Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Introduction to Aesop's Fables

Introduction To Aesop’s Fables
by CWK

Reviewers, who have not had time to re-read Milton, have failed for the most part to digest your criticism of him; but it is a reasonable hope that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand henceforward that when the old poets made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for the didactic is often the enchanted. It gives me a sense of security to remember that, far from loving your work because you are my friend, I first sought your friendship because I loved your books.[1]
                                                                                — C.S. Lewis to Charles Williams
I. The Man With A Name

            Aesop is a man with a name. Contrary to the popular Western, “The Man With No Name” – Aesop has a name; though, in recent scholarship, not much else. In keeping with the trend toward skepticism, Aesop’s life is now debatable. His place of birth, life story – even his death – have been called into question.
            Still -- even if he has no country, life story, or final resting place – still, he has a name. His name has been attached to 100’s of short fables. Many of these he certainly did not create. His name has become synonymous with moral epigrams. Yet, at least half of the epigrams ascribed to him are by another’s hand. His name has been lauded as a trustworthy source for children’s morality. Yet, he certainly did not fabilize for children.  Aesop lives on, almost in name only. As Tennyson would say, “He is become a name.” In fact, he has become a name brand, and such a popular name brand that stories and morals are attributed to him that he had no hand in creating. Or, did he?
            In a way, he did. Even if he did not create all the fables which bear his name, he did popularize the fable genre. He almost singlehandedly popularized it.  He mastered it, and popularized it, but he did not invent it. Fables can be found in all times and all places. It is impossible to invent something which has always been there in the fabric of human nature and experience, and fables are in the fabric of human nature, and part of the common experience of Man. Aesop, and Greek fables in general, were influenced by the Assyrians and Babylonians. [2]  We have evidence of fables on clay tablets in Mesopotamia around the year 2000 B.C.[3] Yet, Aesop remains the earliest well known fabulist. Thus, every fable writer since owes him a debt. Every fable writer since has been footnoting his work.

The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterize all the Fables, belong not him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future. [4]

II. The Man and The Fables

            Aesop has also fallen into Lessing’s ugly ditch.[5] Ashliman goes as far as saying, “It cannot be proven with any certainty that he existed as a real person.”[6] We ought to be skeptical of such far-reaching skepticism. Some basic things about Aesop remain clear. These facts are so strange that they defy fiction, and are repeated in every account of his life. He lived in the 6th century B.C.[7] He was a slave. He was deformed. His abiding character trait was, like many of his characters, shrewdness. He was a trickster, and he used his cunning for both noble and ignoble deeds (like sleeping with his master’s wife). His cunning got him out of a lot of jams (like being beaten by his master), but cunning is a two-edged sword. It got him killed in the end: the Delphians were offended by his lack of respect for deity and aristocracy, and threw him over a cliff to prove it. The overall picture of him is fairly clear: irreverent of power structures; an underdog who used his cunning for good and ill; a deformed slave who somehow survives life’s hardship; a master of story; a wily and cunning teller of tales. This picture informs the fables he created, and many of the fables attributed to him.
            His fables are often told from the perspective of the underdog, or little guy: the snake who is trodden (#237); the sheep assailed by wolves (# 235); the parrot criticized by a cat (# 242). The question is, “How can the little guy make it?” According to Aesop – who was himself a little guy – he can make it by being crafty. Thus, the fables are conveyed with peasant shrewdness. They imbibe a wise-as-a-serpent mentality. The fact that Aesop was a slave, and that he toiled most of his life to escape hardship of one kind or another, certainly provides a relevant sitz em leben for such fables. Yet, this is their sitz em leben for all time. Fables are the birthright of the oppressed; they provide an education for this living under oppression. Lydgate recognized this in the middle ages, and gave this concept verse:

Of many straunge uncouthe simylitude,
Poetis of olde fablis have contryvid,
Of Sheep, of Hors, of Gees, of bestis rude,
By which ther wittis wer secretly apprevid,
Undir covert [termes] tyrantis eeke reprevid
Ther oppressiouns & malis to chastise
By examplis of resoun to be mevid,
For no prerogatiff poore folk to despise.[8]

