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WALKS AND WANDERINGS IN THE CITY OF PROVERB
AND THE GARDEN OF PARABLE.
BY THE REV. E. PAXTON HOOD.
Walk IV.-DISPUTING ON THE SHADOW OF THE Ass. The Greeks had a proverb which ran thus : “ To dispute on the shadow of an ass.” This took rise from an anecdote which Demosthenes is said to have related to the Athenians to excite their attention during his defence of a criminal, to which they were but inattentively listening. “A traveller,” he said, “once went from Athens to Megara on a hired ass; it happened to be the time of the dog-days and at noon; he was much exposed to the unmitigated heat of the sun, and, not finding so much as a bush under which to take shelter, he bethought himself to descend from the ass and seat himself under its shadow. The owner of the donkey, who accompanied him, objected to this, declaring to him that, when he let the animal, the use of its shadow was not included in the bargain. The dispute, at last, grew so warm that it got to blows, and, finally, gave rise to an action at law.” After having said so much, Demosthenes continued the defence of his client; but the auditors, whose curiosity he had piqued, were extremely anxious to know how the judges had decided on so singular a cause. Upon this the orator commented severely on their childish injustice in devouring with attention a paltry story about an ass's shadow, while they turned a deaf ear to a cause in which the life of a human being was involved. From that day when a man showed a preference for discussing small and contemptible subjects to great and important ones he was said “to dispute on the shadow of an ass.” And much of the folly of life may be described thus. The dispute upon the shadow of the ass goes on still. The attention we give to the great and worthy bears no proportion to that which we give to the insignificant. Shadows enchant us, substances are forgotten; we live for Vanity Fair, we walk through booths and bazaars cheered and delighted. Tinsel is more weighty than gold, and zinc a more attractive metal than silver. Of all the things for which we live, and work, sigh, and cry, how many are absolutely necessary to our happiness? We make our whims our monarchs, we become servants to our desires; luxury weighs more than comfort, and ease is heavier upon us than duty. We are sceptical about real things, and certain about doubtful things ; we do not know happiness when we see her living among us. Do we not also deserve the old tale to be
thrown at us? Are we not disputing also about the shadow of an ass ?
A friend has just told me a story I am not sure I have heard before, of two brothers, lazy fellows, who began a recreation, in their lazi. ness, of dreaming, and ended by disputing. They were lying together on the pleasant grass; said one to the other, “ What would you like if you had your wish?” Whereto he replied, “I would like to have meadows as large as those skies over our head! Now what would you wish ?” “Ab," said the other, “I should like to have as many sheep as there are stars to be seen upon a bright night.” “Yes, but,” continued his comrade, “where would you keep them?" Now this was puzzling. But at last he said, “ Well, I should send some of them into your meadows.”
• No, but you wouldn't though,” said the other. “Who would hinder me? joined his companion. “I would, to be sure, the meadows would be mine.” So now the dispute began, and to it they went, and I believe the story says that one of them killed the other before the argument came to an end. Well, if this parable illustrates the proverb of Demosthenes, in how many melancholy instances it finds its own illustrations. There are many fables like it; history gives many instances of it, and daily life furnishes us with examples enough. There are many proverbs which point to the folly of useless dreaming and useless doing. “It is bad combing where there is no hair; It is of no use making shoes for geese ;
" “ It is of no use casting nets into a river where there are no fish ;” and this oftenquoted one “ You twist a rope of sand."
The parable of Demosthenes is susceptible of further illustration. Vanity extends to the intellectual as well as to material labour. How much time has been wasted over empty criticism ! How much discussion over barren and unproductive words-discussions by which neither the disputants nor the auditors could be possibly benefited! How much of the literary labour of mankind has had any direct or indirect bearing on the happiness of the world? Amongst the proud monuments which adorn the cemeteries of the world, how many deserve to be spoken of as attempts to lengthen the shadow of an ass! The vain speculations of idle minds have enlisted long ranks of men in the cause of attack or defence. It would be a sound piece of advice, whether you are giving exclusive attention to the hustings and the Parliamentary chamber, to the counter or to the Exchange,-whether you hang breathlessly upon the words of that orator,—whether he pronounce those words from the platform or the pulpit,-whether you pride yourself upon the long dignity of ancestral descent, or roll in the carriage of worldly ease, in money, in books, in labour, in the trade, shop, and family, beware of the shadow of the ass!
It was our dear old friend Dogberry who grieved that, although he had been writ down an ass, it still had not been set down in black and white. When Conrad says, “Away, away; you are an ass, you are an ass,” Dogberry replies, “ Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? Oh! that he were here to write me down an ass. But, masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina ; and one that knows the law-go to; and a rich fellow enough-go to; and a fellow that hath losses; and one that hath two gowns and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. Oh! that I had been writ down an ass."
