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THE VOYAGE OF THE PHILOSOPHERS.
AN EASTERN ALLEGORY. The celebrated Hiram, king of Tyre, was not only a patron of the arts, but a promoter of learning also. — He founded seminaries, encouraged talent, and favored men of letters.
In a simple state of society, the disputes of men arise out of questions of conduct; but, as they grow more learned and refined, they quarrel about matters of speculation. After the rights of property and the rules of duty are well ascertained, there is little opportunity for the exhibition of superior sagacity, except in the discussion of misty points of doctrine. Those, therefore, who are ambitious of display, leaving vulgar questions of right and wrong in action, to less ambitious minds, soar aloft into the diviner regions of doubt and abstraction.
Thus it happened in Phænicia. The principles of morality, embracing the social and religious duties, having been settled so that “the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein,” the philosophers began to wrangle about subtle points of belief. — Sundry questions were started relating to the destiny of the soul after death. The general notion of the future happiness of the virtuous and the misery of the wicked, was too easily comprehended, and too gen
erally admitted, to satisfy these acute metaphysicians. They must needs penetrate the curtain that is dropped between the mortal and immortal state, and gain as exact a knowledge of things unseen, as of things seen.
We cannot undertake to detail the various theories which were now started by the philosophers, or attempt to give an account of the numerous sects into which they divided the inhabitants of Phænicia. One of the leading questions, however, which seemed to separate the people into two great divisions, was this: what is the shape of the vast island which forms the paradise of the blessed? It was generally agreed, that this island lay far away in the ocean ; that it was the abode of perpetual spring, and the seat of universal and unbounded bliss. But what was its shape? Was it circular, or triangular? These were questions which agitated the people and shook society to its foundation.
King Hiram was a man of sense, and of a practical turn; he determined, therefore, that the question should be settled by ocular demonstration. He accordingly ordered an expedition to be fitted out, consisting of as many vessels as there were sects. He then selected the leading philosophers of every sect, gave each the command of a vessel, and ordered them to sail forth upon the sea in quest of the happy isle, and bring him tidings of the result.
The squadron consisted of several hundred vessels, manned by expert seamen. Having entered the Indian Ocean, by the way of the Red Sea, they bade adieu to the shore, and stretched forth upon the blue main,
guiding their course by the heavenly bodies. They kept together for many days; but at length the skies became involved in clouds, and violent disputes arose among the philosophers. Under these circumstances, the great question should have been as to their course; but, instead of this, they went to loggerheads about the shape of the happy island. From words they almost came to blows, and finally the philosophers parted in anger. One portion set off in one direction, another portion in the opposite direction, while a large number, unable to make up their minds amid such contending views, furled their sails and left their vessels to drift with the tide.
The two squadrons stretched away, the one east, the other west, and, so long as they kept in sight of each other, their activity seemed stimulated by a desire to be as far from each other as possible. After sailing for many days in an easterly course, and having encountered innumerable dangers and hardships, one of the squadrons approached the happy isle. A lovelier light than that of summer shone over it, and sweeter landscapes than those of Arabia spread along its coast. The inhabitants received them with the kindest welcome, and such happiness thrilled in the bosoms of the philosophers, that all feelings but those of benevolence subsided, and, forgetting their anger, they wished that their antagonists right be partakers of their joy. Scarcely had they expressed these feelings, when in the eastern horizon they discovered the other squadron under full sail coming down upon the island in a direction opposite to that by which they
had arrived. They soon reached the shore, and the philosophers who had parted in malice, now met in wonder, but in peace. How strange it is, said they to each other, that going east and going west, should finally lead to the same point!
Having spent some time at the happy isle, they entered their ships, and, bidding a reluctant adieu to the place, returned to Tyre. On being required by the king to tell him the shape of the island, the grand object of the expedition, the philosophers looked at each other, and appeared to be abashed. The king was angry, and imperiously commanded them to answer his question. They then confessed that they had forgotten to ask about the shape of the island. “Let me have no more quarrels, then,” said the king, “ about idle questions of belief; let your arrogance and dogmatism be humbled by the recollection, that opposite courses have led to the same point; and remember that matters of speculation, which are wrought into consequence by contention, sink into insignificance in the light of truth.”
A Dog, crossing a little rivulet, with a piece of flesh in his mouth, saw his own shadow represented in the clear mirror of the limpid stream; and believing it to be another dog, who was carrying another piece of flesh, he could not forbear catching at it; but was so far from getting anything by his greedy design, that he dropped the piece he had in his mouth, which immediately sunk to the bottom and was irrecoverably lost. This should teach us not to let go the substance to catch at a shadow.