My grandfather’s sister, his older sister, the matriarch of the family back when those titles meant something, well she used to tell me this story of the Devil and Men of Cordoba: The city of Cordoba was in the midst of a famine from a failed harvest. The nobles and the landlords and the rich merchants had pushed the farmers and the peasants to produce more and more from the land, and the common people demanded more and more cheap produce and material, and soon the land was exhausted, the herds were depleted and fruitful nature gave-way to waste land. The peasants fled to greener pastures and left the fields fallow. The residents of Cordoba, the poor along with the rich, had never even seen a plow before, never herded a goat out in the pastures! How would they survive? Many, all the rich men and many of the workers and the poor, wished to abandon city life and learn to work in the fields and the remainder, some of the workers, the poor and the scholars and artists, wished to save their cultural wealth and heritage and move to another city. There was great hubbub in the streets as everyone argued his or her point.
Well it was then that the Devil decided to visit Cordoba. He was idle and bored and felt like getting up to no good, so he spoke the entire city in a dream, and gave them a choice: he could turn them all into goats, but they would roam about and feast and never go hungry or suffer from want OR they could stay in the city, kept in by an enormous, deep crevasse, and suffer from want at the whims of nature but be able to create a beautiful city and become the wisest group of people on the earth? Well as the devil expected, most of the city, especially the rich and the merchants and the landlords, chose to become goats and live a life of blissful plenty out in the fields. The rest chose to remain trapped in the city, and transformed themselves into wise scholars and artisans with the great library of books as well as workshops full of paints and tools and jewels and scientific instruments given them by the Devil (who they knew as the voice in their dreams). They had but one small garden and a small herd of cattle and pigs and a well of water to last them all year, and when this was used up they would have to make do with what little they were able to save, or they would starve.
Things went on like this for awhile; the goats got fat and happier by the day while the newly minted wise men of the city created wonderful works of art and made great scientific breakthroughs. The city was more beautiful and more prosperous culturally than it ever had been, with libraries and temples to art and public mosaics and paintings and cafes for smoking and talking of ideas great and small. There were observatories and Universities and music halls and galleries full of sculpture and beautifully woven textiles. There were laboratories where scientists devised brilliant concoctions and devices. The people praised the voice in their dreams that had brought them this bounty. All the while the devil laughed and watched as the supplies of the city withered away to nothing. Soon the city dwellers were hungry, with just barely enough food to keep them alive. Everyone felt the terrible pangs of want and the craving for taste beyond the watry grain mash and preserved meat they had to live on. Many began going onto the walls of the city and looking out over the crevasse at the goats in the fields: the goats, now pot-bellied and their coats shining and full, the luscious grass, the squash and peppers in the field, the low-hanging figs and pomegrantes from the trees, the beautiful clover flowers and dandilions and they lapped up the sweet honey that dripped from the beehives. The manure that the well-fed goats produced fed the fields and the orchards and soon a wild bounty spread all around the city from horizon to horizon, kept and supplied nutrients by the goats and designed by nature. It was a paradise…a paradise that was forever out of reach to the.
To a person the city fell to its knees and called upon the voice to once more visit them in their sleep that night. The Devil, laughing and having a gay time watching the travails of the people of Cordoba, once more he made himself heard in the dreams of the people. He asked them if they were happy with their choice? All save for a handful said no. He then gave them the option of joining their friends in their friends, as goats, in the paradise below…OR he would give the people the means to solve their food crisis once and for all, scientifically, but they would not know when, if ever, they would make the breakthrough. All save for a handful asked to be made goats, and so they were. They joined their fellows in the gardens and fields on the other side of the ravine and gambolled about happy as can be. The handful of wise people left behind were given more books, more tools and supplies, but even less food than before. But this time the people left behind decided that instead of trying to attempt the impossible by bringing forth food from nothing but scientific equipment they would instead attempt to address the problem in a more straightforward way. They tore all of the wood from their homes, the market stalls, the shutters on the buildings and cut down the few fruit trees they had. It seemed at first to be a foolish way to solve a problem of hunger, but soon the wise people had used their scientists to figure out the width of the crevasse, they used their engineers to put together a plan for a bridge to span it, they used their artisans to build the bridge and they used their scholars to document how it was all done so that no one would ever again have to figure it all out from scratch.
The people left in Cordoba, for the most part those who had started out poor, uneducated, overworked, or under-appreciated for their talents, but who were now refined, intelligent, hard-working, imaginative and humbled by their time of want and hunger, walked out across the bridge and into the fields. Lesser minds would have run about and ate their fill but these wise people, schooled by years of want and hunger as well as study and experimentation, instead took it on themselves to study the land, make an account of what grew where and how and in what volume. They built a great fence around the gardens and the fields and the orchards and they kept the goats out there to manure the fields and check the growth of weeds. The fatter goats they milked from whence they made cheese and cream, and the older, less able ones they humanely slaughtered for meat. From their study they had found the best diet for active minds and productive bodies, and they made sure that the land was not overused nor and so that there were never too many people to feed they kept diligent records of the growth and decline of the population.
These well fed, well housed, and hard working people were able to devote more and more time to the pursuit of art and music and making the city a beautiful place. None made profit from another man’s toil and all were able to share in the bounty of nature, a resource that would last generations under their learned and wise husbandry. Cordoba became the greatest of all cities and the people were happy and proud of their society. The Devil laughed and slapped his knees at his sport: he had a hand in creating a near perfect society. All it took was a few impatient folks deciding life would be better as a mindless, well fed goat.