GEORGE, LORD VISCOUNT SUNBURY,
You must not be surprised at my begging your protection for this little book, when I assure you it was principally intended for your perusal. I had often wished to see something of this kind published by an able hand; and, for want of that, have sometimes had an inclination to do it myself; but never came to any resolution on that point, till very lately; when at Horton, I had the pleasure to find your Lordship, though but in your fifth year, capable of reading any thing in the English tongue, without the least hesitation.
These Fables, my Lord, abound in variety of instruction, moral and political. They furnish us with rules for every station of life: they mark out a proper behaviour for us, both in respect of ourselves and others; and demonstrate to us, by a kind of example, every virtue which claims our best regards, and every vice which we are most concerned to avoid. Considering them in this view, I could not think of any thing more proper, to be put so early into your Lordship’s hands, as well for our own sake, as that of the public. As I wish you all the happiness which man can enjoy, I know of nothing more likely to procure it, than your imbibing, in your childhood, such seeds of reason and philosophy, as may rectify and sweeten every part of your future life. And as you are by birth entitled to a share in the administration of the government, I flatter myself that your country will feel the benefit of these lectures of morality; when hereafter it beholds your Lordship, steadily pursuing those principles of honesty and benevolence, which, by such instructions in your infancy, you will be taught to love.
I am happy, upon several accounts, in the opportunity I take in addressing myself to your Lordship, in this early time of your life. Without any reflection upon your parts, my Lord, I comfort myself with the consideration, that you are not yet able to discern the imperfections of my performance. Nay, when you are a little older, and your judgment is strong enough to discover every weakness in the following sheets, you will yet remember for what a young capacity they were intended; and whatever you may think of the style and language, the honest purpose of the whole cannot fail of your approbation.
Another advantage, my Lord, is, that when I tell the world you are the most lovely and the most engaging child that ever was born, I cannot be charged with offending in point of flattery. No one ever saw you but thought the same.
And this puts me in mind, that you are descended from a race of patrons: arts and learning did not owe more to the influence of Mecenas at Rome, than they have done to that of Montague at London. Perhaps, young as you are, you may think it strange to find yourself at the head of a dedication: but, my Lord, nobody else will wonder at it. You are born to protect and encourage all endeavours at the public good. We cannot help telling you, that we expect it from you, and we beg leave to put you in mind to assert your native right.
If it be true, that virtue may be conveyed by blood, and communicated by example, I have all the presumption imaginable for what I assert. My Lord, your Father, the Earl of Halifax, possesses every agreeable quality in life: whether natural or acquired, I will not pretend to determine. They are so easy and habitual to him, one would think them born with him; but at the same time so accomplished, that we cannot but discover they have had the advantage of a finished education.
If I durst follow the suggestions of a heart truly sensible of them, I could dwell with pleasure upon every particular of his worth. But nobody who deserves applause so much, declines it more than he does. Indeed, my Lord, his merit is so great that we cannot do him justice in that respect, without offending him.
That, upon all occasions, you may imitate the example he sets, and copy out his virtues, for your own and the welfare of mankind, is the sincere wish of,
most obedient, and
most humble servant,
May 1, 1722.
SO much has been already said concerning Aesop and his writings, both by ancient and modern authors, that the subject seems to be quite exhausted. The different conjectures, opinions, traditions, and forgeries, which, from time to time, we have had given to us of him, would fill a large volume; but they are, for the most part, so inconsistent and absurd, that it would he but a dull amusement for the reader to be let into such a maze of uncertainty: since Herodotus, the most ancient Greek historian, did not flourish till near a hundred years after Aesop.
