There was once a king who ruled over a large and powerful nation. The king was wise and intellectually curious, literate and well-spoken. He gave much time to the affairs of his nation, and he had a reputation for thoughtfulness and consideration. All enjoyed his company; his wit, humour, and conversation were renowned.
One day, his military leaders told him that his enemy- a dangerous and ruthless warlord, whose militia had committed great violence throughout the region- was nearby, hiding in a densely-populated city in the neighbouring country. Now this country was weaker than the king’s country- unstable, poorer and with a very small army. They were unaware of the presence of the warlord in their territory, and even if they had known, it was doubtful that they would have been able to capture him.
The king listened thoughtfully to his generals. They told him that every moment of hesitation risked the warlord slipping away to attack again, putting the whole region at risk. But with a quick and forceful attack of mounted horsemen armed with arrows and spears, the warlord could be killed… but because of the nature of the city, the generals said, innocent life might also be lost.
The king listened attentively. He then said to the generals, ‘I must think carefully before making a decision. How much time may I have?’
‘No more time than one hour’, they told the king, ‘lest the warlord slip away in the crowds and out of our reach.’
The king was visibly troubled. The thought that any innocent life should be lost grieved him deeply. The king spent the entire hour alone with his thoughts. He imagined the sorrow of men at the death of their children, and wives at the death of their husbands. Yet was the price of the few innocent lives not worth paying for the many lives saved? Was it not better for the entire region to be free from the fear of the warlord’s violence?
At the end of the hour, the king appeared again, his face twisted with sorrow. With tears in his eyes, he told his generals to launch the attack. They did so, sending ten highly-skilled mounted soldiers at high speed toward the warlord’s lair.
The king waited anxiously for news of the attack. Soon, his generals came to him saying that the warlord was dead. ‘But the news is not all good’, they told him. ‘Very close to the warlord’s location, a wedding party was being held, the wedding of a poor man’s beloved only daughter. As our soldiers charged, several guests, as well as the poor man’s daughter, fell under the horse’s hooves, killing them instantly. Indeed, our soldiers have reported seeing the poor man holding his daughter’s lifeless body, weeping greatly in the street.’
Upon hearing this, the king wept bitterly and was inconsolable. He took no food or drink, and refused to be seen for three days.
After some time, this king was no more, and another king rose to the throne. This king was foolish and disliked learning, reading very little and speaking crudely. He gave little thought or time to the affairs of his nation, and he had a reputation for distraction and inattentiveness. Many of his advisers disliked his company; he was thin-skinned, took offense easily and was suspicious of all who dared disagree with him.
One day, his military leaders told him that his enemy- an ally of the dangerous and ruthless warlord killed by the previous king- was nearby, hiding in the same densely-populated city in the neighbouring country.
The king listened with irritation to his generals. ‘Why do you waste my time with long speeches about foreigners about whom I care nothing? Is not our enemy within reach? Order the attack!’ The general’s did so, as before.
The king then went to his other palace on the coast of the country to enjoy the cool air. After waiting for the king a full day in the capital, his general’s traveled to the coastal palace to give him news of the attack, waiting many hours for an audience while the king enjoyed himself feasting with wealthy friends. They informed him that the warlord was dead. ‘But the news is not all good’, they told him. ‘Very close to the warlord’s location, a widow was eating a meal with her only son. As our soldiers charged, one of their arrows went through the window of the house, killing the son. Indeed, our soldiers have reported seeing the widow holding her son’s lifeless body, weeping greatly.’
Upon hearing this, the king did not even look up in their direction ‘Again, you waste my time with news of people for whom I care nothing. My enemy is dead and I appear strong! Now leave me alone with my feasting and entertainment!’
When news of the king’s reaction reached those who had loved the former king, they were outraged. ‘Truly’, they said, ‘the former king was the better king. Did he not think carefully before acting, and did he not weep bitterly at the news of the innocent’s death?’
But a mystic, who knew of all these matters and had been listening to them, rebuked them. ‘Does a poor man take comfort that his daughter was killed by a wise man and not by a fool? Does a widow wish that her son was murdered by a righteous man rather than an evil man?
Do not place your hopes in any great man. Misery inflicted by a wise man is as bitter as the misery inflicted by an imbecile.’