Aesop: Wisdom From Below
By Gabriel Blanchard
The animal fables of a slave are some of the seminal works of western literature.
Aesop may seem like an odd figure to include among the great books. Not only did he write only simple fables, but his historical existence has been challenged and his corpus is certainly mixed with material by other authors. But in these things he is not unlike Homer or Hippocrates (or even, by some lights, Shakespeare); and as for animal fables, they may do more for us than we recognize at first. There is presumably some reason more compelling than mere habit that has kept these stories popular for almost three thousand years, and spawned imitators from Geoffrey Chaucer to the Walt Disney company.
Aesop was certainly taken to be historical by the classical Greeks. He was believed to have been a slave on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea, just off the coast of modern Turkey, and to have earned his freedom and become a diplomat. (He was also, according to tradition, startlingly ugly.) He was said to have dined with Solon, the great lawmaker of Athens, and to have been a popular contender as an eighth among the Seven Sages of Greece.
The mere pleasure of having stories about talking animals is, of course, one reason for his enduring popularity. In several novels and a few essays, C. S. Lewis touched on the theme that we are on some level alienated from creation, and that our continual appetite for stories of people who can understand animal speech, our liking for animal fables, and even the practice of keeping pets, manifest a longing for reunion. The opposite explanation—that animals provide a convenient way to caricature humans, especially because we read human expression and gesture onto them—is of course also true. We almost never have only one reason for telling, or liking, a story.
Animal fable also does some of the same things a parable does, conveying wisdom through code or symbol that requires the audience to engage imaginatively in order to understand. But where parables are usually descriptions of a specific situation, with a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and things they symbolize, fables are designed to impart universal wisdom that is true in a great variety of circumstances. Aesop may have come originally from Africa, and many of his fables feature animals not native to Greece, like camels, elephants, and monkeys; but of course the point of the fables is just as incisive for a Greek hearer, or for an American hearer today, as it was for ancient African audiences.
What fables do perhaps better than any other form of literature, however, is to overcome our egotistic dislike of having our flaws highlighted. By typically framing its content as being about animals, and usually very light and humorous in its style, a fable can sidestep our normal projection of ourselves onto the human characters of a story, allowing us to perceive and absorb moral wisdom without feeling threatened by it. Aesop may have had personal experience with the importance of not wounding people’s pride when you need them to learn something from you: a schooling from an ugly barbarian slave would probably not have met with a gracious reception from most Greek masters. Wisdom that comes from what we regard as beneath us usually has to appear in disguise if we are to meet it at all.