As for his life, with which we are entertained in so complete a manner, before most of the editions of his Fables, it was invented by one Maximus Pianudes, a Greek monk; and, if we may judge of him from that composition, just as judicious and learned a person as the rest of his fraternity are at this day observed to be. Sure there never were so many blunders and childish dreams mixed up together, as are to be met with in the short compass of that piece. For a monk, he might be very good and wise, but in point of history and chronology, he shows himself to be very ignorant. He brings Aesop to Babylon, in the reign of king Lycerus, a king of his own making; for his name is not to be found in any catalogue, from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great; Nabonadius, most probably, reigning in Babylon about that time. He sends him into Egypt in the days of Nectanebo, who was not in being till two hundred years afterwards; with some other gross mistakes of that kind, which sufficiently shows us that this life was a work of invention, and that the inventor was a bungling, poor creature. He never mentions Aesop’s being at Athens;
though Phaedrus speaks of him as one that lived the greatest part- of his time there; and it appears that he had a statue erected in that city to his memory, done by the hand of the famed Lysippus. He writes of him as living at Samos, and interesting himself in a public capacity in the administration of the affairs of that place; yet takes not the least notion of the fable which* Aristotle tells us he spoke in behalf of a famous demagogue there, when he was impeached for embezzling the pubic money; nor does he indeed give us the least hint of such a circumstance. An ingenious man might have laid together all the materials of this kind that are to be found in good old authors, and by the help of a bright invention, connected and worked them up with, success: we might have swallowed such an imposition well enough, because we should not have known how to contradict it: but in Planudes’s case, the imposture is doubly discovered; first, as he has the unquestioned authority of antiquity against him; secondly, (and if the other did not condemn him) as he has introduced the witty, discreet, judicious Aesop, quibbling in a strain of low monastic waggery, and as archly dull as a mountebank’s jester.
*Arist.Rhet. Lib. 2. Cap. 21.
That there was a life of Aesop, either written or traditionary, before Aristotle’s time, is pretty plain; and that there was something of that kind extant in Augustus’s reign, is, I think, as undoubted; since Phsedrus mentions many transactions of his, during his abode at Athens. But it is as certain, that Planudes met with nothing of this kind; or at least, that he met not with the accounts with which they were furnished, because of the omission before-mentioned; and consequently with none so authentic and good. He seems to have thrown together so many conceits which occurred to him in the course of his reading, such as he thought were worthy of Aesop, and very confidently obtrudes them upon us for his. But, when at last he brings him to Delphos (where he was put to death by being thrown down from a precipice) that the Delphians might have some colour of justice for what they intended to do, he favours them with the same stratagem which Joseph made use of to bring back his brother Benjamin; they clandestinely convey a cup into his baggage, overtake him upon the road, after a strict search find him guilty; upon that pretence carry him back to the city, condemn and execute him.
As I would neither impose upon others, nor be imposed upon, I cannot, as some have done, let such stuff as this pass for the life of the great Aesop. Planudes has little authority for any thing he has delivered concerning him; nay, as far as I can find, his whole account, from the beginning to the end, is mere invention, excepting some few circumstances; such as the place of his birth, and of his death; for, in respect of the time in which he lived, he has blundered egregiously, bv mentioning some incidents as contemporary with Aesop, which were far enough from being so. Xanthus, his supposed master, puts his wife into a passion, by bringing such apiece of deformity into her, house, as our author is described to be. Upon this the master reproaches the slave for not uttering something witty, at a time that seemed to require it so much: and then Aesop comes out, slap dash, with a satirical reflection upon women, taken from Euripides, the famous Greek tragedian. Now Euripides happened not to be born till about fourscore years after Aesop’s death. What credit therefore can be given to any thing Pranudes says of him?
As to the place of his birth, I will allow, with the generality of those who have written about him, that it might have been some town in Phrygia Major. Lucian calls him : in Phaedrus be is styled PhryxAesopus; and A. Gellius, making mention of him, says, Aesopus ille, é Phrygia, Fabulator. That he was also by condition a slave, we may conclude from what Phaedrus* relates of him. But whether at both Samos and Athens, he does not particularly mention: though I am inclined to think it was the latter only; because he often speaks of him as living at that place; and never at any other. Which looks as if Patedrus believed that he had never lived any where else. Nor do I see how he could help being of that opinion, if others of the ancients, whose credit is equally good, did not carry him into other places. Aristotle introduces him (as I mentioned before) speaking in public to the Samians, upon the occasion of their demagogue, or prime minister, being impeached for plundering the commonwealth: in which oration he makes him insert the fable** of the Fox who was pestered with Flies; and who, upon an Hedgehog’s offering to drive them away, would not consent to it, upon suspicion that a new swarm would come in their room, and drain him of all the rest of the blood in his body. Which Aesop applies thus: “Ye men of Samos, let me entreat you to do as the Fox did; for this man, having got money enough, can have no farther occasion to rob you; but if you put him to death, some needy person will fill his place, whose wants must be supplied out of your property.”
* Lih, 2. Fab. 9. & Lib. 3. Fab. 19.
