Aesop’s Fables in Modern Times

I recently purchased Penguin’s Little Black Classics Box set: it contains¬†80 books from the Penguin’s Little Black Classics series; featuring short works by a wide variety of authors.

One of the books I have read is The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop. Aesop was a well known Greek fabulist and storyteller born around 620 BCE. It is believed, from the writings of Aristotle and Herodotus, that Aesop was a slave who was later freed.

For works that were written more than 2,000 years ago, I find they still have a resonance with me today. Here are some fables that I particularly enjoyed reading:

The House-ferret and Aphrodite

A house-ferret, having fallen in love with a handsome young man, begged Aphrodite, goddess of love, to change her into a human girl. The goddess took pity on this passion and changed her into a gracious young girl. The young man, when he saw her, fell in love with her and led her to his home. As they rested, Aphrodite, wanting to see if in changing body the house-ferret had also changed in character, released a mouse in the middle of the room. The house-ferret, forgetting her present condition, leapt up from the bed and chased the mouse in order to eat it. The indignant goddess changed her back to her former state.

I find this fable quite funny, given the image of an otherwise dignified young lady chasing a mouse. More importantly, the fable speaks some truth in the modern world. People are always looking to change their appearance as we are often judged by our appearances before our actual character is taken into consideration. We have to remember changing how we look does not mean we have changed as people. To this extent, the fable provides useful. Whilst it is reasonable to judge people based on how they look (for example, someone’s hygiene may reveal something about their character), the truth of the fable is that despite this possibility of someone’s image giving indications of their character, it is simply not enough.

The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon

Some dolphins and some whales were engaged in battle. As the fight went on and became desperate, a gudgeon poked his head above the surface of the water and tried to reconcile them. But one of the dolphins retorted:

‘It is less humiliating for us to fight to the death between ourselves than to have you for a mediator’

A gudgeon is a small fish. Similar to the dolphins and the whales, it is human nature for our egos to be thrown away before those bigger than ourselves, or before those whom we hold in high esteem. Despite the truth a gudgeon may speak, ego clouds us. If the gudgeon is given the support of sharks, the gudgeon’s voice may be heard. But who then is the real mediator? The gudgeon or the sharks? Or is it both? To see it another way, it may just be that the threat of sanction is what makes the law powerful rather than the reasonableness of the law itself. The nature of human beings in this respect; the wish to maintain our pride and the dislike of sanction; speaks truth to all forms of human interaction, including international politics.

The Camel Seen for the First Time

When they first set eyes on a camel, men were afraid. Awed by its huge size, they ran away. But when, in time, they realised its gentleness, they plucked up enough courage to approach it. Then, gradually realising that it had no temper, they went up to it and grew to hold it in such contempt that they put a bridle on it and gave it to the children to lead.

It is worth noting that Penguin summarised this fable as the following: “This fable shows that habit can overcome the fear which awesome things inspire.” I disagree with this assessment. Maybe I am misanthropic, but I find this fable speaks of the taking nature of humanity. Once we know something will not cause us harm, we come to abuse that thing beyond reasonableness. This can be shown through our approach to rapid industrialisation without immediate concern for the environment and in some cases the maltreatment of animals. Even in the historical context of human beings’ approach to other humans; brutal acts of colonialism have been made possible because of the abuse of others’ gentle human nature, coupled with the power of holding advanced military technology. The temptation to abuse when we have the option to do so is often too difficult to resist.

The Wolf and the Lamb

A wolf saw a lamb drinking at a stream and wanted to devise a suitable pretext for devouring it. So, although he was himself upstream, he accused the lamb of muddying the water and preventing him from drinking. The lamb replied that he only drank with the tip of his tongue and that, besides, being downstream he couldn’t muddy the water upstream. The wolf’s stratagem having collapsed, he replied:

‘But last year you insulted my father.’

‘I wasn’t even born then,’ replied the lamb

So the wolf resumed:

‘Whatever you say to justify yourself, I will eat you all the same.’

Those who seek to carry out harm and evil will do so no matter how weak their argument is, or how strong the argument of their victims to protect themselves. This speaks true for bullies on an individual level and for aggressive nation states throughout the history of international politics. Again, this presumes a darker and more ruthless understanding of human nature where the good and innocent among us (who are often also the most gentle) must be protected with adequate resistance.

The Jackdaw and the Ravens

A jackdaw who grew larger in size than the other jackdaws disdained their company. So he took himself off to the ravens and asked if he could share his life with them. But the ravens, unfamiliar with his shape and his voice, mobbed him and chased him away. So, rejected by them, he went back to be with the jackdaws. but the jackdaws, outraged at his defection, refused to have him back. And thus he was an outcast from the society of both jacks and ravens.

This fable speaks volumes for the immigrants of the world. Those who have left their countries for another are seen as foreigners by those belonging to the new country; whilst those from their home country dislike the immigrants for leaving them, which they have taken as contempt. Immigrants and the children of immigrants live twinned lives. As the son of immigrants to the West, I do not feel like I am truly part of the West or the East. I live between these worlds, suspended between the two. There are blessings in this experience, but like the jackdaw, there is also a form of loneliness.

Through his fables, Aesop’s has been able to explain themes in human nature and human experience that certainly still ring true today.