Poor Dogberry! he seems to have many representatives in these days. Many who like him seem disposed to turn the very alphabet itself into the shadow of an ass. It has been suggested to me that, although man is now divested of any caudal appendage,-I say divested of it, for some physiologists have stoutly maintained that man must have had one once, and I know that many deserve to have one still,--the alphabet itself may be regarded in the light of a tail. It is curious what tricks and subterfuges he will play, even what money he will spend that he may affix a few letters, like cabalistic hieroglyphs, at the end of his name. True enough there are degrees it is a dignity to a man to wear when they have been honestly attained, and when they are marks of real ableness. Moreover, to schoolmasters and others a degree conferred by a respectable university is a piece of real property ; but what a despicable thing is he who trades and traffics in this material, and trails after his own name his tail of letters! The fact is the Rev. Dogberry Platitude has almost exhausted the alphabet in the way of appendage. I am sure I have seen the half of an honest page occupied by signs of the most perplexing description-M.A., LL.B., D.P.H., LL.D., D.D., Mus. D., F.R.A., M.R.I.S., F.R.E.S., F.L.S., F.E.S., F.G.S., F.A.S., F.Z.S. And then after these alphabetic variations the game of perplexity really begins in a long concatenation of corresponding fellowships with societies known or unknown, most likely unknown, from half the cities beneath the moon. Some of these gentlemen are not contented unless they trail the shadow of the ass behind them in the shape of divers hoods as they ascend into the pulpit ; and I have actually known a flight of pulpit stairs altered so that the distin. guished shadow might more distinctly be seen in the slow and graceful ascent. Some one writes concerning such gentlemen
“O know you the Doctor Platitude,
Thou Theologastar sound and good.” Well, these things seem a little to illustrate what the old proverb meant when it said “ A fool, unless he knows Latin, is never a great fool.” Have my readers ever heard of that great German worthy Tyll Owlglass ? An incomparable character he, and a far greater professor in his art than our well-known Mr. Joseph Miller; he was, in fact, a droll who was ever doing and saying things, which, while they left him looking like a fool, invariably left those on whom he had played his prank with the worst of it.
* The reader will look in vain perhaps in the dictionary for this word, but if it has not a place in the Lexicon it has in the history of Theology ; it was the term used by the learned Melancthon to describe an ignorant pretender to theology, and answers to our poetaster, an ignorant pretender to poetry.
We read how “Once Owlglass gat him as far as Paris at a season when the examination was going forward at the University. So he went therein; and behold a doctor on a stool sat and looked upon him; he was a great doctor, and he said unto Owlglass, • What wouldst thou have? Dost thou desire to say aught unto
Then Owlglass replied, "Yea, most learned one, I have a most difficult question, which my bowels ache to have resolved; the like of it is thus :-Is it better for a man to do that which he knoweth, or to learn that which he knoweth not? And further, oh, learned one! I would have answered to me this question, Whether the doctors make the books, or the books make the doctors ?' At such questions every one marvelled, and there rose great disputes ; still the greater number replied that it was better that a man should do that which he knoweth than that he should first learn that which he knoweth not. Thereupon, exclaimed Owlglass, “What foole must all of ye here be, in that ye ever crave to learn that which ye know not, and what ye know do none of ye,' and he flouted out of the University with great scorn.”
The ancients were wont to say of many discussions or enterprises,
Quid ad farinas ?”—“Will it make bread ?” in other words, What profit? and what kind of profit do you expect to derive from this? And they had another proverb, “ De lana caprina"_“It is disputing about goats' wool.” There is a story told of an English audience once taken in, in a very similar manner to that of Demosthenes. Dr. Elmar, who was Bishop of London in the time of Queen Elizabeth, before he attained his bishopric was preaching in his parish church to an audience remarkably careless and inattentive; so he took from his pocket a Hebrew volume he happened to have with him, and read from it with remarkable solemnity. The audience soon began to gape and stare with inquisitive amazement, and he then ridiculed and reproved them for giving to him so much attention when they were utterly unable to understand him, and neglecting or refusing to hear when explaining the doctrines of religior in their own language. “But folly is a boney dog," and pretty invariably the pursuit of discussions or studies we cannot comprehend are disputing beneath the shadow of the ass. It is a proverb of very wide application in the practical mistakes of life; something like it is that shrewd, we had almost said that wonderful, parable in " My Novel” where the great writer warns us against wasting the one opportunity of our existence in the story of Burley fishing in the Brent for the one-eyed perch. “That river, sir," said the fisher, " that river has been the Dalilah of my existence. The first day I came here I hooked up a perch, such a big one! It must have weighed—but I cannot tell how much it weighed. But the line