The Original Fables of La Fontaine/Democritus and the People of Abdera

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(Book VIII—No. 26)

How I have always hated the opinions of the mob! To me, a mob seems profane, unjust, and rash, putting false construction on all things, and judging every matter by a mob-made standard.

Democritus had experience of this. His countrymen thought him mad. Little minds! But then, no one is a prophet in his own country! The people themselves were mad, of course, and Democritus was the wise man. Nevertheless the error went so far that the city of Abdera [1] sent a messenger to the great physician Hippocrates, requesting him both by letter and by spoken word to come and restore the sage's reason.

"Our citizen," said the spokesman with tears in his eyes, "has lost his wits, alas! Study has corrupted Democritus. If he were less wise we should esteem him much more. He will have it that there is no limit to the number of worlds like ours and that possibly they are inhabited with numberless Democrituses. Not satisfied with these wild dreams, he talks also of atoms—phantoms born only in his own empty brain. Then, measuring the very heavens, though he remains here below to do it, he claims to know the universe; yet admits that he does not know himself. Time was when he could control debates, now he mutters only to himself. So come, thou divine mortal, for the patient's case is a bad one."

Hippocrates, though he had little faith in these people, went nevertheless. Now mark, I beg of you, what strange meetings fate may bring about in this life! Hippocrates arrived just at the time when this man, who was supposed to have neither sense nor reason, happened to be searching into a question as to whether this very reason was seated in the heart or in the head of men and beasts.

Sitting in leafy shade, beside a brook, and with many a volume at his feet, he was occupied wholly with a study of the convolutions of the brain; and thus absorbed, as his manner was, he scarcely noticed the advance of his friend the learned physician. Their greeting was soon over as you may imagine, for the sage is at all times chary of time and speech. So having put aside mere trifles of conversation, they reasoned upon man and his mind, and next fell to talking upon ethics.

It is not necessary that I should here enlarge upon what each had to say to the other on these matters.

The little tale suffices to show that we may rightly take exception to the judgments of the mob. That being so, in what sense is it true, as I have read in a certain passage, that the voice of the people is the voice of God?

  1. A city on the shores of Thracia