Every man who goes about his business must be attuned to the realities of his surroundings. He should not close his eyes to what lies within his field of vision; and he must not delude himself by rationalizing the treacherous intentions of others. The prudent man will not see plots and conspiracies everywhere, for this is the mentality of a craven fool; but he will still maintain a healthy alertness and awareness of his environment. Such a policy might have saved the life of the camel in the tale that follows, as we will see.
A lion once lived in a wood with a number of companions. The closest of these were a wolf, a crow, and a jackal. One day a camel driver passed along a road near the wood, and one of his camels wandered off into the wood. The camel became quite lost and eventually ran into the lion. The lion asked him what he was doing there, and the camel explained his predicament; the lion assured him that he would be protected by him, and that he need fear nothing. The camel, of course, was quite relieved to hear this, and thanked the lion profusely.
One day while out hunting the lion was seriously injured by an elephant. He was able to hobble back to his den, but needed to regain his strength and nurse his wounds. During this time he was unable to hunt, and so unable to eat. The wolf, the crow, and the jackal were used to eating the lion’s leftovers, and so began to grow thin themselves. Everyone was worried, and no one was really certain what should be done. The lion told his friends to try to look after themselves. So the wolf, the crow, and the jackal had a conference to decide the best course of action. They soon reached the same conclusion: the camel should be killed and shared among the others. The jackal said that this ruse would be difficult, since the camel was enjoying the protection of the lion. “Do not worry about this,” said the crow. “I will get the lion to agree to our plan.” So he set out to speak to the lion.
The crow approached the hungry lion and stated what he, the jackal, and the wolf had agreed to. He noted that the camel was not contributing much to the group, and that his body could easily feed the rest. The lion was outraged at this proposal. “How could you speak to me of this?” he told the crow. “The camel is under my protection, and has done nothing to us to deserve such treatment. It would be pure treachery to kill him.” The crow told the lion that he understood the guarantees that had been provided the camel, but that in some situations the good of the group outweighed the good of the individual. Sometimes, he said, a family had to be sacrificed for the good of a tribe, and a city sacrificed for the good of a nation. Finally, the crow offered these sly words: “Do not worry, O king, of your involvement. I can arrange for taking care of the camel without your being linked to it.” The lion did not respond to this statement; and once the crow noticed this, he knew he had to opening he needed to pursue his scheme further.
So the crow went back to his friends and told them what had happened. He suggested that they convene a meeting in the lion’s den, along with the camel. The crow explained how they should conduct their charade. Each of them–the jackal, wolf, and the crow–would pretend to offer himself up to the lion as food for his hungry mouth. When each of them did this, the other two animals would voice objections on cue. So the meeting was called, and all attended. The crow began by noting how guilty and tortured he felt by seeing the lion in his hungry condition; he then offered himself to the lion as food, so that his king would stay alive. At this suggestion (and on cue, as previously arranged), the jackal and the wolf scornfully stated that a crow would be nothing more than a snack for a lion, and that the crow’s offer was essentially useless.
Then it was the jackal’s turn. He mouthed the same platitudes about loving the lion, and feeling honor-bound to sacrifice himself to him for all that he had done for the jackal. But here the crow and the wolf interjected: they noted that the jackal’s flesh was exceedingly poor, oily, and bad-tasting. So this plan was shelved. Then it was the wolf’s turn. He offered himself up to the lion, but the jackal and the crow nixed this idea, too; they said that there were strong superstitions against eating wolf flesh. To do so would risk a curse of death.
Now remember that the camel was present at these proceedings. He had heard the statements of each of the parties. Not wanting to look ungrateful in front of the others, and believing that the others would intervene to protect him, he spoke to all. He said that his flesh was healthy and plentiful, and that it was safe to eat. He further stated that he had appreciated all the help the lion and the others had given him. Once this was said, and to the camel’s mounting alarm, the other animals agreed with him. The wolf, jackal, and crow nodded their heads in agreement, and the lion sat in silence. And then the wolf, jackal, and crow attacked the camel and killed him. Such is the tale of the wolf, jackal, and crow, as it is told by Ibn Muqaffa. The camel failed to see the net closing in on him, and proved to be incapable of detecting the schemes of his smiling enemies. Contrast this tale with a second one that I will now relate.
There was once a merchant who dealt with metals. He had an inventory of a hundred pounds of iron in his warehouse. He was leaving town for a few days, and asked his friend to take care of watching his affairs during his absence. When he came back, however, he found that the iron had vanished. He asked his friend what had happened to it; and his friend replied, in all sincerity, that mice had eaten it. The merchant played along with this charade, not letting on that he knew the friend was taking him for a fool. “Yes, brother, I had heard that the mice in our city have huge appetites, and very sharp teeth!” This and similar statements were what he told his friend. A day later, the merchant happened to see his friend’s son walking along a street. So he seized the son, restrained him, and took him to his house.
Soon the merchant’s friend was consumed with fear and worry. He asked the merchant, “Do you know anything about my son’s disappearance? Have you seen him? What could have happened to him?” The merchant looked at his one-time friend and told him with a straight face, “I believe he was carried off by a falcon! In a region like this, where mice can eat iron, there is no doubt that a falcon could carry off a young lad.” Once he heard this, the merchant’s friend confessed his theft and his lies, made restitution, and asked for the return of his son. This was done.
When one is confronted with treachery, it is often necessary to take immediate action to avoid falling into the traps of another. Friendship must be tested by time and experience to be durable and resilient; and we must more often consider the actions of men than the sweetness of their words. Comradeship and love are products of the heart; they do not spring solely from the movement of another’s lips. As Ibn Muqaffa has wisely noted:
The society of the good is productive of corresponding advantages, whilst the fellowship of the wicked is attended by very opposite results, in the same manner as the zephyr which fans the aromatic shrub becomes impregnated with its delicious smell, whilst the wind which has passed over a corrupt substance, carries pollution on its wings.
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