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The Scythian Philosopher

(Recueil 3, Livre 12, Fable 20)



A Scythian philosopher austere,

Resolved his rigid life somewhat to cheer,

Performed the tour of Greece, saw many things,

But, best, a sage, one such as Virgil sings,

A simple, rustic man, that equaled kings;

From whom, the gods would hardly bear the palm;

Like them unawed, content, and calm.

His fortune was a little nook of land;

And there the Scythian found him, hook in hand,

His fruit trees pruning. Here he cropped

A barren branch, there slashed and lopped,

Correcting Nature everywhere,

Who paid with usury his care.

"Pray, why this wasteful havoc, sir?"

So spoke the wondering traveller;

"Can it, I ask, in reason's name,

Be wise these harmless trees to maim?

Fling down that instrument of crime,

And leave them to the scythe of Time.

Full soon, unhastened, they will go

To deck the banks of streams below."

Replied the tranquil gardener,

"I humbly crave your pardon, sir;

Excess is all my hook removes,

By which the rest more fruitful proves."

The philosophic traveller,

Once more within his country cold,

Himself of pruning-hook laid hold,

And made a use most free and bold;

Prescribed to friends, and counseled neighbours

To imitate his pruning labours.

The finest limbs he did not spare,

But pruned his orchard past all reason,

Regarding neither time nor season,

Nor taking of the moon a care.

All withered, drooped, and died.

This Scythian I set beside

The indiscriminating Stoic.

The latter, with a blade heroic,

Retrenches, from his spirit sad,

Desires and passions, good and bad,

Not sparing even a harmless wish.

Against a tribe so Vandalish

With earnestness I here protest.

They maim our hearts, they stupefy

Their strongest springs, if not their best;

They make us cease to live before we die.

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 12, Fable 20



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