Every part of the universe is beautiful, just, and wise, but man; vile man is a solecism in nature; the only monster in the creation. Tempests and whirlwinds have their use; but vicious ungrateful man is a blot in the fair page of universal beauty. Why was I born of that detested species, whose vices are almost a reproach to the wisdom of the divine Creator!
Has thought changed much since Goldsmith penned this interesting tale?
Asem, An Eastern Tale
by Oliver Goldsmith 1728-1774
Where Tauris lifts its head above the storm, and presents nothing to the sight of the distant traveller but a prospect of nodding rocks, falling torrents, and all the variety of tremendous nature; on the bleak bosom of this frightful mountain, secluded from society, and detesting the ways of men, lived Asem, the man-hater.
Asem had spent his youth with men; had shared in their amusements; and had been taught to love his fellow-creatures with the most ardent affection; but from the tenderness of his disposition he exhausted all his fortune in relieving the wants of the distressed. The petitioner never sued in vain; the weary traveller never passed his door; he only desisted from doing good when he had no longer the power of relieving.
From a fortune thus spent in benevolence, he expected a grateful return from those he had formerly relieved; and made his application with confidence of redress: the ungrateful world soon grew weary of his importunity; for pity is but a short lived passion. He soon therefore began to view mankind in a very different light from that in which he had before beheld them: he perceived a thousand vices he had never before suspected to exist: wherever he turned, ingratitude, dissimulation, and treachery contributed to increase his detestation of them. Resolved therefore to continue no longer in a world which he hated, and which repaid his detestation with contempt, he retired to this region of sterility, in order to brood over his resentment in solitude, and converse with the only honest heart he knew; namely, with his own.
A cave was his only shelter from the inclemency of the weather; fruits gathered with difficulty from the mountain’s side his only food: and his drink was fetched with danger and toil from the headlong torrent. In this manner he lived, sequestered from society, passing the hours in meditation, and sometimes exulting that he was able to live independently of his fellow-creatures.
At the foot of the mountain an extensive lake displayed its glassy bosom; reflecting on its broad surface the impending horrors of the mountain. To this capacious mirror he would sometimes descend, and reclining on its steep banks, cast an eager look on the smooth expanse that lay before him. “How beautiful,” he often cried, “is nature! How lovely even in her wildest scenes! How finely contrasted is the level plain that lies beneath me, with yon awful pile that hides its tremendous head in clouds! But the beauty of these scenes is no way comparable with their utility; hence an hundred rivers are supplied, which distribute health and verdure to the various countries through which they flow.
Every part of the universe is beautiful, just, and wise, but man; vile man is a solecism in nature; the only monster in the creation. Tempests and whirlwinds have their use; but vicious ungrateful man is a blot in the fair page of universal beauty. Why was I born of that detested species, whose vices are almost a reproach to the wisdom of the divine Creator! Were men entirely free from vice, all would be uniformity, harmony, and order. A world of moral rectitude should be the result of a perfect moral agent. Why, why then, Alla! must I be thus confined in darkness, doubt, and despair?”
Just as he uttered the word despair, he was going to plunge into the lake beneath him, at once to satisfy his doubts, and put a period to his anxiety; when he perceived a most majestic being walking on the surface of the water, and approaching the bank on which he stood. So unexpected an object at once checked his purpose; he stopped, contemplated, and fancied he saw something awful and divine in his aspect.
“Son of Adam,” cried the genius, “stop thy rash purpose; the Father of the Faithful has seen thy justice, thy integrity, thy miseries, and hath sent me to afford and administer relief. Give me thine hand, and follow without trembling wherever I shall lead; in me behold the Genius of Conviction, kept by the Great Prophet, to turn from their errors those who go astray, not from curiosity, but a rectitude of intention. Follow me, and be wise.”
Asem immediately descended upon the lake, and his guide conducted him along the surface of the water; till, coming near the centre of the lake, they both began to sink; tbe waters closed over their heads; they descended several hundred fathoms, till Asem, just ready to give up his life as inevitably lost, found himself with his celestial guide in another world, at the bottom of the waters, where human foot had never trod before. His astonishment was beyond description, when he saw a sun like that he had left, a serene sky over his head, and blooming verdure under his feet.
