Friday, January 18, 2013

The Forgotten Aesop

Chandler A. Phillips, Proverbial Aesop: The Complete Aesopic Proverbs Translated with Commentary

Aesop is remembered for his numerous fables, which are not simply children’s stories as we’ve heard for years, but actually served important illustrative value in formal argument. But Chandler Phillips, a physician and engineer as well as a classicist, openly laments the virtual disappearance of Aesop’s proverbs. So, sixty years after the authoritative corpus of Aesop was compiled, he presents the first authoritative English translation of Aesop’s proverbs.

Proverbs represent a form of ideas in common circulation, a reinvention of received wisdom which, when compressed into one or two sentences, become revitalized. We sometimes think of proverbs as wisdom nuggets, tossed out for momentary consumption. But Phillips contends that proverbs act as compressed fables, and he backs that by comparing Aesop’s proverbs to his fables, and comparing his proverbs to common Greek, Latin, and Arabic wisdom sayings.

But proverbs go beyond encapsulating “the moral of the story.” They also reinvent wisdom, which may come from multiple sources, to make it relevant to new and changing situations. That’s why, Phillips contends, few of Aesop’s proverbs come directly from his more famous fables. Instead, they cast new light on wisdom the proverbist assumes his audience already knows. Aesop’s proverbs may refer to long-lost literary ancestors.

And that’s what makes these nuggets important to us. The loss of direct knowledge across the intervening centuries makes these little sayings valuable, not just in understanding how people thought in Classical times, but in understanding how we see the world, and ourselves in it, today. How have our ideas changed, and how have they stayed the same? How are we essentially similar to our Greek forebears, and how have we invented our own cultural identity?

Aesop, by
Diego Velasquez
Some of Aesop’s proverbs make perfect sense to us across the millennia. When he says “The snake sheds its skin, but not its true character,” we don’t have to unpack this. When he says “You may have a doctor as a friend, but you should not continuously need doctoring,” Aesop is speaking to a situation which remains present to us. We know what he means, because we see snakes molt, and we know doctors in our neighborhood.

Other proverbs rely on cultural context. Because we are not surrounded by the language of Greek society and religious ritual, we must spend time working to understand sayings like “A person desiring a cake of melted figs sets their own house on fire.” Such sayings become like Zen koans, which demand our careful contemplation, even as we realize we will never achieve a single “correct” answer. They say something about us, even if ancient truths remain opaque.

People who dismiss fables, proverbs, and parables as “mere” children’s stories or historical relics thus miss the point. These discrete wisdom packets advance current, ongoing debates about ourselves. They may do so in an indirect manner, but as we unpack ourselves in their densely woven, mythologically allusive content, we grow in understanding, not just of the absolute truth the proverb conveys, but also in the more subtle understanding of our own souls.

Our refusal to take proverbs seriously comes at our own detriment. All cultures have proverbs of some kind, but serious scholars routinely dismiss such compressed wisdom. I’ve seen biblical proverbs used in Sunday School classes, though the Wisdom Literature scarcely exists in most Protestant lectionaries. The implication, of course, is that only children benefit from compressed nuggets of wisdom; grown-ups need to spend time spinning longer narratives. Yeah, right.

Because these proverbs differ from Aesop’s fables, they bear consideration in their own right. The fables, like the proverbs, were not meant as mere metaphoric instruction for children; they were part of important legal arguments, and the ability to unpack, condense, expand, and create parables and fables was the center of a Greek education. Classicist George A. Kennedy goes into this in more detail in his Progymnasmata.

As these proverbs were created for adults, they deserve treatment that shocks away our simplistic thinking. Which is what Phillips offers: he reinvents this knowledge in a way that transcends the historical moment when they were written. But instead of telling us directly what the proverbs mean, he draws comparisons and allusions so that, like the Original Greeks, we can understand them in a more oblique, metaphorical manner.

The proverbs, like the fables, were not meant to be comprehended head-on. Instead, they reveal inner truths, some of which continue to shock and surprise. That is, they do if we contemplate them in the manner Aesop intended, and Phillips enables.

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