The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Arbiter, the Hospitaller, and the Hermit
THE ARBITER, THE HOSPITALLER,
AND THE HERMIT
(Book XII.—No. 28)
Three saints, all equally zealous and anxious for their salvation, had the same ideal, although the means by which they strove towards it were different. But as all roads lead to Rome, these three were each content to choose their own path.
One, touched by the cares, the tediousness, and the reverses which seem to be inevitably attached to lawsuits, offered, without any reward, to judge and settle all causes submitted to him. To make a fortune on this earth was not an end he had in view.
Ever since there have been laws, man, for his sins, has condemned himself to litigation half his lifetime. Half? three-quarters, I should say, and sometimes the whole. This good conciliator imagined he could cure the silly and detestable craze for going to law.
The second saint chose the hospitals as his field of labour, I admire him. Kindly care taken to alleviate the sufferings of mankind is a charity I prefer before all others.
The sick of those days were much as they are now—peevish, impatient, and ever grumbling. They gave our poor hospitaller plenty of work. They would say, "Ah! he cares very particularly for such and such. They are his friends, hence we are neglected."
But bad as were these complaints they were nothing to those which the arbiter had to face. He got himself into a sorry tangle. No one was content. Arbitration pleased neither one side nor the other. According to them the judge could never succeed in holding the balance level. No wonder that at last the self-appointed judge grew weary.
He betook himself to the hospitals. There he found that the self-sacrificing hospitaller had nothing better to tell of his results. Complaints and murmurs were all that either could gain.
With sad hearts they gave up their endeavours and repaired to the silent wood, there to live down their sorrows. In these retreats, at a spot sheltered from the sun, gently tended by the breezes, and near a pure rivulet, they found the third saint, and of him they asked advice.
"Advice," said he, "is only to be sought of yourselves; for who, better than yourselves, can know your own needs? The knowledge of oneself is the first care imposed upon mankind by the Almighty. Have you obeyed this mandate whilst out in the world? If there you did not learn to know yourselves, these tranquil shades will certainly help you; for nowhere else is it possible. Stir up this stream. Do you now see yourselves reflected in it? No! How could you, when the mud is like a thick cloud between us and the crystal? But let it settle, my brothers, and then you will see your image. The better to study yourselves live in the desert."
The lonely hermit was believed and the others followed his wise counsel.
It does not follow that people should not be well employed. Since some must plead; since men die and fall ill, doctors are a necessity and so also are lawyers. These ministers, thank God, will never fail us. The wealth and honours to be won make one sure of that. Nevertheless, in these general needs one is apt to neglect oneself. And you, judges, ministers, and princes, who give all your time to the public weal; you, who are troubled by countless annoyances and disappointments, disheartened by failure and corrupted by good fortune—you do not see yourselves. You see no one. Should some good impulse lead you to think over these matters, some flatterer breaks in and distracts you.
This lesson is the ending of this work. May the centuries to come find it a useful one. I present it to kings. I propose it to the wise. What better ending could I make?