Rewriting Aesop’s fables

March 24, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

Things must have been a lot simpler in the days when old Aesop was knocking around ancient Greece and writing fables. He often used animal characters to illustrate useful principles that were once considered common sense.

Judging from the news, common sense is about as common as snowstorms in San Diego these days.

The headlines are chock-full of examples of people who do things that are ill-advised, and then blame everyone else for their misfortunes. Others simply flee from responsibility as if it were the plague.

There is the case of the former attorney who fleeced her clients, gambled her money away, lost her house, her parent’s house, and her business, and owes the IRS $58,000. She has filed a $20 million lawsuit against several casinos, claiming it was their responsibility to force her to quit gambling.

Then, there was the unfortunate case of the college student who died after a night of excessive drinking. Based on lawsuits that have been filed, it seems that the young woman who did the drinking and her family are the only ones who are not responsible for this tragedy.

And now, in what a cynical observer might consider a pre-emptive strike, we read that the contractor that was working on the I-35W bridge when it fell is threatening to sue the state of Minnesota for breach of contract, alleging that it did not provide a safe work environment for the company’s workers.

The fact that lawsuits like these are even allowed to go forward suggests that there has been a change in our collective view of what makes sense.

We may need to re-write some of Aesop’s fables to match this new paradigm.

Following are some suggestions:

The Goose Who Laid the Golden Eggs

This is the story of a poor farmer who discovered that his goose laid golden eggs. The goose laid one egg each day, and the farmer became rich by selling them. Like a lot of rich folks, he soon became impatient, and he got his axe and killed the goose to get all of the eggs at once. When he opened it up, he found nothing. The moral of the story is that he who is greedy can end up with nothing.

If this was written today, the farmer would sue the axe manufacturer and the store where he bought it for loss of income resulting from their failure to provide adequate safety features, and for not warning him that improper use of the axe would result in an end to the production of golden eggs.

The Milkmaid and her Pail

It is hard to find a milkmaid these days, but back in Aesop’s day, they were abundant, and one of them was carrying her milk to market in a bucket balanced on her head.

As she walked, she calculated what she would do with the money she got for the milk.

She figured she would buy some chickens and sell the eggs and buy a hot little black dress that would make the guys want to take her out, and make the other milkmaids jealous. As she thought of all this, she tossed her head back and spilled the milk. The moral is that one should not count one’s chickens before they are hatched.

Today, the milkmaid would sue the bucket company, alleging that the pail was defective and failed to stay put during normal head-tossing activities.

The Tortoise and the Hare

We have all heard the story of the cocky hare who challenged the tortoise to a race. The tortoise accepted the challenge, and on the appointed day, they got down to it. The hare danced and pranced around the tortoise for awhile, and then lay down for a nap to show his contempt. He woke up too late, and the tortoise crossed the finish line before he could catch up. The moral of the story is that slow and steady, rather than quick and flashy, wins the race.

If one were to write the story today, the hare would file a protest with the racing commission alleging that the contest was unfair. He would also file a malpractice suit against his doctor (or his veterinarian) for failing to diagnose his narcolepsy.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

A lad who was watching over a flock of sheep had a nasty habit of hollering “wolf” as a prank to drag his neighbors out of bed. The neighbors got tired of this game, and one night, when a wolf did appear, the neighbors didn’t, and the wolf wiped out the flock. The moral is that no one believes a liar, even when he tells the truth.

Today, the boy’s father would file a civil suit, alleging that the neighbors had a duty of care to show up when his brat called, no matter how many times he had tricked them in the past. The boy would file a suit against his parents for forcing him to work nights in violation of the child labor laws.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Finally, we have the classic story about the hard-working ant and the lazy grasshopper. All summer long, the ant toiled away while the grasshopper frolicked and tried to get the ant to join him for some fun. When winter came, the starving grasshopper watched the ant enjoying the food he had put aside during the warmer months, and realized too late that it is best to prepare for the future.

Today, the grasshopper would file for disability, and say that laziness is a medical condition which entitles him to benefits. He would demand that the government take care of him, and would move to Minnesota, where he had heard that the benefits are the most generous and easiest to obtain.

I will miss the old fables. They may have been a bit hackneyed, but they did illustrate some sound principles.

One can’t help but think that we would be better off with more common sense and fewer lawyers. Life would be simpler if responsibility was still personal, and not just something we assign to others.