Aesop, Aristotle, and animals: the role of fables in human life.

Author:Clayton, Edward
 
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"If someone has considered the study of the other animals to lack value, he ought to think the same thing about himself as well." --Aristotle, Parts of Animals 645a In Aesop's fable of the Wolf and Lamb, (1) instead of simply seizing and devouring a lamb that has wandered from the flock, the wolf challenges him with a series of false accusations, looking for a way to justify making a meal of him. The lamb is able to prove that each of the charges the wolf makes against him is unjustified: he has not, and in fact could not have, insulted the wolf a year earlier, eaten from the wolf's field, or drunk from the wolf's fountain since he is less than a year old and still gets all his nourishment from his mother. But although the lamb successfully proves his innocence, at the end of the fable the wolf devours the lamb anyhow, saying "You are not going to make this wolf go without his dinner, even if you are able to easily refute every one of my charges!" In this fable, then, power, wickedness and malice triumph over weakness, innocence and honesty.

In the oldest recorded Greek fable, which is found in Hesiod's Works and Days, a hawk who has seized a nightingale says to her over her dying song, "Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if 1 please I will make my meal of you, or let you go." Here the lesson, made explicit by Hesiod in the text that immediately follows, is that "He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame." (2) In other words, might makes right, the weak suffer at the whim of the stronger, and rebellion by the weak is futile and only brings more pain and the potential for destruction. Hesiod goes on to explicitly parallel this fable to his own situation, with himself in the role of the singing nightingale, and addresses the fable to "princes who themselves understand." (3)

Another fable tells of a growing dispute between a water snake and a viper, which they agree to resolve through battle. The frogs, hating the water snake who preys on them, come to the viper and offer to be his allies in the battle, and the viper accepts their offer. But once the battle begins, all the frogs are able to do on the viper's behalf is sit around watching the fight and croaking. In the end the viper defeats the water snake anyway, but is angry with the frogs for singing rather than offering aid. The frogs reply, "But you should have known that we had nothing to offer you except the sound of our voices!" (4) Here, in addition to the lesson that those with greater strength prevail, we learn that it is important to choose allies who are strong and that it is foolish to rely on those who have nothing to offer but their voices.

There are many similar fables in the Augustana collection, (5) and collectively they seem to convey clearly the lesson that the strong rule and the weak must obey or suffer, and that ultimately it is strength that matters more than anything else. (6) The weak risk defiance or opposition at their own peril, and no matter how well they might argue or how beautifully they might sing, their lack of power means that they ultimately have very little chance of successfully resisting a stronger adversary--and in the fables strength almost always means physical power.

The three fables described above, when taken together, clearly deliver a political message, and one that is applicable in at least two contexts when applied to human affairs. (7) When put into the context of relations among individual human beings within a city, the message is that those who lack power must obey and try not to anger those who have it if they are to avoid bringing about their own destruction. And when it is put into the context of relationships between cities, it represents what is still a familiar view of international relations. One can easily imagine the Athenian ambassador to the Melians relating these fables to them before drawing his famous conclusion that the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must--and the Melians reflecting on these fables as they awaited their fate. (8)

According to the prevailing view of those who have commented on the fables, the messages conveyed are clear and straightforward. The fables are intended to be cautionary tales, warning of the dangers of being the weaker party, and providing advice on how to behave if one is in a position of weakness. (9) The hierarchy and power relations in the fables, it is said, are analogous to those in the human world as it was in Greece at the time. The commentators who hold this view seem to determine the fables' audience and message by asking the question, "For whom would these fables represent an accurate portrayal of life, one in which the strong dominate and the weak are helpless to resist or to change their situation?" In answering this question, they conclude that the fables were meant to be, and were, heard and told primarily by the lower classes and slaves. (10)

It is certainly true that for slaves and those in the Greek lower classes an attitude of resigned helplessness might well have been the best possible strategy for staying out of trouble, and the fables would have provided valuable lessons for survival. It has even been suggested that the fables were largely written by someone who was part of the aristocratic class for the purpose of indoctrinating these values among the lower classes (11) and it is obvious why this would have been a good strategy for those on top; resigned helplessness on the part of the vast underclasses was exactly the kind of attitude that would have helped the upper classes to maintain their power. But even if the fables were not written for the purpose of perpetuating the prevailing hierarchy, a world where a fixed class of the powerful permanently dominates a fixed class of the powerless would have represented the reality of almost all Greek cities. Even though the fables themselves have no context--that is, they take place at no particular time or place--it is generally argued that they would have been told, heard, and understood in the context of everyday life. For the aristocrats the fables would reinforce the rightness and naturalness of their power and actions and would allow them proudly to compare themselves to lions and other powerful predators able to impose their will on others with impunity. (12) The slaves and lower classes would see their lives accurately depicted by the weaker animals and find useful cautionary tales that could help them stay out of trouble. Seen from this perspective, the purpose of the fables and their political message are very clear and simple.

In this article, however, I will argue that there is more to the political content of the fables than the message that appears on the surface. (13) To read the fables in the way I have described above is to read them as though human beings are only animals, and only behave in the way that animals do; clearly, this is not the case. Certainly human beings are animals and certainly there are similarities between animal behavior and human behavior; if there were not, the genre of the animal fable would not exist. But another message could have been found in the democratic context of ancient Athens, which we can see if we read the fables with an eye not only to how animals and people are similar but also to how they are different, as those similarities and differences would have been seen by the Athenians. (14) Human beings, because of their unique capability of reason, have the opportunity to live differently than animals. In fact, rather than providing lessons on how to survive in a brutal, predatory world, the fables can point towards a means for escaping that world. They can actually point towards democracy, equality, and justice rather than hierarchy, power, and exploitation. (15)

In order to make this argument, I must show that the fables had an audience in democratic Athens that was willing and able to interpret them this way, and I also must show that this audience would have thought about the relationship between the animal world and the human world in the way I have suggested. The first point is a relatively straightforward historical one: it is clear that the fables were used in settings where the adult male citizens of Athens would have heard them, and that the fables were seen as a legitimate part of democratic political, philosophical, and artistic discourse. Making the second point is more complicated. It is difficult to know exactly how the citizens of Athens thought about animals and the degree to which humans were considered to be a part of the natural world. Animals were much more a part of daily life for Athenians than they are for most people in the Western world today and so they were undoubtedly more familiar with the behavior and character of the animals found in the fables than most modern observers would be. (16) Animals were encountered in myths, sacrifice, votive scenes, tomb monuments, and as companions, objects of the chase, and pets. (17) They were used for transport, food, dress, adornment, agriculture, hunting, religion, pleasure, scientific interest, and public entertainment. (18) And in addition to the tame animals that were so important to their lives, Athenians also had much more direct experience with wild environments than most Westerners do today and accordingly more direct knowledge of wild and dangerous animals--wolves and snakes, for example.

I need to show how the Athenians thought about the similarities and differences between humans and animals in order to make the case that the fables could have been seen as conveying a democratic message in addition to the more familiar one. Rather than trying to piece together the Athenian view of animals from a variety of references, I will instead turn to Aristotle...

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