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Author: Jean de La Fontaine - 1668

Translated into English
  by Frederick Colin Tilney - 1913

Original title (French):
Démocrite et les Abdéritains

Country of origin: France

Translations

English - aligned


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Democritus and the People of Abdera

Jean de La Fontaine / Frederick Colin Tilney

How I have always hated the opinions of the mob! To me, a mob
seems profane, unjust, and rash, putting false construction on all
things, and judging every matter by a mob-made standard.

Democritus had experience of this. His countrymen thought him mad.
Little minds! But then, no one is a prophet in his own country! The
people themselves were mad, of course, and Democritus was the wise man.
Nevertheless the error went so far that the city of Abdera[6] sent a
messenger to the great physician Hippocrates, requesting him both by
letter and by spoken word to come and restore the sage's reason.

"Our citizen," said the spokesman with tears in his eyes, "has lost his
wits, alas! Study has corrupted Democritus. If he were less wise we
should esteem him much more. He will have it that there is no limit to
the number of worlds like ours and that possibly they are inhabited with
numberless Democrituses. Not satisfied with these wild dreams, he talks
also of atoms—phantoms born only in his own empty brain. Then,
measuring the very heavens, though he remains here below to do it, he
claims to know the universe; yet admits that he does not know himself.
Time was when he could control debates, now he mutters only to himself.
So come, thou divine mortal, for the patient's case is a bad one."

Hippocrates, though he had little faith in these people, went
nevertheless. Now mark, I beg of you, what strange meetings fate may
bring about in this life! Hippocrates arrived just at the time when this
man, who was supposed to have neither sense nor reason, happened to be
searching into a question as to whether this very reason was seated in
the heart or in the head of men and beasts.

Sitting in leafy shade, beside a brook, and with many a volume at his
feet, he was occupied wholly with a study of the convolutions of the
brain; and thus absorbed, as his manner was, he scarcely noticed the
advance of his friend the learned physician. Their greeting was soon
over as you may imagine, for the sage is at all times chary of time and
speech. So having put aside mere trifles of conversation, they reasoned
upon man and his mind, and next fell to talking upon ethics.

It is not necessary that I should here enlarge upon what each had to say
to the other on these matters.

The little tale suffices to show that we may rightly take exception to
the judgments of the mob. That being so, in what sense is it true, as I
have read in a certain passage, that the voice of the people is the
voice of God?

[6] A city on the shores of Thracia.