** CXCV of this collection.
I cannot but think Aesop was something above the degree of a slave, when he made such a figure as an eminent speaker in the Samian state. Perhaps he might have been in that low condition in the former part of his life; and therefore Phaedrus, who had been of the same rank himself, might love to enlarge upon this circumstance, since he does not chuse to represent him in any higher sphere. Unless we allow him to be* speaking in as public a capacity to the Athenians, upon the occasion of Pisistratus’s seizing their liberties, as we have before supposed he did to the Samians. But, however, granting that he was once a slave, we have great authority that he was afterwards not only free, but in high veneration and esteem with all that knew him; especially all that were eminent for wisdom and virtue.
* Phaed. Lib. l. Fab. 2,
Plutarch, in his Banquet of the Seven Wise Men, among several other illustrious persons, celebrated for their wit and knowledge, introduces Aesop. And, though in one place he seems to be ridiculed by one of the company for being of a clumsy mongrel shape, yet in general he is represented as very courtly and polite in his behaviour. He rallies Solon and the rest for taking too much liberty in prescribing rules for the conduct of sovereign princes; putting them in mind, that those who aspire to be the friends and counsellors of such, lose that character, and carry matters too far when they proceed to censure and find fault with them. Upon the credit of Plutarch, likewise, we fix the life of Aesop in the time of Croesus, king of Lydia; with whom he was in such esteem, as to be deputed by him to consult the Oracle at Delphos, and be sent as his envoy to Periander, king of Corinth; which was about three hundred and twenty years after the time in which Homer lived, and five hundred and fifty before Christ.
Now, though this imaginary Banquet of Plutarch does not carry with it the weight of a serious history, yet we may take it for granted, that he introduced nothing rn his fictitious scene which might contradict either the written or traditionary life of Aesop; but rather chose to make every thing agree with it. Be that as it will, this is the sum of the account which we have to give of him. Nor, indeed, is it material for us to know the little trifling circumstances of his life: as whether he lived at Samos or Athens, whether he was a slave or a freeman, whether handsome or ugly. He has left us a legacy in his writings that will preserve his memory dear and perpetual among us: what we have to do, therefore, is to show ourselves worthy of so valuable a present, and to act, in all respects, as near as we can to the will and intention of the donor. They who are governed by reason, need no other motive than the mere goodness of a thing to incite them to the practice of it. But men, for the most part, are so superficial in their enquiries, that they take all upon trust; and have no taste for any thing but what is supported bv the vogue of others, and which it is inconsistent with the fashion of the world not to admire.
As an inducement, therefore, to such as these to like the person and conversation of Aesop,I must assure them. that he was held in great esteem by most of the great wits of old. There is scarce an author among the ancient Greeks who mixed any thing of morality in his writings, but either quotes or mentions him. Socrates is described by *Plato as turning some of his fables into verse; and that in some of those serious hours which he spent in prison, a little before his death. Aristophanes not only takes hints from him, but mentions him much to his honour, as one whose works were, or ought to be read before any other. He brings in one man upbraiding another with ignorance and illiterateness in these words, , You have not so much as read Aesop; it being, as Suidas observes, a proverbial expression. Aristotle (as you have seen) speaks of him to his advantage. Laertius tells us Demetrius Phalereus wrote a book, entitled , & ; being a collection of Fables; so many of which were Aesop’s, or done in his manner, that he thought fit to call the whole by his name. Enniuf and Horace have embellished their poetry with him. Phaedrus gives him abundant applause. And A. Gellius delivers his opinion of him in a manner too particular to be omitted. “Aesop the Phrygian,” says he, “the famous fabulist, has justly acquired a reputation for his wisdom; for as to those things which are beneficial and advisable for us to do, he does not dictate and prescribe them in that haughty dogmatical way, so much used by some other philosophers; but dresses up a parcel of agreeable entertaining stories, and by them conveys to the mind the most wholesome and seasonable doctrine, in the most acceptable and pleasant manner. As that **fable of his, for example, of the Lark and her Young Ones, warns us, in the prettiest way imaginable, never to lay any stress upon the assistance to others, in regard to any affair which we are ourselves able to manage without them. Then he proceeds to give us a fine version of the fable itself; and, having finished it,” this fable of Aesop,” says he, “is a lecture to us concerning the little reliance we ought to have upon friends and relations, and what now do the grave books of philosophers teach us more, than that we should depend upon ourselves only; and not look at those things which are beyond our reach, as any concern of ours.”
* In Phaedone.
