Aesop is Always with Us

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

Recently, like so many other investors, I took a bit of a beating in the stockmarket, though my portfolio was put together by some of the most skilled and seasoned analysts on Wall Street. However, much against the advice of my skilled advisers, and as a special favor to a young friend who had just entered the brokerage business I had bought 10,000 shares of a penny stock which at one time

was hardly worth even a penny! But suddenly one day and what seemed sheer chance the penny stock skyrocketed to over $12 a share and I recouped most of my losses.

This may seem a long and round-about way to introduce an essay on Aesop but the experience and this is true, reminded me of one of the fables of Aesop and its moral: "Thus it is that what skill denies, chance and luck often give freely." The fable goes like this:

Some fishermen who had gone fishing were very worried about the fact that they had caught nothing for a long time. Sitting in their boat, they wallowed in rejection. Just at that moment a tunny-fish, who being chased attempted to save himself and, with a loud thump, jumped accidentally into their boat. They seized it and took him back to their village where they sold him.

Of all the names of authors of Greek antiquity Aesop is probably the best known and most quoted. Yet it is ironical that Aesop's reputation should be so high when so little is accurately known about him. Even his existence has frequently been doubted, but a substantial body of tradition supports the belief that he did indeed exist probably in the 6th century B.C. Herodotus mentions Aesop and Socrates in 399 B.C. passed his last days in prison turning Aesop fables into verse. What a way to go!

According to a rather romantic biography of Aesop composed long after his time, Aesop was a slave born in Phrygia in Asia Minor. He was exceedingly homely: dwarfish, potbellied, with swarthy skin, pointed head, snub nose, bandy legs, short arms and squint eyes. Further, he was mute until the goddess Isis conferred the power of speech upon him for a good deed he had performed. His keen wit and ingenuity in tight situations, however, matched those of some of his animal characters.

For example, it is related that when Aesop was going to Ephesus with other slaves. The burdens they had to carry were distributed. Because Aesop chose a large basket of bread, twice as heavy as any of the other loads, he was called a fool by his fellow-slaves. But the bread was used to feed the slaves and before evening Aesop had nothing to carry except an empty basket.

The influence of Aesop's fables on popular thought and formal literature has been far-reaching. Innumerable Aesopic expressions and moral teachings have become common currency. Note, for example, "fishing in muddy waters," "out of the frying pan into the fire", "the goose that laid the golden eggs," "the dog in the manger", "the boy who cried wolf", "the hare and the tortoise," "the wolf in sheep's clothing," "the fox and the sour grapes," "the ass in the lion's skin," "the bundle of sticks."

Perhaps the deepest appreciation of Aesop in ancient times was shown by Aristotle who pictures Aesop in no dwarfish form but as a man of great intellect and also a lawyer:

He tells an interesting story of how Aesop, then living on the island of Samos, defended a popular leader being tried for his life before the Assembly by telling a fable about a fox crossing a river who was swept away by the current. The fox became stuck in a hole in the rocks, where, being afflicted by a swarm of fleas, she asked a passing hedgehog who had expressed sympathy not to relieve her of them because 'These fleas are by this time full of me and not sucking much blood; if you take them away, others will come with fresh appetites and drink up all the blood I have left.' Aesop used this fable to say that his client was wealthy already and, if put to death, others would come along who would rob the treasury, whereas he didn't need to.

The Aesop fables provide fascinating glimpses of ordinary life in ancient Greece. Details emerge of objects of daily use, such as wigs and dog collars, which are occasionally surprising. Through the fables one gets inside people's homes, learns what mice liked to eat-and hence what was in the larder­how pets were treated, how sons were spoil, how superstitious everyone was, how merchants and tradesmen thought and acted, how a farmer could take it into his head to set up as a merchant trader and set out to sea with a small cargo of goods, how frequent disastrous shipwrecks were, how mistreated the donkeys were, how a miser would bury his gold, how a master would buy a new slave, how one staved off mockery by quick repartee. These insights enable us to have the kind of understanding of ancient Greek life which does not come from reading Plato or Thucycides. Here we are face to face with peasants, tradesmen and ordinary folk, not mixing with the educated classes. Coarse peasant humor is found throughout the Aesop material, and some of the jokes would not be out of place in rough country localities round the globe at the present day.

Though no word of writings by Aesop is known to exist, Aesop's name is now virtually synonomous with the fable.

Aesop, or someone like him, was the first to collect, retell in concise, easy-to-remember style and disseminate widely for moral instruction previously existing fables including many of his own.

Typically, the Aesopic fable is brief, simple and direct; the language clear and unpretentious, apparently artless. It is dramatically effective, though, in bringing out a witty, emotional, or didactic point. To serve his practical purpose-the teaching of a moral lesson-the fabulist incorporates folklore, tradition, superstition and sophistry. Frequently he does violence to the facts of natural history, quite aside from the literary device of having dumb animals or inanimate cities, trees, mountains, rocks and rivers talking to one another.

Aesopic fables and their predecessors represent the earliest stage of literary art. Apparently they possess an irresistible appeal for man at every cultural level from the savage to the civilized. The secret of their charm lies in their simplicity; directness, native shrewdness, and a curious combination of naivete and sophistication. In a sense, the fables. are the essence, a kind of distillation, of the universal and age-old wisdom of the race.

I'll end this essay with one of my favorite of the Aesop fables:

A raven stole a piece of meat and flew up and perched on a branch with it. A fox saw him there and determined to get the meat for himself. So he sat at the base of the tree and said to the raven:

'Of all birds you are by far the most beautiful. You have such elegant proportions, are so stately and sleek. You were ideally made to be the king of all the birds. And if you only had a voice you would surely be king.'

The raven, wanting to demonstrate to him that there was nothing wrong with his voice, dropped the meat and uttered a great cry caw-caw-caw. The fox rushed forward, pounced on the meat, and said:

'Oh, raven, if only you also had judgement, you would want for nothing to be the king of the birds.'

The fable is a lesson to all fools or don't let flattery go to your head!

(Posting date 4 December 2006)

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