The canon of Western literature is like some storied gold mine, deep and old, and filled with riches.
The Bible. The “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” The “Aeneid.” “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.” “The Canterbury Tales.” Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The plays of Molière and William Shakespeare. Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”
This short list only skims the surface of the hundreds of notable books from the last 3,000 years. Philosophy, scientific treatises, histories and biographies, poetry—the inventory of writers and their works seems inexhaustible.
Philosopher Roger Scruton (1944–2020) spent a lifetime exploring these treasures. “The culture of a civilization,” he once stated, “is the art and literature through which it rises to consciousness of itself and defines its vision of the world.”
Scruton’s declaration is true of all the world’s great civilizations. Even today in Western society, when so many either ignore or attack traditional culture and values, all of us—even the most vehement opponents—are indebted to thinkers and artists like Socrates, Pascal, Giotto, Michelangelo, Scarlatti, and Mozart.
One often overlooked architect of Western culture is a man shrouded in the mists of time, but whose influence has been enormous: the maker of fables, Aesop.
The Mystery Man
Scholars have long debated the identity of Aesop and, indeed, whether he ever existed. Even to the ancients, Aesop was a riddle. Some thought him a slave, others regarded him as an adviser to King Croesus, and still others considered him a Greek, a Thracian, an Ethiopian, or a riddle solver from the island of Samos who became an adviser to the king of Babylon.
While we may never know whether a man called Aesop walked the earth, composed or collected fables, and then passed them along to his contemporaries, we do know for certain that the moralistic tales gathered under his name have long influenced our culture and contributed to the education of our young people.
Even today, Aesop’s fables appear in children’s anthologies. In William Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues for Young People,” for example, we find “The Fox and the Crow,” “The Frogs and the Well,” “The Flies and the Honey Pot,” “The Bear and the Travelers,” “Hercules and the Wagoner,” and “The Farmer and His Sons,” all attributed to the ancient fabulist.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Here is perhaps the best known of Aesop’s fables. We find this story of a race between a rabbit and a turtle in numerous collections of children’s literature as well as stand-alone storybooks. If we go to YouTube and check for “The Tortoise and the Hare,” multiple videos about this most famous of races also pop up. Indeed, as long ago as 1934, Walt Disney Studios produced a cartoon of this popular tale.
In case you need a reminder, here’s the fable in brief. A hare proclaims himself the swiftest creature in all the forest. Tired of the hare’s braggadocio, a tortoise accepts the challenge to a race. The hare agrees, and off they go. The hare so quickly outpaces the tortoise that he decides to take a break, lies down, and falls asleep on the sunlit grass. The plodding tortoise passes by the sleeping hare and crosses the finish line just as the hare awakens to find himself the loser.
The moral of the story: Slow and steady wins the race.
The first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, also known as Octavian, adopted as his personal motto “Festina lente,” which translates into English as “Make haste slowly.” In other words, keep on moving but do a thorough job. Had Aesop’s fable inspired Octavian in this regard? We can’t be certain, but he was surely familiar with the Greek and his stories as one of the emperor’s freemen, Phaedrus, put together a collection of these tales.
Whatever the case, most of us have heard any number of times “Slow and steady wins the race,” which is one more sign of Aesop’s ongoing influence on our culture.
Other popular fables accredited to Aesop include “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” “The Lion and the Mouse,” and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”
Just like “The Tortoise and the Hare,” each of these tales imparts a lesson. In “The Lion and the Mouse,” for instance, a mouse awakens a lion, who intends to eat his tiny intruder. The mouse begs for his life, promising the lion that someday he may be able to help the king of the jungle. Laughing at this absurdity, the lion releases the mouse. Later, when the lion becomes ensnared in a trap, the mouse hears his roaring, runs to assist him, chews through the ropes binding him, and saves the lion’s life.
The moral of the story: “A kindness is never wasted” and “Big or small, we can help each other.”
For the Grownups
But what of the fables less well-known to readers? In particular, what fables might fit our own era and our station in life?
Below are two of Aesop’s fables that seem aimed at today’s political turmoil and mess. Both are from a selection of Aesop’s tales from The Aesop for Children presented by the Library of Congress’s website. Despite that title, many of us of any age can find sound advice for living in these tales. In addition, some of the stories seem intended more for adults than for children. Here are two of them.
“The Animals & the Plague” tells of animals who, suffering from widespread sickness, gather together to discuss the situation. The lion proposes that they offer in sacrifice the guiltiest among them to propitiate the gods, and then confesses his own “sins” of having eaten different animals and even a shepherd or two. Other carnivores such as the wolf relate similarly bloody attacks on their fellow animals. But when the ass admits to eating grass from a field not his own, the other animals blame him as the cause of the plague, turn on him, and devour him on the spot.
The moral of the story: The weak are made to suffer for the misdeeds of the powerful. It’s also a denunciation of scapegoating and laying false accusations of blame.
In “The Wolf & the Lamb,” we receive another lesson in tyranny. A wolf spies a lamb at the edge of a creek and says, “You deserve to be punished for stirring up all the mud in the creek.” The lamb denies this charge, but the wolf persists, taking a new direction of attack: “You told lies about me. Or it was your brother.” When the lamb denies the charge, claiming to have no brother, the wolf says “It was someone in your family, and I have no intention of being cheated out of my breakfast.” The wolf then “seized the poor lamb and carried her off to the forest.”
The moral of the story: The tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny.
Both these tales carry implications and warnings for our own time, and appear especially pertinent to our time of pandemic and mandates.
These fables also speak to our time because they cut across cultural boundaries. The scholarly speculation about Aesop’s ethnicity—was he Greek? Thracian? Ethiopian?—alone reveals the multicultural origins of these stories.
And unlike the writings of a Plato or a Descartes, attacked by some today who are bent on undermining Western civilization, Aesop’s fables, like the fables from West Africa or India or any other region, are carriers of truths that supersede race and creed. Their morals are universal in their appeal to common decency and our humanity.
The frequent use of anthropomorphism in so many of these fables adds to this universalism, creating characters removed from the tribalism of the human race. Talking bears and roosters enhances a neutrality that might be absent had the fabulist used human beings.
No matter what our race or political beliefs, the morals of these fables should resonate with us. “They complain most who suffer least” (“The Oxen and the Axle-Trees”), “Give assistance, not advice, in a crisis” (“The Boy Bathing”), and “Deeds, not words” (“The Boasting Traveler”): These three examples all express commonsense ideas which, particularly in an age of moral ambiguity such as ours, might serve as building blocks for virtue and character.
Keeping the Tree Alive
In his Preface to “Culture Counts,” Roger Scruton remarked: “Our civilization has been uprooted. But when a tree is uprooted it does not always die. Sap may find its way to the branches, which break into leaf each spring with the perennial hope of living things. Such is our condition, and it is for this reason that culture has become not just precious to us, but a genuine political cause, the primary way of conserving our moral heritage and of standing firm in the face of a clouded future.”
Among the ancient roots of that tree of culture and civilization are Aesop’s fables. When we share these stories and their precepts with our children, or when we ourselves visit these old, cogent guidelines for living, pondering their significance and taking them into our hearts, we water those roots and keep alive that tree.
The moral of the story: Read some Aesop and introduce his fables to your children.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.