Aesop, And His Fables
( Originally Published 1851 )
In all ages and nations, the fables of AEsop have been resorted to for the instruction of young people, and have supplied matter for the wisdom of more advanced years. If the infant mind can be taught to abhor violence and injustice by the fable of the Wolf and the Lamb ; if the advantages of persevering industry can be inculcated by the story of the Hare and the Tortoise; and if the disgrace of the bragging traveller can supply the young with a caution against boasting, lessons of more extended wisdom may be derived from the various apologues in which not beasts, fishes, or trees alone, but human beings and fabulous divinities are introduced. To no author, excepting AEsop, has it happened to have portions of his works condensed into proverbial sayings, passing from mouth to mouth, as atter of familiar conversation, too applicable to demand introduction, too well known to require explanation. Thus, when we speak of Blowing Hot and Cold, no one expects that the story of the Satyr and the Traveller shoud be repeated to him; or, when mention is made of the Dog in the Manger, the Viper and the File, or the Mountain in Labor, the mind of the hearer is instantly informed that envious selfishness, malignant and impotent rage, and rash promises, or threats, productive of no consequence, are meant to be described and satirized.
AEsop, the author of most of the fables which are current in the collections passing under his name, made his way to eminence, unfavored by any circumstances of birth, fortune, or person: he was a Phrygian, of the lowest order of society, a purchased slave, and of person so deformed, that the description of him is nearly hideous; and, as if merit were allotted to him only to show against what difficulties it can successfully struggle, he had an impediment in his speech, which rendered him almost unintelligible. Vet, by persevering patience, and the manly struggle of a firm and exalted mind, he was enabled to become, not only the companion of his superiors, but the instructer of those who most prided themselves on their wisdom. His prudent counsels quieted the minds of the Athenians, when they were ready to break out into fatal violence, at the usurpation of Pisistratus; he taught them the dangers they had to apprehend from the alliances, or even the quarrels, of powerful and dangerous neighbors; and all this by such popular narratives as remain forever fixed in the memory, and form a continual guide to the judgment.
The effect of his wisdom was such, that he was not only respected and well treated during his life, but, as Phaedrus, the most spirited and accomplished of his translators, has informed us, the polite Athenians dedicated a colossal statue to his memory; and, although he had been but a slave, consecrated his fame on an imperishable pedestal, to inform mankind, says the Roman author, that the road to honorable distinction was open to all men.
Wits of the first class in all nations, from Phaedrus, in Rome, to La Fontaine, in Paris, have thought their time well employed in collecting, amplifying, pointing, and embellishing the narratives of this author, with the addition of similar stories and anecdotes,--such as passing time and their own observation could supply. Every nation has shown the state of the times, or its prevailing genius, in the manner of rendering, augmenting, or imitating, this, their great model.
Of the imitators of AEsop, it is not intended to speak; but self-denial would be too severely taxed, were no mention to be made of the elegant fictions of Gay, so exquisitely invented, and judiciously applied, as to raise a spark of honest envy even in the friendly bosom of Swift.
It is earnestly to be hoped that the fables of &sop, as the means of information and instruction, may never be disused nor neglected. In the course of them he portrays himself as a friend of truth and justice, a man of sincere benevolence, and communicative of his good principles; as a man who honored and feared the gods whom he was brought up to worship, although his mind carried him above the feebleness of superstition, and protected him against the arts of deception.