Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.14

Leslie Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose. Martin Classical Lectures.   Princeton/Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2011.  Pp. xxi, 495.  ISBN 9780691144580.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Vivienne Gray, University of Auckland (

In this book, Leslie Kurke goes hunting after the influence of Aesop on Greek thought and literature and makes surprising connexions between Aesop and a large range of standard classical texts, in both prose and poetry. Aesop is defined as a ‘mobile, free-floating figure in ancient culture, the narrative of whose life, discourses and death remained endlessly available and adaptable for all kinds of resistance, parody, and critique from below’; whose characteristic method of resistance was the fable form that made his name. She argues that by this definition ‘Aesop’ is part of a cultural dialogue that challenged higher political authorities such as Apollo and the Delphians from below, parodied higher literature such as Hesiod and Pindar, and influenced Herodotus’ Histories and Plato’s dialogues to such an extent that he must he counted programmatic for their creation of the new prose genres of history and philosophy. The book is a challenging exercise in literary analysis and critical thinking about Aesop and his traditions. The difficulty is that the definition of Aesopic is so fluid that any indirect challenge to authority from below risks betraying his influence.

The introduction introduces Aesop as a popular culture hero who serves as a model for criticism from below, and it validates the possibility of a popular tradition in elite written form. It recognizes that the traditions about him as we now have them in manuscript form are the product of conversations over centuries, which makes it difficult to establish their influence in a given period. Vita G is discussed as a major source. Kurke also discusses elements in her critical process, for instance how narrative incoherence betrays outside influence; this is important in her reading. In a survey of approaches to Aesop, she focuses on topics she will be addressing, such as the account of his experiences at Delphi and the challenge to Apollo, the conversations between Aesop’s tradition and other traditions of wisdom, and how the reading of the life embodies the theory behind the reading of the fables.

Chapter 1 (“Aesop and the Contestation of Delphic Authority”) argues that Aesop reflects an historical challenge from egalitarian Greeks to the elite practices of the Delphians in the administration of their shrine. The main evidence is the episode where Aesop pacifies his master’s wife with a fable that explains why her dream of acquiring a handsome slave proved false. He tells how Apollo grew insolent in his mantic power, provoking Zeus to punish him by sending true dreams to men, which replaced his divination. This made Apollo appeal to Zeus to send false dreams as well as true ones so that people would need him again to sort of out the false from the true. Kurke assigns this kind of fable about the gods an early date and calls on another fable from the life, in which an apparent ‘superior’ is merely the slave of some higher authority, to point to Apollo’s inferiority to Zeus. Euripides’ version of this same story is adduced to confirm a fifth-century date and offer a ‘higher’ justification of Apollo’s authority, which highlights Aesop’s ‘lower’ challenge by contrast. It is claimed that Aesop himself becomes the main source of divination in the life thereafter – supplanting Apollo.

Kurke then turns to Aesop’s criticism of the Delphians. A late papyrus indicates that he blamed them for taking an excessive share of the sacrifices that individuals and communities made at the shrine. She pits this criticism against the higher literary traditions that approve Delphic practices such as the Homeric Hymns and the traditions about the death of Neoptolemus at Delphi, which parallels that of Aesop at Delphi, and again confirms his ‘popular’ challenge through similarity and difference. In extant accounts of the lives, the focus of Aesop’s criticism is their slavish illiberality in not rewarding him for his performance of wisdom, then when he is arrested for abusing them, their impiety in framing him and dragging him from the sanctuary of the Muses where he sought refuge.

The skeptical reader might point to the end of the story about the dream, in which Zeus re-establishes Apollo’s authority, and the account of Aesop’s end, when Aesop calls on Apollo to avenge his unjust death and Apollo obligingly sends his characteristic plague to punish the Delphians. These work against the challenge to Apollo. And when Zeus rather than Apollo instructs the Delphians to expiate Aesop’s murder, this might not reflect an historical struggle between Apollo and Zeus, but the gods’ usual teamwork. The personal nature of Aesop’s criticism of the Delphians might also blunt the seriousness of any criticism of their practices, however early or late.

Chapter 2 (“Sophia Before/Beyond Philosophy”) describes the traditional pattern of the life of the sage, his travelling abroad to display his wisdom, his involvement in political activity and his death, and it charts the development of Sophia from practical wisdom to philosophy, emphasizing its poetic, political, competitive and religious associations, and its links with Apollo, particularly in relation to the Seven Sages. All interesting. Chapter 3 (“Aesop as Sage: Political Counsel and Discursive Practice”) argues that Aesop offers a ‘low’ challenge to the ‘higher’ wisdom of sages such as Solon, for instance in the political episode in which he advises King Croesus of Lydia not to attack Samos. He distinguishes himself from other wise men by using the indirect fable, and therefore avoiding offence to Croesus. ‘Re-stagings’ of Aesop’s politics are then pursued through literature as diverse as Plutarch’s Life of Demosthenes and Solon’s poetic image of himself as the wolf.

