Writing about the classics is certainly no small task. Reaching deep into classical studies and linking Aesop’s fables with Martin Luther’s 16th century reformation would almost seem monumental. SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences Carl Springer, professor of English language and literature, has succeeded in this task with a book that was published last October entitled “Luther’s Aesop”.
Springer, a classicist with a specialty in Latin, said that he became interested in Luther’s Latin poetry and prose and its connection with classical studies nearly 10 years ago. He started ‘small’ with an article about Luther and Virgil and then began to look into Luther’s work with Aesop’s Fables.
“I began to look at Aesop’s Fables and realized that this is one of the biggest areas in which Luther had some interest in the classical tradition,” said Springer. “As I began to look through the rest of his writings, he refers to Aesop in his sermons and letters, in his table talk over 80 times. He knows over 40 Aesopic fables. And I began to think more and more about why Aesop was so attractive to Luther. After all, Aesop was a pagan, Greek storyteller from maybe the time the Homer.”
Springer said that there is much speculation about the ‘real’ Aesop. He stated that some narratives say Aesop was a former slave and that not much is known about Aesop because the fables came from a time of oral tradition. What seems to be common in many of the narratives was that Aesop was a storyteller with a tendency to tell stories that people did not want to hear, according to Springer. However, it wasn’t until much later in history that any of Aesop’s stories began to be transcribed.
“The first text we have of Aesop’s fables come from the 1st century A.D., one’s in latin; one’s in Greek–one set of these poetic retellings of Aesop’s fables. They became very popular through the middle ages and Luther was aware of these. He probably read them in school and he wanted to make sure they would become part of the Lutheran reformations educational programs,” Springer said. “He really felt strongly about having them be incorporated in Lutheran schools and also then just read at home by families just sitting around the table.”
Springer stated that he has long been interested in the link between Christianity and Greco-Roman pagan texts such as the fables.
“What I explored in the book is how does Luther reconcile some of the ethical positions in Aesop’s fables with Christianity. They’re not always easily reconcilable. That’s how I got interested,” said Springer. “The book is not so much a technical study, with manuscripts and all of that; that work’s been done. But rather to try to tease out how this can be that you can have a Christian version of Aesop and how can those two world’s of thought coincide; how do they co-exist? And that’s something I’ve been interested in for many many years–the relationship between christianity and Greco-Roman pagan culture beginning already in late antiquity.”
Luther really seemed to try and bring the lessons of Aesop’s fables to the masses, according to Springer. Springer said that Luther tried to apply the fables to average, ordinary people and that his real skill was in what he added to his translations of the fables that showed his true genius.
“I’d say more than translating, what his real genius was is that he added morals to the fables. So, he’d have these morals–sometimes it’s hard to figure out what the morals might mean–but he has a whole bunch of them at the end of each fable. And those seem to be something that he really thought hard about, how would we apply that,” said Springer. “It’s not for scholars. It’s for children. It’s for people who are familiar with the proverbs already. And then they say, ‘O.K. Maybe I’ll remember that next time I am in a situation where I am thinking maybe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and I’ll stay right where I am.”
Springer said that his object in the book was to find everything he could find in Luther’s writings, try to make statements about which of the fables were Luther’s favorites, and then to make a judgment on which fables seemed to resonate with Luther. Springer stated that Luther’s translations of Aesop’s Fables were not an attempt to Christianize the pagan writing.
“What’s interesting about Luther is he does not make this Christian. I start approaching Luther’s theology then–Luther has an idea that you have two kingdoms: the kingdom of God’s left hand and the kingdom of God’s right hand. One is the secular world, the other is the spiritual world–[Luther] doesn’t see them as one in the same,” said Springer. “He’s happy to have this divide. He sees this as worldly wisdom. He doesn’t try to put in Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or baptism or any of the other things that he believed in into the fables. He says this is old fashioned, good Pagan wisdom that’s very helpful for our young people to learn so they can live wise, safe, happy lives in this world.”
Springer said that he wrote the book as a way to bridge a gap in two different eras of classical studies. He said that a lot of theologians don’t study the classics and so they will mention Aesop’s Fables and Luther only in passing while many classicists will not study up the the reformation.
“it’s an unusual niche because there are a lot of theologians who don’t study the classics. So you have a lot of Luther scholars who mention these fables very, very briefly. They have not spent a lot of time focused on that as opposed to his really important theological writings. Then, in terms of Aesopic scholarship, people who spend their lives studying fables, classicists, sometimes they don’t tend to get that far–that late, they don’t tend to all the way to the reformation–they tend to focus on Aesop or the 1st century A.D. So I hope there are people from both disciplines who would benefit from this,” said Springer. “These are two enormous fields and I’ve just dipped my toe into the water there and found an area that I could really specialize in and really produce a helpful book.”
Filed Under: English Language & Lit