Fables are beautiful because they express lifelong, time-honored wisdom in a manner so concise and clear that anyone can understand their message. The most famous collection of these pedagogical fantasies is Aesop’s Fables, which includes notable stories such as The Tortoise and The Hare. However, in the first century AD, the Roman fabulist Phaedrus himself compiled several books of fables, some of which he translated from Aesop’s Fables, others the product of his own mind. Below are three of Phaedrus’s fables, each of which furthers our understanding of the world and elevates our ability to live well in it.
Phaedrus’s first fable is The Wolf and the Lamb. In this story, a wolf drinking from a stream longs for an excuse to eat a lamb who is drinking downstream from the wolf. The wolf accuses the lamb of stirring up mud in the water he was drinking, but the lamb says that this cannot be so since the wolf is upstream from the lamb. The wolf then accuses the lamb of gossiping about him six months back, but the terrified lamb answers that he had not even been born at that time. The wolf snarls that it must have been the lamb’s family who spoke poorly about him, and eats the lamb. Although this fable ends on a depressing note, it reminds us that some egocentric people will only pursue their own ends. They may appeal to logic, they may try taking a moral high ground, but indeed they are only trying to trick good people to achieve their evil ends. These people are like tyrants who crave any pretense to act as they please. In the end, we can do nothing but simply separate ourselves from them.
From Phaedrus’s second book of fables, The Man and the Dog teaches us to think about the long-term effects of our actions. In this fable, a man, having been bitten by a dog, throws the dog blood-dipped bread to make it cease. Wise Aesop then interjects that these treats will only reward dogs for biting, and that this man’s actions will encourage this dog and others to carry out their vicious acts. This fable reminds us not to sacrifice long-term good for short term expediency, and invites us to consider how others may misunderstand our actions, and how we may be encouraging harm rather than curing it.
Lastly, The Proud Frog provides a humorous note. Trying to match the size of an ox, a frog continually inhales and puffs herself up, each time asking her children if she has reached the size of the ox, each time growing larger than before. In cartoon fashion, the frog swells to such a size that she bursts apart. Do not be like the frog of this fable whose hubris, jealousy, and pride brought her demise. Rather, reap the wisdom of this fable and the others which build your understanding and intuition about yourself, others, and the world around you.
Phaedrus Fabulist 1745 engraving – Wikimedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
I am Erik Hanson, an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill studying the classics. My plan is to attend graduate school, obtain my PhD in the classics, and teach at a university. In late 2021, I started my blog ConsultTheClassics.com, a place where I could share my love and appreciation for the Ancient Roman and Greek worlds by posting about the benefits of studying these civilizations of antiquity. In my free time, I enjoy reading literature (in many languages!), writing, and playing soccer with my friends. Thank you for checking out my work!