Aesop, Truth, & Children

When we raise or teach young children, we must do so with the understanding that our Christian children are simultaneously citizens of a temporal realm and citizens of a heavenly realm. In both realms they are in need of Truth.

In the temporal realm, Aesop’s fables have been prized as an ideal pedagogical vehicle. They give us a winsome means of conveying moral lessons to children through the words and deeds of animals. Let us consider this tale that is often placed first in collections of Aesop’s fables, “The Rooster and the Pearl”:

A Rooster was once strutting up and down the farmyard among the hens when suddenly he espied something shining amid the straw. “Ho! ho!” quoth he, “that’s for me,” and soon he rooted it out from beneath the straw. What did it turn out to be but a Pearl that by some chance had been lost in the yard? “You may be a treasure,” quoth Master Rooster, “to men that prize you, but for me I would rather have a single barley-corn than a peck of pearls.”

The moral: Precious things are for those that can prize them.

Perhaps “The Rooster and the Pearl” is frequently placed ahead of all others to compare the rooster to anyone who dares not recognize the value of Aesop’s fables. Unlike the rooster, the ideal and intended reader will appreciate pearls contained in the ample moral lessons both for himself and for his children. “No kindness, no matter how small, is wasted” (“The Lion and the Mouse”). “Slow and steady wins the race” (“The Tortoise and the Hare”). “However unfortunate we may think we are, there is always someone worse off than ourselves” (“The Hares and the Frogs”).

We can teach Aesop’s fables in homes or schools for conversation, for written copybook, or for formal composition exercises to impress moral lessons upon students’ hearts and minds. The ancient Roman orator Quintilian would approve:

I would urge that the lines, which he is set to copy, should not express thoughts of no significance, but convey some sound moral lesson. He will remember such aphorisms even when he is an old man, and the impression made upon his unformed mind will contribute to the formation of his character.

We do well to heed our ancient pedagogical forebears in these matters, especially when faced with culturally antithetical theories that entice us to leave children to their own devices in what they choose to learn, listen to, and love. Yet we should take care to recognize the wisdom of Aesop and other ancients as only natural precepts leading to good human works. If we follow solely the wisdom of Aesop, we move no closer to God. Apart from Christ we are dead in our trespasses and possess neither the ability nor the predilection to do what is pleasing to God. But “in Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

These truths provide Christians with a clear distinction among those who reclaim classical education in sole reliance on the wisdom of the ancients. We do not presume that we can become virtuous in the spiritual realm apart from Christ. When classical Christian educators advocate for wisdom, eloquence, and virtue, we do so while insisting on the overarching truth of God’s Word.

When understanding the two worlds, we gladly seek the wisdom of the ancients as that which is good for our protection and the good of our neighbor; yet we know that even this is a gift from God. As Christians, our calling is to lead our children to our merciful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who alone is the eternal embodiment and fulfillment of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty for us.

Today we are witnessing a growing interest in classical Christian education, including classical Christian education for those with disabilities. For these students, we must begin early with the smallest of lessons and allow them to unfold with increasing maturity over the years. Aesop is a perfect tool for this because you can start teaching these tales very simply.

Let’s consider “The Fox and the Grapes,” which we teach in Simply Classical Level C. Before reading you might remind the child that Aesop was a storyteller from ancient times. Aesop told stories about animals with good lessons for people to learn. Point to the fox. Have you ever seen a fox? What color was it? Point to the grapes. Have you ever eaten grapes? Are they juicy? After reading: Did the fox want the grapes? How do we know? (Yes. His “mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them” and he “did his best to reach them, jumping as high as he could.”) Were the grapes really sour? (No. The fox could not have them, so he called them “sour” in his own bitterness.) Reflection question: What could he have said more honestly and humbly? (“The grapes look delicious, but I am not able to reach them.”)

But the timeless lessons of Aesop’s fables are not merely for young children. “The Ant and the Chrysalis,” taught with our older students in Simply Classical Levels 9 & 10, can give us renewed eyes for seeing “the least of these among us,” particularly when informed by the Holy Scriptures.

An Ant nimbly running about in the sunshine in search of food came across a Chrysalis that was very near its time of change. The Chrysalis moved its tail, and thus attracted the attention of the Ant, who then saw for the first time that it was alive. “Poor, pitiable animal!” cried the Ant disdainfully. “What a sad fate is yours! While I can run hither and thither at my pleasure, and, if I wish, ascend the tallest tree, you lie imprisoned here in your shell, with power only to move a joint or two of your scaly tail.” The Chrysalis heard all of this but did not try to make any reply. A few days after, when the Ant passed that way again, nothing but the shell remained. Wondering what had become of its contents, he felt himself suddenly shaded and fanned by the gorgeous wings of a beautiful Butterfly. “Behold in me,” said the Butterfly, “your much-pitied friend! Boast now of your powers to run and climb as long as you can get me to listen.” So saying, the Butterfly rose in the air, and, borne along and aloft on the summer breeze, was soon lost to the sight of the Ant forever.

The moral of this fable: Appearances are deceptive.

Children who are weak or ill, or struggling with autism or speech impairments, are cloaked in disability and personify our own weaknesses and trials here on Earth. We all find ourselves in a chrysalis, an earthly tent. Yet appearances are deceiving. Freely forgiven in Christ, declared righteous through faith in Him, we are more free than we appear. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” This is the best lesson of all.