From the preface of Bewick’s Select Fables: “The Life of Aesop”
Aesop, according to the best accounts, was a native of Phrygia, a province of the Lesser Asia, and born in the city Cotiæum. He was a person of a remarkable genius, and extraordinary character; for though he was born a slave, by the assistance of his genius and virtue only, he procured his own emancipation. By his sage counsels and judicious advice he directed his countrymen to measures that secured their liberty, and by a single Fable baffled the tyrannical projects of Crœsus, King of Lydia. It is probable that he was of a low and diminutive stature, though agreeable in his complexion, and polite in his manners. It is, however, certain that he had a great soul, and was endowed with extraordinary mental qualifications; his moral character approached to a degree of perfection to which very few have attained. He appears to have had a true sense of morality, and a just discernment of right and wrong; his perceptions and feelings of truth were scrupulously nice, and the smallest deviation from rectitude impressed his mind with the greatest antipathy. No considerations of private interest could warp his inclinations so as to seduce him from the paths of virtue; his principles were steadfast and determined, and truly habitual. He never employed his great wisdom to serve the purposes of cunning; but, with an uncommon exactness, made his understanding a servant to truth. Historians have given many instances of his wit and shrewdness, which were always employed in the service of virtue, philanthropy, and benevolence.
It cannot well be ascertained who were his parents, though some have affirmed that his father was a shepherd. He himself was undoubtedly a slave; his first master was an Athenian, whose name was Caresias. At Athens he learned the Greek language in perfection, and acquired a taste for writing moral instructions, in the way of Fables, which was then the prevailing mode of teaching morals in Attica. His Fables are allegorical stories, delivered with an air of fiction, under various personifications, to convey truth to the mind in an agreeable manner. By telling a story of a Lion, Dog, or a Wolf, the Fabulist describes the manners and characters of men, and communicates instruction without seeming to assume the authority of a master or a pedagogue. Aesop’s situation as a slave might suggest this method to him; for what would have been scornfully rejected if delivered in an authoritative style by a slave, was received with avidity in the form of a fable. Aesop had several masters; his second master was Xanthus, in whose service he discovered great wisdom and sagacity in answering questions, and reconciling differences. By the following stratagem he made his master’s wife return back, after she had run away and left him, and effectually reconciled them: our Fabulist, then a slave, went to the market, and bought a great quantity of the best provisions, which he publicly declared were intended for the marriage of his master with a new spouse. This report had its desired effect, and the matter was amicably composed. At a feast made on purpose to celebrate the return of his master’s wife, he is said to have served the guests with several courses of tongues, by which he intended to give a moral lesson to his master and mistress, who had by the too liberal use of their tongues occasioned the difference which was now agreed.
The third master of Aesop was Idmon, who was surnamed the wise. Idmon was an inhabitant of the island of Samos. During Aesop’s servitude with this master, he had a fellow-servant called Rhodopis, who some affirm was his wife. This does not at all appear credible, for there is no mention made of this among the Greek writers. This Rhodopis became afterwards very famous for her riches, and was celebrated all over Greece. Idmon is said to have been so well pleased with Æsop, that after he had been some time in his service, he emancipated him, and made him free.
With the enjoyment of liberty, he acquired new reputation, and became celebrated for his wisdom. He is by some compared to the Seven Sages of Greece, and accounted their equal in wisdom. He had the honor to be acquainted with Solon and Chilo, and was equally admitted with them in the Court of Periander, the King of the Corinthians, who was himself one of the Sages of Greece. He was much esteemed by Crœsus, King of Lydia, and received into his Court at Sardis. During his residence at Sardis, he gave proofs of his sagacity which astonished the courtiers of Crœsus. This ambitious Prince having one day shewn his wise men his vast riches and magnificence, and the glory and splendour of his court, asked them the question, whom they thought the happiest man? After several different answers given by all the wise men present, it came at last to Aesop to make his reply, who said: “That Crœsus was as much happier than other men as the fulness of the sea was superior to the rivers.” Whether this was spoken ironically or in earnest does not appear so evident; but according to the severe morality of Aesop, it would rather appear to be a sarcasm, though it was otherwise understood by the King, and received as the greatest compliment. It wrought so much upon his vanity, that he exclaimed: “The Phrygian had hit the mark.”
