At this time of year the media urge us all to turn over a new leaf and believe that we can become and do whatever we want. Those tempted by this idiotic advice would be better advised to turn over a 2,500-year-old one with a stiff dose of Aesop’s fables.
A shadowy 6th-century bc figure, Aesop turned animals into literary figures by giving them simple black-and-white human characteristics — the timid mouse, the deceitful fox, the stupid donkey, and so on — and putting them in situations illustrating aspects of the human condition. Theon called them ‘fictitious stories picturing a truth’ — usually truths about human folly. One lesson they regularly rammed home was the advisability of knowing who you were.
Three examples feature a jackdaw, a donkey and a wolf. The jackdaw, noticing the well-fed pigeons in a nearby coop, coloured his feathers to look like theirs and silently joined them. The pigeons were fooled until the jackdaw, forgetting where he was, emitted his familiar cackle and was chased off. He returned to his fellow jackdaws, who assumed he was a pigeon and also chased him off. A donkey clothed himself in a lion skin, terrifying men and beasts into running from him. But the wind got up and blew his skin off, leaving him naked to the elements. At that everyone beat him black and blue with sticks and clubs. A wolf was wandering about in a distant region when the sun was setting low over the horizon. Seeing his greatly enlarged shadow, he thought he should become the king of all the animals, afraid of no one. Glorying in these thoughts, he was leapt on by a lion. This quickly changed his opinion of himself.
This is all good cracker-barrel stuff, but how else does one face down cracker-barrel incitements to inhabit a fantasy world? Ancient Greeks summed it up with two sayings: ‘Know yourself’, i.e. what you can and cannot do, and ‘Nothing in excess’, the other side of the same coin. This advice did not prevent Greeks (those who had the opportunity) from using their ingenuity to excel: far from it. It did suggest that self-awareness encouraged them to be aware of their own limitations, but push them to the limit. Doing anything else was to defy nature by the sheer force of internal contradiction, a sure recipe for disaster.