Aesop’s influence on Herodotus was a major interest in the original design of her book, as Kurke explains. Kurke finds, for instance, that traditions behind Aesop’s encounter with Croesus directly influenced Herodotus’ famous story of how a wise man (either Bias or Pittacus: 1.27) stopped Croesus from enslaving the Greek islanders. Herodotus’ story is different from the extant versions of Aesop’s story, but the situation of challenge to the king’s wisdom is the same and Herodotus’ wise man’s use of analogy is an indirect method of instruction like fable. More specifically, Kurke argues that narrative and linguistic features in Herodotus’ story are not ones he regularly uses and are ‘low’ enough to represent Aesop’s influence. These include ὑπολαβόντα φάναι to describe the punch-line reply of Herodotus’ wise man and ἐπίλογος for the punch-line itself. The problem is that these words do not occur in extant Aesopic versions of the episode, Herodotus does use them elsewhere, and he uses them in contexts that are high rather than low. Herodotus uses ὑπολαβοῦσα ἔφη of Candaules’ queen’s reply to the lowly Gyges (1.11.5), and of King Xerxes’ high reply to a lower advisor (7.147.3). His indecision about whether the wise man was Bias or Pittacus reflects his widespread use of unresolved alternatives in other contexts. Nor does the ruler’s delight always have bad consequences as claimed, for instance at 5.51, when Cleomenes takes pleasure in the advice of little Gorgo not to become involved in the politics of Ionia, which turns out to be so sensible.

Chapter 4 (“Reading the Life: the Progress of a Sage and the Anthropology of Sophia”) reads Aesop’s life in a very interesting way as the ascent of wisdom, in his increasing power of speech, his increasing ability to interpret signs (this involves rejecting the idea that he fails to work his magic on the Delphians at the end of his life). The debt to eastern traditions is discussed for that intriguing part of the life when Aesop lectures the young man in Babylon, using the old didactic style rather than his characteristic fable.

Chapter 5 (“The Aesopic Parody of High Wisdom”) finds episodes in Aesop’s life that challenge and parody the higher wisdom of Hesiod’s Works and Days, Theognis, the Seven Sages as represented in Plutarch, and of the visual tradition. For instance, Aesop’s master’s explanation of why he urinates while walking is related to Hesiod’s injunction on that topic.

Chapter 6 (“Aesop at the Invention of Philosophy”) argues that Plato’s claim in Phaedo that he versified Aesop’s fables alludes to the ‘low’ Aesopic origins of mimetic dialogue, which Aristotle also points to in his comparison of dialogue with mime. Chapter 7 (“The Battle Over Prose: Fable in Sophistic Education and Xenophon’s Memorabilia”) explores the sophists’ elevation of fable to respectability, using Xenophon’s Choice of Heracles, a myth from Antiphon and Protagoras’ myth in Plato’s Protagoras. It suggests that Xenophon used fable only in ‘low’ contexts such as the discussion of bodily pleasures and the domestic sphere in the Memorabilia, but this is based only on very limited references. Chapter 8 (“Sophistic Fable in Plato: Parody, Appropriation and Transcendence”) has Socrates debunk Aesopic fable as well as Simonidean lyric in Protagoras. In Symposium, Diotima trumps Aristophanes’ low fable with her own higher version. Chapter 9 (“Aesop in Plato’s Sokratikoi Logoi: Analogy, Elenchus and Disavowal”) identifies Plato’s general ‘challenge from below’ as Aesopic and finds Aesopic elements in Alcibiades’ description of him in Symposium. Aesop is also held responsible for the epagoge and the individualization of the elenchus, and for the recognized peculiarities of the Hippias Major.

Chapter 10 (“Historie and Logopoiia: Two Sides of Herodotean Prose”) explores the ‘low’ implications of Herodotus’ description of Aesop as logopoios, and Aesop’s responsibility for his own storytelling, which is said to exhibit low Aesopic features. Plutarch’s work on the Malice of Herodotus confirms the influence, in a passage in which he compares Herodotus’ attribution of uncharitable criticisms of the Greeks to foreigners to the Aesopic practice of placing criticisms in the mouths of animals.

Chapter 11 (“Herodotus and Aesop: Some Soundings”) sees programmatic significance for Herodotus’ Histories in Cyrus’ fable of the dancing fishes; Cyrus is himself considered Aesopic because he was a slave and a foreigner, like Aesop, before he became a Great King. Kurke then returns to that encounter with Croesus, and produces more linguistic evidence for the Aesopic nature of Herodotus’ wise advisor stories as a whole. This is that the wise men regularly speak Greek that is low and fabular, like Aesop, when they challenge their kings, while his kings speak grand and authoritative Greek. The argument works only up to a point. There is grandeur in Croesus’ Homeric particles and his reference to ‘children of the Lydians’ but not in the phrase ‘put it in their minds’, since in another episode in which Croesus receives advice, Herodotus credits this phrase to the advisor, who ought to be speaking low Greek: 1.71. The same goes for ‘having it in their minds’, which Herodotus uses elsewhere in contexts entirely free from low challenge (1.77.1 6.44.1, 8.7.2, 9.11.1, 9.52). The compounded word for ‘buying’ is unusual, but the uncompounded form is common in neutral and high contexts. And anacoluthon can be found in higher literature as well as low. Similar arguments track Aesop’s influence on the story in which the exiled Spartan King Demaratus advises Xerxes (7.101) and in the story of Hippocleides dancing away his bride as also fabulistic (6.129), with the characteristic formula of reply and the challenge of the low form of dancing to the high majesty of Cleisthenes. Herodotus’ inspiration for that story is said to be the eastern fable of the dancing peacock, which means that he actually creates history from fable.

Kurke offers a sophisticated explanation of why Herodotus erased the name of Aesop from these encounters, but left traces of his fabular talk to point to his influence. First, his presence would complicate the dualities required in these conversations, in which Greek wisdom challenges Eastern folly: Aesop was a Phrygian after all. But by this strategy Herodotus is also inviting the reader to read the histories as a whole for its indirect communication. His work needs de-coding because he himself adopts the indirect Aesopic way when he wishes to advise the powerful, by challenging them through storytelling, which is the indirect equivalent of fable.

There are large ideas in this book. Critical faculties will be honed by reading it.

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