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Democritus and the People Of Abdera

(Recueil 2, Livre 8, Fable 26)



How do I hate the tide of vulgar thought!

Profane, unjust, with childish folly fraught;

It breaks and bends the rays of truth divine,

And by its own conceptions measures mine.

Famed Epicurus' master tried

The power of this unstable tide.

His country said the sage was mad

The simpletons! But why?

No prophet ever honour had

Beneath his native sky.

Democritus, in truth, was wise;

The mass were mad, with faith in lies.

So far this error went,

That all Abdera sent

To old Hippocrates

To cure the sad disease.

"Our townsman," said the messengers,

Appropriately shedding tears,

"Has lost his wits! Democritus,

By study spoiled, is lost to us.

Were he but filled with ignorance,

We should esteem him less a dunce.

He says that worlds like this exist,

An absolutely endless list,

And peopled, even, it may be,

With countless hosts as wise as we!

But, not contented with such dreams,

His brain with viewless "atoms" teems,

Instinct with deathless life, it seems.

And, never stirring from the sod below,

He weighs and measures all the stars;

And, while he knows the universe,

Himself he does not know.

Though now his lips he strictly bars,

He once delighted to converse.

Come, godlike mortal, try your art divine

Where traits of worst insanity combine!"

Small faith the great physician lent,

But still, perhaps more readily, he went.

And mark what meetings strange

Chance causes in this world of change!

Hippocrates arrived in season,

Just as his patient (void of reason!)

Was searching whether reason's home,

In talking animals and dumb,

Be in the head, or in the heart,

Or in some other local part.

All calmly seated in the shade,

Where brooks their softest music made,

He traced, with study most insane,

The convolutions of a brain;

And at his feet lay many a scroll

The works of sages on the soul.

Indeed, so much absorbed was he,

His friend, at first, he did not see.

A pair so admirably matched,

Their compliments erelong despatched.

In time and talk, as well as dress,

The wise are frugal, I confess.

Dismissing trifles, they began

At once with eagerness to scan

The life, and soul, and laws of man;

Nor stopped till they had travelled over all

The ground, from, physical to moral.

My time and space would fail

To give the full detail.

But I have said enough to show

How little It's the people know.

How true, then, goes the saw abroad

Their voice is but the voice of God?

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 8, Fable 26



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