The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg

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(Book X.—No. 1)

Do not take it ill if, in these fables, I mingle a little of the bold, daring, and fine-spun philosophy that is called new.

They say that the lower animals are mere machines: that everything they do is prompted, not by choice, but by mechanism, coming about as it were by springs. There is, they say, neither feeling nor soul—nothing but a mechanical body. It goes just as a watch or clock goes, plodding on with even motion, blindly and aimlessly.

Open such a machine and examine it; what do we find? Wheels take the place of intelligence. The first wheel moves the second, and that in turn moves a third, with the result that, in due time, it strikes the hour.

According to these new philosophers, that is exactly the case with an animal. It receives a blow in a certain spot, this spot conveys the sensation to another spot, and so the message goes on from place to place until the brain receives it and the impression is made. That is all very well, but how is the impression made? It is necessarily made, without passion, without will, say these philosophers. They tell us that the common idea is that an animal is actuated by emotions which we know as sorrow, joy, love, pleasure, pain, cruelty, or some other of these states; but that it is not so. Do not deceive yourself, they say.

"What is it then?" I ask. A watch, indeed! And pray what of ourselves?

Ah, well! that is perhaps another thing altogether. This is the way Descartes expounds the theory—Descartes, that mortal who, if he had lived in pagan times, would have been made a god, and who holds a place between man and the higher spirits, just as some I could name—beasts of burden with long ears—hold a place between man and the oysters. Thus, I say, reasons this author: "I have a gift beyond any possessed by others of God's creatures, and that is the gift of thought. I know of what I think."

But from positive science we know that although animals may think, they cannot reflect upon what they think. Descartes goes further and boldly states that they do not think at all. That is a statement which need not worry us.

Nevertheless, when in the woods the blast of a horn and the baying of hounds agitates the fleeing quarry; when he vainly endeavours, with all his skill, to confuse and muddle the scent which betrays him to his pursuers; when, an aged beast with full-grown antlers, he puts in his place a younger stag and forces it to carry on the chase with its fresher bait of the scent of its younger body, and thus carry off the hounds and preserve his days then surely this beast has reasoned. All the twisting and turning, all the malice, deception, and the hundred stratagems to save his life are worthy of the greatest chiefs of war; and worthy of a better fate than death by being torn to pieces; for that is the supreme honour of the stag.

Again; when the partridge sees its young in danger, before their wings have strength enough to bear them away from death, she makes a pretence of being wounded and flutters along with a trailing wing, enticing the huntsman and his dogs to follow her, and thus by turning away the danger saves her little ones. And when the huntsman believes that his dog has seized her, lo! she rises, laughs at the sportsman, wishes him farewell, and leaves him confused and watching her flight with his eyes.

Not far from the northern regions there is a country where life goes on as in the early ages, the inhabitants being profoundly ignorant. I speak now of the human creatures. The animals are indeed surprisingly enlightened; for they can construct works which stop the ravages of swollen torrents and make communication possible from bank to bank. The structures are safe and lasting, being founded upon wood over which is laid a bed of mortar. The beavers are the engineers. Each one works. The task is common to all, and the old ones see that the young ones do not shirk their labour. There are many taskmasters directing and urging.

To such a colony of cunning amphibians the republic of Plato itself would be but an apprentice affair. The beavers erect their houses for the winter time, and make bridges of marvellous construction for passing over the ponds; whilst the human folk who live there, though this wonderful work is always before their eyes, can but cross the water by swimming.

That these beavers are nothing but bodies without minds nothing will make me believe. But here is something better still. Listen to this recital which I had from a king great in fame and glory. This king, defender of the northern world, whom I now cite, is my guarantee: a prince beloved of the goddess of Victory. His name alone is a bulwark against the empire of the Turks. I speak of the Polish king.[2] A king, it is understood, can never lie.

He says, then, that upon the frontiers of his kingdom there are animals that have always been at war among themselves, their passion for fighting having been handed down from father to son. These animals, he explains, are allied to the fox. Never has the science of war been more skilfully pursued among men than it is pursued by these beasts, not even in our present century. They have their advanced out-posts, their sentinels and spies; their ambuscades, their expedients, and a thousand other inventions of the pernicious and accursed science Warfare, a hag born, herself, of Styx, [3] but giving birth to heroes.

