The Sages’ Debts


Special Focus - - Contents - Zhang Xiaofeng 张晓风

My first story is about Socrates, the philoso­pher of an­cient Greece. Socrates de­vot­edly taught the young peo­ple of Athens, only to find him­self wrongly ac­cused of “cor­rupt­ing the youth.” The elo­quent tu­tor tried to de­fend him­self, but alas, he failed to make the judges be­lieve his sim­ple faith. The Athe­ni­ans made an easy de­ci­sion to poi­son the “evil dis­senter” to death.

The trial was ab­surd, but not with­out pro­ce­dural le­gal­ity. Socrates calmly ac­cepted his ex­e­cu­tion.

When he was asked what his last words would be, he said, “I owe a rooster to As­cle­pius. Please, don’t for­get to pay the debt.”

A sage in an­cient China, Zengzi, also thought of his debt be­fore his nat­u­ral death. He was re­minded of it by a kid, and sum­moned his fam­ily in haste. “Hurry! Change my sleep­ing mat,” said Zengzi. Even with help, it was quite a hard work for the very sick man to get his mat changed. He died im­me­di­ately when he was laid upon the new mat. The two sages had their un­com­mon in­sis­tence. Socrates in­sisted in pay­ing off his “rooster debt” be­cause he re­fused to die a debtor’s death. In his

mind, “who he had been” would be more im­por­tant than “what he had said.” He thanked As­cle­pius, the Gre­cian god of medicine, for he thought the poi­son he was go­ing to take was a gift from the lat­ter. ( It was said to be a pain­less poi­son for mercy killing.) This meant he would owe noth­ing to any man or god. As for Zengzi, his orig­i­nal sleep­ing mat was a gift from Jisun, which was too lux­u­ri­ous for any­body in a po­si­tion lower than dafu (min­is­ter). For a true Con­fu­cian, a death of wrong eti­quette would be to­tally un­ac­cept­able; and Zengzi was quick to make things right at the last mo­ment of his life.

These sages would tol­er­ate no stain in their life and death. They did all they could do to owe noth­ing. You can­not find a sin­gle sunspot in their glo­ri­ous lives and pure char­ac­ters. (From IHaveaDream:Zhang Xiaofeng’sEs­says , Ji­uzhou Press. Trans­la­tion: Wang Xiaoke)

painted by French pain­ter Jac­ques-Louis David in 1787 法国画家雅克·达维特于1787年所作油画《苏格拉底之死》 TheDeathofSocrates

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