Parable of the Prosperous Palace

Once upon a time…

…there was a magnificent palace. A palace larger and shinier than had ever been seen before. In the palace lived all the kingdom’s nobility: a prosperous people who enjoyed every pleasure imaginable.

Almost anything that they could dream up could be conjured for them by the wizards of the palace. And since every desire could be fed, they were free to create and savour new pleasures and to live however they wanted and to do whatever they pleased.

All the prosperous people of the palace shared three things in common:

First, they listened all the time to the wizards who could conjure up new pleasures. Although no one was forced to do what the wizards suggested, no one living in the palace was able to resist their charm or question the source of their magic. Yet no one ever complained about this since they liked listening to the wizards and imagining what pleasures they would conjure up next.

Second, the prosperous people of the palace rarely thought about the world outside the palace. In fact, many believed that the palace was the whole world, and so the only thing that mattered was what happened among the people in the palace. Few could remember what their world was like before the palace was built, except that it was backwards, brutal, and unfair.

Finally, despite having everything their hearts desired, almost no one was really happy. And everybody argued all the time. Just about everyone believed there was something slightly off about the palace, even if many couldn’t put their finger on it.

“This place is going to the dogs,” shouted the strongest supporters of the wizards.

“We need to be better about giving everyone equal access to their magic,” yelled the wizards’ strongest critics.

And so the prosperous people of the palace devoted their lives to pursuing their desires and arguing with each other about how to make the palace a better place or a more desirable place or, actually, a place that was much more like how each person thought it should be. Many of these ideas were fair and just in their intention, while others were merely selfish, unrealistic, or mean-spirited. Yet everyone, no matter their views, cared deeply for the palace, even if they didn’t know or much care for their neighbours.

All the top people in the palace worked with the wizards to govern and improve the palace. What they valued above all was that no one should ever question the palace itself or the magic that sustained it. The welfare of the palace depended totally on people always desiring and using the magic conjured by the wizards. Even the prosperous priests in the palace devoted their lives to helping people with their desires, finding meaning within the palace, and making the palace better and bigger. Like everyone else, the top people and priests always listened to the wizards and always argued, often (it seemed) for the sake of arguing.

Outside the palace, things were very different.

The exterior of the palace itself was ugly. Where inside it was shiny and bright, on the outside it was dark and ominous and ugly. When viewed from afar it appeared shapeless and no more solid than a dank mist. It’s outer precincts were filled with rubbish, pools of poison, and air no one could breath. And it had grown so large that hardly any of the kingdom itself lay outside it. It had swallowed all the old towns and villages, the old buildings and churches, and covered all the old fields and forests and rivers.

In what was left of the kingdom outside the palace lived a great multitude of people far more numerous than those who lived inside. They weren’t pretty or prosperous like those in the palace. They were too busy to think about their own desires and too burdened by life to think even about themselves. Crowded together, they survived on a little bit of food and the meagre hope that maybe one day they would be allowed to live in the palace.

These people mined the life of the land: the source of the wizard’s magic. It could be used by the wizards to conjure almost anything, but when it was taken from the earth it left behind corruption and death. Without the life force, the land withered and dried up like a leaf in winter. So that all the good things the prosperous people of the palace enjoyed and took for granted depended on sucking the kingdom dry of its life. The larger the palace became the more the land decayed.

With each passing year, the palace grew darker and darker. People began to notice that pieces of masonry were flaking off. Cracks started appearing, letting in noxious air. All the while, the arguments grew louder and more violent as the people began to fear for the future. And so, the wizards worked harder and harder to distract the prosperous people from looking outside the palace or wondering about the source of their magic. The top people suggested new ways of ensuring that the wizards’ magic would never stop, and the priests offered to help people feel less anxious about the cracks in the wall. All played along because everyone knew that if wizards’ spell was broken, the palace would collapse and fall into ruin. So, the prosperous people of the palace turned their minds even more to their desires, sucking the life-force out of the land faster and faster.

Eventually, the life force of the land was exhausted. The people turned on the powerless wizards because they could no longer cast their spells. They shouted down the top people for colluding with the wizards and they spurned the priests for having little useful to offer. Finally, they turned on each other for wasting the wizards’ magic and leaving them with nothing but the withered dust of a dead land. The palace crumbled into ruin and all the pleasures of yesteryear were forgotten and even the most noble achievements of the people vanished.

As for the great multitude that had never enjoyed life in the palace, their bitterness grew boundless and their hatred for the fallen people of the palace fiercer.

If only the people of the palace had remembered that long, long before the first stone of the palace was laid, the life of the land was given as a gift. “Tend and keep the land wisely,” their first settlers had been told, “and the life of the land will blossom and flourish. This gift has been given so that all may be fruitful and share in the abundance of life. As it is with the land so is it with you: without the life of the land you are but dust and to dust you and all your achievements will return.”

But this promise and warning few had remembered and even fewer cherished. Such were the once prosperous people of the palace that they could never see that in order really to live they had first to love.

For their hearts had withered long before the life of the land had.

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