In an earlier article, I explored an ancient connection between the legendary storyteller Aesop and the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. In this article, I’d like to return to the subject of Aesop and ancient Greek philosophy, looking at the “Life of Aesop,” a Greek novel dating to around the 2nd century C.E., which draws on folk traditions about Aesop’s life documented in earlier Greek literature. Much of the novel centers on the rivalry between Aesop, who starts out the novel as a slave, and one of his masters, Xanthus, a philosopher. Using his wits and what you could call a “wild” style of wisdom, Aesop is able to get the better of his master Xanthus, along with other characters who make the mistake of underestimating Aesop’s intelligence.
From the start, Aesop is presented as a kind of anti-philosopher, the opposite of the Greek philosophical idea. The name itself, Aesop, means “burnt-face,” in contrast to the the name of the philosopher Xanthus, which means “yellow, blond.” Here is how the first sentence of the novel describes our hero: “Aesop was of loathsome aspect, worthless as a servant, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity.” Worst of all, Aesop was “voiceless,” unable to speak. Aesop is like an animal, ἄλογον ζῷον (alogon zoion) in Greek philosophical terminology, a “living thing without logos,” a brute beast, a dumb animal. Later on, Aesop will gain the power of speech, but as the novel begins, Aesop is mute.
Seeing his unfortunate condition, Aesop’s fellow slaves decide to take advantage of him. In one incident, some slaves eat the master’s figs, and try to blame Aesop for it. Although he cannot speak, Aesop nevertheless finds a way to prove his innocence. He calls for a basin of warm water, drinks it down, and then makes himself vomit, showing he had had nothing to eat. His master then commands the slaves who accused Aesop of eating the figs to do the same, and all the figs came forth, as you can see here:
Even though Aesop is mute, he can tell a story without words, mounting a logical defense of his innocence: Figs, when eaten, go to the stomach; Aesop’s stomach contains no figs; ergo, Aesop did not eat the figs!
When Aesop later does get the gift of speech (a divine reward for kindness that he shows to a priestess of Isis), his master decides to get rid of him, fearing trouble. Aesop is then purchased by the philosopher Xanthus, an extremely pretentious know-it-all who is the perfect target for Aesop’s wit.
One day, for example, when Xanthus and Aesop are out walking together, a gardener asks Xanthus just why it is that no matter how careful he is when he plants his crops, the weeds always grow up faster and stronger and overwhelm his fruits and vegetables. Xanthus is baffled by the paradox and can only reply that Divine Providence governs all things. When he hears this useless answer, Aesop bursts out laughing. Xanthus is insulted, and challenges Aesop to provide a better explanation.
Aesop does so, supplying his answer in the form of a story. The gardener’s situation, explains Aesop, is like a woman who has children from a first marriage who gets married again, and her second husband has children by a former wife. She is the mother to her own children, lavishing attention on them and helping them to thrive, while she is the stepmother to her husband’s children, shortchanging them on their food and caring nothing for their survival. This is just what Mother Earth does to the gardener’s crops. She is the mother to the weeds, but only the stepmother to the crops which the gardener has burdened her with. The gardener finds this explanation deeply satisfying. He praises Aesop, thanks him for having alleviated his concerns, and offers him a basket of vegetables as his reward — which is more than he had offered to Xanthus, the philosopher!
What Aesop has given the gardener is not a scientific explanation of how weeds survive and flourish, and Aesop’s answer does not really help the gardener to find a way to increase his harvest. Yet there is nevertheless something that the gardener finds satisfying in Aesop’s analogy. Analogies are an important part of how mythical thinking seeks to explain the world, and while the analogy does not here help the gardener to change his situation, it does help him to understand it. What Aesop has given the gardener is a form of wisdom. It is not science in the modern sense of the word, and it is not even knowledge, in a basic factual sense of knowing the world. Aesop’s story does, however, allow the gardener to look at his life and experience it as meaningful, as opposed to the sense of inexplicable randomness which had troubled him previously.
At the same time that Aesop is able to find meaning where the philosopher fails to do so, he does not fall into the trap of supposing that he has any real knowledge of his own. Consider, for example, what happens when his master sends him to inspect the baths. While Aesop is on his way there, he runs into a government official, who asks Aesop where he is going. Aesop says simply, “I don’t know.” This infuriates the official, who insists on knowing where Aeosp is going. Aesop still refuses to answer the question, saying only, “I don’t know.” The official, completely enraged, orders that Aesop be arrested and taken to jail. At this point, Aesop explains: “You see that my answer was correct; I did not know that I was going to jail!” The government official is so startled by Aesop’s display of wisdom that he lets him go.
In this incident, Aesop is to all outward appearances a fool. He seems to be stupid and unintelligent, in addition to being rude and obstinate. Yet it turns out that his words contained a truth that eluded his interrogator, and it is a truth that perhaps we can all learn from. For all our plans and purposes, do we really know where we are going…? While Aesop refuses to accept “Divine Providence” as an explanation for why the weeds grow, he also does not make a godlike idol of human knowledge, making the mistake that many philosophers do, of assuming that we can aspire to perfect knowledge. There is a famous motto of the Greek philosophers, attributed variously to Socrates, Pythagoras, and Thales (among others): “Know thyself.” Aesop, however, cackles a different motto of knowledge: “I don’t know!”
With his provocative wit, Aesop is not a philosopher in the traditional sense of the word, but is instead one of the world’s great “wise fools,” someone whose jokes and pranks are also instruments of wisdom. He has kin in many countries, such as the Middle Eastern jokester Nasruddin so beloved of the Sufis, or the cinematic “Little Tramp” of Charlie Chaplin who was also able to speak without words. Like a court jester, Aesop is always lurking in the halls of seriousness and self-importance, ready to provide not just comic relief but surprising insight into the ways of the world as well.
- Daly, Lloyd W., translator. “The Aesop Romance.” Anthology of Greek Popular Literature. William Hansen, editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1998.
- Ferrari, Franco, editor. Romanzo di Esopo. Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, Milan: 1998.