WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The story of the Eastern monarch and the philosopher is an old story -- Abraham Lincoln told it in 1859 -- but its message endures. The tale bears retelling today.
The monarch, it seems, was going through a troubled time. He summoned the court philosopher and demanded of him a single sentence that would serve his ruler equally well in good times or in bad. The philosopher responded with a piece of wisdom worth remembering in this time of Soviet turmoil: ''This too will pass away.''
Alexander of Macedon conquered the world, and lost it. Rome rose and fell. In time the sun set on the British empire. Peter the Great and his successors opened Russia's windows to the West, but 200 years of czarist power crumbled before the revolution of 1917. The regime of Josef Stalin replaced old oppressions with new ones. After a time came Mikhail Gorbachev. Sunday night came the coup.
This too would pass.
A second parable applies. Mr. Gorbachev scattered seeds of freedom throughout the Soviet empire. This was never his overriding intention; it just happened. Some of the seed fell on stony places that had not much earth. Some fell among thorns. But other seed fell upon good ground -- Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, the Baltic states -- and there the seed took root.
Mr. Gorbachev set powerful forces in motion. These could be blocked for a time within the Soviet Union, but they cannot be indefinitely suppressed. (The same thing may be said of China, of Cuba, of Iran and Libya and Iraq). Winds of freedom now blow around the world, and they blow the good seed with them.
The Soviet Union is off my beat. I know nothing more of this coup than I read in the papers, but 50 years of covering governments have taught me something of power. Power is the very essence of history -- how power is won, used, lost and restrained.
Gorbachev came to power through a fortuitous combination of man and the hour. Long suppressed emotions had reached a critical mass. Within the Communist hierarchy no other leader was prepared to lead. He seized a banner with a strange device. Glasnost! The Soviet people, never having known openness, responded in various ways -- some hopefully, some dully, some skeptically.
The response within the Kremlin was entirely predictable. Men rarely relinquish power willingly. Mr. Gorbachev's reforms threatened the power of the bureaucracy and the military. The new union treaty that was to have been signed on Monday would strip away much of the central authority upon which their way of life depended. No one who has reflected upon the nature of power could have been taken by surprise. The coup was inevitable.
But such is the nature of power that the conspirators would not last for long. Western nations have little leverage in Soviet affairs, but they have some. Economic power could prove marvelously effective. President Bush could be relied upon to marshal Western resources to deny the usurpers the international loans, credits and trading opportunities the U.S.S.R. so desperately needs.
''We will avoid in every possible way actions that will lend legitimacy or support to this coup effort,'' Mr. Bush said. If the president could be as successful in marshaling allies as he was ** for Desert Storm, the hard-liners would be softened fairly soon.
One way or another, the rubrics of power came into play. Mr. Gorbachev had invited his downfall because he was not a revolutionary, fueled by a passion for democracy. He was a politician. After a bold beginning, he yielded to expediency. He sought to cut a deal with the opposition.
It was a time for whole measures, and Mr. Gorbachev had been unwilling to impose them. He proposed a ''socialist market place,'' whatever that might be. He went part-way with freedom of the press, but maintained the most powerful newspapers as organs of the state. He loosened some restrictions upon travel, and then tightened them.
He remained at heart a Communist, dedicated to state controls. He held power, but he never held it firmly. An uneasy crown, said Tennyson, is ice on summer seas.
I recur to the monarch and the philosopher, and to the parable of the sower and his seed. This crisis will pass, and in time the seed that fell on good ground will return in harvest a hundredfold.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.