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Fifty Famous People by  James Baldwin


 

 

THE GOLDEN TRIPOD

I

ONE morning, long ago, a merchant of Miletus was walking along the seashore. Some fishermen were pulling in a large net, and he stopped to watch them.

"My good men," he said, "how many fish do you expect to draw in this time?"

"We cannot tell," they answered. "We never count our fish before they are caught."

The net seemed heavy. There was certainly something in it. The merchant felt sure that the fishermen were having a good haul.

"How much will you take for the fish that you are drawing in?" he asked.

"How much will you give?" said the fishermen.

"Well, I will give three pieces of silver for all that are in the net," answered the merchant.

[178] The fishermen talked in low tones with one another for a little while, and then one said, "It's a bargain. Be they many or few, you may have all for three pieces of silver."


[Illustration]

In a few minutes the big net was pulled up out of the water. There was not a fish in it. But it held a beau- [179] tiful golden tripod that was worth more than a thousand fishes.

The merchant was delighted. "Here is your money," he said. "Give me the tripod."

"No, indeed," said the fishermen. "You were to have all the fish that happened to be in the net and nothing else. We didn't sell you the tripod."

They began to quarrel. They talked and wrangled a long time and could not agree. Then one of the fishermen said, "Let us ask the governor about it and do as he shall bid us."

"Yes, let us ask the governor," said the merchant. "Let him decide the matter for us."

So they carried the tripod to the governor, and each told his story.

The governor listened, but could not make up his mind as to who was right.

"This is a very important question," he said. "We must send to Delphi and ask the oracle whether the tripod shall be given to the fishermen or to the merchant. Leave the tripod in my care until we get an answer."

Now the oracle at Delphi was supposed to be very [180] wise. People from all parts of the world sent to it, to tell it their troubles and get its advice.

So the governor sent a messenger to Delphi to ask the oracle what should be done with the tripod. The merchant and the fishermen waited impatiently till the answer came. And this is what the oracle said:—

"Give not the merchant nor the fishermen the prize;

But give it to that one who is wisest of the wise."

The governor was much pleased with this answer.

"The prize shall go to the man who deserves it most," he said. "There is our neighbor, Thales, whom everybody knows and loves. He is famous all over the world. Men come from every country to see him and learn from him. We will give the prize to him."

So, with his own hands he carried the golden tripod to the little house where Thales lived. He knocked at the door and the wise man himself opened it.

Then the governor told him how the tripod had been found, and how the oracle had said that it must be given to the wisest of the wise.

"And so I have brought the prize to you, friend Thales."

"To me!" said the astonished Thales. "Why, there [181] are many men who are wiser than I. There is my friend Bias of Priene. He excels all other men. Send the beautiful gift to him."

So the governor called two of his trusted officers and told them to carry the tripod to Priene and offer it to Bias.

"Tell the wise man why you bring it, and repeat to him the words of the oracle."

II

Now all the world had heard of the wisdom of Bias. He taught that men ought to be kind even to their enemies. He taught, also, that a friend is the greatest blessing that any one can have.

He was a poor man and had no wish to be rich. "It is better to be wise than wealthy," he said.

When the governor's messengers came to Priene with the tripod, they found Bias at work in his garden. They told him their errand and showed him the beautiful prize.

He would not take it.

"The oracle did not intend that I should have it," he said. "I am not the wisest of the wise."

[182] "But what shall we do with it?" said the messengers. "Where shall we find the wisest man?"

"In Mitylene," answered Bias, "there is a very great man named Pittacus. He might now be the king of his country, but he prefers to give all of his time to the study of wisdom. He is the man whom the oracle meant."

III

The name of Pittacus was known all over the world. He was a brave soldier and a wise teacher. The people of his country had made him their king; but as soon as he had made good laws for them he gave up his crown.

One of his mottoes was this: "Whatever you do, do it well."

The messengers found him in his house talking to his friends and teaching them wisdom.