** Fab. XXXVIII.
Thus we see, whatever his person was, the beauties of his mind were very charming and engaging; that the most celebrated among the ancients were his admirers; that they speak of him with rapture, and pay as great a respect to him, as to any of the other wise men who lived in the same age. Nor can I perceive, from any author of antiquity, that he was so deformed as the monk has represented him. If he had, he must have been so monstrous and shocking to the eye, as not only to be a very improper envoy for a great king, but scarce fit to be admitted as a slave in any private family. Indeed, from what Plutarch hints of him, I suspect he had something particular in his mien, but rather odd than ugly, and more apt to excite mirth than disgust, in those that conversed with him. Perhaps something humorous displayed itself in his countenance as well as his writings; and it might be upon account of both, that he got the name of as Lucian calls him, and his works that of However, we will go a middle way; and without insisting upon his beauty, or giving into his deformity, allow him to have made a merry comical figure; at least as handsome as Socrates; but at the same time conclude, that this particularity in the frame of his body was so far from being of any disadvantage to him, that it gave a mirthful cast to every thing he said, and added a kind of poignancy to his conversation.
We have seen what opinion the ancients had of our author, and his writings. Now, as to the manner of conveying instruction by fables in general, though many good vouchers of antiquity sufficiently recommend it, yet, to avoid tiring the reader’s patience, I shall wave all quotations from thence, and lay before him the testimony of a modern, whose authority in point of judgment, and consequently in the present case, may be as readily acknowledged as that of any ancient of them all. “Fables*” says Mr. Addison, “were the first pieces of wit that made their appearance in the world; and have been still highly valued, not only in times of the greatest simplicity, but among the most polite ages of mankind. Jotham’s Fable of the Trees is the oldest that is extant, and as beautiful as any which have been made since that time. Nathan’s Fable of tne poor Man and his Lamb is likewise more ancient than any that is extant, besides the above-mentioned, and had so good an effect, as to convey instruction to the ear of a king, without offending it, and to bring the man after God’s own heart to a right sense of his guilt and his duty. We find Aesop in the most distant ages of Greece. And, if we look into the very beginning of the commonwealth of Rome, we see a mutiny among the common people, appeased by the Fable of **the Belly and the Limbs; which was indeed very proper to gain the attention of an incensed rabble, at a time, when, perhaps, they would have torn to pieces any man who had preached the same doctrine to them, in an open and direct manner. As fables took their birth in the very infancy of learning, they never flourished more than when learning was at its greatest height. To justify this assertion, I shall put my reader in mind of Horace, the greatest wit and critic in the Augustan age; and of Boileau, the most correct poet among the moderns; not to mention La Foutaine, who, by this way of writing, is come more into vogue than any other author of our times.” After this he proceeds to give some account of that kind of fable, in which the passions, and other imaginary beings, are actors; and concludes with a most beautiful one of that sort, of his own contriving. In another place, he gives us a translation from Homer of that inimitable fable comprised in the interview betwixt Jupiter and Juno, when the latter made use of the girdle of Venus to recal[sic] the affection of her husband; a piece never sufficiently to be recommended to the perusal of such of the fair sex as are ambitious of acquitting themselves handsomely in point of conjugal complacence. But I must not omit the excellent preface by which the fable is introduced, ***”Reading is to the mind,” says he, “what exercise is to the body: as by the one, health is preserved, strengthened, and invigorated; by the other, virtue (which is the health of the mind) is kept alive, cherished, and confirmed. But, as exercise becomes tedious and painful when we make use of it only as the means of health, so reading is too apt to grow uneasy and burthensome, when we apply ourselves to it only for our improvement in virtue. For this reason, the virtue which we gather from a fable or an allegory, is like the health we get by hunting, as we are engaged in an agreeable pursuit that draws us on with pleasure, and makes us insensible of the fatigues that accompany it.”
*Spect. No. 183.
*** Taler, No. 147.
Having given my reader the opinion of this great man, who has spoken so much and so well in favour of the subject I am concerned in, there is no room for me to enlarge farther upon that head. His argument demonstrates the usefulness and advantage of this kind of writing, beyond contradiction: it therefore only remains that I make some apology for troubling the public with a new edition, of what they have had so often and in so many different forms already.
Nothing of this nature has been done since Lestrange’s time, worth mentioning; and we had nothing before, but what (as he * observes) was so “insipid and flat in the moral, and so coarse and uncouth in the style and diction, that they were rather dangerous than profitable, as to the purpose for which they were principally intended: and likely to do forty times more harm than good.” I shall therefore only observe to my reader, the insufficiency of Lestrange’s own performance as to the purpose for which he professes to have principally intended it; with some other circumstances, which will help to excuse, if not justify, what I have enterprized upon the same subject.
