Saturday, April 16, 2011

The "Aesop Romance," the Blogger, and the Internet

Once upon a time, a blogger wanted to write a collection of essays about stories featuring disabled characters. She started her research with Aesop, who (she remembered learning in her youth) was hunchbacked, bandy-legged, and ugly. But she could not remember very many details, and wanted to double-check her memories, starting with Wikipedia.

It was there that she learned of the existence of The Aesop Romance, a story perhaps recorded between the first and second centuries C.E., that embedded the fables attributed to Aesop into the story of his life -- how he had once been mute, but was granted the power of speech as reward for kindness to a priestess of Isis, and how he became a slave to the philosopher Xanthus, and how he often helped or confounded his master by the use of his wit.

Excited by the prospect of a new story to learn, full of adventure and double-dealing, she then searched for "Aesop Romance" and "Book of Xanthus." Surely, she thought, such an old and influential tale must be available in translation as an e-text, somewhere.

Sadly, each hit that came back from these searches only made mention of the tale, but were not the tale itself. And each of those reviews of the story were careful to point out that it couldn't possibly be accurate. ... as if factual accuracy were the only thing that mattered.

Moral: Those who wish to study the past are often limited by what others think is important.

Plato Vs. Aesop:

Yes, I know Plato lived at least a hundred years after the time Aesop is believed to, and so these two passages are not really direct rebuttals of each other. But each, I think, illustrate two opposing values: the philosopher on one hand, who likes to believe he contemplates the lofty realms of theology and pure thought, and the fabulist on the other, who believes that the small is as worthy of consideration as the great.

(Quote) [The philosopher's] mind, disdaining the littleness and nothingness of human beings, is "flying all abroad" as Pindar says , measuring earth and heaven . . . but not condescending to anything within reach. -- Dialogues, Theatetus (End Quote)

From Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Little, Brown, and Company: Boston, Toronto. 1968. Page 94.


(Quote) The Philosopher, the Ants, and Hermes*

A philosopher standing on the shore witnessed a terrible shipwreck where all the passengers and crew were drowned. In his mind, he cursed the gods, who, because a criminal might have been on board, had caused the death of so many innocent people.

As he was indulging in these thoughts he found himself surrounded by an army of ants, whose nest he was standing beside. One of the ants climbed up his leg, and bit him. So he trampled them all.

Hermes appeared before him, then, and struck the philosopher with his wand, saying: "And you stand here, judging the actions of the gods, while treating these ants in the same fashion?" (End Quote)

[Moral: is left for the Reader to discern]

*(This is my own retelling from the version here The Philosopher, the Ants and Mercury. This version was translated into English by Rev. George Fyler Townsend in the 19th century. In his translation, Rev. Townsend refers to the god as "Mercury," who was Roman, not Greek, and has the philosopher cursing "Providence," which, to me, feels like a Christian redaction).

And here's that Wikipedia article:

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