Why You Should Read Ancient Greek Fables Again
Timeless lessons before self-help was a “thing”
A young twenty-four-year-old hotshot had just put the finishing touches on his presentation. It was replete with errors and dubious conclusions. It was an ambitious task for an inexperienced guy, and we credited him with having the guts to tackle such a challenge. It was analogous to saying, “it sucks, but you’re brave for trying.”
That wasn’t enough for the young hotshot. He pressed further, dissatisfied with the lack of fireworks behind our subdued praise.
“Won’t my conclusion from this data blow them away?” he asked.
Nobody lied and told him it would, but nor were we keen on crushing his soul with the hard truth.
He asked again. “How awesome is this presentation? Is it unusual for someone my age to do something like this?
Finally, someone leveled with him.
“It’s about as amateurish as it gets. I’ll be doing some serious edits before I let you present it to another department. “
The young hotshot forgot (or never learned) the moral from one of Aesop’s Fables.
He who seeks a compliment sometimes discovers the truth —Aesop’s Fable, Mercury and The Sculptor
The timeless lessons from fables
With all the hype around self-help, how to improve your life, kindness, civility, and critical thinking, we forget the basic lessons penned over 2,500 years ago.
Aesop constructed his fables in a way that allows the reader to glean the moral from the story. Picture it like a game of connect-the-dots. You’re given all the dots. All you need to do is draw the line to connect them. And just in case you can’t figure it out, the lesson wraps up neatly in the form of a straightforward edict.
See this example from The Wolf And The Goat (from The Library of Congress, Public Domain).
Can you figure out the moral?
A hungry Wolf spied a Goat browsing at the top of a steep cliff where he could not possibly get at her.
“That is a very dangerous place for you,” he called out, pretending to be very anxious about the Goat’s safety. “What if you should fall! Please listen to me and come down! Here you can get all you want of the finest, tenderest grass in the country.”
The Goat looked over the edge of the cliff.
“How very, very anxious you are about me,” she said, “and how generous you are with your grass! But I know you! It’s your own appetite you are thinking of, not mine!”
What’s the lesson?
You’ll find several official examples according to the translation you read, but they have similar meanings. How does yours compare with these?
Moral 1: Beware of a friend with an ulterior motive
Moral 2: An invitation prompted by selfishness is not to be accepted.
When you read fables and the morals they espouse, you will discover that most wisdom floating around the world has existed for millennia. Few people invent anything new. We merely dress it up in modern clothing.
Fables remind us (in some cases inform us) of how we should behave in a civilized society, how we treat our friends and neighbors, and how to protect ourselves from aggressors.
In the modern world of takedowns, shaming, shortcuts, machinations, and cheating, we’d do well to remind ourselves of these basic rules by reacquainting ourselves with childhood these childhood tales.
Exploit the power of fables
Sure, you can read a few and then forget about them, but how much value do you get from that? Try some of these creative approaches.
Talk or write about it
Can you spare ten minutes a day? Most fables are short. You can read one in a few minutes. If you lack time to read, invest in an audiobook version.
You can let your kids stay up an extra fifteen minutes with the condition that they listen to a few fables and then talk about the meaning behind them.
No kids? Apply the moral to a real-world experience and write a few hundred words about it.
Can you improve on 2,500 years of wisdom? Yes
Fables are meant to deliver straightforward lessons. They rarely delve into situational or nuanced circumstances. But that doesn’t mean you can’t.
Let’s look at a snippet of one story you know well. It’s called the Shepherd and the Wolf — better known as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
…the boy ran down from the pasture and yelled wolf. The villagers came down to chase the wolf away only to find sheep. The boy did it day after day and each day the villagers came, only to find sheep. Then one day a wolf came, and the boy again screamed “wolf.” But this time the villagers never came, and the wolf devoured the sheep
Moral: Liars are not believed even when they tell the truth.
The inaccuracy will seem obvious if you haven’t noticed it already. The moral should have read:
Known liars are not believed, even when they tell the truth.
The cynical version might read:
If you consistently get away with lying, people will believe you because they don’t know you’re a liar.
Morals were written to convey clear-cut lessons. Life isn’t always so neat. We face nuances and grey areas that often lack obvious solutions.
Add conditions and what if scenarios to a story. Explore those grey areas and enjoy the intellectual pursuit of improving or expanding on ancient Greek wisdom.
Connect the past and present
Do you keep a journal? If you don’t, keep a log of your daily experiences for a week.
Try this experiment each morning or evening.
- Read each entry and ask yourself, “what lesson can you glean from this experience?”
- Thumb through a listing of the morals (not the stories), and find your best match.
- Read through the story that matches best and repeat the moral to yourself.
Let’s look at an example.
“The party wound down at 1 AM. Most of the guests had left, except Warren, whom we had invited only because he was a neighbor. He hung around until 2 AM, lounging on the couch as we cleaned up. He did not offer to help with the cleanup. He finally dragged himself out when we shut off the lights. Thank you for coming, we said.”
Never overstay your welcome.
Never be the last to leave.
If you’re going to burden someone, make yourself useful.
I thumbed through a bunch of fables and linked the story with this one.
Fable: “The Hen and The Cat”
Moral: “Uninvited guests are most welcome when they are gone.”
What are your challenges?
Read through the morals and pick out the lessons that resonate with you. If something yells out, “oh that’s me” or “oh, I struggle with that,” read the fable, print it out and post it somewhere conspicuous.
One of my favorites — The Ass in The Lion’s Skin
A fool may deceive by his dress and appearance, but his words will soon show what he really is.
Aesop’s Fables are in the public domain. You can read the text on the Library of Congress website.