“I plainly perceive your amazement,” said the genius; “but suspend it for a while. This world was formed by Alla, at the request, and under the inspection, of our great Prophet; who once entertained the same doubts which filled your mind when I found you, and from the consequence of which you were so lately rescued. The rational inhabitants of this world are formed agreeable to your own ideas; they are absolutely without vice. In other respects it resembles your earth, but differs from it in being wholly inhabited by men who never do wrong. If you find this world more agreeable than that you so lately left, you have free permission to spend the remainder of your days in it; but permit me for some time to attend you, that I may silence your doubts, and make you better acquainted with your company and your new habitation.”
“A world without vice! rational beings without immorality’.” cried Asem in a rapture: “I thank thee, O Alla, who hast at length heard my petitions: this, this indeed will produce happiness, ecstasy, and ease. O! for an immortality, to spend it among men who are incapable of ingratitude, injustice, fraud, violence, and a thousand other crimes, that render society miserable.”
“Cease thine acclamations,” replied the genius.”Look around thee; reflect on every object and action before us, and communicate to me the result of thine observations. Lead wherever you think proper, I shall be your attendant and instructor.” Asem and his companion travelled on in silence for some time, the former being entirely lost in astonishment; but at last recovering his former serenity, he could not help observing that the face of the country bore a near resemblance to that he had left, except that this subterranean world still seemed to retain its primeval wildness.
“Here,” cried Asem,” I perceive animals of prey, and others that seem only designed for their subsistence; it is the very same in the world over our heads. But had I been permitted to instruct our Prophet, I would have removed this defect, and formed no voracious or destructive animals, which only prey on the other parts of the creation.”
“Your tenderness for inferior animals is, I find, remarkable,” said the genius, smiling; “but with regard to meaner creatures, this world exactly resembles the other; and indeed for obvious reasons; for the earth can support a more considerable number of animals, by their thus becoming food for each other, than if they had lived entirely on her vegetable productions. So that animals of different natures, thus formed, instead of lessening their multitude, subsist in the greatest number possible. But let us hasten on to the inhabited country before us, and see what that offers for instruction.”
They soon gained the utmost verge of the forest, and entered the country inhabited by men without vice; and Asem anticipated in idea the rational delight he hoped to experience in such an innocent society. But they had scarcely left the confines of the wood, when they beheld one of the inhabitants flying with hasty steps, and terror in his countenance, from an army of squirrels that closely pursued him.
“Heavens!” cried Asem, “why does he fly? What can he fear from animals so contemptible?” He had scarcely spoken, when he perceived two dogs pursuing another of the human species, who, with equal tenor and haste, attempted to avoid them.
“This,” cried Asem to his guide, “is truly surprising; nor can I conceive the reason for so strange an action.”
“Every species of animals,” replied the genius, “has of late grown very powerful in this country; for the inhabitants at first thinking it unjust to use either fraud or force in destroying them, they have insensibly increased, and now frequently ravage their harmless frontiers.”
“But they should have been destroyed,” cried Asem; you see the consequence of such neglect.”
“Where is then that tenderness you so lately expressed for subordinate animals?” replied the genius, smiling; “you seem to have forgot that branch of justice.”
“I must acknowledge my mistake,” returned Asem; “I am now convinced that we must be guilty of tyranny and injustice to the brute creation, if we would enjoy the world ourselves. But let us no longer observe the duty of man to these irrational creatures, but survey their connexions with one another.”
As they walked further up the country, the more he was surprised to see no vestige of handsome houses, no cities, nor any mark of elegant design. His conductor perceiving his surprise, observed, that the inhabitants of this new world were perfectly content with their ancient simplicity; each had a house, which, though homely, was sufficient to lodge his little family; they were too good to build houses, which could only increase their own pride, and the envy of the spectator; what they built was for convenience, and not for show.
“At least, then,” said Asem, “they have neither architects, painters, nor statuaries, in their society; but these are idle arts, and may be spared. However, before I spend much more time, you should have my thanks for introducing me into the society of some of their wisest men: there is scarcely any pleasure to me equal to a refined conversation; there is nothing of which I am so much enamored as wisdom.”