Properly to sing of the battles of these four-footed warriors Homer should return from beyond the shores of Acheron. [4] Ah! could he but do so, and bring with him too the rival of old Epicurus, [5] what would the latter say as to the examples I have narrated? He would say only what I have already said, namely, that in the lower animals natural instinct is sufficient to explain all the wonders I have told: that memory leads the animal to repeat over and over again the actions it has made before and found successful.

We, as human beings, do differently. Our wills decide for us; not the bestial aim, nor the instinct. I walk, I speak, I feel in me a certain force, an intelligent principle which all my bodily mechanism obeys. This force is distinct from anything connected with my body. It is indeed more easily conceived than is the body itself, and of all our movements it is the supreme controller. But how does the body conceive and understand this intelligent force? That is the point! I see the tool obeying the hand; but what guides the hand? Who guides the planets in their rapid courses? It may be some angel guide controls the whirling planets; and in like manner some spirit dwells in us and controls all our machinery. The impulse is given—the impression made—but how, I do not know! We shall only learn it in the bosom of God; and to speak frankly, Descartes himself was no wiser. On that point we all are equals. All that I know is that this intelligent controlling spirit does not exist in the lower animals. Man alone is its temple.

Nevertheless, we must allow to the beasts a higher plane than that of plants, notwithstanding the fact that plants breathe.

Is there any explanation to what I shall now relate? Two rats who were seeking their living had the good fortune to find an egg. Such a dinner was amply sufficient for folks of their species, they had no need to look for an ox. With keen delight and an appetite to match they were just about to eat up the egg between them, when an unbidden guest appeared in the shape of Master Reynard the fox. This was a most awkward and vexatious visitation. How was the egg to be saved from the jaws of him? To wrap it up carefully and carry it away by the fore paws, or to roll it, or to drag it, were methods as impossible as they were hazardous. But Necessity, that ingenious mother, furnished the never-failing invention. The sponger being as yet far enough away to give the rats time to reach their home, one of them lay upon his back and took the egg safely between his arms whilst the other, in spite of sundry shocks and a few slips, dragged him home by the tail.

After this recital, let any one who dare maintain that animals have no powers of reason.

For my part if I had the portioning of these faculties I would allow as much reasoning power in animals as in infants, who evidently think from their earliest years, from which fact we may conclude that one can think without knowing oneself. I would, similarly, grant the animals a reason, not such as we possess, but far above a blind instinct. I would refine a speck of matter, a tiny atom—extract of light—something more vivid and lively than fire; for since wood can turn to flame, cannot flame, being further purified, teach us something of the rarity of the soul? And is not gold extracted from lead? My creatures should be capable of feeling and judgment; but nothing more. There should be no argument from apes.

As to mankind, I would have their lot infinitely better. We men should possess a double treasure; firstly, the soul common to us all, just as we happen to be, sages or fools, children, idiots, or our dumb companions the animals; secondly, another soul in common, in a certain degree, with the angels, and this soul, independent of us though belonging to us, should be able to reach to heavenly heights, whilst it could also dwell within a point's space. Having a beginning it should be without end. Things incredible but true. During infancy this soul, itself a child of heaven, should appear to us only as a gentle and feeble light; but as the faculties grew, the stronger reason would pierce the darkness of matter enveloping our other imperfect and grosser soul.

  1. At the time when this was written there was much discussion among the learned in France as to the powers of reasoning in animals.
  2. The allusion is to Sobieski, whose victory over the Turks made him famous throughout Europe in 1673. La Fontaine had frequently met him in the salons of the cultured ladies of France.
  3. A nymph of one of the rivers of Hades named after her. She became the mother of Zelus (zeal), Nike (victory), Kratos (power), and Bia (strength).
  4. Also a river of Hades, the realm of the dead.
  5. Descartes is meant as the rival of the old philosopher Epicurus.