In the previous issue, I introduced a series on religious interpretations of Aesopic material by looking at how the Sufi mystical poet Rumi adapted Aesop’s fable of “the lion’s share” for his religious purposes. In this article, I continue that series by looking at an ancient anecdote about Aesop himself, which also made its way into the writings of Rumi. Once again, we will see that Rumi’s mysticism takes the story in an entirely different direction.
Let’s begin with the version of the anecdote told about Aesop himself, as found in the Roman poet Phaedrus:
Once when Aesop happened to be the only slave in his master’s household, he was ordered to prepare dinner earlier than usual. He thus had to visit a few houses looking for fire, until at last he found a place where he could light his lamp. Since his search had taken him out of his way along a winding path, he decided to shorten his journey on the way back and go straight through the forum. There amidst the crowds a talkative fellow shouted at him, “Aesop, what’s with the lamp in the middle of the day?” “I’m just looking to see if I can find a real man,” said Aesop, as he quickly made his way back home.
Phaedrus’s story gives a practical reason why Aesop was carrying a lighted lamp during the daytime: the fire had gone out at his house, and he needed to relight it. The person in the forum, however, thinks that Aesop is being a fool, carrying around a lamp when it is perfectly light outside. Aesop, however, manages to make the man look like a fool: it may be broad daylight, but men worthy of the name are so hard to find that he needs a lamp to look for them.
This story about Aesop as a “wise fool” is based on an even older story about the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who rejected human society, lived inside a tub, and ate nothing but onions. The oldest version of the story consists of a single sentence: “Having lighted a candle in the day time, Diogenes said, ‘I am looking for a man.’” Unlike Aesop, Diogenes plays the fool on purpose. The Cynic philosopher carries the lamp around in broad daylight precisely in order to provoke people, so that he can then turn around and insult them. This public performance in which the audience itself becomes the butt of the joke thus encapsulates the provocativeness of Cynic philosophy itself.
Over time, however, this anecdote has lost all its sharp edges. In preparing this article, I asked ten people if they knew the story about the philosopher and his lamp. To my amazement, every single person knew the story! Yet when I asked about the meaning of the story, each person told me that the man with the lamp was looking for “an honest man” and he needed the lamp because honesty is so hard to find in the world. This modern version of the story still expresses a social critique, but the philosopher is no longer a “wise fool” and he no longer insults his audience.
Part of the problem, of course, is that we just don’t think much about lamps these days! Take the popular saying “to burn daylight.” Nowadays the phrase means “to waste time,” as if the limited number of hours in the day were fuel in a gas tank about to run dry. Originally, however, “to burn daylight” meant to act foolishly, as Diogenes and Aesop did, by burning precious lamp oil when there was no need to do so, “burning (a lamp during) daylight.” No less a writer than Shakespeare shows us that this was the original meaning of the phrase: “Come, we burn daylight, ho! [ ] We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day” (Romeo and Juliet). Both Diogenes and Aesop were foolishly “burning daylight” when they carried their lighted lamps into the marketplace, but in the end they proved themselves to be “wise fools” after all, getting the last laugh by insulting their detractors.
When we turn to this story in Rumi’s Mathnawi, however, the man with the lamp does not get the last laugh. Instead, Rumi provides the story with an entirely new message of divine transcendence which is unprecedented in the Greco-Roman tradition. The story begins straightforwardly enough:
A person was going about in a bazaar in the daytime with a candle, his heart full of love and ardor. A busybody said to him, “Hey, what are you seeking beside every shop? Hey, why are you going about in search of something with a lamp in bright daylight? What is the joke?” He replied, “I am searching everywhere for a man who is alive with the life inspired by that Divine Breath. Is there a man in existence?”
As Rumi proceeds, however, the busybody in the marketplace turns out not the butt of the joke after all. Instead, he turns out to be the true sage, preaching a Sufi sermon to the man with the lamp:
“Consider well! You regard the branch; you are unaware of the root: we are the branch, the ordinances of the Divine decree are the root. [ ] Since thou hast seen the revolution of the millstone, come now, see also the water of the river. Thou hast seen the dust rise into the air: amidst the dust see the wind. Thou seest the kettles of thought boiling: look with intelligence on the fire, too.”
For Rumi, to insult the world for its failings, as Aesop and Diogenes do, is no real accomplishment. To look upon the reality of this world is to see only the branch but not the root, which is God; to see the millstone of the world’s daily activities is to miss the motion of the river, which is God; to see the dust of our daily confusion swirling about us is to miss the wind, which is God. Finally, to focus only on the boiling kettles of human thought is to overlook the essential fire, which is God.
To invoke the humanistic and religious themes which Randy has used as a schema for examining mythological storytelling, we can see that once again in this little story of the philosopher and his lamp that there is a humanistic approach one can take, or a religious one. In the humanistic approach, the philosopher is an agent of social criticism, launching a sharply pointed barb at the self-satisfied bluster of human society, where the question of God simply does not arise. In the religious interpretation, however, the question of God is used to trump the social criticism, obviating it entirely in order to take the light-bearer down a new and unseen path. When Rumi appropriated the Aesop’s fable about “the lion’s share,” he turned the fox’s sharp social critique of the lion into an acknowledgment of the transcendent power of God. We see the same process at work here in Rumi’s use of the story of the philosopher’s lamp, where God is the fire that lights the mind of the philosopher, a flame far greater than any earthly lamp.