            Aesop’s style of fable had already become famous by 422; Aristophanes relates that Aesop’s fables were popular entertainment at dinner parties.[9] By 360, his fables are famous enough that Socrates “has them at hand,” and turns them to verse (Phaedo, 61e-61c).  It is true that later Greek and Roman writers turned Aesop into a mythic figure, and even a miracle worker.[10] The attributes of influential men are often magnified. Americans do the same with George Washington. This fiction attests, though, not to Aesop’s non-existence, but most certainly to his existence. Fiction flows from truth, not vice versa. Everyone who has every tried to compose a fictional narrative knows that you start with truth, and move to fiction.
            The first collection of Aesop’s fables was compiled in roughly 300 B.C. by Demetrius Phalareus, but this work did not survive past 900 A.D.[11] The oldest surviving collection is by Phaedrus, and is written in Latin in iambic verse. It was written about 50 A.D. and contains 94 fables. Phaedrus gives full credit to Aesop as being the author of the fables, and his introduction to them is as good as any I have read, “A double dowry comes with this, my little book: it moves to laughter, and by wise counsels guides the conduct of life… I speak in jests of things that never happened.”[12]
            Since the Reformation, the fables have taken on a life of their own. The printing press made the fables more popular. Martin Luther, though completely disowning Aesop as a historical figure,[13] nonetheless valued the fables second only to the Scriptures.

These fables … were among the books brought into an extended circulation by the agency of the printing press. … The knowledge of these fables spread from Italy into Germany, and their popularity was increased by the favor and sanction given to them by the great fathers of the Reformation … . Martin Luther translated twenty of these fables, and was urged by Melanchthon to complete the whole; while Gottfried Arnold, the celebrated Lutheran theologian, and librarian to Frederick I, King of Prussia, mentions that the great Reformer valued the Fables of Aesop next after the Holy Scriptures.

Luther had high praise for Aesop’s fables,

It is a result of God’s providence that the writings of Cato and Aesop have remained in the schools, for both are significant books. Cato contains the most useful sayings and precepts. Aesop contains the most delightful stories and descriptions. Moral teachings, if offered to young people, will contribute much to their edification. In short, next to the Bible, the writings of Cato and Aesop are in my opinion the best…[14]

            Luther was prescient in his valuation of the fables in contributing to the education of young people. Though instructing the young was not the original purpose of the fables (see below under “Natural Revelation”), the fables have held a special place in the education of children.
            In 1693, John Locke commended the fables as ideal for children’s education:

When by these gentle ways he begins to read, some easy pleasant book, suited to his capacity, should be put into his hands, wherein the entertainment that he finds might draw him on, and reward his pains in reading, and yet not such as should fill his head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of vice and folly. To this purpose, I think Æsop’s Fables the best, which being stories apt to delight and entertain a child, may yet afford useful reflections to a grown man; and if his memory retain them all his life after, he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly thoughts and serious business. If his Æsop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much the better, and encourage him to read, when it carries the increase of knowledge with it: for such visible objects children hear talked of in vain and without any satisfaction whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves or their pictures. And therefore I think as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge.[15]

III. Playful Realism

            The dominant feature of the fables is playful realism. Playful – because amusing characters and scenes are employed. Playful – a truth is urged subtly, with a smile; there is a note of mischief in many of the fables, and a note of artistry in all.  The fables teach, yes, but this is not their first purpose, nor their dominant. The fables are not “moral” tales. Much less, moralism. They are, instead, a delightful look into “the way things are” – natural law, or general revelation. Aesop needs the same rehabilitation as Milton underwent, “but it is a reasonable hope that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand henceforward that when the old poets made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring.”[16] Aesop saw what every man sees when he looked into general revelation, but he saw it with different eyes. He saw general revelation with imagination. Thus, he didn’t say anything new, but he said a lot of old things in new ways:

