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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter thougths: the tale of the three rings


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 A little Easter reflection on nuclear weapons and an old story from the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.

I spent most of this Easter reading the recent book by Ron Rosenbaum How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III. A painful reminder that the threat of nuclear war has not gone away with the end of the cold war. Today, with about 10,000 operational nuclear warheads still existing and with weapons spreading to more and more countries; the risk of war is probably larger than ever. 

And we know more, now, about the effect of even a limited nuclear war. The concept of "nuclear winter" has been demonized and laughed off as an obvious mistake but new calculations show that the threat is real - very real. There is a threshold, somewhere around a few hundreds to several hundred bombs detonated, where the aerosol generated by the explosions cools the atmosphere enough to destroy all crops for several years. That would mean the death of billions of human beings; the destruction of civilization and, perhaps, even the extinction of the human species. What has been called the "second holocaust" is for everybody.

One such war could start because a few madmen think that the Lord has given them the right to destroy humankind. Against this threat, there is only one hope: that of learning to live together. So, here is an old story by the Italian Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio who understood this point very well. If you have five minutes, read it - it is a glimmer of hope that comes from a long time ago.

Happy Easter, everybody!

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Giovanni Boccaccio: the tale of the three rings

       Saladin was so brave and great a man, that he had raised himself from an inconsiderable station, to be Suhan of Babylon, and had gained many victories over both Turkish and Christian princes. This monarch, having in divers wars, and by many extraordinary expenses, run through all his treasure, some urgent occasion fell out that he wanted a large sum of money. 

       Not knowing which way he might raise enough to answer his necessities, he at last called to mind a rich Jew of Alexandria, named Melchizedeck, who let out money at interest. Him he believed to have wherewithal to serve him ; but then he was so covetous, that he would never do it willingly, and Saladin was loath to force him. But as necessity has no law, after much thinking which way the matter might best be effected, he at last resolved to use force under some colour of reason. 

       He therefore sent for the Jew, received him in a most gracious manner, and making him sit down, thus addressed him: "Worthy man, I hear from divers persons that thou art very wise and knowing in religious matters ; wherefore I would gladly know from thee which religion thou judgest to be the true one, viz., the Jewish, the Mahometan, or the Christian ?*' 

       The Jew (truly a wise man) found that Saladin had a mind to trap him, and must gain his point should he exalt any one of the three religions above the others ; after considering, therefore, for a little how best to avoid the snare, his ingenuity at last supplied him with the following answer :

" The question which your Highness has proposed is very curious; and, that I may give you my sentiments, I must beg leave to tell a short story. I remember often to have heard of a great and rich man, who among his most rare and precious jewels, had a ring of exceeding beauty and value.  


Being proud of possessing a thing of such worth, and desirous that it should continue for ever in his family, he declared, by will, that to whichsoever of his sons he should give this ring, him he designed for his heir, and that he should be respected as the head of the family. That son to whom the ring was given, made the same law with respect to his descendants, and the ring passed from one to another in long succession, till it came to a person who had three sons, all virtuous and dutiful to their father, and all equally beloved by him. Now the young men knowing what depended upon the ring, and ambitious of superiority, began to entreat their father, who was now grown old, every one for himself, that he would give the ring to him. 

The good man, equally fond of all, was at a loss which to prefer ; and, as he had promised all, and wished to satisfy all, he privately got an artist to make two other rings, which were so like the first, that he himself scarcely knew the true one. When he found his end approaching, he secretly gave one ring to each of his sons ; and they, after his death, all claimed the honour and estate, each disputing with his brothers, and producing his ring; and the rings were found so much alike, that the true one could not be distinguished. To law then they went, as to which should succeed, nor is that question yet decided. 

And thus it has happened, my Lord, with regard to the three laws given by God the Father, concerning which you proposed your question : every one believes he is the true heir of God, has his law, and obeys his commandments; but which is in the right is uncertain, in like manner as with the rings."

        Saladin perceived that the Jew had very cleverly escaped the net which was spread for him : he therefore resolved to discover his necessity to him, and see if he would lend him money, telling him at the same time what he had designed to do, had not that discreet answer prevented him. The Jew freely supplied the monarch with what he wanted ; and Saladin afterwards paid him back in full, made him large presents, besides maintaining him nobly at his court, and was his friend as long as he lived.

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