In his allegorical work Kalila and Dimna, writer Ibn Muqaffa describes the journey to wisdom of one of his characters, a man named Barzouyeh. Barzouyeh was the man sent by the king of Persia to India for the purpose of acquiring the precious text of Kalila and Dimna, which was reputed to contain a treasure-trove of worldly wisdom. Ibn Muqaffa spends a good deal of time discussing Barzouyeh’s education and path to worldly wisdom; and it will be instructive for us to relate it here.
When he was still a young man in Persia, and once he had completed the rudiments of his medical education, Barzouyeh realized that he had four choices in life. He explains further:
I had to choose, as it appeared to me, between four things, which in general occupy the attention and engage the affections of men: the acquiring of riches, the procuring of a good name, the means of temporal enjoyment, and the provision for a future state. And discovering from the writings of the physicians, that the last was the aim which they constantly had in view, I determined to persevere in the profession which I had chosen, lest I should be like the merchant who sold a precious ruby for a pearl that was of no value. [Trans. by W. Knatchbull, with minor editing]
In other words, he realized that it was important to be practical, and to seek to earn a living in the profession that he had chosen. He could also see that life itself was fleeting and impermanent, and that it was better to focus oneself on the acquisition of wisdom than to waste time on fooleries and distractions:
With these reflections I endeavored to fortify my resolution of preferring only what was substantially good, knowing that our body from its very constitution is subject to corruption, and that life, which is transitory, may be compared to a statue, whose detached members are kept together by a single nail, which being removed, the several joints give way, and the parts fall asunder; and of what solid or lasting advantage is the society of friends or lovers, whose pleasures are often purchased at great expense, and put an end to by a trifling interruption, as a wooden dish, which has been used for the table, when it is broken, is good for nothing but to become fuel for the fire.
He realized more and more that if he made worthless and impermanent things the focus of his attentions, he would be repaid with misery and emotional turmoil. His curiosity eventually led him to examine the various religions, and to see what the doctrines of each of them happened to be. Yet the conversations he had with various people on the subject turned out to be unfulfilling: every person had his own opinion, and was convinced that his own creed was the best. It was best, he thought, simply to adhere to the “persuasion of my forefathers.” His own mortality was a fact that he was increasingly aware of:
I could not, however, forget that the term of my existence was fast approaching, and the end of all worldly things was near at hand, and that the thread of life is often cut asunder in the very moment that health and happiness promise to secure and enliven the continuance of our being…I began to see clearly the inconvenience and danger of an unsettled state of mind, without any determinate rule of conduct or opinion, and resolved, by listening to that warning voice which never fails to make itself distinctly heard within us…
Our physical gratifications are pleasing for the moment, but temporary and illusory, vanishing like the early morning mist. Man is like the dog who gnaws at an old bone, convinced that its faint scent of meat may yet retain some nourishment, but does not. And the longer we gnaw the bone, the more it chafes our gums and causes us to bleed. Another analogy he uses about the physical pleasures is that they are like a bag of honey with a pool of poison at the bottom of it: the taste of the honey is sweet as we consume it, but the poison at the bottom of the bag gets ever closer to our fingers. The only way forward, Barzouyeh realized, was to adopt the path of wisdom, no matter how difficult it might be. There was really no other practical choice. For he could clearly see that his society was in a state of decay, and that the only way to shield himself from evil was to adopt wisdom as his external armor. He noted, using language that evokes Sallust, that in his era:
Honest men grew indifferent, and the bad found their account in wickedness; understanding was set at nought, and vanity had taken its place; the oppressor walked boldly in open day, and lust and covetousness had laid aside all restraint and shame, because contentment was looked upon as weakness. Reputation was no longer an object of anxiety, because worthlessness had come into honor and power, and men of character were obliged to retire before the pretensions of aspiring and successful criminality; and it was painful to behold amidst this triumph of evil over everything that was good, how men possessed of reason could so far forget the dignity of their nature, and the proud eminence on which they stood, as to lose sight in sensual gratifications of the high destiny of their soul.
Eventually Barzouyeh is able to convey an analogy that expresses his view of man’s condition. A man, he tells us, is like a rider who is thrown from an elephant and tumbles into a well. But as he falls into the well, he is able to grasp the projecting branches near the surface of the well, and save himself at first from a precipitous plunge into the interior. He finds something to hold on to: his hands grasp two branches, and his feet find two apparent stones along the wall of the well to rest on. Yet as he looks more closely at his feet, he realizes that these “stones” are really the heads of four snakes that have come out of their holes. To make matters worse, he can just barely see that at the bottom of the well is an open-mouthed dragon, ready to consume him if he should fall from his treacherous perch.
And as he looks upward to the two branches he clings to, he can see that there are two rats (one white and one black) that are slowly nibbling at the branches. Finally, there is a beehive close to him: and as he tastes it, he is so enraptured by its sweetness that he forgets all the perils that hover over him at that moment. He forgets about the dragon below him; he forgets about the rats slowly gnawing at the branches holding him in place; and he forgets about the four snake heads on which he stands. But this terrible predicament had an allegorical meaning for Barzouyeh. The well represented “the world with its train of ills which belong to it.” The snakes are the four humors of the human body, which can become toxic and lethal of they are disturbed; the two rats represent night and day, which are lead us inevitably to old age and death; the dragon is mortality itself, which is waiting for all of us; they honey represents voluptuary desires, which serve to distract us from our responsibilities.
This was the meaning of Barzouyeh’s analogy of the man perilously clinging to life inside a well. This was, to him, how each person finds himself in the world. He drew the requisite conclusions from this:
I therefore finally determined to remain in my present state, watching over my actions, with the steady purpose of carrying them to the highest degree of perfection of which I should be capable, in the hope that I should one day find a guide for my conduct, a controlling power for the affections of my soul, and a faithful administrator of my worldly affairs.
By this he meant that he would continue with his professional responsibilities, and devote himself more and more to the study of wisdom which, he know, alone had the power to save a man from misery or an early demise. This is what gives life meaning, and can enable us to transcend the precarious nature of our physical state.
Read more on these subjects in Sallust:
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