Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fables Part 1: Re-discovering Aesop’s Fables. Are fables still relevant in our times?

Dr. Abe Rotor and Ms Melly Tenorio
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid DZRB 738 KHzAM
8-9 Evening Class, Monday to Friday
Living with Nature - School on Blog

Wolf and the Crane; Wolf and the Lamb
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Aesop did not write down his fables. He told many people the stories and they remembered them. It was nearly two hundred years before the stories were collected together and published. The fables were not published in English until the 15th century, but since then they have been read by people all over the world. Their moral lessons are as true today as they were 2,500 years ago when Aesop was alive.
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Childhood Lessons from Fables

The first lessons I learned from my father came from Aesop’s fables. Quite a number of them are still fresh in my mind nearly fifty years after. Fable or fibula in Latin is a story or tale, especially a short story, often with animals or inanimate objects as speakers or actors, devised to convey a moral. So simple and universal are fables that no one could possibly miss the lesson of each story.

Before I proceed let me say a few words about the genius behind this ancient art of storytelling. the founder of fables. Aesop was a native of old Greece, a former slave who earned his freedom out of his genius and wit, a master in allegorical philosophy. It is for this natural gift that he also gained fame – and ironically, it is also for this that he met a lamentable end in the hands of enemies whom his fables created.

Aesop is the greatest fabulist of all time, and if there are other prominent fabulists after him and at present, there is likely a shade of Aesop in their stories. Even modern fables like the movie Babes, about the pig that gained its right to live by learning to be a sheep dog, reminds us of Aesop. Or take the case of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a story about man’s folly and greed for power and wealth and lavish living.

But little can we perceive the original morals of Aesop in most of today’s animations. There is simply too much fantasy that masks the lesson, especially so with the versatility of technology that emphasizes scenarios that heighten the plot as if fables are running entertainment stories. What technology misses is that it fails to capture the refinement of presentation and the purposeful message that lingers in afterthought. Aesop has a unique way of making his reader to first look within himself before casting judgment upon others. Like many philosophers in his time, he believed that change is basically internal and often, discreetly self atonement and non-effacing. Aesop is Aesop for such extraordinary character as can be gleamed from records about the man. To wit -.

“It is probable that he was of a low and diminutive stature, though agreeable in his complexion, and polite in his manners. It is however certain that he had a great soul, and was endowed with extraordinary mental qualification; his moral character approached to a degree of perfection to which very few have attained. He appears to have had a true sense of morality and a just discernment of right and wrong; his perceptions and feelings of truth were scrupulously mice, and the smallest deviation from rectitude impressed his mind with the greatest antipathy.

“No considerations of private interest could warp his inclinations to as to seduce him from the path of virtue; his principles are steadfast and determined, and truly habitual. He never employed his great wisdom to serve the purposes of cunning; but, with an uncommon exactness, made his understanding a servant of truth.” (Oliver Goldsmith, Life of Aesop)

While we recognize Aesop as the father of the fable, there were fabulists ahead of him like Archilochus who wrote fables one hundred years before. But it is certain that Aesop was the first that brought that species of teaching into reputation, building upon the style of using animals and inanimate objects to describe the manners and characters of men, communicating instructions without seeming to assume authority of a master or a pedagogue.

Here is a story from which we can gleam the Aesop’s indomitable reputation. He adopted a unique strategy to reconcile his master and his estranged wife who had left him. It is said that Aesop, then a slave of Xanthus, went to the market and brought a great quantity of the best provisions, which he publicly declared were intended for the marriage of his master with a new spouse. This report had its desired effect, and the matter was amicably settled. And at a feast to celebrate the return of his master’s wife he is said to have served the guests with several courses of tongues, by which he intended to give a moral to his master and wife, who had by too liberal use of their tongue almost caused their permanent separation.

In another occasion, Aesop astounded the sages of Greece. An ambitious king having one day shown his vast riches and magnificence, and the glory and splendor of his court, asked them the question, whom they thought was the happiest man. After several different answers given by all the wise men present, it came at last to Aesop to make his reply. He said: “That Croesus was as much happier than other men as the fullness of the sea was superior to the rivers in his kingdom.”

If we were to base Aesop’s sagacity and severe morality his answer would rather be one of sarcasm rather than compliment, but he was undoubtedly understood by the king to be a great compliment, that in his vanity exclaimed, “The Phrygian had hit the mark.” Afterwards, alone with a friend, Aesop commented, “Either we must not speak to Kings, or we must say what will please them.”

While he was living at the court of King Croesus, now a free man, celebrated and famous, he was sent on a journey to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. There he was accused by the Delphians of sacrilege, and he was convicted by an act of the greatest villainy. They concealed among his baggage, at his departure, some golden vessels consecrated to Apollo, and then dispatched messengers to search his baggage. Upon this he was accused of theft and sacrilege, and condemned to die. The angry Dephians pushed him over a steep cliff to his death.

Aesop’s ironic death is not the first among respected citizens of Greece, paradoxically when Greece was at its peak of power, as we can only imagine with this aphorism “the glory that was Greece.” Not far after Aesop’s time, Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Athens in his time and one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, was condemned to die by drinking poison hemlock for “corrupting the minds of the youth.” Socrates opened the gate of enlightenment; the concept of the Lyceum or university.

I have selected a number of Aesop fable to suit the purpose of conveying important messages related to contemporary issues in a manner that they can be understood at the grassroots. This is the purpose of Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (school-on-the air) to impart functional literacy to the masses. It is not the intention of the lessons to impose moral authority, much less to proselytize our society of its failures and weaknesses. It merely seeks to elevate awareness for change, in the humblest manner we may find ways to reform, through the lessons in the fables Aesop related more than two thousand five hundred years ago.

Continued...

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