"The foundation of oppression was small in the world." What does this quote mean?
The quote shows that oppression and cruelty are built on little, inconsequential things that build up.
Occasionally, I start to answer a question and as I delve into the answer find a goldmine of hidden wonders. This is one of those questions, so thank you for posing it.
Let's start off by identifying the quote - or partial quote, as it happens to be. The full line is "The foundation of oppression was small in the world but whoever came augmented it so that it reached its present magnitude."
The source of the quote is the Persian poet Sa'di and was written in 1258 CE (Common Era, formerly referred to as "AD"). He is considered one of the greatest medieval Persian poets.
The book that he wrote that contains the quote is the Gulistan and translates as "The Rose Garden". It's a book that covers aspects of life and the right conduct through life, advice for kings on leadership, and the like. It's style is very easy to read because it is very straight-forward - but also keep in mind that this book and others like it are designed to help you see many different points of view and explore different questions and concepts.
Ok - so that is where the quote comes from. Now let's dive into the quote itself. The link below will take you to the full text of the book, but I've copied over the applicable bit below.
The Gulistan is written in a series of short stories, or perhaps even morality plays. So let's start with reading the full story and then let's analyze what's there:
It is related that, whilst some game was being roasted for Nushirvan the just during a hunting party, no salt could be found. Accordingly a boy was sent to an adjoining village to bring some. Nushirvan said: 'Pay for the salt lest it should become a custom and the village be ruined.' Having been asked what harm could arise from such a trifling demand, Nushirvan replied: 'The foundation of oppression was small in the world but whoever came augmented it so that it reached its present magnitude.'
If the king eats one apple from the garden of a subject
His slaves will pull him up the tree from the roots.
For five eggs which the sultan allows to be taken by force
The people belonging to his army will put a thousand
fowls on the spit.
A tyrant does not remain in the world
But the curse on him abides for ever.
The really cool thing here is not only do we have the quote with the backstory but we also get examples of what the quote is getting at. So let's discuss it.
"The foundation of oppression was small in the world..." - this part of the quote is telling us that even small demands can reap huge devastation. It's not so much what is being asked for (which is what the boy is focused on - his thought being "what's the harm in getting the village to give us a bit of salt?") but the fact that the demand can be made. It's not in the amount being asked for, but in the principle that it can be demanded.
"...but whoever came augmented it so that it reached its present magnitude." - this part of the quote makes it clear that Nushirvan, the king, is already dealing with exactly this kind of abuse of power and is trying to stem it through demonstrating how he'd like to see things done. The boy represents how things have been done ("demand the salt") whereas the king represents change ("Pay for the salt. Show the villagers that we treat them fairly for their products and labour.")
And it shows in the following examples some of the unintended consequences of the king demanding something - his followers will use that power for their own use. The king demanding the salt gives his followers license to demand food, clothing... really anything at all from the village. With the king paying for the salt, it sets the example that his people must pay the villagers for what they seek as well.