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Key Features of the Fable, the 1st Progymnasmata Exercise, Explained

Fable (“mythos”, the 1st exercise in the series of the Progymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window) is expositionOpens in new window which is fictive but gives the semblance of truth.

The speech in fable is false since it is admittedly made up of falsehoods, but it exhibits truth from the credibility of the inventionOpens in new window since it would not accomplish its purpose if it did not have some similarity to the truth.

It is called mythos from mytheisthai, literally, “to speak,” not because we do not speak in the other exercises but because in it we first learn how to speak in public.

With its power of enchantment, a fable benefits those who are persuaded, dissuading them from bad things, advising them to desire good things, and together with its sweetness accustoming them to take advantage of its benefit. Some rhetors name it ainos as a result of the advice (parainesis) it gives.

An Ethical Fable of the Cicadas and Ants, Exhorting the Young to Toil

It was the height of summer and the cicadas were offering up their shrill song, but it occurred to the ants to toil and collect the harvest from which they would be fed in the winter. When the winter came on, the ants fed on what they had laboriously collected, but the pleasure of the cicadas ended in want. Similarly, youth that does not wish to toil fares badly in old age.

—An excerpt from: Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric edited by George Alexander Kennedy

Assortment of Fables

Fables are distinguished into: Aesopic, Sybaritic, Lydian, and Phrygian, all these epithets originate from certain places or persons. These fables are eclipsed by the Aesopic, which is associated with AesopOpens in new window.

In Sybaritic fables the characters are limited to rational animals, in Aesopic there is a combination of irrational and rational, and Lydian and Phrygian fables use only the irrational. There are also some fables making use of gods—an example is “Hera’s Homelife with Zeus”—these are appropriate in contexts of philosophical study, where it is possible to understand the allegorical meanings in them.

A number of the progymnasmata exercises fall into genres of deliberativeOpens in new window, judicialOpens in new window and panegyrical oratoryOpens in new window. Thus, fable clearly belongs to the genre of deliberative; for we either exhort to good deeds or dissuade from vices.

However, some fable are dynamics, in that they are practically relevant in all three genres of rhetoric. “In so far as we are exhorting or dissuading,” they say, “the special feature of deliberation is preserved, but when we make an onslaught on crimes, the judicial part is being kept, and when we use the plain style and develop our theme with simplicity while at the same time including an element of praise, we are not far from the panegyrical genre.

An epimythion is a speech added at the end of the fable, conclusively emphasizing its moral lesson. This can be carried out in three ways: either paradigmatically or enthymematically or prosphonetically.

Paradigmatically, in the sense: “This fable teaches us to act or not to act in certain ways”; enthymematically, in the sense: “One not acting in certain ways deserves censure.” Lastly, by saying prosphonectically “And you, my child, keep away from acting this way or that way.” Some put the moral at the beginning; a moral of this sort (embedded at the beginning) is called promythion.

Template for Composing the Fable

A fable should be composed with factors that lend it credibility in mind. Now we ought to consider how it may become credible. A number of things can constitute this:

  • mention of places where the creatures imagined in the fable are accustomed to pass their time;
  • from the occasions on which they are wont to show themselves;
  • from words that harmonize with the nature of each;
  • from actions which do not surpass the kind of thing each does—so we do not say that a mouse gave advice about the kingdom of the animals or that a lion was captured by the savor of cheese—and if there is need to attribute some words to them, if we make the fox speak subtle things and the sheep naïve and simple–minded things; for such is the nature of each; and so the eagle is introduced as rapacious for fawns and lambs, and the jackdaw does not so much as think of anything like that.

If there should ever be need to invent something contrary to nature, one should set the scene for this first and should connect the moral of the fable with it; for example, if the sheep were being described as having a friendly talk with the wolves, first you should set the scene for this friendship and anything else of that sort.

Another important factor is that the fable should be composed with simple language and not contrived and should be devoid of all forcefulness and periodic expression, so that the advice is clear and what is said—by the speakers in the fable—does not seem more elevated than their supposed character, especially when the fable consists of actions and speeches by irrational animals.

The general principle is, we should use language that is rather simple and deviates little from that used in ordinary conversation. (George Alexander Kennedy Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric)

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  • References
    • Ronald F. Hock and Edward N.O’Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, Volume 1: The Progymnasmata (Society of Biblical Literature Texts and Trans. 27; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 7.
    • Theon, Progymnasmata 1; Hock and O’Neil, “Aelius Theon of Alexandria: On the Chreia,” in The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 82 – 83.
    • Silver Rhetoricae: Chreia, or AnecdoteOpens in new window

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