Did John F. Kennedy borrow his most famous line?

John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his inaugural speech ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’ has been quoted countless times since 1961.

Today, I would like to offer you a different excerpt:

“Are you a politician who says to himself: ‘I will use my country for my own benefit’? If so, you are naught but a parasite living on the flesh of others. Or are you a devoted patriot, who whispers into the ear of his inner self: ‘I love to serve my country as a faithful servant.’ If so, you are an oasis in the desert, ready to quench the thirst of the wayfarer.”

Kahlil Gibran

These lines belong to a Lebanese-born American literary icon and artist Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931). In his New York Times article (1), Stefan Kanfer refers to Gibran as ‘more than a phenomenon, he is an institution’ and calls him ‘a candy metaphysician.’

The text that I quoted above is from Kahlil Gibran’s open letter (in Arabic) to the Lebanon’s parliament in 1925. A close friend of Gibran’s Anthony Ferris translated it into English in 1957 in ‘The Voice of the Master’ – one of the four books included in ‘A Second Treasury of Kahlil Gibran.’ (Side note: Gibran’s most famous work is ‘The Prophet’ – a collection of 26 prose poetry fables.)

Below is a more extended excerpt from ‘The Voice of the Master’ (2):

“In this world there are two sorts of men: the men of yesterday and the men of tomorrow. To which of these do you belong, my brethren? Come, let me gaze at you, and learn whether you are of those entering into the world of light, or of those going forth into the land of darkness. Come, tell me who you are and what you are.

Are you a politician who says to himself: ‘I will use my country for my own benefit’? If so, you are naught but a parasite living on the flesh of others. Or are you a devoted patriot, who whispers into the ear of his inner self: ‘I love to serve my country as a faithful servant.’ If so, you are an oasis in the desert, ready to quench the thirst of the wayfarer.

Or are you a merchant, drawing advantage from the needs of the people, engrossing goods so as to resell them at an exorbitant price? If so, you are a reprobate; and it matters naught whether your home is a palace or a prison.

Or are you an honest a man, who enables farmer and weaver to exchange their products, who mediates between buyer and seller, and through his just ways profits both himself and others? If so, you are a righteous man; and it matters not whether you are praised or blamed.

Are you a leader of religion, who weaves out of the simplicity of the faithful a scarlet robe for this body; and of their kindness a golden crown for his head; and while living on Satan’s plenty, spews forth his hatred of Satan? If so, you are a heretic; and it matter not that you fast all day and pray all night.

Or are you the faithful one who finds in the goodness of people a groundwork for the betterment of the whole nation; and in whose soul is the ladder of perfection leading to the Holy spirit? If you are such, you are like a lily in the garden of Truth; and it matters not if your fragrance is lost upon men, or dispersed into the air, where it will be preserved.

Or are you a journalist who sells his principles in the market of slaves and who fattens on gossip and misfortune and crime? If so, you are like a ravenous vulture preying upon rotting carrion.

Or are you a teacher standing upon the raised stage of history, who, inspired by the glories of the past, preaches to mankind and acts as he preaches? If so, you are a restorative to ailing humanity and a balm for the wounded heart.

Are you a governor looking down on those you govern, never stirring abroad except to rife their pockets or to exploit them for your own profit? If so, you are like tares upon the threshing floor of the nation.

Are you a devoted servant who loves the people and is ever watchful over their welfare, and zealous for their success? If so, you are a blessing in the granaries of the land.

Or are you a husband who regards the wrongs he has committed as lawful, but those of his wife as unlawful? If so, you are like those extinct savages who lived in caves and covered their nakedness with hides.

Or are you a faithful companion, whose wife is ever at his side, sharing his every thought, rapture, and victory? If so, you are as one who at dawn walks at the head of a nation toward the high noon of justice, reason and wisdom.

Are you a writer who holds his head high above the crowd, while his brain is deep in the abyss of the past, that is filled with the tatters and useless cast-offs of the ages? If so, you are like a stagnant pool of water.

Or are you the keen thinker, who scrutinizes his inner self, discarding that which is useless, outworn and evil, but preserving that which is useful and good? If so, you are as manna to the hungry, and as cool, clear water to the thirsty.

Are you a poet full of noise and empty sounds? If so, you are like one of those mountebanks that make us laugh when they are weeping, and make us weep, when they laugh.

Or are you one of those gifted souls in whose hands God has placed a viol to soothe the spirit with heavenly music, and bring his fellow men close to Life and the Beauty of Life? If so, you are a torch to light us on our way, a sweet longing in our hearts, and a revelation of the divine in our dreams.

Thus, is mankind divided into two long columns, one composed of the aged and bent, who support themselves on crooked staves, and as they walk on the path of Life, they pant as if they were climbing toward a mountaintop, while they are actually descending into the abyss.

And the second column is composed of youth, running as with winged feet, singing as if their throats were strung with silver strings, and climbing toward the mountaintop as though drawn by some irresistible, magic power.

In which of these two processions do you belong, my brethren? Ask yourselves this question, when you are alone in the silence of the night.

Judge for yourselves whether you belong with the Slaves of Yesterday or the Free Men of Tomorrow.”

References:

  1. S Kanfer, But is it not strange that even elephants will yield— and that The Prophet is still popular? New York Times, 1972, June 25, Section SM, Page 8
  2. ‘The Voice of the Master’ by Kahlil Gibran, translated by Anthony R. Ferris, published by Citadel.

 

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