A man went to see a fortune-teller.
He sat down in front of her and said, “Tell me, soothsayer! Will I have a long, happy life and a long, illustrious career? I expect so, for I am a clever man.”
“Alas!” said the fortune-teller. “You are indeed a clever man, but no man is above the laws of our king. Mind them well, or you’ll die with a rope around your neck.”
The man left the fortune-teller’s tent, haunted by her words. From that day forward, he resolved to deal kindly with his neighbors, so that no one would ever speak ill of him before the king.
He never told a lie. He refused to take anything that didn’t belong to him. He went out of his way to help those in need, and all his words were gentle.
It was not long before he was well loved by his neighbors.
But he was not yet content.
A man can be well thought of by his neighbors, he thought, but he must still live according to the laws established by the kingdom. A kind man can still be hung if he, in ignorance of the law, commits an offense worthy of death.
So the man enrolled in a school of law, and learned the kingdom’s statutes and regulations, even those that had grown so old they’d become obscure and irrelevant. He studied case after case, examined how certain laws stood on the shoulder of others and how they competed when pitted against one another.
After all was said and done, he’d become an accomplished legal scholar.
I have done well, thought the man. I’ve learned the kingdom’s laws so thoroughly, I could never break them.
But what of the gods?
Kings have laws, and so do the gods. Suppose I anger one of the gods who rules over our land. Gods are known to force their will upon kings, compelling the latter to act on behalf of the former. A king might put me to death, thinking he’s doing his own will, when in fact he is a mere agent of a god whose wrath I’ve aroused.
So the man joined the priesthood, studying all the sacred prayers and rites. He committed to memory the names of each god and how to honor them. He learned the proper way to sacrifice animals, burn incense, ring bells, beat drums, and sing hymns. In less than two year’s time, he was proficient in all the ways of his religion.
Now being a good neighbor, legal scholar and a priest, the man could interpret and follow the laws of gods and kings perfectly.
To remember all the laws was tiring work. And what if, despite his due diligence, he made a mistake one day and slipped? His anxiety kept him up at nights and left him exhausted during the day, making it even more difficult to maintain his focus.
What good is this? the man reasoned to himself. I am but a man. It is only a matter of time before I slip and fail. And when I do, the king will hang me for sure, just as the fortune-teller predicted.
Therefore, I will leave the kingdom – I will go to a place where the power of the king and the gods holds no sway. Once I am outside the boundary of their governance and laws, I need no longer fear transgressing them.
So the man gave away all his possessions and left the kingdom, making his way into the wilderness. He hiked up a mountain that overlooked the kingdom and found a cave, and that is where he made his dwelling.
He’d never slept so well as he did that first night in the cave. From then on, he spent the majority of his days in laughter and in song.
The sounds of his merriment made their way to the people who lived on the outskirts of the kingdom. “Who is this madman on the mountain that spends his days in laughter and in song?” they wondered. Curious, they went to investigate.
When the people arrived at the cave, they said to the man, “Tell us the reason for your happiness.”
“Can you not see it?” said the man, a bright light in his eyes. “Here we stand, outside the boundaries of the laws of gods and kings. We are truly good servants indeed, for as long as we abide in this wilderness, we’ll never break their laws.”
When the people left him, they reasoned among themselves, “We would do well to join this man, so that we too may always uphold the laws of gods and kings.”
So the people began to join him, finding other caves in the mountain to live in. And when there was no room left on the mountain, they moved into the surrounding hills and valleys. Some even made their homes in trees.
News of these good and faithful servants of the law spread across the kingdom, and it came to pass that people began to leave the kingdom in droves so that they might do likewise.
When the king himself finally heard of all that was being done in his name, he demanded that the person responsible for this madness be brought to him at once. After much searching and interrogation, the king’s guards discovered the man in his cave and brought him before the king.
“So it is you who has caused all this mischief!” cried the king. “Who told you that you could set up another kingdom adjacent to my own! What have you to say for yourself?”
“Forgive me, your Majesty,” the man said. “ I only sought to uphold your laws, and to this purpose, I became a good citizen, a legal scholar, and a priest. But I found that such constant deliberation over your laws nearly drove me mad. Thus, I reasoned that there was no better way to keep from breaking your laws than to leave the kingdom where your laws hold sway.”
“Idiot,” sighed the king, “A man is more likely to cheat a customer if his neighbor does, a woman to gossip if her friends do as well. Likewise, a soldier will run into the thick of battle and death if the general leads the charge. You should have known- being a good citizen, a legal scholar and a priest – that in seeking perfection, others would follow your example! You are like a doctor who has decided that the best way to treat a patient’s cold is to kill the patient! For so many now have left the kingdom, few are left to tend the crops and manage the affairs of the army! Our jails stand empty, and our lawyers, jailers, judges, and hangmen are all out of business. In time, they must either live as you do or become bandits.
“Besides, in all your studies, did you not come to realize that it is the thief who puts bread on the locksmith’s table? That the hangman would perish without treachery and murder, just as the grass would perish without the light of the sun? So it is that my power and my laws would mean nothing if it there were not those who had the courage to defy both.”
“Guards,” said the king, “Round up all the people who have left the kingdom and return them to their former stations, without punishment. They were led astray by this man’s foolishness and did not know any better. As for him, hang him high above the city square for all the public to see, so that everyone knows what the king thinks of those who would so dutifully try to keep his laws.”