The ancient Persians held ingratitude to be a very serious offense: for them it was a gateway, in fact, to all kinds of vices. Xenophon, in his Cyropaedia, describes the prevailing attitude in Persian society in this regard:
And there is one charge the judges do not hesitate to deal with, a charge which is the source of much hatred among grown men, but which they seldom press in the courts, the charge of ingratitude. The culprit convicted of refusing to repay a debt of kindness when it was fully in his power meets with severe chastisement. They reason that the ungrateful man is the most likely to forget his duty to the gods, to his parents, to his fatherland, and his friends. Shamelessness, they hold, treads close on the heels of ingratitude, and thus ingratitude is the ringleader and chief instigator to every kind of baseness. [I.2.7; trans. by H.G. Dakyns]
The Persians made an important insight when they identified ingratitude as a contributor to social decay. It leads to shamelessness, as Xenophon says; it gives the ingrate license to pursue only his own interests at the expense of his obligations to his community and nation. It stokes the fires of jealousy, envy, and resentment; for no man is more vindictive towards a benefactor than the man who knows an unpaid debt hangs over his head. The malice springs from the ingrate’s bond of obligation, which rubs uncomfortably on his conscience.
There is a scene in the 1997 film The Spanish Prisoner, in which one character (played by Steve Martin) is talking to an inventor who works at a large corporation. Martin is encouraging his friend to seek legal advice to find out what proprietary interest he may have in his invention. The inventor has just created something extremely valuable for his employer, but is beginning to suspect that his services will go unrewarded. The Steve Martin character says to his friend, “If they [the employer] are indebted to you morally but not legally, my experience is that you will get nothing. What is worse is that they will begin to act cruelly towards you.” When the friend asks why the employer would do that, Martin’s answer is, “To suppress their guilt.”
It may be that gratitude is a fundamental impulse among all living things, extending beyond the world of man. Perhaps this is why the Persians were so offended by the behavior of the ingrate: because such conduct is an offense against nature. It is a contemptible and unnatural form of disrespect, one that springs from egotism and covetousness. Most of us have observed examples of gratitude displayed by our brethren in the animal kingdom. The Roman writer Aelian records several interesting examples of this, which we may reflect on. Aelian says (On Animals VIII.3) that there was once a native of Paros, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, who saw some dolphins being captured in the nets of fishermen. This man, whose name was Coeranus, paid the fishermen a “ransom” to release the animals; the dolphins then frolicked in the waves with what appeared to be joy.
At some later date, Coeranus was sailing in a fifty-oar ship with a crew of Milesians; the ship capsized between the islands of Naxos and Paros. All aboard were drowned except Coeranus, who was “recognized” by the same dolphins he had saved. They allowed him to climb on their backs, and then carried him to safety to a place by the shoreline that was later called Coeraneus. It is said that when Coeranus died some years later, his body was cremated at Coeraneus; and the same dolphins, witnessing this funeral offshore, congregated before the pyre as if paying their last respects to their departed friend. “All the while that the pyre was ablaze, they remained at hand, as one trusty friend might remain by another,” says Aelian. He contrasts this noble behavior of the dolphins with the shabby ingratitude displayed by many humans:
Men, however, are subservient to the wealthy and the seemingly prosperous while they are alive, but when dead on in misfortune, they turn their backs upon them so as to avoid repaying them for past favors. [VIII.3]
But perhaps the most famous tale of gratitude among animals is the story of Androcles and the lion. The tale is told by the ancient writers with such wonderment and emotional intensity that one can hardly doubt its solid basis in truth. It is found in Aelian (VII.48), and I will relate it here. Androcles was the household slave of a Roman senator. After enduring some abuses, he fled and made his way to Libya; avoiding towns and cities for fear of being captured, he pitched his tent in deserts far from settled places. One day, seeking refuge from the sun, he sought shelter in a cave which happened to be the abode of a large and fierce lion.
The lion returned from a day of hunting with a large splinter, or thorn, embedded deep in its paw. When he saw Androcles there, he approached him in a gentle manner, extending his paw and “asking” him to remove it. Androcles was at first terrified, but when the saw the lion’s disposition and attitude, his fear receded; he approached the beast and extracted the splinter. In gratitude—we are told—the lion then allowed Androcles to say with him for some time, even going so far as to share his kills with him. “And they enjoyed a common table,” says Aelian, “each as was his nature.” After three years of living this way, Androcles began to desire to return home. He allowed himself to be captured in Libya, was shipped home in chains, and eventually returned to his master.
The master, however, was not inclined to forgive Androcles for running away. In fact, the senator had him condemned to fight wild animals in an arena for public entertainment. By a great stroke of fortune, the lion Androcles was thrown in with was the very same lion he had befriended in Libya. The lion immediately recognized Androcles when he saw him; he ran to the shocked slave, leaping into his arms, licking him, and smothering him with affection. Androcles eventually recognized his old friend, and embraced him warmly. The spectators, having no idea what was happening, were utterly in shock; the stupefied foreman in charge of the games approached Androcles and asked him what was happening. Upon hearing the whole story, the foreman related the facts to the crowd. So moved was the assembled multitude by this example of gratitude of friendship, that they demanded both Androcles and his animal companion to be immediately released. So it was done.
Such events may indeed have happened, or at least events substantially similar. We find an anecdote in Pliny (Hist. Nat. VIII.22.57) that resembles the tale of Androcles. Pliny says that there was once a native of Samos named Elpis who, after landing on the coast of Africa, encountered a huge lion. Elpis ran up a tree in terror, but the lion posted himself at the foot of the tree, and opened his mouth. Wedged between his teeth was a sharp bone that prevented him from chewing or swallowing. The poor beast implored Elpis for help, and eventually the terrified Greek climbed down and removed the bone. In gratitude, the animal shared his kills with Elpis for as long as he stayed in Africa; and when he returned to Samos, he consecrated a temple to Father Liber. The Greeks eventually called the structure “The Temple of Dionysus with His Mouth Open,” in commemoration of Elpis’s adventure with the lion.
One final tale of animal gratitude we will relate, which is found in the same chapter of Pliny cited above. There was once a man named Philinus who was walking down an empty road. He saw a large female panther stretched across the middle of the road; as he approached, the animal rolled on its back in an agitated matter. Philinus could see from its behavior that it was greatly troubled by something. The panther, using gestures with its paws and head, led him to a pit near the side of the road; when Philinus peered in, he could see that a littler of panther cubs had fallen into the pit. Clearly, the mother wanted the man’s help in saving them. Philinus pulled the cubs out of the pit; and the overjoyed mother rewarded him by acting as his guide to the next place of human habitation.
I will let the reader decide for himself regarding the veracity of these tales. For my part I believe that most of them have a basis in truth, even if the details have been embellished for dramatic effect. In ancient times, human contact with the animal world was perhaps more frequent than now, and it is not difficult to imagine the likelihood of amazing interactions happening. What is important for us is the awareness that gratitude, or something like gratitude, is a sentiment common to both man and beast. And it is no doubt true, as Xenophon says, that “the ungrateful man is most likely to forget his duty to the gods, to his parents, to his fatherland, and his friends.”
Read more essays on related subjects in the collection Digest: