Keep Quiet, Jean-Jacques

Painting by Antonio Balestra (c. 1730)

I had gone to spend a few days in the country at the home of a good mother of a family who took great care of her children and their edu­cation. One morning when I was present at the lessons of the eldest, his governor, who had instructed him very well in ancient history, was reviewing the history of Alexander. He took up the famous story about Philip, the physician, which has been a subject of painting, and which was surely well worth the effort. The governor, a man of merit, made several reflections on Alexander’s intrepidity, which did not please me at all, but which I avoided disputing so as not to discredit him in his pupil’s mind. At table they did not fail, according to the French method, to make the little gentleman babble a great deal. The vivacity natural to his age, along with the expectation of certain applause, made him reel off countless stupidities, in the midst of which from time to time there came a few lucky words which caused the rest to be forgotten. Finally came the story of Philip, the physician. He told it quite clearly and with much grace. After the ordinary tribute of praises exacted by the mother and expected by the son, there was discussion about what he had said. The greater number blamed the temerity of Alexander; some, after the governor’s example, admired his firmness and his courage—which made me understand that none of those present saw wherein lay the true beauty of this story. “As for me,” I said to them, “it seems that if there is the least courage, the least firmness, in Alexander’s action, it is foolhardy.” Then everyone joined in and agreed that it was foolhardy. I was going to respond and was getting heated when a woman sitting beside me, who had not opened her mouth, leaned toward my ear and said softly to me, “Keep quiet, Jean-Jacques, they won’t understand you.” I looked at her; I was struck; and I kept quiet.

After the dinner, suspecting, on the basis of several bits of evidence, that my young doctor had understood nothing at all of the story he had told so well, I took him by the hand and went for a turn in the park with him. Having questioned him at my ease, I found that more than anyone he admired Alexander’s much-vaunted courage. But do you know in what he found this courage to consist? Solely in having swallowed at a single gulp a bad-tasting potion, without hesitation, without the least sign of repugnance. The poor child, who had been made to take medi­cine not two weeks before, and who had taken it only after a mighty effort, still had its aftertaste in his mouth. Death and poisoning stood in his mind only for disagreeable sensations; and he did not conceive, for his part, of any other poison than senna. Nevertheless, it must admitted that the hero’s firmness had made a great impression on the boy’s young heart, and that, at the next medicine he would have to swallow, he had resolved to be an Alexander. Without going into clarifications which were evidently out of his reach, I confirmed him in these laudable dispositions; and I went back laughing to myself at the lofty wisdom of fathers and masters who think they teach history to children.

It is easy to put into their mouths the words kings, empires, wars, conquests, revolutions, laws. But if it is a question of attaching distinct ideas to these words, there is a long way from the conversation with Robert the gardener to all these explanations.

Some readers, discontented with the “Keep quiet, Jean-Jacques,” will, I foresee, ask what, after all, do I find so fair in Alexander’s action? Un­fortunate people! If you have to be told, how will you understand it? It is that Alexander believed in virtue; it is that he staked his head, his own life on that belief; it is that his great soul was made for believing in it. Oh, what a fair profession of faith was the swallowing of that medicine! No, never did a mortal make so sublime a one. If there is some modern Alexander, let him be showed to me by like deeds.