Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sir Thomas North’s The Moral Philosophy of Doni


Though every inhabited area of the earth has produced indigenous narratives, storytellers have also enthusiastically borrowed the narratives of others as well, altering freely to their own taste. While Celtic lore contributed significantly to the European inventory of plotlines as did Classical and Biblical sources, many stories in European languages derive ultimately from much further afield. Narratives from South Asia often reached Europe after having passed through a series of intermediary translation into Persian, Arabic, and a variety of other languages.

One of the most extraordinary instances of this cultural dissemination is the Panchatantra which, according to its translator Ryder, contains “the most widely known stories in the world,” [1]. Compiled from older sources in the third century BCE and reaching something like its current form perhaps five hundred years later, this work was enlarged and translated from Sanskrit to Pahlevi by the scholar Sir Thomas North called Berozias. The book subsequently appeared in versions in Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, then Spanish, and from Spanish into a broad range of other languages including a dozen European tongues as well as Turkish, Malay, and other unlikely tongues. It is therefore a veritable literary palimpsest in which the exotic and the familiar collide. Every story tells its own tale of significant reflections and refractions. [2]

The most widespread English version on this cosmopolitan family tree is North’s The Moral Philosophy of Doni, a translation of an Italian rendering, itself translated from Spanish from a Latin version which derived from a Hebrew one, a translation of the Arabic of Al-Moqaffa, bringing one back to only a few removes from the original. Apart from this complexity, the text also employs frame-stories sufficiently elaborately that at times one is reading stories within stories, five or six removes from the initial narration.

Sir Thomas North is a master stylist and rhetorician best known for his version of Plutarch (for which he worked from a French translation). [3] His prose, at times colloquial and natural, more often hypotactic and architectural, is regularly mellifluous and seasoned with obsolete, obscure, foreign, and half-Anglicized words, selected for the pleasure they give the cognoscenti. At times these learned usages appear side by side with vernacular, even slang, expressions.

The title is altogether a misnomer, as moral philosophy is rather an excuse than the central point of the stories. They are told as entertainment, and the themes vary from moral to strategic to romantic. What sententiae do emerge are often ironic or conflicted. When the text is like wisdom literature it is ordinarily prudential rather than prescriptive, describing gambits that will work in the real world as opposed to idealistic principles.

Beginning with classic folk-tales, nearly all of which boast numerous analogues in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index, the complex history of transmission these stories have undergone and the framing patterns into which they have been ingeniously fitted make interpretation unusually subtle. Further, the inclusion of wood-cut illustrations, sometimes not created for the purpose of illustrating the story, contributes yet another layer of significance that enriches and alters what came before. A few brief examples of the issues raised by the first of these factors alone will provide some sense of the rich semiotic density of North’s text.

In the dramatic image of the human being suspended over the abyss from the Mahabharata (see my essay on the appearance of this image in Barlaam and Ioasaph). Though facing imminent death, the person enjoys the indulgence of honey that happens to be dripping nearby. In the Mahabharata the honey’s appeal is illusory or puerile, a simple function of the veil of maya; “though sweet to all creatures [it can], however, attract children only.” This Hindu attitude is echoed by a Christian one in Barlaam where it is the “deceptive” sweetness of the delights of this world that distract the individual from thoughts of eternity. Ignoring for a moment the unbearably harsh terms of existence, the human consciousness can experience a brief respite during which he can forget “quite in what terms of life he [and all the rest of us] stood,” until “sorrow struck him on the neck.” In North’s version, [4] the implication is altogether secular and yet at the same time even more sympathetic to suffering humanity. In the Moral Philosophy the honey is almost a merciful balm which “retaineth us and suffereth us not to know the dangers and troubles of this most miserable world and of our thrall and troubled life.” Though its basic distracting character reappears, here it functions not as a fraud to divert the person from more productive thoughts, but rather as a palliative to an otherwise intolerable life.

Details are highlighted by their appearance and disappearance in successive versions of these stories, gaining additional suggestive power from the fact that some writer has felt the text improved by adding or removing them. For instance, in North’s “The Fox’s Tale of the Paragon of India and the Crab” [5] the crab is romantically motivated; she questions the bird’s motives to protect “a Tench that she loved well,” whereas in the Sanskrit source, the crab acts when she sees heaps of discarded bones from previous meals. There is no question of interspecies affection in India. Is North’s addition a remote reflection of the poetry of amour courtois?

In the story of “The Ape Meddling in That He had no Skill” [6], the monkey pays the price for his presumption when his leg is caught in the log, and he is summarily dispatched by the wood-cutter, a “churlish clown,” who “pash[es] his brains a-pieces” with a bat. In the far briefer telling of the Panchatantra, the simian catches his privates in the cleft of the log, and this is considered enough of a punch-line. What happened next the reader does not learn.

And so it goes. This book in its first incarnation was an encyclopedia of narrative purporting to some system, seeking to cover all significant situations of life through metaphoric fables. The successive transformations of the text through several millennia, across thousands of miles of widely varying languages and cultures, has only refined it and enhanced its inclusiveness. One of the most subtle and intricately coded books we have, I am delighted to say, is made up of stories most of which would delight any sensible three-year-old.


1. p. 3 in the University of Chicago edition. Ryder goes on to say that, were the book called “the best collection of stories in the world, the assertion could hardly be disproved.”

2. This remarkable history led Theodor Benfey to compose one of the pioneering works of comparative literature in his 1859 edition.

3. He also translated Guevara's Reloj de Principes. North’s elegant periods influenced Lyly and other practitioners of Euphuism. Shakespeare’a debt to North’s Plutarch for his plays set in ancient Rome extends beyond information to copying phrases verbatim.

4. p, 241 “An Allegory of the World.”

5. p. 294 in Moral Philosophy, corresponding to Panchantantra I, 8.

6. p. 253.

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