Friday, June 26, 2015

Re-discovering Aesop’s Fables.

Are fables still relevant in our times?  
Dr Abe V Rotor
 Living with Nature - School on Blog
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid with Ms Melly C Tenorio
738 DZRB AM, 8 to 9 evening class, Monday to Friday


Aesop's Fables have been told and re-told, then written and re-written countless times as a form of entertainment and education. Anecdotal and comic sketches were everyday forms of amusement in ancient Athens and Delphi. Today these works envelop many realms of life including psychology, politics, spirituality, education, health and well-being. Whether the man himself or Aesop the modern construct of scholars, his influence and commentary on human behavior has been firmly established. (C.D. Merriman) 

 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.



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. Aesop, the founder of fables, 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 trace 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 nice, 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.” Afterward, 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.


Here are some of the popular fables of Aesop with the morals they convey.

 
 Popular Aesop Fables
1. The fox without a tail – Wise people are not easily fooled
2. The shepherd boy and the wolf – If we tell lies, no one will believe us when we speak the truth.
3. The boastful traveler – People who boast are soon found out.
4. The crow and the fox – Beware of people who say nice things they do not mean.
5. Who will bell the cat – Some things are more easily said than done.


6. The crow and the swan – Think well before you copy other people.
7. The wolf and the lamb – People who want to do something bad can always
find an excuse.
Fox and the Rooster 
8. The lion and the hare – It is sometimes wiser to be content with what you have.
9. Brother and sister – It is better to be good than to be just good looking.
10. The goose that laid the golden eggs - A greedy man can lose all he has.


11. The wind and the sun– Kindness often gets things done more quickly than force.
12. The trees and the axe – Be careful when you give way over small things,
or you may have to give way over big ones.
13. The dog and his reflection – If you want more because you are greedy, in the end
you might find you have less.
14. The fir tree and the bramble – People who are too proud may be sorry later.
15. The ant and the dove – No one is too little to be helpful.


16. The boys and the frogs – Do not do things to other people that you would not
like to be done to you.
17. The raven and the jug – If you try hard enough, you may find you can do something
that at first seems very difficult.
18. The dog in the manger – Do not stop others having what you don’t need.
19. The fox and the grapes – It is silly to say that you do not want something just
because you cannot have it. (idiomatic expression: sour grapes)
20. The wolves and the dog – Those who cannot be trusted deserve to be treated badly.


21. The fox and the lion – Things are not always what they seem to be at first.
22. The bear and the travelers - A real friend will not leave you to face trouble alone.
23. The fox and the stork – If you play mean tricks on other people, they might do
the same to you.
24. The man and the partridge – No one loves a traitor.

Versions and Interpretations of Aesop’s Fables
The interpretation of an Aesop fable may vary. For example, The Fir tree and the Bramble, has this earlier interpretation, from Oliver Goldsmith, citing Bewick’s version.

Poverty secures a man from many dangers; whereas the rich and the mighty are the mark of malice and cross fortune; and still the higher they are, the nearer the thunder.

To have a better view of the moral, let me cite the fable from Bewick’s. The fable starts with a verse, as follows:


Minions of fortune, pillars of the state, Round your exalted heads that tempest low’r! While peace secure, and soft contentment wait On the calm mansions of the humble poor.

So the story goes like this. “My head, says the boasting Fir-tree to the humble Bramble, is advanced among the stars; I furnish beams for palaces, and masts for shipping; the very sweat of my body is a sovereign remedy for the sick and wounded: whereas thou, O rascally Bramble, runnest creeping in the dirt, and art good for nothing in the world but mischief. I pretend not to vie with thee, said the Bramble, in the points that gloriest in. But, not to insist upon it, that He who made thee lofty Fir, could have made thee an humble Bramble, I pray thee tell me, when the Carpenter comes next with the axe into the wood, to fell timber, whether that hadst not rather be a Bramble than a Fir-tree?”


C
ompare the same fable with this simplified version for children. Here it goes.


One day, on a hill top, a fir tree said to a bramble bush. “Look at me. I am tall, strong, graceful and very beautiful. What good are you? You are small, ugly and untidy.”

This made the bramble bush very unhappy because it knew the fir tree was right. But next day some men carrying axes came up the hill. They started to chop down the fir tree. They wanted to use it to make a new house.


”Oh dear!” cried the fir tree, as it started to fall. “I wish I were a bramble bush, then the men would not have cut me down.” x x x


No comments: