In a distant place and a distant time, there lived an enlightened king. He was a righteous and forward-looking man who cared deeply about his kingdom and its subjects. Because he was enlightened he could see what others could not. Unlike others, he clearly saw that the past only shackled the future. In seeing the past for what it was, he refused to be enslaved by it. He rejected its shackles and chose freedom. As king his ambition was to share that freedom with his subjects.
One day the king toured his realm. As he traveled down a country road bordered with green pastures, he noticed horses on one side and dairy cows on the other. Looking west he watched the horses frolicking, their manes glistening in the evening sun. He saw beauty, grace, power and spirit. He looked east. He saw cows burdened with bulging udders, standing stodgy, chewing, chewing, endlessly chewing. He saw no grace, no beauty, no power and, certainly, no spirit.
He looked west again. The now setting sun rendered the horses in noble silhouette. He looked east again. The same sun cast the cows in a harsh, blanching light. He saw animals artificially bloated with milk they did not need. He saw lives enslaved to the needs of others. The king pondered their plight. Filled with indignation, he fumed, “This is not fair!” In his wisdom and goodness, he saw the injustice of every cow who was not a horse. Compassion compelled him to act.
Upon arriving back at his palace, he summoned his councilors. Following an impassioned account of what he had seen, he issued a decree. From this day forth, he proclaimed, all cows are now horses. To make sure that his subjects accepted this new reality, his proclamation decreed public humiliation to all who insisted on the old ways of thinking. Any person referring to a cow as anything but a horse would be publicly branded with a ”B” as a bovinophobe. Any person suggesting that a moo was neither a whinny nor a neigh would be denounced as insensitive and offensive. And anyone who described a cow’s shuffling as less than a gallop would be demeaned as ignorant. With the new law posted throughout the realm, the king went to bed that night satisfied in his own goodness. He knew that all would now be well for the new horses of the kingdom.
Despite the king’s best intentions, things did not go well. The cow could no more be a horse than the horse could be a cow. The horses were hobbled so they could no longer prance or gallop, because to do so would only mock the cows. Since horses are not burdened with heavy udders, it was not fair that the cows should be either. Once their calves were weaned, the cows were no longer milked. Their udders dried and shrank. No longer laden with milk meant for others, they shuffled a bit less and stepped a bit lighter. But with the cows no longer milked, there was little milk to be had. Rickets, a disease almost forgotten in better times, now afflicted many children in the kingdom, particularly those of the poor. With the horses hobbled and the cows now doing what the horses once did, farmers could no longer farm as productively as before. Their crops, once plentiful, were less so. Food that was once abundant was now scarce and expensive. Again, the poor suffered more than others.
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If this was a fairy tale it would have a fairy tale ending; the king would see that he was wrong. He would admit that he failed to see the beauty of an animal that turns grass man cannot eat into milk that feeds both calf and child. What he mistook for injustice, he would see instead as the natural harmony of nature. He would see that he did not improve on a tradition of accepted truth, but replaced it with something not true at all. Rather than enable the cow to be a horse, he would see that he took both the “horseness” from the horse and the “cowness” from the cow. In denying each animal its unique nature, he would realize that he took away the freedom of each to be the animal they are. In seeing his error, he would ask forgiveness of his subjects. Because they were a good and humble people, they would forgive him. In that forgiveness he would see far more than the beauty of the cow. He would begin to see a goodness much, much larger than his own.
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However, our story is not a fairy tale. It does not turn from error toward truth as all fairy tales do. Taken with his own nobility, the king did not see that he was wrong. The fact that he never really saw the beauty of the cows did not occur to him. He could not admit that the cow did not need his help without also admitting that his compassion was false. The king, far away in place and time, thought he was good because he cared. When he cared he felt both noble and righteous. Trapped in the goodness of his feelings, he could not see what others plainly saw, that a cow was not a horse. In fact, the king could not really see a cow at all. He only saw what made him feel good about himself. He saw the cow he needed to see.
It would be wrong to judge our king a bad man. He truly wanted to be a good king. But, untethered to any wisdom beyond himself, the only goodness he knew was his own. Bound by this “goodness,” he could only bind his subjects as well. They would have the same freedom he had and no more.
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And so our tale concludes…
A quiet tyranny settled upon the land. People were free to come and go. There were no prisons beyond the prison of social ostracism. Initially, those who saw what the king refused to see were branded with a “B.” They were mocked as people who were offensive and insensitive. They were demeaned as people who did not care. But, over time, the people of his realm fell into line. Many of his subjects accepted the mantle of one who cared by accepting that a cow was indeed a horse. In doing so they, like the king, affirmed their own “goodness.”
Whereas true goodness brings people together, this “goodness” divided the king’s subjects. Those refusing to see the truth before their own eyes could no longer tolerate those who did. Caught up in their own “goodness,” they judged as evil and ignorant the people who still saw cows rather than horses. They treated with contempt anyone who even suggested the two animals were different. Asserting their own righteousness, they declared the discussion over.
The many subjects of the king who knew what they saw, that a cow was not a horse, began to doubt the truth before them. They did not want to be labeled as uncaring, so they kept their thoughts to themselves. When they were among those who insisted that a cow was a horse, they feigned agreement for the sake of peace. The truth they knew was no longer something to share but a thing to withhold. It became a whisper furtively spoken behind closed doors far away from the public square.
Several years after his proclamation the king looked out over his realm. He saw peace everywhere. It was, however, only peace in the same way that a cow is a horse.
The king, far away in place and time, lived a long life and died content and satisfied in his own goodness. But, in the world beyond, there was a goodness that is infinite. In this new land, the king could only see as far as he had chosen to see in the short time he spent in his small and distant land. He could not see the new world that was infinitely large in both time and space. He could only see his “goodness,” the goodness to which he held so tightly. But, in a world of infinite goodness, his “goodness” was infinitely small. It was, in fact, nothing at all.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “A Horse and Cows in a Landscape” painted by Abraham van Calraet in the second half of the seventeenth century.