July 13, 2013

Bierce: a selfish motive and a real benevolence

Tom Hood, editor of the British humor magazine Fun, asked Ambrose Bierce to contribute something appropriate for that publication. The commission was specifically to match a series of engraved illustrations already prepared for the weekly. The first of a series of "Fables of Zambri the Parsee" was published on July 13, 1872 under the curious byline "Dod Grile."

The fables Bierce produced were short, often featuring anthropomorphic animals, and usually ended with a tongue-in-cheek moral. The first fable included a letter to the editor from "Grile," revealing that these were merely translations and that the best of them were "quite equal to the worst of those written by the late Mr. Aesop." The series continued until March of 1873.

The first was "The Nobleman and the Oyster" and featured a man purchasing an oyster from a gypsy. "You must try to forgive me for what I am about to do," the man said to the oyster, preparing to eat it. "Opportunity is the strongest of all temptations," he says, and admits that he is a hungry orphan. Hearing this, the oyster replies that he is genuinely pleased to comfort him, considering his previous owner (the gypsy woman) would not eat him, knowing "we couldn't agree."

"I think, said the nobleman, rising and laying down the oyster, "I ought to know something more definite about your antecedents before succouring you. If you couldn't agree with your mistress, you are probably no better than you should be."

People who begin doing something from a selfish motive frequently drop it when they learn that it is a real benevolence.

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