The King and the Maiden
To what shall we compare
the divine love that overcomes the Infinite distance
between human sin and the holiness of God?
Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden.” But the reader has perhaps already lost his patience, seeing that our beginning sounds like a fairy tale, and is not in the least systematic.So the very learned Polos found it tiresome that Socrates always talked about meat and drink and doctors, and similar unworthy trifles, which Polos deemed beneath him (Gorgias).” But did not the Socratic manner of speech have at least one advantage, in that he himself and all others were from childhood equipped with the necessary prerequisites for understanding it?And would it not be desirable if I could confine the terms of my argument to meat and drink, and did not need to bring in kings, whose thoughts are not always like those of other men, if they are indeed kingly.But perhaps I may be pardoned the extravagance, seeing that I am only a poet, proceeding now to unfold the carpet of my discourse (recalling the beautiful saying of Themistocles),” lest its workmanship be concealed by the compactness of its folding.
Suppose then a king who loved a humble maiden.The heart of the king was not polluted by the wisdom that is loudly enough proclaimed; he knew nothing of the difficulties that the understanding discovers in order to ensnare the heart, which keep the poets so busy, and make their magic formulas necessary.It was easy to realize his purpose.Every statesman feared his wrath and dared not breathe a word of displeasure; every foreign state trembled before his power, and dared not omit sending ambassadors with congratulations for the nuptials; no courtier grovelling in the dust dared wound him, lest his own head be crushed.Then let the harp be tuned, let the songs of the poets begin to sound, and let all be festive while love celebrates its triumph.For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.Then there awoke in the heart of the king an anxious thought; who but a king who thinks kingly thoughts would have dreamed of it!He spoke to no one about his anxiety; for if he had, each courtier would doubtless have said: “Your majesty is about to confer a favor upon the maiden, for which she can never be sufficiently grateful her whole life long.” This speech would have moved the king to wrath, so that he would have commanded the execution of the courtier for high treason against the beloved, and thus he would in still another way have found his grief increased.So he wrestled with his troubled thoughts alone.Would she be happy in the life at his side?Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget, that he was king and she had been a humble maiden?For if this memory were to waken in her soul, and like a favored lover sometimes steal her thoughts away from the king, luring her reflections into the seclusion of a secret grief; or if this memory sometimes passed through her soul like the shadow of death over the grave: where would then be the glory of their love?Then she would have been happier had she remained in her obscurity, loved by an equal, content in her humble cottage; but confident in her love, and cheerful early and late.What a rich abundance of grief is here laid bare, like ripened grain bent under the weight of its fruitfulness, merely awaiting the time of the harvest, when the thought of the king will thresh out all its seed of sorrow!For even if the maiden would be content to become as nothing, this could not satisfy the king, precisely because he loved her, and because it was harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her.And suppose she could not even understand him?For while we are thus speaking foolishly of human relationships, we may suppose a difference of mind between them such as to render an understanding impossible.What a depth of grief slumbers not in this unhappy love, who dares to rouse it! …
Moved by love, the God is thus eternally resolved to reveal himself.But as love is the motive so love must also be the end; for it would be a contradiction for the God to have a motive and an end which did not correspond.His love is a love of the learner, and his aim is to win him.For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal, and it is only in equality or unity that an understanding can be effected….
But this love is through and through unhappy, for how great is the difference between them!It may seem a small matter for the God to make himself understood, but this is not so easy of accomplishment if he is to refrain from annihilating the unlikeness that exists between them.
Let us not jump too quickly to a conclusion at this point. … Much is heard in the world about unhappy love, and we all know what this means: the lovers are prevented from realizing their union, the causes being many and various.There exists another kind of unhappy love, the theme of our present discourse, for which there is no perfect earthly parallel, though by dint of speaking foolishly a little while we may make shift to conceive it through an earthly figure.The unhappiness of this love does not come from the inability of the lovers to realize their union, but from their inability to understand one another.This grief is infinitely more profound than that of which men commonly speak, since it strikes at the very heart of love, and wounds for an eternity; not like that other misfortune which touches only the temporal and the external, and which for the magnanimous is as a sort of rest over the inability of the lovers to realize their union here in time.This infinitely deeper grief is essentially the prerogative of the superior, since only he likewise understands the misunderstanding….