He looked at the tripod. "How beautiful it is!" he said.

Then the messengers told him how it had been taken from the sea, and they repeated the words of the oracle:—

"Give not the merchant nor the fishermen the prize;

But give it to that one who is wisest of the wise."

[183] "It is well," said he, "that neither a merchant nor a fisherman shall have it; for such men think only of their business and care really nothing for beauty."

"We agree with you," said the messengers; "and we present the prize to you because you are the wisest of the wise."

"You are mistaken," answered Pittacus. "I should be delighted to own so beautiful a piece of workmanship, but I know I am not worthy."

"Then to whom shall we take it?" asked the messengers.

"Take it to Cleobulus, King of Rhodes," answered the wise man. "He is the handsomest and strongest of men, and I believe he is the wisest also."

IV

The messengers went on until they came at last to the island of Rhodes. There everybody was talking about King Cleobulus and his wonderful wisdom. He had studied in all the great schools of the world, and there was nothing that he did not know.

"Educate the children," he said; and for that reason his name is remembered to this day.

When the messengers showed him the tripod, he said, [184] "That is indeed a beautiful piece of work. Will you sell it? What is the price?"

They told him that it was not for sale, but that it was to be given to the wisest of the wise.

"Well, you will not find that man in Rhodes," said he. "He lives in Corinth, and his name is Periander. Carry the precious gift to him."

V

Everybody had heard of Periander, king of Corinth. Some had heard of his great learning, and others had heard of his selfishness and cruelty.

Strangers admired him for his wisdom. His own people despised him for his wickedness.

When he heard that some men had come to Corinth with a very costly golden tripod, he had them brought before him.

"I have heard all about that tripod," he said, "and I know why you are carrying it from one place to another. Do you expect to find any man in Corinth who deserves so rich a gift?"

"We hope that you are the man," said the messengers.

[185] "Ha! ha!" laughed Periander. "Do I look like the wisest of the wise? No, indeed. But in Lacedæmon there is a good and noble man named Chilon. He loves his country, he loves his fellow men, he loves learning. To my mind he deserves the golden prize. I bid you carry it to him."

VI

The messengers were surprised. They had never heard of Chilon, for his name was hardly known outside of his own country. But when they came into Lacedæmon, they heard his praises on every side.

They learned that Chilon was a very quiet man, that he never spoke about himself, and that he spent all his time in trying to make his country great and strong and happy.

Chilon was so busy that the messengers had to wait several days before they could see him. At last they were allowed to go before him and state their business.

"We have here a very beautiful tripod," they said. "The oracle at Delphi has ordered that it shall be given to the wisest of wise men, and for that reason we have brought it to you."

"You have made a mistake," said Chilon. "Over [186] in Athens there is a very wise man whose name is Solon. He is a poet, a soldier, and a lawmaker. He is my worst enemy, and yet I admire him as the wisest man in the world. It is to him that you should have taken the tripod."

VII

The messengers made due haste to carry the golden prize to Athens. They had no trouble in finding Solon. He was the chief ruler of that great city.

All the people whom they saw spoke in praise of his wisdom.

When they told him their errand he was silent for a little while; then he said:—

"I have never thought of myself as a wise man, and therefore the prize is not for me. But I know of at least six men who are famous for their wisdom, and one of them must be the wisest of the wise."

"Who are they?" asked the messengers.

"Their names are Thales, Bias, Pittacus, Cleobulus, Periander, and Chilon," answered Solon.

"We have offered the prize to each one of them," said the messengers, "and each one has refused it."

"Then there is only one other thing to be done," [187] said Solon. "Carry it to Delphi and leave it there in the Temple of Apollo; for Apollo is the fountain of wisdom, the wisest of the wise."

And this the messengers did.


The famous men of whom I have told you in this story are commonly called the Seven Wise Men of Greece. They lived more than two thousand years ago, and each one helped to make his country famous.


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