François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Burton Raffel (New York: Norton, 1991), pp. 242-44, bk. 3, author’s prologue.
When Philip, king of Macedonia, planned to lay siege to Corinth, and destroy that city, the Corinthians’ spies warned them that he was marching against them with a huge army, which gave them good reason to be afraid. So they were extremely careful: every man among them did everything he ought to do, to try to resist the attackers and to defend their city.
Some of them brought animals, grain, wine, fruit, supplies, and necessary equipment — everything and anything they could carry — inside the city.
Others repaired walls, set up fortifications, straightened and reinforced the earthworks out in front of their fort, dug ditches, cleaned out tunnels, loaded baskets with rocks and stones, tightened and braced shooting platforms, emptied latrines, put new bars on outside passageways, set up earthen platforms, piled up outside slopes, re-cemented the walls between fortifications, built sentry boxes, made parapet ramps, set stones around small spy windows, lined with steel the vertical openings through which stones and other objects were dropped on their enemies’ heads, repaired the sliding grills in fortified gates (both those in the Arab and those in the Greek style), stationed sentries, and sent out patrols.
They were all of them watchful, all of them working. Some polished armor, varnished light shields, cleaned horse armor and head plumes, and coat of mail, armored cloaks, helmets, neck armor, hoods, hooked pikes (the sort foot soldiers carry), helmets with beaked nose plates, archers’ helmets (with tall crests), mail shirts and coats, shoulder armor, thigh armor, underarm armor, throat armor, arm and leg harnesses, breastplates, light-armored breastplates, short mail coats, shields, huge light shields for protection against arrows, Roman leg armor, mail gloves, foot armor, and spurs.
Others worked on bows, slingshots, crossbows, heavy balls for slingshots, catapults, fire-setting arrows, bombs, fireballs, spears and rings of fire, machines for hurling stones of various sizes, as well as other machines for repelling and destroying mobile siege towers.
They sharpened lances, axes, hooked claws, spikes and ax blades mounted on long shafts, iron lances with bent tips, long-handled billhooks, spears, cavalrymen’s axes, long-handled pitchforks, spiked spears, heavy clubs with spiked tips, hatchets, javelins and half-axes, long and short, and heavy-tipped spears. They filed the edges of Turkish swords, short swords, scimitars, short spears, rapiers, heavy foot-soldier swords, daggers both small and large, spiral daggers, dirks, Roman rapiers, knives, and every blade, missile, and arrow they found.
They all practiced cutting and thrusting with their daggers; they all worked at their swordsmanship. No woman was too proud or too old to get herself thoroughly ready — for, as you know, the ancient Corinthians were courageous in all manner of combat.
Now, Diogenes, seeing the whole city in such a whirl of activity, and himself not having been assigned to any task at all, for a few days simply watched and said nothing. Then, as if impelled by the warlike spirit, he pulled back his cloak and, belting it tight, rolled his sleeves up to the elbows, tucked up his clothes like an apple picker, handed his beggar’s sack, his books, and his writing tablets to an old friend, then went outside the city toward the Cranium (a ridge of high land, with a hill, near Corinth), which was a fine parade ground. And he rolled out there the clay barrel in which he lived — his only shelter against the elements — and with singularly violent motions began to turn it this way and that, moving it wildly every which way, without apparent rhyme or reason — twisting, turning, spinning, beating on it, turning it over, turning it back again, caressing it, whipping it around, flogging it, bashing it, bumping it, shaking it, tumbling it, trampling it, banging it, sticking in the plug, pulling it out again, speeding it up, prancing it, dancing it, thumping it, dumping it, rolling it, tolling it, rocking it, socking it, lifting it, shifting it, veering it, steering it, whirling it, hurling it, clamping it, damping it, setting it, getting it, tying it, trying it, sticking it, pricking it, spreading it, heading it, squeezing it, wheezing it, clapping it, tapping it, cranking it, yanking it, whacking it, cracking it, clacking it, hacking it, tacking it, backing it, sacking it, racking it, packing it, crashing it, bashing it, rapping it, zapping it, running it down from the hill into the valley, then tossing it off the Cranium, then lugging it back up to the hilltop once more, like Sisyphus with his endlessly rolling stone, and all with such passion and violence that he very nearly smashed it to pieces.
And seeing this, one of his friend[s] asked what earthly reason he had, in mind or body, to so punish and torment his barrel. To which the philosopher answered that, since the republic had given him no other job to do, he raged about with his barrel because, with everyone else rushing around, totally occupied, dedicated, he could not be the only one standing empty-handed and still.
And I, too, though I have no reason for personal concern, how can I keep from being excited, finding myself with nothing worthy to occupy my hands when this noble realm of France, on both sides of the mountains, shows me everyone working as hard as possible, some to fortify and defend their country, others to push back its enemies, and attack them in their turn, everything in such perfect order, so beautifully regulated, and so clearly aimed at future advantages (because France’s borders will be superbly extended, and every Frenchman will be guaranteed peace and security), that it wouldn’t take much for me to agree with Heraclitus that war is the father of all good things, and to believe that the Latin word for war, bellum, and the French word for beautiful, belle, are hardly opposites at all, though there have been mumblers of rusty Latin who have believed them deeply opposed, there being in their eyes no beauty in war. I could believe in the linking of these two words plainly and simply, because only in war can we see every variety of goodness and beauty, just as we are shown every variety of evil and ugliness. And so the wise and peaceful King Solomon understood there was no better way to show us the unutterable perfection of divine wisdom than to compare it, in the Song of Songs, to the ordered arrangements, of an army in camp.
And so, since I have not been enlisted, to serve with other Frenchmen in our military ranks (being thought too feeble, too helpless), nor been drafted to help with our defense, either — not even digging dirt, shoveling shit, cracking sticks, or stuffing turf: I’d have done anything asked of me — it would seem to me more than mildly shameful to be seen as a mere spectator, in the presence of so many brave, eloquent, and chivalric men, who with the eyes of all Europe on them have played out their roles in this worthy fable, this tragicomedy. So I, too, must exert myself to the utmost, giving this nothing, which to me is everything I still possess. For it seems to me that in these matters there is no small glory in simply watching, conserving your strength, hiding your gold and your silver, scratching your head with one finger, like a weary sluggard, yawning at flies like a clumsy calf, occasionally pricking up your ears like an Arcadian ass who hears musicians singing and then indicates in simpering silence that he approves of the performance.
Having chosen this path, I thought it would not be entirely useless or tiresome to roll my own barrel of Diogenes — indeed, all I have left since I went aground, trying to sail past the lighthouse of bad luck. And what do you think I ought to do as I whirl my barrel? By that holy virgin who tucked up her skirts, I still don’t know.