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Posts Tagged ‘Aesop’s Fables

“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion”*…

 

The ascent of the Prophet over the Ka’bah guided by Jibrā’īl and escorted by angels. (via the British Library)

The Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan is a book lover’s fantasy: a bespoke manuscript, hand-painted and hand-written by the greatest artists and calligraphers of its day. The patchwork book is pieced together from a wide range of texts, from epic poetry to learned disquisitions on astrology, medicine, and the interpretation of dreams. It is a fifteenth-century library distilled into a single volume and a relic of another world. In a time before copyright, texts could be borrowed, copied, and recycled into something new. In a time before mass-scale printing, a book could be a deeply personal affair, curated exactly to its patron’s unique set of interests. In a time before the internet, a pocket-sized library was the best way to carry a world of knowledge everywhere you went.

The Miscellany’s patron was Jalāl al-Dīn Iskandar Sultan ibn ‘Umar Shaykh, ruler of Shiraz and Isfahan and grandson of the world-famous conqueror Timur…

The remarkable story in full at “The ultimate bespoke manuscript“; browse the manuscript on the British Library’s Digital Viewer.

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we contemplate comprehensiveness, we might recall that not too long after this exercise in collecting everything relevant to a single reader, there was a seminal move to make a single thing available to many, many readers: on this date in 1484, William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England and was its first book publisher (see here and here), published his English translation of Aesop’s Fables.

The fable of the farmer and his sons from Caxton’s edition, 1484

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Let’s get cynical…

 

"Cynic: an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision" - Rick Bayan

Cynicisn was, like the Doric column and the gyro sandwich, invented by the Greeks.  As Rick Bayan explains…

The first Cynics (we capitalize the name when we’re talking about the ancient ones) were students of a now-obscure philosopher named Antisthenes, who in turn was a student of the illustrious Socrates. Like Socrates, the Cynics believed that virtue was the greatest good. But they took it a step further than the old master, who would merely challenge unsuspecting folks to good-natured debates and let their own foolishness trip them up.

The Cynics were more blunt when it came to exposing foolishness. They’d hang  out in the streets like a pack of dogs (“Cynic” comes from the Greek word for  dog), watch the passing crowd, and ridicule anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined and virtuous lives. The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who reportedly took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. This cranky street-philosopher would introduce himself by saying, “I am Diogenes the dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” He’d use a lantern by daylight, explaining that he was searching for an honest man. Even Alexander the Great didn’t escape unscathed. When the young conqueror found Diogenes sitting in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher replied that “you can step out of my sunlight.”

Bayan, who believes that cynicism is as important today as ever, has created The Cynic’s Sanctuary, one of whose fascinating features is the Cynic’s Hall of Fame; arranged chronologically, by date of birth, it begins with…

Aesop (c. 600 B.C. ) Was he real or legendary? We’re not absolutely sure. Aesop may have been a slave who lived on the Greek isle of Samos; it’s said that he was slain by irate priests at the Oracle of Delphi. (He probably got himself into hot water by mocking their beliefs.) His works weren’t assembled into book form until about eight centuries after his time. No doubt numerous ancient storytellers added to the collection along the way. But the reputed author of the world’s most famous fables — man or legend — has to stand as literature’s great proto-Cynic. His brief moral tales are sharp allegories of human folly — even when the characters are foxes, crows, mice, tortoises and hares. Aesop’s Fables teem with the wisdom and gentle mockery of someone who knows the human animal inside and out (especially our weaknesses). If you think Aesop is just for children, think again — and read him again.

Favorite quote:
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

The roster continues through the expected (e.g., Rabelais, Voltaire, Mark Twain) and the not-so-expected (Jesus, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer)…

In times like these, it’s comforting to know that one can take refuge in The Cynic’s Sanctuary.

 

As we memorize our Mencken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780 that General Benedict Arnold betrayed the US when he wrote British General Sir Henry Clinton, agreeing to surrender the fort at West Point to the British army.  Arnold, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor,” fled to England after the plot fell through.  The British gave Arnold a brigadier general’s commission with an annual income of several hundred pounds, but only paid him £6,315 plus an annual pension of £360 because his plot had failed.  After the Revolutionary War, Arnold settled in Canada, and turned his hand to land speculation, West Indies, trade, and privateering– none of them very successfully.  He died in 1801.

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