Jasmine Yimeng Bao (Swarthmore College
Two thirds (152 out of 231) of the Augustana, the largest and earliest extant collection of Aesopic fables in Greek prose, stage animals as main characters. Many animals assume the power of human speech (λόγος) despite the collection’s occasional mention of “the unreasoning animals” (τὰ ἄλογα ζῴωα, e.g., Perry 81, 83, 107, 188). Beyond speech, certain fable animals learn, reason, and sometimes even engage in philosophical introspection, thus achieving an advanced state of cognitive anthropomorphism. This paper examines instances of sophisticated animal cognition in the Augustana through close inspection of relevant vocabularies and recurring motifs such as self-reflection and gnomic soliloquy (Nøjgaard, 1964). It analyzes how, through cognitive complexity, animals functionally replace human characters in fable narratives.
Animal cognition surfaces in unexpected ways throughout the Augustana. Lexical evidence includes verbs of thought, perception, and education, such as γιγνώσκω (perceive, know, recognize), νομίζω (consider, think, believe), διδάσκω (teach, instruct), and μανθάνω (learn). For example, how an animal understands or, literally, “knows” (γιγνώσκω) its situation, recurs as the central theme of multiple Augustana fables, for the moral of these fables relies on the perception of the animal protagonist. The verb γιγνώσκω, moreover, often demands the animal’s evaluation of its moral qualities and social dynamics, both of which are characteristically human constructions. Here I argue that anthropomorphic modes of cognition as such set certain animals apart from their “less reasonable” counterparts. Yet no single motivation explains this anthropomorphism. I offer several interpretations: first, these anthropomorphized animals allow for the separation of human behaviors from both human bodies and moral evaluations constructed within the human sphere (Mann, 2009; Lefkowitz, 2014). Alternatively, the conservation of animal traits and the construction of an apocryphal “Golden Age” (cf. Babrius Prologue), in which animals converse freely with humans, reflect a reminiscent longing for an ideal past embedded in natural history.
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