Fables of Phaedrus, The



If I shall anywhere insert the name of Æsop, to whom I have already rendered every honor that was his due, know that it is for the sake of his authority, just as some statuaries do in our day, who obtain a much greater price for their productions, if they inscribe the name of Praxiteles on their marbles, and Myron on their polished silver. Therefore let these Fables obtain a hearing. Carping envy more readily favours the works of antiquity than those of the present day. But now I turn to a Fable, with a moral to the purpose.

Fable I.

Demetrius, who was called Phalereus, unjustly took possession of the sovereignty of Athens. The mob, according to their usual practice, rush from all quarters vying with each other, and cheer him, and wish him joy. Even the chief men kiss the hand by which they are oppressed, while they silently lament the sad vicissitudes of fortune. Moreover, those who live in retirement, and take their ease, come creeping in last of all, that their absence may not injure them. Among these Menander, famous for his Comedies (which Demetrius, who did not know him, had read, and had admired the genius of the man), perfumed with unguents, and clad in a flowing robe, came with a mincing and languid step. As soon as the Tyrant caught sight of him at the end of the train: “What effeminate wretch,” said he, “is this, who presumes to come into my presence?” Those near him made answer: “This is Menander the Poet.” Changed in an instant, he exclaimed: “A more agreeable looking man could not possibly exist.”

Fable II.

Two Soldiers having fallen in with a Robber, one fled, while the other stood his ground, and defended himself with a stout right-hand. The Robber slain, his cowardly companion comes running up, and draws his sword; then throwing back his travelling cloak, says: “Let’s have him;” “I’ll take care he shall soon know whom he attacks.” On this, he who had vanquished the robber made answer: “I wish you had seconded me just now at least with those words; I should have been still more emboldened, believing them true; now keep your sword quiet, as well as your silly tongue, that you may be able to deceive others who don’t know you. I, who have experienced with what speed you take to your heels, know full well that no dependence is to be placed upon your valour.”

This story may be applied to him who is courageous in prosperity, in times of danger takes to flight.

Fable III.

A Fly bit the bare pate of a Bald Man; who, endeavouring to crush it, gave himself a heavy blow. Then said the Fly jeeringly: “You wanted to revenge the sting of a tiny insect with death; what will you do to yourself, who have added insult to injury?” The Man made answer: “I am easily reconciled to myself, because I know that there was no intention of doing harm. But you, worthless insect, and one of a contemptible race, who take a delight in drinking human blood, I could wish to destroy you, even at a heavier penalty.”

This Fable teaches that pardon is to be granted to him who errs through mistake. But him who is designedly mischievous, I deem to be deserving of any punishment.

Fable IV.

A Man having sacrificed a young boar to the god Hercules, to whom he owed performance of a vow made for the preservation of his health, ordered the remains of the barley to be set for the Ass. But he refused to touch it, and said: “I would most willingly accept your food, if he who had been fed upon it had not had his throat cut.”

Warned by the significance of this Fable, I have always been careful to avoid the gain that exposed to hazard. “But,” say you, “those who have got riches by rapine, are still in possession of them.” Come, then, let us enumerate those, who, being detected, have come to a bad end; you will find that those so punished constitute a great majority.

Rashness brings luck to a few, misfortune to most.

Fable V.

Men are in the habit of erring through prejudice; and while they stand up in defence of their erroneous notions, are wont to be driven by plain facts to confession of their mistakes.

A rich Man, about to entertain the people with grand shows, invited all, by the promise of a reward, to exhibit whatever new piece of ingenuity any one could. The Performers came to the contest for fame, among whom a Buffoon, well known for his drollery, said that he had a kind of entertainment which had never yet been brought out at any theatre. The rumour, spreading, brought together the whole city; and the places, empty shortly before, sufficed not for the multitude. But as soon as he appeared on the stage, alone, and without any apparatus, any stage-assistants, the very intenseness of expectation produced silence. Suddenly, he dropped down his head towards his bosom, and so well did he imitate the voice of a pig with his own, that they concluded there was a real one under his cloak, and ordered it to be shaken out. This being done, as soon as they found that nothing was discovered, they loaded the Man with many praises, and bestowed upon him the greatest applause.

