XXIX[29arg] A fable of the Phrygian Aesop, which is well worth telling.
AESOP, the well-known fabulist from Phrygia, has justly been regarded as a wise man, since he taught what it was salutary to call to mind and to recommend, not in an austere and dictatorial manner, as is the way of philosophers, but by inventing witty and [p. 225] entertaining fables he put into men's minds and hearts ideas that were wholesome and carefully considered, while at the same time he enticed their attention. For example, this fable of his 1 about the little nest of a birdlet with delightful humour warns us that in the case of things which one can do, hope and confidence should never be placed in another, but in one's own self. “There is a little bird,” he says, “it is called the lark. It lives in the grain-fields, and generally builds its nest at such a time that the harvest is at hand exactly when the young birds are ready to be fledged. Such a lark chanced to have built her nest in a field which had been sown rather early in the year; therefore when the grain was turning yellow, the fledglings were still unable to fly. Accordingly, when the mother went off in search of food for her young, she warned them to notice whether anything unusual was said or done there, and to tell it to her on her return. A little later the owner of that grain-field calls his young son and says: ' Do you not see that this is ripe and already calls for hands? To-morrow then, as soon as it is light, see that you go to our friends and ask them to come and exchange work with us, and help us with this harvest.' So saying, he at once went away. And when the lark returned, the chicks, frightened and trembling, twittered about their mother and implored her to make haste and at once carry them off to some other place; 'for,' said they, 'the master has sent to ask his friends to come at daybreak and reap.' The mother bids them be easy in mind. ' For if the master,' said she, ' has turned the harvesting over to his friends, the field will not be reaped to-morrow, and I need not take you away [p. 227] to-day.' On the following day the mother flies off to get food. The master waits for those whom he had summoned. The sun grows hot and nothing is done. The day advances and no friends come. Then he says again to his son: 'Those friends of ours are a lot of slackers. why not rather go and ask our relatives and kinsfolk to come to reap early tomorrow?' This, too, the frightened chicks tell their mother. She urges them once again to be without fear and without worry, saying that hardly any relatives and kinsfolk are so obliging as to undertake labour without any delay and to obey a summons at once. 'But do you,' she said, 'observe whether anything more is said.' Next day at dawn the bird left to forage. The relatives and kinsfolk neglected the work which they were asked to do. So finally the owner said to his son: ' Enough of friends and relatives. Bring two scythes at daybreak; I myself will take one and you yourself the other, and tomorrow we ourselves will reap the grain with our own hands.' When the mother heard from her brood that the farmer had said this, she cried: ' It is time to get out and be off; for this time what he said surely will be done. For now it depends on the very man whose business it is, not on another who is asked to do it.' And so the lark moved her nest, the owner harvested his crop.” This then is Aesop's fable, showing that trust in friends and relatives is usually idle and vain. But what different warning do the more highly revered books of the philosophers give us, than that we should rely on ourselves alone, and regard everything else that is outside us and beyond our control as helpful neither to our affairs nor to ourselves? This parable [p. 229] of Aesop has been rendered in tetrameter verse by Quintus Ennius in his Saturae most cleverly and gracefully. 2 The following are the last two lines of that version, and I surely think it is worth while to remember them and take them to heart:
This adage ever have in readiness;
Ask not of friends what you yourself can do.