The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Scythian Philosopher

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(Book XII.—No. 20)

A certain austere philosopher of Scythia, wishing to follow a pleasant life, travelled through the land of the Greeks, and there he found in a quiet spot a sage, one such as Virgil has written of; a man the equal of kings, the peer almost of the gods, and like them content and tranquil.

The happiness of this sage lay entirely in his beautiful garden. There the Scythian found him, pruning hook in hand, cutting away the useless wood from his fruit trees; lopping here, pruning there, trimming this and that, and everywhere aiding Nature, who repaid his care with usury.

"Why this wrecking?" asked the philosopher. "Is it wisdom thus to mutilate these poor dwellers in your garden? Drop that merciless tool, your pruning hook. Leave the work to the scythe of time. He will send them, soon enough, to the shores of the river of the departed."

"I am taking away the superfluous," answered the sage, "so that what is left may flourish the better."

The Scythian returned to his cheerless abode and, taking a bill-hook, cut and trimmed every hour in the day, advising his neighbours to do likewise and prescribing to his friends the means and methods. A universal cutting-down followed. The handsomest boughs were lopped; his orchard mutilated beyond all reason. The seasons were disregarded, and neither young moons nor old were noted. In the end everything languished and died.

This Scythian philosopher resembles the indiscriminating Stoic who cuts away from the soul all passions and desires, good as well as bad, even to the most innocent wishes. For my own part, I protest against such people strongly. They take from the heart its greatest impulses and we cease to live before we are dead.