The Quintessential Fox Fable
ἀπεκρέμαντο. τοὺς δὲ ποικίλη πλήρεις
ἰδοῦσα κερδὼ πολλάκις μὲν ὡρμήθη
πηδῶσα ποσσὶν πορφυρῆς θιγεῖν ὥρης·
ἦν γὰρ πέπειρος κεὶς τρυγητὸν ἀκμαίη.
κάμνουσα δ’ἄλλως, οὐ γὰρ ἴσχυε ψαύειν,
παρῆλθεν οὕτω βουκολοῦσα τὴν λύπην·
«ὄμφαξ ὁ βότρυς, οὐ πέπειρος, ὡς ᾤμην.»
Babrius paints a picture of a fox able to find an advantage in the situation—to see the grapes as she passes by. Greek has two words for ‘fox’, alōpēks and kerdō. In this fable, Babrius uses the word kerdō. In Greek, the word kerdō is always feminine, always referring to a female fox or vixen. The noun kerdō is related to another noun, kerdos, meaning ‘profit’ or ‘benefit’. The name thus emphasizes the behavior of the animal, one who seeks profit or benefit for herself. As seen in Babrius’ story, the animal takes the name of its most outstanding trait, being perceptive enough to spot a potential source of food.
The Animal Behind the Tale
Lessons and Characters
The Rhetoric is Aristotle’s treatise on the art of public-speaking. In Book Two, he instructs his readers to understand human character and emotion in order to persuade their audiences. For Aristotle, fables such as “The Fox and the Hedgehog” serve as useful examples or paradeigmata for public-speakers. Aesop uses this story to explain why a corrupt leader is worth keeping in power. Fortunately for the readers of the Rhetoric, Aristotle is morally more sound than the story-teller Aesop: where Aesop attempts to save the life of the public servant, Aristotle reports that the demagogue was indeed put to death. Despite Aesop’s defense of his client—or maybe because of it—Aristotle says that fables are tales suitable for telling before the assemblies of the people, they are logoi dēmokratikoi. To the general assembly, Aristotle via Aesop’s fox actually makes a good point: disposing of one problem can leave space for other, more serious problems to crop up. After all, affairs of state, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Aristotle, therefore, includes the fox fable as an example because the lesson contains a certain truthfulness. Even if the insight supporting the status quo did not help Aesop’s politician, the tenet may still be reliably applied to other circumstances.