Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.
Professor Howard Bashford was beside himself with excitement when he called me with the news of what he called “the literary discovery of the century – so far.”
Bashford, who holds the prestigious Gustav Stickley Chair in the Classics at the University of California at Olema, asked me to visit him at his office.
“It’s too sensitive to take off campus,” he said.
So I journeyed to the coastal community and made my way to the professor’s chambers, where the distinguished pedagogue beckoned me to his side at his massive and ornately carved mahogany desk.
Taking a key from his waistcoat pocket, Bashford unlocked the center drawer, pulled it out and extracted a packet – about quarto in size – wrapped in faded linen and tied with yellowed string.
He unbound the packet and folded back the linen, revealing a thin sheaf of parchment that bore a text in ancient Greek.
Hands fluttering, Bashford whispered, “It’s Aesop! It’s a lost fable, originally transcribed by the poet Babrius, probably around A.D. 50 and later copied on this parchment by an Irish monk. Just look at the illumination!”
I donned a pair of soft, white-cotton gloves and looked through the pages. Indeed, the initial letters on each page were oversized, brightly colored and interwoven with Celtic scroll-work.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
“And timely!” added Bashford. “I think it applies to current events, like so many of Aesop’s fables. Let me read it to you. As you listen, try to think of the partisan debate about spending, debt and – especially – compromise.”
The professor seated himself at the desk, settled his spectacles on his nose and read, facilely translating from the Greek:
The Fable of the Two Farmers
There were two farmers in Thrace who raised cattle for market, and on a parcel they shared in common they agreed to deposit the bovine dejecta that accumulated on their properties.
As the years went by and their farms prospered, the manure piled higher and higher. Finally, one of the farmers said to the other, “This cannot continue. We must determine to reduce this volume, for it is overwhelming us.”
“Nonsense,” said the other farmer. “The land can accept more.”
But his neighbor argued, “It may poison the stream that serves our town, forcing it to buy water from another city. That would mean losing control of our own destiny.”
The other farmer answered, “We have but few years of life remaining, so it need not be our concern.”
Quoth his neighbor, “Die we may, but do we not live on through our children, and will they not be forced to carry away this mountain of dung?”
“There is some truth in that,” said the other. “Therefore, let us compromise, and add to the pile only the product of the bulls of our flocks.”
And so it was agreed. The farmers added to the mountain only the manure produced by their male cattle. But it grew so high that as they added to it one day, it collapsed and buried both of them.
The moral: Compromise you may, but eventually you can accept only so much bull …
“The last page apparently suffered some water damage,” said Bashford. “I haven’t been able to make out that last word.”
“Never mind,” I said. “I see how it applies today.”
Debate note: Vice President Joe Biden’s bizarre behavior during last week’s debate with Paul Ryan seemed somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place it until Friday morning. Think of the early “Saturday Night Live,” with Chevy Chase mugging as Jane Curtin read the news. All that was needed to make the parallel complete would have been Biden sticking out his tongue as Ryan spoke.