There is a scene in the movie The Wild Bunch (1969) where Ernest Borgnine and William Holden are discussing the making of promises. Holden says, “We gave our word.” Borgnine angrily responds, “That ain’t what counts. It’s who you give it to!”
Now we can agree or disagree with this statement, but it was meant to call attention to a point that should not be denied: our generosity should be extended only to those who are capable of receiving it without hostility or vituperation. “For it is unwise,” says the philosopher Ibn Muqaffa, “to despise either man or beast, small or great, without having examined their utility, which is the proper rule for the conduct to be observed towards them.” And by the word “utility,” he really means “character.” A fable that illustrates this principle may be found in this same writer, which I will relate here.
There once fell into a pit a goldsmith, a serpent, a monkey, and a tiger. None of them were able to get out of the pit, and they all waited patiently for someone to arrive who might help them. Soon a traveler came along; he stood over the pit and looked down into it, and resolved to extract the man and the animals from it. He lowered a rope into the pit, and the monkey–because he was so agile–seized it and swung himself out. The rope was lowered a second time, and the snake wound himself around it, and escaped. Then the rope was lowered again, and the tiger grabbed it with his teeth and climbed his way out of the pit. When the three animals were out, they asked the traveler not to let the goldsmith out of the pit. The animals were suspicious of the nature of man, and were wary of him as an ungrateful beast.
The monkey told the traveler that he lived near a city called Nawadarkht; the tiger said he lived in a nearby forest; and the snake said he lived in a nearby city. The animals told the traveler that they would help him if he was ever in need of aid, and that he only had to ask them. The traveler did not listen to their advice about the goldsmith, however; he decided to pull him out of the pit. The goldsmith came out, and thanked the traveler for the good deed. He said that he lived in Nawadarkht, and if the traveler ever found himself in this city, he should try to visit the goldsmith’s house. Then all parties went their separate ways.
Some time after this, the traveler found himself visiting the city of Nawadarkht. He encountered the monkey he had rescued; the monkey was happy to see him, and fetched some fresh fruits for the traveler to show his gratitude. The traveler then went on his way. He soon met the tiger whom he had rescued. The tiger, to show his thankfulness, went away to get something for the traveler. He actually went off and killed the daughter of the king living at Nawadarkht; he removed her jewelry and brought them to the traveler, not telling him where the items had come from. The traveler also recalled that the goldsmith lived in this city, too, and he wished to pay him a visit. This he did. Now when the traveler entered the house of the goldsmith, the goldsmith recognized the jewelry that the traveler had: he had made it for the king’s daughter.
The goldsmith immediately suspected that the traveler had somehow stolen this jewelry, and thought he could ingratiate himself with the king by reporting the theft of his daughter’s valuables. He told the king’s retainers that a thief and murderer was at his house. The traveler was seized, tortured, imprisoned, and prepared for execution. As he was being led away, the traveler remembered that the animals had advised him not to rescue the goldsmith from the pit. “How I could have avoided this miserable death, if only I had listened,” he repeated to himself. The serpent, who happened to be nearby, heard these words, and tried to think of some way he could help the traveler. The only thing the snake could think of was seeking out the king’s son and biting him. This the snake did.
The serpent also had a sister who was a genie: that is, a spirit. The serpent told the genie what was happening, and asked the genie if she could somehow help the traveler and save him from execution. The genie visited the son, in an invisible form, and told the son that he would not be cured of the poison unless the condemned traveler uttered some magic spell over him. In other words, the son would not be saved unless the son interceded to save the traveler from execution. Then the serpent visited the traveler in prison, gave him some leaves that could serve as a snakebite anti-venom, and told him to pretend to use these leaves when he would be called to save the king’s son. He should, said the snake, make a boiled drink out of the leaves and encourage the son to drink the potion, which would cure him.
So the king’s son told his father that a nighttime voice had told him that the imprisoned traveler would be the doctor who could help him. The king ordered the traveler to be released from confinement. The traveler did as the snake instructed. He told the king’s son to drink a decoction made of the leaves. The boy actually recovered, and the king was extremely happy. The king took the traveler aside and asked him to tell his full story, and relate how he had come to be in this situation. The traveler told the king everything. Then the king thanked the traveler for all his efforts, and gave him some lavish presents. But the king was not yet finished. He ordered the goldsmith to be found, arrested, and thrown in jail. He commanded that the goldsmith should be executed for having falsely accused the traveler of murder and theft, and for showing such ingratitude after having been earlier rescued from the pit by the traveler. The goldsmith was put to death.
And so here we may compare the gratitude of the animals towards the one who saved them, with the ingratitude of the goldsmith towards to one who had saved him. It is undoubtedly true that we must select with care the objects of our benefaction, to ensure that we do not incur the negative consequences of others’ treachery. And here the words of Ibn Muqaffa are relevant:
Two descriptions of persons may be said not to see: the blind man, and he who is without understanding. For as the blind man does not behold the firmament of heaven and the stars, nor what is near and what is far off, in the same manner he who is deprived of understanding can neither distinguish what his praiseworthy from what is dishonorable, nor the good from the bad.
Read more in On Duties: