The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Lion, the Monkey, and the Two Asses

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598619The Original Fables of La Fontaine — The Lion, the Monkey, and the Two AssesF. C. TilneyJean de La Fontaine



(Book XI.—No. 5)

King Lion, thinking that he would govern better if he took a few lessons in moral philosophy, had a monkey brought to him one fine day who was a master of arts in the monkey tribe. The first lesson he gave was as follows:—

"Great King, in order to govern wisely a prince should always consider the good of the country before yielding to that feeling which is commonly known as self-love, for that fault is the father of all the vices one sees in animals. To rid oneself of this sentiment is not an easy thing to do, and is not to be done in a day. Indeed, merely to moderate it is to achieve a good deal, and if you succeed so far you will never tolerate in yourself anything ridiculous or unjust."

"Give me," commanded the king, "an example of each of those faults."

"Every species of creature," continued the philosopher, "esteems itself in its heart above all the others. These others it regards as ignoramuses, calling them by many hard names which, after all, hurt nobody. At the same time this self-love, which sneers at other tribes and other kinds of beasts, induces the individual to heap praise upon other individuals of his own species, because that is a very good way of praising oneself too. From this it is easy to see that many talents here below are in reality but empty pretence, assumption, and pose, and a certain gift of making the most of oneself, better understood by ignorant people than by learned.

"The other day I followed two asses who were offering the incense of flattery to each other by turns, and heard one say, 'My Lord, do you not think that man, that perfect animal, is both unjust and stupid? He profanes our august name by calling every one of his own kind an ass who is ignorant, or dull, or idiotic; and he calls our laughter and our discourse by the term "braying." It is very amusing that these human people pretend to excel us!'

"'My friend,' said his companion, 'it is for you to speak, and for them to hold their tongues. They are the true brayers. But let us speak no more of them. We two understand each other; that is sufficient. And as for the marvels of delight your divine voice lets fall upon our ears, the nightingale herself is but a novice in comparison. You surpass the court musician.'

"To this the other donkey replied, 'My lord, I admire in you exactly the same excellencies.'

"Not content with flattering each other in this way, these two asses went about the cities singing aloud each other's praises. Either one thought he was doing a good turn to himself in thus lauding his companion.

"Well, your majesty, I know of many people to-day, not among asses, but among exalted creatures, whom heaven has been pleased to raise to a high degree, who would, if they dared, change their title of ' Excellency' to that of 'Majesty.' I am saying more than I should, perhaps, and I hope your majesty will keep the secret. You wished to hear of some incident which would show you, among other things, how self-love makes people ridiculous, and there I have given you a good instance. Injustice I will speak of another time, it would take too long now."

Thus spoke the ape. No one has ever been able to tell me whether he ever did speak of injustice to his king. It would have been a delicate matter, and our master of arts, who was no fool, regarded the lion as too terrible a king to submit to being lectured too far.