In a land far beyond the mountains, there once lived a man. He was deeply sad, for his beloved wife had died and left him alone to an existence without happiness and nothing to look forward to. With her the man had shared everything, and now the food had no taste, sleep did not refresh, and even when he had a good week and was able sell some goods at the marketplace, he just came home with the money and there was no joy about it, for nobody was there to celebrate with him.
One day, around noon, as the man walked along the small hills just outside of town, he heard a faint rustling. He looked more closely and saw a large, handsome snake sliding through the grass beside him. The man was startled; he stood back and looked at the snake with surprise in his eyes.
“You can trust me.” said the snake. “I know that you are sad, but I can guide you, and if you enter into my service for seven years, I can bring your wife back to you.”
The man thought about this for a while. He was quite uncertain whether he would be able to serve the snake, or what that would even mean. But he had nothing to lose, and so finally he agreed.
He was very surprised when the snake advised him to go back to his house and await instructions there. But so he did, and as he got out of bed the next morning he saw a book on his table, for him to study. “Why should I study this?”, the man asked himself. There was no practical information in there, nothing that seemed at all useful. He could not see what it had to do with him, nor how it might help him to be of any service to the snake. But diligently he started reading, and on the evening he was already halfway through the book. He continued the next day; however, close to its end the book mentioned the title of another one, and then even another. The man became curious; he was also a little disappointed, for he did not have these other books.
As he got out of bed the next morning, he was delighted to find the other two books, lying on the table, for him to study. He quickly finished the first book, and then went immediately to work on the others. Sadly, however, he noticed that these again mentioned several others; quite a few, actually. So he started to make a list. And he was not that surprised any more when, after another night as he got out of bed, he found a whole number of new books. They were all there, everything from his list, some on the table, others stacking up beside it.
And so, as time marched on, the man’s house slowly filled up with books.
* * *
When seven years had passed, the man went back to the snake, and reported on his service. Although the snake professed to be pleased with his work on the books, something seemed missing.
The snake asked him: “Then what did you do with all that knowledge?” — The man stood baffled. — “So you only read the books? You never applied anything you learned?” — “No… I had no idea!” — “But really!” hissed the snake. “What do you think those books were written for? They’re not just for the reading. What would be the point of that?” — “But what about all the references?” — “Did you follow them all?” — The man confessed that he had done so. — “Then you’ve let yourself being pushed from one book to another, without any purpose or sense of direction. You really are a fool, aren’t you?” The man was ashamed, and cried bitterly. He begged the snake to allow him another period of service. He was overjoyed when the snake agreed.
Back at his house, the man grabbed a book at random, determined to start applying its knowledge at once. When he glanced over the pages, however, he became uncertain again. It all sounded very confident and wise indeed, but then what would you actually do with it? Study and understand it deeply, even figure out whether you agree with it… But then what? Explain it to other people, try to convince them of it… But then in turn, what would be the usefulness of that? Or rather be on the lookout for someone even more learned, someone to go beyond and refute it all? The man was thoroughly confused.
Not knowing what to do, the man went to bed. The next morning, he had an idea. He would seek to meet the learned author of that book. Surely the author would know how to apply all its knowledge. The man hesitated, however. This seemed to be a somewhat lengthy project: finding the learned man, traveling to where he lived. How would he know if this author was the best one for this purpose? After all, he had just grabbed the book at random, and perhaps it would be better if he started with the author of one of the other books? And as it was getting late, he put off his decision to the next day.
On the morning, he made a list and systematically went though all the books, determined to find out which one of all the authors it would be best to ask. But once more, he found this to be a really difficult question. They just all appeared so confident and knowledgeable… It was impossible to decide!
Frustrated, the man spent many days and weeks agonizing over his decision which author to chose. In the end, he decided it would be better to at least ask someone, instead of just thinking about it. So he again grabbed the first book that came into his hands. He was astounded to see that it was the very same book with which he had started.
Taking this as an omen, the man finally went on his journey. He travelled far away, asking everywhere for this wise man. After a long time, when his second period of service was almost over, he found himself by accident in a place that looked oddly familiar. When he looked around, he realized that he was back where he had first met the snake! He sank into a deep sleep.
* * *
Late in the day, around the time of twilight, he woke up from the snake’s hiss. “So, what have you made out of your seven years?” When the man told his tale, the snake became angry. “You really are a fool! That philosopher has been dead for hundreds of years. From all the possible books in your house, you have picked the one whose author you could not possibly find. And even if you had, then what? You still would have merely had someone else to tell you what to do. What difference does it even make whether that happens in writing or in person? What shall I do with a useless serviceman such as you are?”
The man was desolate. He argued with himself whether he should ask for another seven years. But then, he thought, what would he actually do with them? His ideas had run out.
As a last thought, he asked the snake: “There really was no true chance for me anyway, am I right? I could have tried whatever I wanted, I might have spent all my energy, and still you would not have kept your part of the agreement. You never intended to bring my wife back, or do anything else to lift my sadness.”
“You’re right.” said the snake. “That’s what happens when you give yourself in the service of a snake.”