The Sages’ Debts
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