Our problem is now before us, and we invite the poet, unless he is already engaged elsewhere, or belongs to the number of those who must be driven out from the house of mourning, together with the flute-players and the other noise-makers, before gladness can enter in.The poet’s task will be to find a solution, some point of union, where love’s understanding may be realized in truth, the God’s anxiety be set at rest, his sorrow banished.For the divine love is that unfathomable love which cannot rest content with that which the beloved might in his folly prize as happiness.
The union might be brought about by an elevation of the learner.The God would then take him up unto himself, transfigure him, fill his cup with millennial joys (for a thousand years are as one day in his sight), and let the learner forget the misunderstanding in tumultuous joy.Alas, the learner might perhaps be greatly inclined to prize such happiness as this.How wonderful suddenly to find his fortune made, like the humble maiden, because the eye of the God happened to rest upon him!And how wonderful also to be his helper in taking all this in vain, deceived by his own heart!Even the noble king could perceive the difficulty of such a method, for he was not without insight into the human heart, and understood that the maiden was at bottom deceived; and no one is so terribly deceived as he who does not himself suspect it, but is as if enchanted by a change in the outward habiliments of his existence.
The union might be brought about by the God’s showing himself to the learner and receiving his worship, causing him to forget himself over the divine apparition.Thus the king might have shown himself to the humble maiden in all the pomp of his power, causing the sun of his presence to rise over her cottage, shedding a glory over the scene, and making her forget herself in worshipful admiration.Alas, and this might have satisfied the maiden, but it could not satisfy the king, who desired not his own glorification but hers.It was this that made his grief so hard to bear, his grief that she could not understand him; but it would have been still harder for him to deceive her.And merely to give his love for her an imperfect expression was in his eyes a deception, even though no one understood him and reproaches sought to mortify his soul.
Not in this manner then can their love be made happy, except perhaps in appearance, namely the learner’s and the maiden’s, but not the Teacher’s and the king’s, whom no delusion can satisfy….
The union must therefore be brought about in some other way.Let us here again recall Socrates, for what was the Socratic ignorance if not an expression for his love of the learner, and for his sense of equality with him? . . . In the Socratic conception the teacher’s love would be merely that of a deceiver if he permitted the disciple to rest in the belief that he really owed him anything, instead of fulfilling the function of the teacher to help the learner become sufficient to himself.But when the God becomes a Teacher, his love cannot be merely seconding and assisting, but is creative, giving a new being to the learner, or as we have called him, the man born anew; by which designation we signify the transition from nonbeing to being.The truth then is that the learner owes the Teacher everything.But this is what makes it so difficult to effect an understanding: that the learner becomes as nothing and yet is not destroyed; that he comes to owe everything to the Teacher and yet retains his confidence. . . .
Since we found that the union could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a descent.Let the learner be x. In this x we must include the lowliest; for if even Socrates refused to establish a false fellowship with the clever, how can we suppose that the God would make a distinction!In order that the union may be brought about, the God must therefore become the equal of such an one, and so he will appear in the likeness of the humblest.But the humblest is one who must serve others, and the God will therefore appear in the form of a servant.But this servant-form is no mere outer garment, like the king’s beggar-cloak, which therefore flutters loosely about him and betrays the king;” it is not like the filmy summer-cloak of Socrates, which though woven of nothing yet both conceals and reveals.” It is his true form and figure.For this is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved,not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth.And it is the omnipotence of the love which is so resolved that it is able to accomplish its purpose, which neither Socrates nor the king could do, whence their assumed figures constituted after all a kind of deceit….
But the servant-form was no mere outer garment, and therefore the God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things.He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death,” absolutely like the humblest-behold the man! . . .”
Every other form of revelation would be a deception in the eyes of love; for either the learner would first have to be changed, and the fact concealed from him that this was necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself); or there would be permitted to prevail a frivolous ignorance of the fact that the entire relationship was a delusion. . . .
Now if someone were to say: “This poem of yours is the most wretched piece of plagiarism ever perpetrated, for it is neither more nor less than what every child knows,” I suppose I must blush with shame to hear myself called a liar.But why the most wretched?Every poet who steals, steals from some other poet, and in so far as we are all equally wretched; indeed, my own theft is perhaps less harmful since it is more readily discovered.