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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

Memnon, or Human Wisdom

MEMNON one day conceived the irrational design of being perfectly wise and prudent. There are very few persons who have not at some time or other had foolish thoughts of this kind pass through their heads. Memnon said to himself, “In order to be very wise, and consequently very happy, one has only to be without passions; and nothing is easier than that, as everybody knows. In the first place, I will never fall in love with a woman, for I will say to myself, whenever I see a sample of perfect beauty, ‘Those cheeks will one day be wrinkled, those fine eyes will be rimmed with red, that swelling bosom will be flat and flabby, that lovely head will become bald.’ I have only to see her now with the same eyes as those with which I shall see her then, and assuredly my head will not be turned by the sight of hers.

“In the second place, I will be always sober and temperate; good cheer, delicious wines, and the seductive charms of social intercourse will tempt me in vain. I shall have nothing to do but to bring before my mind the results of excess in a heavy head, a disordered stomach, the loss of reason, of health, and of time; and then I shall eat only for necessity, my health will be always well balanced, my thoughts always bright and clear. All this is so easy that there is no merit in such attainments.

“In the next place,” said Memnon, “I must give a little consideration to my property; my desires are moderate, my wealth is well bestowed with the receiver-general of the revenues of Nineveh, I have enough to support myself in independence, and that is the greatest of blessings. I shall never be under the cruel necessity of cringing and flattering; I shall envy nobody, and nobody will envy me. All that is still very easy. I have friends,” continued he, “and I shall keep them, for they will have nothing to quarrel about with me. I will never be out of temper with them, nor they with me; that is a matter that presents no difficulty.”

Having thus laid down his little scheme of wisdom and prudence in his room, Memnon put his head out of the window, and saw two women walking up and down under some plane-trees near his house. One of them was old, and appeared to have nothing on her mind; the other was young and pretty, and seemed to be lost in thought. She sighed, she wept, and her sighs and tears only added to her charms. Our sage was touched, not, of course, by the lady’s beauty (he was quite confident of being above such weakness as that), but by the distress in which he saw her. He went down and accosted the fair Ninevite, with the intention of ministering wise consolation. That charming young person related to him, with the most simple and affecting air, all the injury done her by an uncle, who did not exist; she told him by what tricks he had deprived her of a fortune, which she had never possessed, and all that she had to fear from his violence.

“You seem to me,” said she, “a man of such excellent judgment and good sense, that if you would only condescend to come to my house and inquire into my affairs, I feel sure that you could extricate me from the cruel embarrassment in which I find myself.”

Memnon had no hesitation in following her, in order to make a judicious examination of her affairs, and to give her good advice.

The afflicted lady led him into a sweetly scented chamber, and politely made him sit down with her on a large ottoman. When the lady spoke she lowered her eyes, from which tears sometimes escaped, and, when she raised them, they always met the gaze of the sage Memnon. Her language was full of a tenderness which grew more tender each time that they exchanged glances. Memnon took her affairs zealously to heart, and every moment felt an increasing desire to oblige a maiden so modest and so unfortunate. By imperceptible degrees their conversation grew warmer. Memnon pressed her so closely with good advice, and bestowed such tender admonitions, that neither of them could any longer talk about business, and scarcely knew what they were doing.

Then the uncle, as might have been expected, arrived upon the scene. He was armed from head to foot; and the first thing he said was that he was going to kill, as was only just and proper, both his niece and the sage Memnon; the last remark that escaped him was that he might possibly pardon them for a large sum of money. Memnon was obliged to give him all that he had about him. In those times, fortunately, it was possible to get off as cheaply as that. America had not yet been discovered, and distressed damsels were not nearly so dangerous as they are nowadays.

Memnon returned home disconsolate and ashamed, and found a note there inviting him to dine with some of his most intimate friends.

“If I stay at home alone,” said he, “I shall have my thoughts taken up with my unfortunate adventure; I shall be unable to eat anything, and shall certainly fall ill; it will be much better to take a frugal meal with my intimate friends. In the pleasure of their company I shall forget the piece of folly that I have committed this morning.”

He goes to meet his friends, who find him a little out of spirits, and persuade him to drink away his melancholy. A little wine taken in moderation is a medicine for mind and body. So thinks the sage Memnon, and proceeds to get tipsy. Play is proposed after dinner. A modest game with one’s friends is a blameless pastime. He plays, loses all that he has in his purse, and four times as much on his promise to pay. A dispute arises over the game, and the quarrel grows hot; one of his intimate friends throws a dice-box at his head, and puts out an eye. The sage Memnon is carried home drunk, without any money, and with one eye less than when he went.