“Wisdom!” replied his instructor, “how ridiculous! We have no wisdom here, for we have no occasion for it; true wisdom is only a knowledge of our own duty, and the duty of others to us; but of what use is such wisdom here? Each intuitively performs what is right in himself, and expects the same from others! If by wisdom you should mean vain curiosity, and empty speculation, as such pleasures have their origin in vanity, luxury, or avarice, we are too good to pursue them.”
“All this maybe right,” says Asem; “but methinks I observe a solitary disposition prevail among the people; each family keeps separately within their own precincts, without society, or without intercourse.”
“That indeed is true,” replied the other: “here is no established society; nor should there he any: all societies are made either through fear or friendship: the people we are among are too good to fear each other; and there are no motives to private friendship where all are equally meritorious.”
“Well, then,” said the skeptic, “as I am to spend my time here, if I am to have neither the polite arts, nor wisdom, nor friendship, in such a world, I should he glad at least of an easy companion, who may tell me his thoughts, and to whom I may communicate mine.”
“And to what purpose should either do this?” says the genius: “flattery or curiosity are vicious motives, and never allowed of here; and wisdom is out of the question.”
“Still, however,” said Asem, “the inhabitants must be happy; each is contented with his own possessions, nor avariciously endeavours to heap up more than is necessary for his own subsistence: each has therefore leisure for pitying those that stand in need of his compassion.” He had scarcely spoken, when his ears were assaulted with the lamentations of a wretch who sat by the way side, and in the most deplorable distress seemed gently to murmur at his own misery. Asem immediately ran to his relief, and found him in the last stage of a consumption.
“Strange,” cried the son of Adam, “that men who are free from vice should thus suffer so much misery without relief.”
“Be not surprised,” said the wretch who was dying; ” would it not be the utmost injustice for beings, who have only just sufficient to support themselves, and are content with a bare subsistence, to take it from their own mouths to put it into mine? They never are possessed of a single meal more than is necessary; and what is barely necessary cannot be dispensed with.”
“They should have been supplied with more than is necessary,” cried Asem; “and yet I contradict my own opinion but a moment before: all is doubt, perplexity, and confusion. Even the want of ingratitude is no virtue here, since they never received a favor. They have, however, another excellence yet behind; the love of their country is still I hope one of their darling virtues.”
“Peace, Asem,” replied the guardian, with a countenance not less severe than beautiful, “nor forfeit all thy pretensions to wisdom; the same selfish motives by which we prefer our own interest to that of others, induce us to regard our country preferably to that of another. Nothing less than universal benevolence is free from vice, and that you see is practiced here.”
“Strange!” cries the disappointed pilgrim, in an agony of distress; what sort of a world am I now introduced to? There is scarcely a single virtue, but that of temperance, which they practice; and in that they are no way superior to the very brute creation. There is scarcely an amusement which they enjoy; fortitude, liberality, friendship, wisdom, conversation, and love of country, all are virtues entirely unknown here: thus it seems, that to be unacquainted with vice is not to know virtue. Take me, O my genius, back to that very world which I have despised; a world which has Alla for its contriver is much more wisely formed than that which has been projected by Mahomet. Ingratitude, contempt, and hatred, I can now suffer, for perhaps I have deserved them. When I arraigned the wisdom of Providence, I only showed my own ignorance; henceforth let me keep from vice myself, and pity it in others.”
He had scarcely ended, when the genius, assuming an air of terrible complacency, called all his thunders around him, and vanished in a whirlwind; Asem, astonished at the terror of the scene, looked for his imaginary world; when, casting his eyes around, he perceived himself in the very situation, and in the very place, where he first began to repine and despair; his right foot had been just advanced to take the fatal plunge, nor had it been yet withdrawn; so instantly did Providence strike the series of truths just imprinted on his soul. He now departed from the water-side in tranquillity, and, leaving his horrid mansion, travelled to Segestan, his native city, where he diligently applied himself to commerce, and put in practice that wisdom he had learned in solitude. The frugality of a few years soon produced opulence; the number of his domestics increased; his friends came to him from every part of the city; nor did he receive them with disdain: and a youth of misery was concluded with an old age of elegance, affluence, and ease.