Friday Fable: La Fontaine’s “THE BOY AND THE SCHOOLMASTER”*

Posted by jlubans on April 12, 2013

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Caption: A teachable moment? The lesson’s learned, forget the sermon.

“Wise counsel is not always wise,
As this my tale exemplifies.
A boy, that frolick'd on the banks of Seine,
Fell in, and would have found a watery grave,
Had not that hand that planteth ne'er in vain
A willow planted there, his life to save.
While hanging by its branches as he might,
A certain sage preceptor came in sight;
To whom the urchin cried, 'Save, or I'm drown'd!'
The master, turning gravely at the sound,
Thought proper for a while to stand aloof,
And give the boy some seasonable reproof.
'You little wretch! this comes of foolish playing,
Commands and precepts disobeying.
A naughty rogue, no doubt, you are,
Who thus requite your parents' care.
Alas! their lot I pity much,
Whom fate condemns to watch o'er such.'
This having coolly said, and more,
He pull'd the drowning lad ashore.

This story hits more marks than you suppose.
All critics, pedants, men of endless prose,--
Three sorts, so richly bless'd with progeny,
The house is bless'd that doth not lodge any,--
May in it see themselves from head to toes.
No matter what the task,
Their precious tongues must teach;
Their help in need you ask,
You first must hear them preach.”

See my earlier blog on this fable: Aesop’s “THE DROWNING BOY”.
That "critics', pedants', & men of endless prose'" need to hammer the obvious and lord it over the unfortunate reminds me of performance appraisal’s all too common fundamental attribution error. The FAE is our human tendency to attribute favorable outcomes for ourselves as caused by our internal goodness while seeing our failures as caused by external forces beyond our control. However when we view the outcomes of other people we take the opposite view – we tend to see others’ success as a product of luck and their failure as a reflection of their incompetence, laziness or something else within their control, like La Fontaine’s schoolmaster’s belaboring the drowning boy, “A naughty rogue, no doubt, you are!” However true, help first, and, if you must, gab last.
Rabelais also has a version of this fable, vide Gargantua, Book I. ch. xlii. “Help me, said the monk, (hanging helplessly from a tree branch) the devil's name; is this a time for you to prate? You seem to me to be like the decretalist preachers, who say that whosoever shall see his neighbour in the danger of death, ought, upon pain of trisulk excommunication, rather choose to admonish him to make his confession to a priest, and put his conscience in the state of peace, than otherwise to help and relieve him.
And therefore when I shall see them fallen into a river, and ready to be drowned, I shall make them a fair long sermon de contemptu mundi, et fuga seculi; and when they are stark dead, shall then go to their aid and succour in fishing after them.”

* Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882.

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