Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of the course of Human Life

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Gesta Romanorum Vol. I  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of the course of Human Life

TALE XXXVI.

OF THE COURSE OF HUMAN LIFE.

We are told of a certain King, who, beyond all other things, wished to make himself acquainted with the nature of man. Now, in a remote part of his kingdom, there dwelt a famous philosopher, by whose great science many surprising mysteries were expounded. When the King heard of his celebrity, he despatched a messenger to him to command his immediate appearance at court. The philosopher willingly complied with the King's wish, and commenced his journey. On reaching the palace, the royal enquirer thus addressed him: "Master, I have heard much of your extraordinary wisdom, and profound research into natural phenomena. I would myself bear testimony to the truth of the general report. In the first place, tell me what is man?" The philosopher answered,—"Man is a wretched thing: this is his beginning, middle, and end. There is no truth so apparent; and therefore Job said, 'Man that is born of a woman is full of miseries.' Look upon him at his birth; he is poor and powerless. In the middle period of his life, you will find the world attacking him, narrowing his comforts, and contributing to the eternal reprobation of his soul. If you review the end, you will mark the earth opening to receive him—it closes, and he is gone! And then, oh King! what becomes of the pomp of your regal establishment—of the pride of your worldly glory?"—"Master," said the King, "I will ask you four questions, which if you resolve well and wisely, I will elevate you to wealth and honor. My first demand is, What is man? My second, What is he like? The third, Where he is? and the fourth, With whom he is associated?" The philosopher replied, "At your first question, my lord, I cannot but laugh. You ask, 'What is man?'—Why, what is he but the slave of death—the guest of a day—a traveller hastily journeying to a distant land? He is a slave, because he is subject to the bonds of the tomb; death fetters him, sweeps off from the scene, even the memorials of his name, and causes his days to drop away, like the leaves in autumn. But according to his desert, will he be rewarded or punished. Again, man is the 'guest of a day,' for he lingers a few short hours, and then oblivion covers him as with a garment. He is also a 'traveller journeying to a distant land.' He passes on, sleepless and watchful, with scarce a moment given him to snatch the means of subsistence, and discharge the relative duties of his station. Death hurries him away. How much, therefore, are we called upon to provide every requisite for the journey—that is, the virtues which beseem and support the Christian. To your second question, 'What man is like?' I answer, that he resembles a sheet of ice, which the heat of noon certainly and rapidly dissolves. Thus man, mixed up of gross and elementary particles, by the fervor of his own infirmities, quickly falls into corruption. Moreover, he is like an apple hanging upon its parent stem. The exterior is fair, and promises a rich maturity—but there is a worm preying silently within: ere long it drops to the earth, perforated and rotten at the core[1]. Whence, then, arises human pride?—The third query is, 'Where is man?' I reply, in a state of multifarious war, for he has to contend against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Your fourth demand was, 'With whom is he associated?' With seven troublesome companions, which continually beset and torment him. These are, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, weariness, infirmity, and death. Arm, therefore, the soul against the devil, the world, and the flesh, whose wars are divers seductive temptations. Various preparations are needful for an effectual resistance. The flesh tempts us with voluptuousness; the world, by the gratifications of vanity—and the devil, by the suggestions of pride. If, then, the flesh tempt thee, remember, that though the day and the hour be unknown, it must soon return into its primitive dust; and, remember yet more, that eternal punishment awaits thy dereliction from virtue. So, in the second chapter of the book of Wisdom, 'Our body shall become dust and ashes.' It follows, that after these passages of mortal life, oblivion shall be our portion—we, and our deeds, alike shall be forgotten. The recollection of this, will often oppose a barrier to temptation, and prevent its clinging with fatal tenacity to the heart. If the vanity of the world allure thee, reflect upon its ingratitude, and thou wilt be little desirous of becoming bound to it. And though thou shouldest dedicate thy whole life to its service, it will permit thee to carry off nothing but thy sins. This may be exemplified by the fable of the partridge. A partridge, anxious for the safety of her young, on the approach of a sportsman, ran before him, feigning herself wounded, in order to draw him from her nest. The sportsman, crediting this appearance, eagerly followed. But she lured him on, until he had entirely lost sight of the nest, and then rapidly flew away. Thus the sportsman, deceived by the bird's artifice, obtained only his labour for his pains. (31) So is it with the world. The sportsman who approaches the nest, is the good Christian, who acquires food and clothing by the sweat of his brow. The world calls, and holds out the temptation, which his frailty cannot resist. She tells him that if he follow her, he will attain the desire of his heart. Thus he is gradually removed from the love of God, and from works of goodness. Death comes and bears on his pale steed the deceived and miserable bankrupt. See how the world rewards its votaries! (32) So, in the second Chapter of James, "The whole world is placed in evil; is composed of the pride of life," &c. In the third place, if the devil tempt thee, remember Christ's sorrows and sufferings,—a thought which pride cannot surely resist. "Put on," says the Apostle, "the whole armour of God, that ye may stand fast." Solinus (33) tells us (speaking of the wonders of the world) that Alexander had a certain horse which he called Bucephalus. When this animal was armed, and prepared for battle, he would permit no one but Alexander to mount; and if another attempted it, he presently threw him. But in the trappings of peace, he made no resistance, mount him who would. Thus a man, armed by the passion of our Lord, receives none into his heart but God; and if the temptations of the devil strive to sit there, they are cast violently down. Without this armour, it is open to every temptation. Let us then study to clothe ourselves with virtue that we may at length come to the glory of God.


  1. "An evil soul, producing holy witness,

    Is like a villain with a smiling cheek;

    A goodly apple rotten at the heart."

    Shakspeare, Merch. of Venice, Act I. Sc. 3.


Note 31.Page 142.

This fable of the partridge is popular; but it seems more applicable to the lapwing.


Note 32.Page 142.

Here is a remarkable coincidence or plagiarism. Pope has given a complete and literal version of the passage in this moral.

"Ecce quomodo mundus suis servitoribus reddit mercedem."

"See how the world its veterans rewards!"

Moral Essays. On the Character of Women.

Note 33.Page 142.

"Solinus."

Solinus wrote "De Mirabilibus Mundi." He was a Latin grammarian; but the period in which he flourished is doubtful. Moreri says, his work was entitled Polyhistor, "qui est un recueil des choses les plus mémorables qu'on voit en divers païs."