From "The Italian Novelists" translated from the originals with Critical and Biographical Notices by Thomas Roscoe; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; [undated edition, c. 1900; first published, c. 1824]; pp. 573-577.
Upon inquiring into its merits, he found that one Tizio had borne his companion, Sempronio, over the water on his shoulders, the condition being that the bearer was to be carried back upon their return, which the other refused to do. The cause of strife being thus explained, the doctor gave his opinion, and, referring to the parity of robustness between the parties and to the terms of the previous promise, decreed, with the addition of much persuasive oratory, that “he who had borne his friend should in turn by his friend be carried.” Imagine his vexation, then, to find his eloquence thrown away. The obstinate Sempronio, who held the best side of the staff, having got his passage, refused to listen to reason. Finding all the most simple and demonstrative arguments of no avail, he resolved to try the magical force of a few hard words, and cried out in a voice of thunder, “O perjured villain! wilt thou wait till the great Hugo Grotius pulls off thy shoes, till the Lord Baron Puffendorff sets thy friend upon thy shoulders, and the Duke of Cumberland gives thee a royal kick behind to push thee into the water?” At these solemn and appalling names, the wretch was no longer proof against the doctor’s appeal, but mounting Tizio upon his shoulders, proceeded to ford the river as fast as he could, leaving our lawyer to prosecute his journey with much complacency at leisure. In the course of time, having despatched his cause, and returning by the same route, upon arriving at the ford, he found that his ass expressed some degree of reluctance to pass, belonging, apparently, to that race of intelligent animals of old who were occasionally apt to hold colloquies with their masters. Availing himself of the same privilege, he stopped. “What is the matter?” said the doctor. “Dost thou wish to drink? Drink thy fill!” “I want no drink,” replied the beast. “Then,” said the doctor, with great composure, “get thee along!” though, in fact, he was not a little perplexed and astonished on receiving an answer, so many men being accustomed to address the animals they ride without expecting one. “But,” continued his ass, “how can 576 you expect such a thing? you, who just now decided that he who carried the other over here ought to be carried back. Do you think I did not hear you? and do you think I have not a word to say in my turn upon the subject? So dismount, my good master; get off my back, for I will go no farther; and, for once in your life, after so many years’ service, condescend to carry me across.”
It was now that the doctor began to feel really surprised, as well as displeased, at the turn affairs seemed to have taken; for having laughed until he became serious, the water growing deeper, he was in haste to proceed. So he began to bastinado the too reasonable beast, and words and blows growing warmer and warmer, it soon became one of the best argued cases that ever took place between a doctor and an ass. It was in vain the former pointed out the difference between them; the other replied that among his ancestors of the ancient breed of asses there had been many doctors, perhaps far more famous than he; and added other things equally sarcastic and offensive. During this altercation, as the evening was coming on, and the doctor began to feel a little uncomfortable at being left alone on the road, it was quite requisite he should come to some decision. So looking round, to be sure that no one saw him, he got off as he was ordered; and, shivering at the very idea, he began to undress himself, and stepped with horror into the water, crying, in an indignant tone, “Come, thou foul and wilful beast; give me thy fore feet up here, and be sure you do not lay more weight on me than you can help!” “Trust me,” said the ass, as he raised his fore quarters; but being more lengthy than his master, he could not manage in this way with his hinder legs. The doctor next tried to carry him crossways, so that his ribs should not graze his body, but he found this was quite as bad; and he thirdly bound him fast by the legs, and threw him across his shoulder, and this was worst of all. Finally, by one expedient or other, he contrived to get three or four paces into the water, when both fell down together, and had very nearly been drowned.
And too true a saying it is, “As long as the man sits upon the ass all goes well;” whereas, should the ass get the upper hand, it is bad for the beast, and worse for his master. Hence we may easily understand and apply the joke, which the ass wished to pass upon the doctor; for if the fool of the family take the lead, his dependent brethren will be sure to smart for it; while the arrogant usurper will only involve himself in embarrassments, and be exposed to general ridicule.
An occasion soon offered; when his master gave him directions to take the measurement of one of his wells (for he was a great water-drinker), this apt scholar availed himself of the opportunity to instruct his pedagogue by speaking out openly to him like an honest man. “Here it is, master; I have brought you the exact measurement, that is, from the top to the bottom (as I could not manage it the other way), with a stone fastened to the end of this rope; but what distance it may be from the bottom to the top, that, for want of ladders, I cannot find out.” “Ha, ha, ha!” cried the laughing philosopher; “good, very good! Why, jolterhead, is it not the very same as you have here got? From top to bottom, from bottom to top, tell me, where is the difference, I pray? Oh, oh! I ought to thank you for the joke; surely I never laughed so much before!” The wily disciple stopped until his master had almost laughed himself out of breath, when, with the singular modesty becoming a pupil, he thus replied, “Yes, so, of a truth, it would appear to us at first view; I should have thought as much myself, had you not yourself led me to doubt the evidence of my senses. For when I remarked in all your behaviour the bitter spite you bore against the sophist Theagenes whenever he laughed at you, I felt inclined to inquire, is there not exactly the same degree of distance between you and him as between him and you? Why, therefore, do you pretend to laugh with impunity at him and his compeers, when you are not willing that he should do the same by you?
Democritus had hardly begun to apply his head to the solution of this somewhat novel, far-fetched, and knotty point (advanced, however, with singular modesty and diffidence), when, aware how much reason there was in his pupil’s question, he conceived it the wisest way not to attempt an answer. Turning towards him and embracing him, he said, “I thank you, dear pupil, from the bottom of my heart, and let Theagenes in future laugh at me as much as he pleases; it will not disturb me a jot; for he has exactly the same right to laugh at me as I have to laugh at him.”
Now if according to these principles of moral justice, we were to give and take, bear and forbear, instead of wishing to establish our own opinions in the face of all obstacles, there would be much less pride in the world than at present exists, and we should enjoy much more peace and satisfaction.