A Countryman seeing this take place: “Egad,” said he, “he shan’t surpass me;” and immediately gave out that he would do the same thing still better on the following day. A still greater crowd assembled. Prejudice had already taken possession of their minds, and they took their seats, determined to deride, and not as unbiassed spectators. Both Performers come forth. First, the Buffoon grunts away, and excites their applause, and awakens their acclamations. Next, the Countryman, pretending that he concealed a pig beneath his clothes (which, in fact, he did; but quite unsuspected, because they had found none about the other), twitched the ear of the real pig, which he was concealing, and with the pain forced from it its natural cry. The people shouted with one voice that the Buffoon had given a much more exact imitation, and ordered the Countryman to be driven from the stage. On this, he produced the pig itself from the folds of his cloak, and convicting them of their disgraceful mistake by a manifest proof: “Look,” said he, “this shows what sort of judges you are.”

Fable VI.

A Bald Man chanced to find a comb in the public road. Another, equally destitute of hair, came up: “Come,” said he, “shares, whatever it is you have found.” The other showed the booty, and added withal: “The will of the Gods has favoured us, but through the malignity of fate, we have found, as the saying is, a coal instead of a treasure.”

This complaint befits him whom hope has disappointed.

Fable VII.

When a weak mind, beguiled by frivolous applause, has once given way to insolent self-sufficiency, such foolish vanity is easily exposed to ridicule.

Princeps, the Flute-player, was pretty well known, being accustomed to accompany Bathyllus with his music on the stage. It chanced that, at a representation, I don’t well remember what it was, while the flying-machine was being whirled along, he fell heavily, through inadvertence, and broke his left leg, when he would much rather have parted with two right ones. He was picked up and carried to his house groaning aloud. Some months pass by before his cure is completed. As is the way with the spectators, for they are a merry race, the man began to be missed, by whose blasts the vigour of the dancer was wont to be kept at full stretch.

A certain Nobleman was about to exhibit a show, just when Princeps was beginning to walk abroad. With a present and entreaties he prevailed upon him merely to present himself on the day of the show. When the day came a rumour about the Flute-player ran through the theatre. Some affirmed that he was dead, some that he would appear before them without delay. The curtain falling, the thunders rolled, and the Gods conversed in the usual form. At this moment the Chorus struck up a song unknown to him who had so recently returned; of which the burthen was this: “Rejoice, Rome, in security, for your prince [Princeps] is well.” All rise with one consent and applaud. The Flute-player kisses hands, and imagines that his friends are congratulating him. The Equestrian order perceive the ridiculous mistake, and with loud laughter encore the song. It is repeated. My man now throws himself sprawling at full length upon the stage. Ridiculing him, the Knights applaud; while the people fancy he is only asking for a chaplet. When, however, the reality came to be known throughout all the tiers, Princeps, his leg bound up with a snow-white fillet, clad in snow-white tunic, and snow-white shoes, while pluming himself on the honors really paid to the Deified House, was thrust out headlong by common consent.

Fable VIII.

A Bald Man, balancing on a razor’s edge, fleet of foot, his forehead covered with hair, his body naked—if you have caught him, hold him fast; when he has once escaped, not Jupiter himself can overtake him: he is the emblem how shortlived is Opportunity.

The ancients devised such a portraiture of Time, to signify that slothful delay should not hinder the execution of our purposes.

Fable IX.

When a Bull was struggling with his horns in a narrow passage, and could hardly effect an entrance to the manger, a Calf began to point out in what way he might turn himself: “Hush,” said the Bull, “I knew that before you were born.”

Let him who would instruct a wiser man, consider this as said to himself.

Fable X.

A Dog, who had always given satisfaction to his master by his boldness against swift and savage beasts, began to grow feeble under increasing years. On one occasion, being urged to the combat with a bristling Boar, he seized him by the ear; but, through the rottenness of his teeth, let go his prey. Vexed at this, the Huntsman upbraided the Dog. Old Barker replied: “It is not my courage that disappoints you, but my strength. You commend me for what I have been; and you blame me that I am not what I was.” 

You, Philetus, may easily perceive why I have written this.

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