What About the Fox

This week, I read the Fables of Babrius in microfilm online,* and wondered what it must have been like for students for centuries after the 4th to have begun their education in rhetoric by recreating fables. And how, too, certain tenets of those fables were revived in Erasmus' Adagia, also a popularised didactic tool. By tenets of fables, I of course mean maxims: illustrations of both good and bad character. Scampering throughout Babrius' Fables is the fox - a tricky character, reminiscent of the trickiness Chesterton gets at when he writes: " But if you are going to mend an innkeeper, you must do it tenderly, you must do it reverently. You must nail an extra arm or leg on his person, keeping always before you the Platonic image of the perfect innkeeper, to whose shape you seek to restore him." The wily fox has a place in the story of perfecting images.
Some of the fables depict the fox in situations reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, playing tricks on the Road Runner (which gives pause for thought: did fables inspire some Looney Tunes?)
But there is a curious one in which the fox, having (literally) fallen on hard times, is offered help from a hedgehog that it refuses: musing that to rid himself of his plight would be to expose himself to worse. The fable opens by being lauded for its ethos: Aesop used it to sway a crowd!
It was at that point that I could no longer refrain from wondering about Berlin's hedgehog/fox essay - specifcally, how he made the fox so one-dimensional as compared to how the fox appears in the fables: as immoral as cunning - and even wise. It turns out that Berlin said of the essay: "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something else, this one was very simple."
The idea from an Archilochus fragment that the essay opens with, about a fox knowing many things and a hedgehog one, also appears in Babrius - although with a twist: it is a hedgehog's boasting that prompts the fox (reynard) to say that it "possess[es] a mind of more variety than thy skin or mind". The fable ends with the maxim: "Each magnifies that which within his own possession lies."
* Please note since I did not make this clear: Babrius collected Aesop's fables. I do not know why I insist on reading Babrius and not Aesop.

There is an interesting thread about where Berlin got the Archilochus reference from at languagehat, which came up as I was doing topical reading to make sure this post I wanted to write was at least somewhat original. One of the commenters links to Bowra's paper on how Archilochus used the reference, postulating that he was comparing himself to the fox when he did.
The difference between the Arhilochus fragment and the Babrius fable illustrates that knowledge of a corpus of references does not stifle creativity, as some contemporaries seem to argue - lacking a shared vocabulary of possibilities for thought voiced through the safe remove of the animal.
What about the fox is partly explained by the Chesterton essay cited above. It questions whether the original nature of things is good or whether it is bad or "lost all power of being good". What the fox is about is the quest for what makes good or bad, how hard it is to pin this down, how the definition can change in an instant, in a different retelling, in a different context.
Building thought on the fox seems useful, not just paper dreams.

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idées; brush: misprinted type.

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