Aesop was a jerk

Posted on June 17, 2010


I loved Aesop’s fables as a kid — both the classic version I found in the school library, and the more modern version that appeared on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. But their morals bugged me. Not the morals themselves, but the rather glaring lack of logic connecting them to the stories.

They may say that "Slow and steady wins the race," but the safe money is still on the rabbit.

Take that whole tortoise and the hare thing.

The hare makes fun of the tortoise for being so slow, and the tortoise challenges him to a race. When the hare gets close to the finish line (and pay close attention to this part), he takes a nap! The tortoise, on the other hand, keeps plugging along, and crosses the finish line before the hare wakes up.

And from this they get: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Sure, in that particular instance, slow and steady won. But only because the circumstances were completely bizarre. How often do racing stories feature a nap as one of their more important plot developments?

And then there’s The Frog in a Milk Pail, which teaches us to “Never give up.”

A frog falls into a pail of fresh milk. He can’t jump because he can’t reach the bottom, and there’s no way to climb out. But this frog has a commendable “never-say-die” attitude and kicks and kicks until the milk becomes butter. The butter gives him solid footing so he can leap out.

First of all: since when do the words “butter” and “solid footing” have any but an adversarial relationship to each other?

But even leaving that aside, no matter how indomitable the frog was, he can’t churn milk into butter. The cream has to be separated first and then aged for over half a day. Struggling in a pail of fresh milk would serve only to bring about rapid exhaustion and death.

On the other hand, had the frog relaxed, he could have dog-paddled for about ten minutes and then been dumped out when the farmer came back to get the frickin’ fresh milk.

It’s not like dairy farmers habitually leave the milk laying around in pails to “ripen” or something.

But the one I hated most of all was The Tortoise and the Eagle, which has the moral: “If men had all they wished, they would be often ruined.” In plain English: “Getting what you want will screw you up.”

Unquestionably, many have been ruined by getting what they want, especially when what they want involves fame. But under normal circumstances, getting what we want tends to boost our feelings of fulfilment and inspire greater motivation.

Not that you’d know it from the thousands of stories, movies, and TV shows depicting any attainment of desires as a sure path to ruination of body and soul.

It was the reason I stopped watching The Andy Griffith Show, (one of my favourites) after the episode “Howard’s New Life.”

Howard Sprague. Betrayed by Hollywood writers.

Howard is Howard Sprague (yes, I had to look it up), slightly goofy, always trying and always failing; but in a modest sort of way. He’s the new guy in town who dresses a little dorky and generally wears a bow tie. Upon his arrival, he’s invited to go fishing, but ends up alienating himself from the locals by landing the legendary fish, “Old Sam.” On another occasion, while trying to help Andy in a hostage situation, he ends up getting Andy and himself locked in the cell. In his business life, he buys the building that houses Floyd’s Barbershop, and then angers Floyd by raising the rent.

As a plot device, Howard’s constant, but “good-natured” humiliation was repetitious and annoying, but foils are required in every comedy, and I accepted Howard as being one of them.

But then, in “Howard’s New Life,” he decides to chuck it all and go live on a Caribbean island.

Wow. I mean — Wow!

It was so cool. He had plenty of money to just quit work and do whatever he wanted. This was the first Howard episode I’d ever actually enjoyed — until roughly halfway through, when he starts getting bored with his freedom and is saved by the realisation that he can only find true happiness by returning to his role as a foil for the good people of Mayberry.

Well, that lost me.

First of all, I resented the implication that a man invariably suffers when he tries moving beyond his station in life — something I saw all too often on other shows.

But more important in this case: I just didn’t buy it. Not Howard.

Actually, this one may be even funnier.

The one thing that made Howard likeable, and part of the reason he kept screwing up, was his interest and curiosity in the things around him. Although we lacked the term for it back then, Howard was a nerd. Had the show been filmed in the ’90s, he would have been a computer geek wearing t-shirts with slogans like: “There are only 10 kinds of people in the world: Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”

Which is actually really funny.

But the point is, when nerds have free time and comfortable resources, the last thing they do is lose their sense of purpose. If the writers of that particular episode had written his character honestly, then the next time Mayberry saw Howard again would have been when his picture appeared in the national newspapers for having invented a new kind of paper clip or something.

Instead, he had to be ruined and brought to his senses, because that’s what the moral dictates.

But look at the fable from which this moral comes.

There was a tortoise who always wanted to be able to fly. He bitched and moaned about it until one day this eagle promised to teach him. So the eagle picked him up and flew high in the sky, then let go, dashing him to death on the rocks below.

Now, as I see it, the major problem with this story is that the tortoise didn’t get what he wanted! I mean, that’s pretty clear, right? A PowerPoint presentation of the situation might look like this:

  • What the tortoise wanted: to be able to fly.
  • What the tortoise got: dropped from a great height and killed.

I think most of us can see the difference.

It’s like all those people who say, “Well, at least he died doing what he wanted,” when rock-climbers suffer a fatal accident. Somehow it’s hard to believe that what these guys wanted was to spend the last moments of their lives in agony as their bodies are broken against the rocks.

And I’m pretty sure the same is true of the tortoise.

You know another good moral from that story?

“Don’t entrust a carrion bird with your well being.”

That’s one I can live with.