There’s something succulent about a revenge story.
When somebody is the recipient of unflinching justice in a way that mirrors their own actions, we are left with a satisfying symmetry. This, then, we can carry with us as “life lessons” around which we more than often base our entire moral code.
Today, however, we are going to look at a warning against solidifying any such concrete code, especially whenever the caustic aroma of vengeance fills the air.
The Procrustean Bed
According to the Ancient Greek story, Procrustes was a bandit who lived on a mountain pass that lay on the “Sacred Way”, a road from Athens to the holy site of Eleusis.
This was a regular pilgrimage route for the many people from all over the world who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries and Procrustes offered these travellers a bed for the night.
The only problem: Procrustes was a fastidious blacksmith and if you didn’t ‘fit’ his bed exactly, he either hammered you longer or cut off your “excess” legs until you did fit.
Unsurprisingly, even the Ancient Greeks thought this brutality was a teeny bit extreme but, more importantly, Procrustes committed a crime against the law of Xenia.
The word comes from “Xenos” and if the term Xenophobia springs to mind then you’re on the right track. The thing is, this law applied to absolutely any guest, from near or far. And that’s a vital point, since any men, women and even slaves from anywhere in the world were allowed and encouraged to walk the “Sacred War” and participate in the Mysteries.
Fear of “The Different”
Xénos (strange, foreign, alien) and Phobos (fear) make up the term xenophobia, making it not just a “fear of people from another country” but “fear of the different”. As we all know fear often translates to hatred, especially when it comes to differences in ideas.
Procrustes made everyone fit his bed in the same way people today often beat others – either physically or with arguments – to make them fit their own opinions or ideas on topical issues.
There’s no coincidence that the metaphor extends to a “comfortable bed”. Procrustes took in local and foreigner alike and beat, hammered and cut them until they fit a shape that he deemed suitable.
It was good old Minotaur-killing Theseus who came along and got revenge on Procrustes by making him fit his own bed with the same brutality the bandit inflicted on his guests.
Presumably, not even Procrustes fit the ‘perfect’ dimensions he had dictated for his own bed!
Masochism or Sadism?
The metaphor has been used many times throughout the years but it’s worth coming back to today more than ever.
In a world in which we perform logic-contortionism to fit any idea we consider “comfortable” or bludgeon friends and ‘foreigners’ to conform with our perfectly-formed conclusions, the Procrustean Bed metaphor is crucial, if only for our own survival.
This is the subject of Nassim Taleb’s book of aphorisms called The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms.
The book playfully deals with how humans, lacking in all the information necessary to understand the world in its entirety, force the world to squeeze into tight, neat ‘beds’ that are invariably close to ‘right’ but never tell the whole picture.
Here are two of Taleb’s aphorisms I particularly liked:
“I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.”
“Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.”
I learned about this book from Tim Ferris’ brilliant 5-Bullet Friday Newsletter, by the way, and I highly recommend you sign up for free here.