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166 166 A Parable: The Human Condition, or The Man in the Pit431 The Persian convert ʿAbd Allāh Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, one of the pioneers of Arabic literary prose, translated Kalīlah wa-Dimnah (a collection of animal fables enframed in a story about two jackals called Kalīlah and Dimnah) from Pahlavi into Arabic. The story is also found in the Mahābhārata, bk. 11, ch. 5–6, but not in the Pañcatantra, the Sanskrit original of Kalīlah wa-Dimnah . When I432 thought about the world and its affairs and considered that a human being is the noblest and most excellent part of creation, but only led from one evil and worry to the next, I was amazed. I realized that there could be no human being with understanding who, knowing this, would not seek to save himself and find an escape. Anyone falling short in this respect is, in my opinion, weak and lacking in insight and ambition regarding his situation. Then I looked about and saw that all people fall short and are oblivious of their situation. I was amazed at this and tried to excuse them. I looked and saw that the only thing that kept people from trying to save themselves was the small and paltry pleasure derived from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching: a pleasure of which they may perhaps gain a little and obtain a trifle. It was this that preoccupied them and prevented them from caring for themselves and from seeking an escape. The parable of the man who has fled from an elephant Then I sought a parable for Man. And see, his parable is that of a man who, in fear of an enraged elephant,433 has escaped434 into a pit, into which he has let himself down, hanging down and holding on to two branches at its edge.435 His feet have landed on something hidden in the pit: four snakes, their heads sticking out from their holes. He looks down and there is a dragon,436 its mouth open, waiting for him to fall so that it can devour him. Then he raises his eyes to the two branches and sees two rats at their root, a black one and a white one, that are gnawing at the two branches untiringly and without flagging. 167 167 167 167 ʿAbd Allāh Ibn al-Muqaffa While considering his situation and worrying about his fate, he notices near him a beehive containing honey. He tastes the honey, and its sweetness preoccupies him and the delight of it distracts him from thinking about his plight, or from seeking a means to escape. He no longer remembers that his feet are resting on four snakes and is no longer aware that he has landed on them. He does not remember that the two rats are steadily cutting through the two branches, so that when they are cut through he will fall on the dragon. Thus he remains diverted, unaware, preoccupied with that sweetness, until he falls into the mouth of the dragon and perishes. * With the pit I gave a likeness of the world, which is filled with plagues, evils, fears, and maladies. With the four snakes I gave a likeness of the four humors437 found in the body: whenever they or any one of them are stirred it is like the fang of vipers and lethal poison. With the two branches I gave a likeness of the span of life that will last until a certain moment, after which it must perish and be cut off. With the two rats, the black one and the white one, I gave a likeness of night and day, which are steadily annihilating the lifespan. With the dragon I gave a likeness of the destiny from which one cannot escape. With the honey I gave a likeness of the scant sweetness that Man obtains, by seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and touching, by which he is preoccupied and diverted from thinking about himself, so that he forgets to consider the hereafter and is turned away from the path he intended to take.438 ...


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