There is a fable in Aesop that involves the behavior of the beaver. In ancient times, beavers were often hunted for the scented oil, known as castorea, that was found in sacs near its genital area. The beaver liked to rub its hind parts against trees and logs, thereby possessively marking them with his scent; and this scent apparently had to humans a pleasant aroma, reputed to be evocative of vanilla. The ancients mistakenly thought that this valued aromatic came from the beaver’s scrotum, rather than from special internal sacs adjacent to the genitalia.
Aesop says that the animal understood the reason why it was hunted by humans, and that when it was pursued, it would stop to bite off its “genitals” and fling them at his pursuers, thereby saving its life. The legend on its face sounds ridiculous, but it had a long life. We find it in Pliny’s Natural History (VIII.47.109), where he says of the beavers of the Black Sea region: Easdem partes sibi ipsi Pontici amputant fibri periculo urgente, ob hoc se peti gnari; castoreum id vocant medici. Herodotus’s description of the Scythian regions of eastern Europe (IV.109) alludes to the medicinal utility of beaver genitalia; he says that the testicles of these animals are “useful for treating the diseases of the womb.” Illustrated bestiary manuscripts in the Middle Ages contained depictions of this strange self-mutilation legend. In Latin there are two words for beaver, castor and fiber; the Greek word for this animal was castor, and there is a Sanskrit word that is essentially the same, kasturi.
I do not know the origin of this particular myth; perhaps beavers did make some impulsive or panicked movements when pursued that might cause hunters in those days to conclude that the beaver was severing his valued organ. What we do know is that Aesop was attempting to use this example of animal “behavior” to make a moral point. He was trying to warn his readers that, if one had to choose between saving one’s life and saving one’s valuables, one should unhesitatingly choose to abandon material goods. Of course this is sound advice, and a point made by many writers both ancient and modern.
But Aesop’s point gets muddled in the telling. The fable is rather opaque, and one could easily propose alternative interpretations. I would even go so far as to say that Aesop missed a more important lesson: by this I mean that a man should never surrender or abandon what defines him, or what is most important to him. Aesop picked an exceedingly bad example when he chose the genitals of the beaver as something that could be approvingly abandoned to save its life. For what symbolizes the physical male of the species, what enables the male to pass on his genetic inheritance, more than its genitalia? Material goods are something very different; they can always be replaced, but the male organ cannot. We do not even need to use an example as extreme as the genitals. A man’s integrity and honor can be said to constitute his essence; all he really has in this world is his good name. And this should never be “bitten off” and surrendered to the enemy. For once this happens, he has nothing left. So I would propose that we turn Aesop’s fable on its head, and try to correct it: I say that a man should never surrender that which constitutes his essence.
We can illustrate this point better by considering an example from history. In the 1750s, the Marquis de Pombal rose to power in Portugal. He was a man of uncommon energy and resolution, and he had a modernization vision for the country that was single-minded and obsessive. The Jesuit order had long dominated education and politics in the country; Pombal saw them as a reactionary clique that was blocking much-needed reforms. He resolved to move against them at the earliest opportunity. The Portuguese king, Joseph I, was no match for him; in short order, Pombal enlisted the king in his plans, and used this royal approval to pursue his agenda.
An alleged assassination plot against Joseph was used as the pretext to launch a long-intended persecution of the Jesuits. A decree bearing the king’s signature was issued in September 1759 that confiscated all Jesuit property in the kingdom, and expelled every member of the order. It was a shocking and unprecedented move; the deportations were carried out immediately, with many old and infirm priests bundled off to Italy and Brazil. Other clerics and nobles were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges of conspiracy and treason, without any legal recourse or opportunity to appeal the verdicts against them.
But the tide would soon turn. Joseph died in 1777, and his successor, Maria I, was a pious and traditional sovereign. Under her the traditional religious orders recovered their influence; she wanted to prosecute Pombal, but was dissuaded from this upon discovery that the former king had endorsed all of his programs. On the day of Joseph’s burial, Maria ordered the release of eight hundred political prisoners. Most of these wretched men had been rotting in dungeons for twenty years or more; they were malnourished, clothed in rags, and could barely walk due to the tortures they had endured. Some were nearly blinded by daylight, as their eyes had become accustomed to years of operation in darkness. And here we arrive at the purpose of my relation of this incident. There were five men who refused to leave prison until they had been officially declared innocent of treason and conspiracy. Their names and their integrity were so important to them, that they were willing to continue their confinement until they had been vindicated.
To me this shows an incredible force of will, and an unshakeable integrity of character. Think of the resolution that this decision must have taken. Broken in body, they remained unbroken in soul. And this is the kind of ethic that, I think, we need to cultivate today. In the face of danger, in the face of injustice, these men refused to abandon what to them was most precious: their integrity and their good names. This is the point that Aesop should have made. No man needs the advice of a sage to remind him to give up his wallet to save his neck during a robbery. What he does need, however, is to hear that he should remain undaunted in the face of existential threats. Once a man voluntarily surrenders his ideals, his essence, his manhood, he is irretrievably lost. When Pombal’s political prisoners stepped out of confinement, it was a march of triumph; and they refused to move one muscle until the lies against them had been retracted.
That which is most important, that which is most vital—namely our integrity, our honor, and our good names—must never be bitten off and tossed before the aggressor, like these legendary beavers of old. Know, then, that that which is our essence must be gripped with the raw conviction of life itself, because it is the very essence of this life.
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