University students today are constantly exposed to a passing parade of ideas; a parade which began in ancient Athens, when philosophers prised knowledge and information from the vice-like jaws of drab survival at one extreme; and of superstition and myth at the other.
These philosophers also set aside personal responsibility and accountability; in favour of abstract theories which exposed thinkers to new horizons.
Mars Hill, Athens’ highest point, attracted people from all over the world to hear Plato and Aristotle unpack their concepts and arguments; while storytellers like Homer also unfolded their sagas of history and allegory. These three are still familiar names, like those of Socrates, the Stoics, and the Epicureans.
However, a story-telling slave named Aesop never joined this passing parade of Athenian intelligentsia. Yet even after more than two and a half millennia his voice still speaks with authority.
His six hundred-plus fables expose us to the best and worst of ourselves, and about life in general, without embarrassment impeding the message. That's because his lessons are built on anthropomorphisms—which endow animals and objects with human attributes and abilities—as they become his central characters in fables such as these…
The Ant and the Grasshopper is a lesson in time-management. It compares the persistent food-gathering of the ant—which stores food for winter, and survives—with the grasshopper, which frolics all summer without foreseeing any winter shortages.
The Lion, the Bear and the Fox describes how a lion and a bear simultaneously attack a fawn and fight over it until they collapse from fatigue. A fox watches their struggle, then snatches the prey and makes off with it. The lesson? From the labour of others, some may profit—often with little effort.
The North Wind and the Sun challenge each other in a test of strength: to make a passing traveler remove his cloak. The hardest gusts of the North Wind only serve to make the traveler wrap his cloak tighter; but when the Sun shines, he quickly removes his cloak to avoid becoming too hot. Aesop’s point is that persuasion is a more effective tool in changing people’s behavior than force; a relevant lesson for whenever we confront religious cults.
In The Snake in the Thorn Bush, a snake entwined in a thorn hedge is swept away by a flood. A fox sees this and gives a mocking summation: “A wicked ship, and worthy of its sailor!” To point out that evil people will come to grief from the company they keep.
The race between The Tortoise and the Hare is probably Aesop’s best-known fable: not only to show how pride comes before a fall; but also outlining clear goal-setting principles.
The Town Mouse and Country Mouse tells of a proud town mouse who visits a country cousin and scoffs at his bucolic simplicity. He invites the country mouse to the city for a taste of the "good life." But this is where a couple of menacing dogs force them to abandon a huge feast. Their narrow escape prompts the country mouse to forsake urban sophistication for his rustic security.
The Wolf and the Lamb comments on the sad reality of injustice. On finding a lamb, a wolf seeks to justify killing it by falsely accusing it of various crimes. Despite his falsity being exposed, the impatient wolf then blames other family members for these offences. He is too hungry to wait for any further discussion. The moral is that tyrants can always find excuses for their tyranny, and that the unjust will rarely listen to the reasoning of the innocent.
Aesop’s Fables bypassed the intellectual passing parade of his day. But these fables have become enmeshed in cultures and languages all over the world; in ways that intellectual snobs may have envied—even if they vainly tried to dismiss them as Aesop’s Foibles…
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