I believe that the ancient Greeks achieved intellectual greatness because they mastered the art of making statements by unexpected and novel means. Fables and riddles were essential in this, for they conveyed meanings indirectly, with the suddenness and glaring nature of lightning flashes. Fables are another, less drastic, example, of saying things by indirect means. Instead of describing interactions between people, fables generally describe interactions between animals. But everyone knows that the animals represent people. A fable is thus a riddle in milder form. When we hear the fable of the Raven and the Fox, the riddle associated with it is: who is really the raven and who is really the fox? It is the use of unfamiliar ways of expressing the familiar that stimulates the imagination and causes us to grow mentally. This is what riddles and fables always did. But it should be obvious that the other chief method of stimulating us in this fashion is poetry. For the essence of poetry is the juxtaposition of astonishing and unexpected images.
- Robert Temple, Fables, Riddles, Mysteries of Delphi

            Yet, the lessons of the fables have to do with reality, and the fables teach us that reality has a harsher side. The world of the fables is realistic. Aesop is something of a foil to Plato, the idealist.[17] This is a hard world, and cruel foes beset us all. This is wisdom, but the wisdom of hard knocks. The fables present a stern world, full of cruelty. Thus, foolish characters meet severe ends: the greedy Ass is eaten by the Lion (#246); the hornless Bull is devoured by a Lion (#241); the Lamb is eaten by the Wolf (#10); a downtrodden one eyed stag is shot to death with an arrow (# 149). The fables, therefore, encourage us to face reality head on – to take life on its own, albeit harsh, terms.

In the fable a shrewd or practical realism reigns: the cheese drops, the fox cannot reach the grapes, persuasion is better than force: the best policy reaps its reward. In the fairy tale…Cinderella submits patiently until heaven (in the shape of the fairy godmother) stoops to virtue's aid. Fairyland is the happy hunting ground of children; the fable warns them they must grow in the real world.[18]

                In such a harsh world, Aesop would have us be cautious and shrewd. We should count the cost of purchases: buyer beware (#199). We should value what we have over what we might have (# 232). We should take care of our dignity (# 237).                

IV. Natural Revelation

            The fables were not written for children. At least, not at first.[19] Their popular place as instruction for children comes to us much later. The form of fables – simple stories – does, however, obviously appeal to children. It appeals to us all. The fables do not teach a “simple children’s morality.” Rather, they teach a simple morality. They teach morality like a pop-up picture book: the colors are sharp; the lines are clear; the characters are larger than humans, and their character is their character. This is why the characters in the fables are almost always animals. The characteristics (wise, shrewd, dumb, proud, humble) are the main thing.
            The idea that we ought to do certain things, and not do others, and that any thinking person will agree on what those basic things are – this is the morality of the fables. The truth that some things are just right, just true, and just good, and everyone has always said so – this is the morality of the fables. The fables embody the morality of natural law, and general revelation. This is the morality of common sense.

That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that anyone who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man.[20]

                Since Aesop’s fables (and fables in general) have recently been compared to Jesus’ parables, it would be well to discuss the difference between the two. Fables prove that the law of God is written on our hearts, and they give gentle and persistent reminders to heed that law. The fables elucidate morality that is already clear. They prove the law exists within rebellious man. Parables, on the other hand, prove that this law is enough to condemn, but not enough to save. Fables are abstracted from man: in them man is a character by circumlocution: and the abstraction illuminates the application. Parables are abstracted to man; God is a character by circumlocution: the abstraction obscures the application. Fables are concerned with law, natural law; parables are concerned with grace, unnatural grace. In fables everyone gets what they deserve; in parables no one gets what they deserve. The parables are not fables. Fables communicate what everybody knows – parables what nobody, or at least very few, know. Fables contain the stuff of general revelation; parables, the stuff of special revelation. Fables are written on every mountainside, and all men see them; parables are written on the hearts of the elect, and they alone see them.
            Thus, it is interesting that we find Socrates, at the end of his life, struggling with his conscience, and with “the law written on the heart.” As he tries to set down his duty, and clarify whether he has lived as he should, he turns to Aesop’s fables – not specifically to guide him in duty, though. Perhaps, as alludes, just because he already knew them. They were “at hand.” This was the experience of every pagan: when he heard Aesop’s fables, he knew them.  Yet, he already knew them before he heard them. Constituting, as they do, a commentary on natural law – he knew them before he knew them. He says, 