One thing which renders it probable that Aesop flattered Crœsus on this occasion is his conversation with Solon, who at this time departed from the court of the King of Lydia. When they were upon the road, Aesop exclaims: “O Solon! either we must not speak to Kings, or we must say what will please them.” Solon replied: “We should either not speak to Kings at all, or we should give them good advice, and speak truth.” This seems to be one instance in which Aesop is charged with flattery and dissimulation. Some writers praise him for his complaisance to so great a Prince; but it is rather a proof of his policy than his ordinary strictness and integrity.
There is another instance recorded by some writers of the life of Aesop, of his complaisance to Princes, even contrary to the liberties of the people. He is said to have written a Fable in favour of the tyrant Pisistratus, which Phædrus has translated, and proves that he was reconciled to tyranny. But this is no way evident. There are many Fables which are mingled with those of Aesop, which are not his, yet have been fathered upon him; and it is not consistent with the other parts of his character and writings to suppose that he would either flatter tyrants or defend them. The authorities from whence these supposed facts are taken are not to be depended upon.
In all other particulars he appears to have proceeded upon the principles of wisdom, as far as any of the Sages of Greece. When he was asked by Chilo, one of the wise men, What God was doing? He replied, with great adroitness, That he was humbling the proud and exalting the humble. He had just views of human nature, and assigned true reasons for all its Phenomena. In an account of the paintings in the time of the Antonines, Philostratus informs us, that there is one of Aesop which makes a principal figure. The painter represents him before his own house, with the geniuses approaching him with a sort of adulating pleasure as the inventor of Fables: they are painted as adorning him with wreaths and chaplets of flowers, and crowning him with olive branches. His countenance appears in a smiling attitude, while his eyes seem fixed towards the ground, as if composing a Fable, with the same good humor with which he usually wrote. There is a group of men and beasts placed around him, and amongst the rest the Fox, which makes a capital figure, as he does in the Fables. This picture does not represent Aesop in a decrepit form, but sets him forth with a mixture of gravity and good humor. The image of his mind is well drawn by Plutarch in his Feast of the Sages at the court of Periander, who himself was one of the Seven. It was at this feast that Aesop repeats his Fable of The Wolf and the Shepherds, to shew that the company were guilty of the same fault. From Plutarch’s account it is manifest that Aesop’s conversation was pleasant and witty, but yet delicate. He was satirical without disobliging, and the poignancy of his wit was smoothed with good nature and good sense.
It has been doubted if he was the inventor of Fables; but it is certain he was the first that brought that species of writing into reputation. Archilochus is said to have written Fables one hundred years before him; but it would appear that those stories were not written for posterity like those of Aesop. The Fables of Aesop were written in prose, though the images that are in them afford good scope for a poet, of which Phædrus has given an elegant specimen. Aesop writes with great simplicity, elegance, and neatness; the schemes of his Fables are natural, the sentiments just, and the conclusions moral. Quintilian recommends his Fables as a first book for children; and, when Plato had sent all the poets into exile, he allows Aesop a residence in his commonwealth. The Athenians were good judges of literary merit, and erected a noble statue for Aesop, to perpetuate his memory, which was sculped by the famous Lysippus.
The great excellency of Aesop’s manner of writing is, that he blends the pleasing and the instructive so well as to instruct and please at once. Horace is much indebted to him for a plan of writing, and has formed a rule from this famous Fabulist: “Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci; Lectorem delectando, pariterque monendo.” —De Arte Poet. ver. 343.
I wish I could conceal the exit of this great Fabulist and Moral Writer. He was accused by the Delphians of sacrilege, and convicted by an act of the greatest villany that ever was invented. They concealed among his baggage, at his departure, some golden vessels consecrated to Apollo, and then dispatched messengers to search his baggage. Upon this he was accused of theft and sacrilege, condemned, and precipitated over a rock. Thus ended the famous Aesop, whose Fables have immortalised his memory, and will hand down his name to the latest posterity.
Fable citation: Bewick, Thomas. Bewick’s Select Fables of Aesop and Others. London: Bickers & Son, 1776. This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work