* Pref. to Part I.
Now the purpose for which he principally intended his book, as in his preface he expends a great many words to inform us, was for the use and instruction of children; who, being, as it were, mere blank paper, “are ready indifferently for any opinion, good or bad, taking all upon credit; and that it is in the power of the first comer to write saint or devil upon them, which he pleases.” This being truly and certainly the case, what poor devils would Lestrange make of those children, who should be so unfortunate as to read his book, and imbibe his pernicious principles! Principles coined and suited to promote the growth, and serve the ends, of popery and arbitrary power. Though we had never been told he was a pensioner to a popish prince, and that he himself professed the same religion, yet his reflections upon Aesop would discover it to us: in every political touch, he shows himself to be the tool and hireling of the popish faction; since even a slave, without some mercenary view, would not bring arguments to justify slavery, nor endeavour to establish arbitrary power upon the basis of light reason. What sort of children, therefore, are the blank paper, upon which such morality as this ought to be written? Not the children of Britain, I hope; for they are born with free blood in their veins, and suck in liberty with their very milk. This they should be taught to love and cherish above all things, and, upon occasion, to defend and vindicate it; as it is the glory of their country, the greatest blessing of their lives and the peculiar happy privilege in which they excel all the world besides. Let therefore the children of Italy, France, Spain, and the rest of the popish countries, furnish him with blank paper for principles, of which free-born Britons are not capable. The earlier such notions are instilled in such minds as theirs indeed, the better it will be for them, as it will keep them from thinking of any other than the abject, servile condition to which they are born. But let the minds of our British youth be for ever educated and improved in that spirit of truth and liberty, for the support of which their ancestors have often bravely exhausted so much blood and treasure.
Had any thing tending to debase and inslave the minds of men been implied, either in the fables or morals of Aesop, upon which Lestrange was to make just and fair reflections, he might have pleaded that for an excuse. But Aesop, though it was his own accidental misfortune to be a slave, yet passed the time of his servitude among the free states of Greece, where he saw the high esteem in which liberty was held, and possibly learned to value it accordingly. He has not one fable, or so much as a hint, to favour Lestrange’s insinuations; but, on the contrary, takes all occasion to recommend a love for liberty, and an abhorrence of tyranny, and all arbitrary proceedings. Yet Lestrange (though in the preface to his second part, he uses these words, “I have consulted the best authorities I could meet withal, in the choice of the collection, without straining any thing, all this while, beyond the strictest equity of a fair and an innocent meaning,)” notoriously perverts both the sense and meaning of several fables, particularly when any political instruction is couched in the application. For example, in the famous tale of the Dog and the Wolf. After a long, tedious, amusing reflection, without one word to the purpose, he tells us, at last, “That the freedom which Aesop is so tender of here, is to be understood of the freedom of the mind.” No body ever understood it so, I dare say, that knew what the other freedom was. As for what he mentions, it is not in the power of the greatest tyrant that lives, to deprive us of it. If the Wolf was only sensible how sweet the freedom of mind was, and had no concert for the liberty of his person, he might have ventured to have gone with the dog well enough; but then he would have saved Lestrange the spoiling of one of the best fables in the whole collection. However, this may serve as a pattern for that gentleman’s candour and ingenuity in the manner of drawing his reflections. Aesop breathed liberty in a political sense, whenever he thought fit to hint any thing about that happy state. And Phaedrus, whose hard lot it was once to have been a domestic slave, had yet-so great a veneration for the liberty I am speaking of, that he made no scruple to write in favour of it, even under the usurpation of a tyrant, and at a time when the once glorious free people of Rome had nothing but the form and shadow of their ancient constitution left. This he did particularly in the fable of the Frogs desiring a King*; as I have observed in the application to it. After which I leave it to the decision of any indifferent person whether Lestrange, in the tenor of his reflections, has proceeded without straining most things, in point of politics, beyond the strictest equity of a fair and an innocent meaning.
Whether I have mended the faults I find with him, in this or any ether respect, I must leave to the judgment of the reader; professing (according to the principle on which the following applications are built) that I am a lover of liberty and truth; an enemy to tyranny, either in church or state; and one who detests party animosities, and factious divisions, as much as I wish the peace and prosperity of my country.