 … I wished to test the meaning of certain dreams, and to make sure that I was neglecting no duty in case their repeated commands meant that I must cultivate the Muses in this way. They were something like this. The same dream came to me often in my past life, sometimes in one form and sometimes in another, but always saying the same thing: 'Socrates,' it said, 'make music and work at it.' And I formerly thought it was urging and encouraging me  to do what I was doing already and that just as people encourage runners by cheering, so the dream was encouraging me to do what I was doing, that is, to make music, because philosophy was the greatest kind of music and I was working at that. But now, after the trial and while the festival of the god delayed my execution, I thought, in case the repeated dream really meant to tell me to make this which is ordinarily called music, I ought to do so and not to disobey. For I thought it was safer not to go hence before making sure that I had done what I ought, by obeying the dream and composing verses. So first I composed a hymn to the god whose festival it was; and after the god, considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet, must compose myths and not speeches, since I was not a maker of myths, I took the myths of Aesop, which I had at hand and knew, and turned into verse the first I came upon (Phaedo, 60e-61c).[21]

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost: Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures Delivered at University College (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961): V.
[2] Joseph Shipley, ed., Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique (New York: Philosophical Library, 1943), 229.
[3] Aesop’s Fables, Introductory Notes by D.L. Ashliman (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003), ix.
[4] G.K. Chesterton, Aesop’s Fables: A New Translation by Vernon S. Jones (Ebook: Project Gutenburg, 1912 Edition), Introduction.
[5] “This, then, is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap…Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.” (“On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power,” Lessing’s Theological Writings, (Stanford University Press, 1956, pp. 51-55).”
[6] Fables, Notes by Ashliman, xiii.
[7] Herodotus, in about 432, tells us the basics of Aesop’s life: his slavery, his master (Iadmon), and his father’s birthplace (Samian). He also tells us that Iadmon’s grandson received compensation for Aesop’s untimely death  (Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920) 2.134.
[8]qtd. in Fables of Power, 2; Lydgate wrote around 1421; Patterson goes on to say, “… the stories of the beasts, the birds, the trees, and the insects quickly acquired or recovered their function as a medium of political analysis and communication, especially in the form of a communication from or on behalf of the politically powerless.” Her analysis is burdened by a Marxist suspicion of ‘those in power,’ but her overall point is sound: the fables were hand made for the powerless.
[9] Ibid, xiv.
[10] Fables, Notes by Ashliman, xiv-xv.
[11] Ibid. xvii.
[12] B.E. Perry, Babrius and Phaedrus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 191.
[13] Luther said, “Attributing these stories to Aesop is, in my opinion, itself a fiction. Perhaps there never has been on earth a man by the name of Aesop,” qtd. in Joseph Jacobs, History of the Aesopic Fable (New York: Burt Franklin, 1970), 15.
[14] Martin Luther, Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 54:210–211.
[15] ed. Charles W. Eliot, The Hardvard Classics, vol. 37: John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14.), section 156.
[16] Preface to Paradise Lost, 229.
[17] Socrates reportedly set Aesop’s fables to music while he awaited execution, but Aesop and Plato did not get along so well in subsequent history, “Aesop himself was subsequently conceived not seen as Socrates' teacher but as Plato's antithesis, at least on the subject of education,” Annabel Patterson, Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 6.
[18] Dictionary of World Literature, 231.
[19] The fable was, first of all, "a technique of criticism and persuasion, which by its indirectness might avoid giving offense, while at the same time making a powerful impression by its artistry. It was especially valuable to the weak as a weapon against the powerful," M.L. West, “The Ascription of Fables to Aesop in Archaic and Classical Greece", La Fable (Vandœuvres–Genève: Fondation Hardt, Entretiens XXX), 105.
[20] Ibid, Introduction.
[21] Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

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