After he had slept himself sober, and his brain was grown a little clearer, he sent his servant for some of the money which he had lodged with the receiver-general of the revenues of Nineveh, in order to pay what he owed to his intimate friends. He was told that his debtor had that very morning been declared a fraudulent bankrupt, an announcement which had thrown a hundred families into ruin. Memnon, in a state bordering on distraction, went to court with a plaster over his eye and a petition in his hand to solicit justice of the king against the bankrupt. In an ante-chamber he met a number of ladies, all wearing with apparent ease hoops twenty-four feet in circumference. One of these ladies, who knew him slightly, exclaimed with a sidelong glance, “Oh, what a horror!” Another, who was on more familiar terms with him, addressed him thus:

“Good evening, Mr. Memnon. It is indeed a pleasure to see you, Mr. Memnon. By the way, Mr. Memnon, how is it you have lost an eye?” And she passed on without pausing for an answer. Memnon hid himself in a corner, and awaited the moment when he might cast himself at the monarch’s feet. That moment came; he kissed the ground thrice, and presented his petition. His gracious Majesty received him very favorably, and gave the document to one of his satraps to report upon it. The satrap drew Memnon aside, and said:

“What a comical kind of one-eyed fool you are, to address yourself to the king rather than to me! And still more ridiculous to dare to demand justice against a respectable bankrupt, whom I honor with my protection, and who is the nephew of my mistress’s waiting-maid. Let this matter drop, my friend, if you wish to keep the eye you still have left.”

Thus Memnon, after having in the morning renounced the blandishments of women, intemperance at table, gambling, and quarreling, and besides all else the court, had ere nightfall been cajoled and robbed by a fair deceiver, had drunk to excess, played high, been concerned in a quarrel, had an eye put out, and been to court, where he had been treated with contempt and derision.

Petrified with astonishment, and crushed with vexation, he turned his steps homeward, sick at heart. Intending to enter his house, he found bailiffs in possession removing the furniture on behalf of his creditors. Almost fainting, he seated himself under a plane-tree, and there encountered the fair lady who had victimized him in the morning; she was walking with her dear uncle, and burst out laughing when she saw Memnon with the patch over his eye. Night came on, and he laid himself down on some straw beside the walls of his house. There he was seized with ague, and in one of the fits he fell asleep, when a celestial spirit appeared to him in a dream.

He was all glittering with light. He had six beautiful wings, but no feet, nor head, nor tail, and was like nothing he had ever seen before.

“Who art thou?” said Memnon.

“Thy good genius,” answered the other.

“Give me back my eye then, my health, my house, my property, and my prudence,” said Memnon. Thereupon he told him how he had lost them all in one day.

“Such adventures as those never befall us in the world which we inhabit,” said the spirit.

“And what world do you inhabit?” asked the afflicted mortal.

“My home,” replied he, “is at a distance of five hundred millions of leagues from the sun, in a little star near Sirius, which thou seest from hence.”

“Charming country!” exclaimed Memnon. “What! have you no sly hussies among you who impose upon a poor fellow, no intimate friends who win his money and knock out one of his eyes, no bankrupts, no satraps who mock you while they deny you justice?”

“No,” said the inhabitant of the star, “nothing of the kind. We are never deceived by women, because we have none; we are never guilty of excesses at table, since we neither eat nor drink; we have no bankrupts, for gold and silver are unknown among us; we cannot have our eyes put out, because we do not possess bodies such as yours; and satraps never treat us with injustice, since all are equal in our little star.”

Then said Memnon, “My Lord, without the fair sex and without any dinner, how do you manage to pass the time?”

“In watching over the other worlds which are entrusted to our care,” said the genius; “and I am come now to minister consolation to thee.”

“Alas!” replied Memnon, “why didst thou not come last night to prevent me committing such follies?”

“I was with Hassan, your elder brother,” said the celestial being. “He is more to be pitied than thou art. His gracious Majesty, the King of India, to whose court he has the honor to be attached, has caused both his eyes to be put out for a slight act of indiscretion, and he is confined at the present moment in a dungeon, with chains upon his hands and feet.”

“It is indeed well worth while to have a good genius in a family!” said Memnon. “Of two brothers one has an eye knocked out, and the other loses both; one lies on straw, the other in prison.”

“Thy lot will change,” answered the inhabitant of the star. “It is true that thou wilt never recover thine eye, but, for all that, thou wilt be tolerably happy, provided that thou dost never entertain the foolish idea of being perfectly wise and prudent.”