Phaedrus, Rome’s fabulist of the first century A. D., wrote a remarkable piece called Poeta de credere et non credere, ‘The poet’s judgement with respect to believing and not believing’ (Phaedr. 3.10).
This is the rather delightful 1761 translation of one Mr. Hoadley:
‘Tis equally dangerous to believe too much, or not to believe at all. I will lay before you a few words, an example of either case. Hippolytus dy’d, because so much credit was given to his step-mother. Troy was laid in ashes, because no regard was had to the predictions of Cassandra. We ought therefore to examine strictly into the truth of the case, that no false impressions may be able to blind or distort our judgment. But not to weaken the truth of this maxim by referring only to a fabulous antiquity, I will relate a tragical adventure within my own memory.
A certain husband who was perfectly fond of his wife, and was now preparing to put the manly gown on his son, was taken aside privately by his freed-man, who had hopes of being appointed his next heir; and who making a thousand lies about his son, and still more concerning in the baseness of his chaste wife, at length added what he knew would sink deepest in the mind of a fond husband, that a galant made her frequent visits, and that the honour of his house was stain’d by an infamous commerce. The husband transported with rage at the imaginary guilt of his wife, pretended a journey to his country seat, but privately staid in town. When night was a little advanced, he rushes suddenly into the house, and makes directly to his wife’s apartment, in which she had order’d her son to lie, that she might have a stricter eye over his ripening years. While the servants are hunting for a light, and the whole family run together in the utmost confusion, the unhappy father, unable to restrain the violence of his mad raging passion flies to the bed-side, and feels with his hand in the dark. Finding a man’s head, as he knew by its being shaved, he plunges his sword in his breast; regarding nothing, if he can but gratify his revenge. However soon as light was brought, seeing on the one side his son, weltring in blood, and on the other his chaste wife a-bed in her own apartment, who fast lock’d up in her first sleep, had heard nothing of the noise; he revenged the rash outrage immediately upon himself, and fell upon the point of that sword which a too easy belief had provoked him to draw.
The woman was immediately indicted by the publick informers, and dragg’d to Rome to appear before the bench of the hundred. Malicious suspicions bear hard upon her innocence, because she was become sole mistress of her husband’s estate. Her counsel stand firm in her defence, and boldly plead the cause of oppress’d innocence. The judges upon this apply to the Emperor Augustus, begging that he would assist them in the honest discharge of their oath; because such was the intricacy of the charge, as to embarrass them extremely. The Emperor, after having dispell’d the clouds raised by calumny, and, by nicely balancing the evidence, came to a sure knowledge of the truth, gave judgment in these terms. “Let the freed-man, who was the cause of all the mischief, suffer punishment: As to the unhappy lady, who has at once lost a son and a husband, I think her case more deserving pity than censure. For had the jealous father of the family, search’d with care into the crimes his wife was accused of, and sifted this abominable plot to the bottom, he would not have overthrown and sunk his family by so fatal a crime.”
Never therefore despise an information, but be not too forward to believe every thing you hear: For it often happens, that they are in fault whom you are farthest from suspecting, and that the most innocent are sometimes unjustly accused.
This story may likewise be a warning to the more simple, that they form not their judgment upon the opinion of another. For the different aims of ambition that rule the heart of man, are a cause of his being often swayed by favour or dislike. He only is well known to you, whom you judge of by a personal acquaintance.
I have enlarged more than usual in telling of this story, because some, I understand, have taken offence at my too great brevity.
Phaedrus seems to be more relevant than ever these days.