Goods of this World, and in a restless Anxiety of Thought for what's to come. The Folly, in fine, of these Vexatious and Frivolous Pursuits, shews it self in all the Transports of our Wild and Ungovern'd Affections.
Here is further set forth in this Emblem, All the Fabulous Torments of Hell, even Above Ground. Men that are Tainted with this Appetite are ready to dye of Thirst, with Tantalus, and the Water running at their very Lips. They are Condemn'd, with the Sisters, to the Filling of Tubs with Holes in 'em; which is but a Lively Figure of so much Labor spent in Vain, upon the Gratifying of Unreasonablc Desires. What's a Man's Contending with Insuperable Difficulties, but the Rolling of Sisiphus's Stone up the Hill, which is sure before-hand, to Return upon him again? What's an Eternal Circulation of the same Things, as well as the same Steps, without Advancing one Inch of Ground toward his Journey's End, but Ixion in the Wheel? And all this while, with Cares, and Horrors at his Heart, like the Vultur that's Day and Night Quarrying upon Prometheus' s Liver.
But after all that's said upon this Subject, of our Mistake, and Punishment, the Great Nicety will lye in Rightly Distinguishing betwixt the Substance, and the Shadow; and in what degree of Preference the one stands to the other. Now this must be according to Epictetus's Distribution of Matters, into what we have in our own Power; and what not; and in Placing things Honest and Necessary, before other Subordinate Satisfactions. Æsop's Dog here was in the Possession of a very Good Breakfast, and he knew very well what he had in his Mouth; but still, either out of Levity, Curiosity, or Greediness, he must be Chopping at something else, that he neither Wanted, nor Understood, till he lost All for a Shadow; that is to say, for just nothing at All.