Illustration of a slave running through the Ancient Greek jungle to find Aesop the fabulist.

The Fable of Aesop and the Runaway Slave

Aesop and the Runaway Slave is one of the oldest Aesopic fables. It’s a controversial one, and you’ll soon see why: it’s a fable about slavery that seems to side with the master, not the slave. It has a valuable moral lesson, though, especially if you aren’t a slave.

The Fable

Aesop came upon a slave who was running away from his master. The slave recognized him and rushed over to recount his many misfortunes.

The slave told of how he had to serve his master elaborate feasts while his stomach gnawed at him. Of how he was forced to accompany his master on long journeys, sleeping in the cold ditch while his master found warm shelter inside. And of how whenever he tired, the master’s whip would renew his vigour.

“If I had done something to deserve this suffering,” the slave said, “I would bare it gladly. But I am innocent! So why must I live this life of hunger and agony? Why must I give the best years of my life to this cruel tyrant?”

Aesop knew well what it was to be a slave. He nodded along sympathetically.

The slave had many more hardships to agonize over, but he decided to cut to the heart of it: “I’ve decided to flee—to go wherever my feet will take me.”

Aesop shook his head. “If this is what you must endure for your innocence, imagine how miserable your life will be when you’re guilty of something!”

The Moral

The moral of Aesop and the Runaway Slave is that you shouldn’t add one problem to another. The same moral is repeated across a few of Aesop’s fables, often with even grimmer endings.

It might sound like a story a master would use to keep his slaves subservient, and it might be. But there’s some context to consider. Aesop was a slave who earned his freedom. Aesop may not have existed, but this fable was first recorded by Phaedrus, a former slave of Emperor Augustus during the first century CE. So, whether the fable belongs to Aesop or Phaedrus, it’s a story told from the perspective of a former slave.

If we set aside the issue of slavery, the moral is a wise one.

Many of us fall victim to a psychological fallacy known as the what-the-hell effect. It’s when something goes wrong, and you proclaim, “To hell with it, then!” and ruin everything.

For example, let’s say you’ve been faithfully following an oppressive diet, but one day, you break it by having an ice-cold glass of crisp Coca-Cola, shooting you over your calorie target. You tell yourself you’ve already blown your diet for the day, so you have a torta, then another, and then a third. When you wake up in the morning, you realize the diet is irreparably broken, so you continue eating junk food. And, of course, you get very fat.

This fable urges you to take another path. Let’s say you make that same initial mistake: you have the refreshing glass of Coca-Cola. But you refuse to add one problem to another. You don’t have the torta. You go back to following your miserably restrictive diet. And you continue losing weight.

For another example, my cuñado has a habit of hurling his video game controller whenever he loses a particularly tense game of Madden. Occasionally, the controller breaks. Once, it crashed into his television, shattering the screen. That didn’t make him feel any better about having lost his game of Madden.

When things go wrong, it’s wiser to make them better, not worse. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, jump out of the frying pan into the fire, or add insult to injury. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and neither do three or four.

Anyway, if you liked this fable, you might like some of Aesop’s other lesser-known fables, such as The Wolf and the Lamb, Two Wishes, or The Frogs and the Ox.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

Leave a Comment