The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, February 20, 2009

Alternative Aesop

The Crow and the Pitcher

A crow that was perishing with thirst spotted a pitcher and immediately flew to it in the hope it might contain water. Upon reaching it, the crow discovered, much to his grief, that the pitcher contained only a small amount of fluid at its bottom. Strain as he might, the crow could not reach the precious liquid through the pitcher’s narrow mouth and long neck.

Exactly why the crow was so darn thirsty in the first place or why a stray pitcher might be its only chance of finding water is unclear.

It may be this story took place in a desert. If so, it would have to be a mighty stupid crow that would choose to make its home anywhere so inhospitable as a desert. However, this crow was actually quite clever, as you will see later on in the fable, so that scenario does not seem very likely.

Moreover, what would a pitcher be doing in the middle of the desert, anyway? It does not seem the sort of thing a person would easily set down and then forget about in an environment where scarcity of water drives every conscious act. Maybe someone temporarily left it next to a spring or oasis for filling. Yet, if this were true, then the crow would have plenty of water that was more easily accessible, so this does not seem very likely either.

Maybe the land where the crow lived was undergoing some sort of terrible drought. On the other hand, if this were the case, it seems reasonable that a crow, particularly a clever one, such as this crow, as you will see later in the fable, would just go elsewhere to find water. I mean, it’s a bird. It can fly. It has ready means to both catch sight of and travel to even relatively distant sources of water. Crows are natural scavengers. Why would this one be hanging around and wasting its time with some dumb pitcher?

I guess the drought could have been sudden, widespread, and intense in a climate change nightmarish sort of way. Still, the timeline for the story is ancient Greece and this would mean it was millennia before either any human-manufactured carbon dioxide global warming or Al Gore making scary films telling us about it, so this scenario suffers from intractable continuity problems.

The only other possibility is that the story takes places on some tiny island out in the middle of the ocean without any fresh water sources but this would be an even stupider place for the crow to have picked as its home. Maybe the crow found itself stranded on the island after a hurricane blew it there but this seems awfully unlikely. Could a bird as small as a crow survive something that traumatic? Does Greece even have hurricanes?

What is more, let’s not forget about the pitcher. Finding a piece of man-made crockery on a desert island is even more implausible than finding it in the middle of a mainland desert.

Most unclear of all is how a crow clever enough to do the thing this crow ends up doing, and just wait until you hear about it, does not simply tip over the pitcher and drink its contents as they drain out.

No, no, no! Nothing about this story adds up.

Oh, well . . . we’ve gone this far, I suppose we might as well continue and just accept the premise on faith. This fable has a really great ending and moral that I would hate for all of you to miss and besides it’s not as if any other truly terrific stories haven’t suffered from questionable beginnings. I mean, how likely is it that Atticus Finch, an intelligent, educated, sensitive man, would choose to remain living and raise his two motherless children in a poor, Podunk, racist town like Maycomb Alabama?

But perhaps I digress . . .

Anyway, the crow attempted every act of physicality of which he was capable, as well as several others of which he was not, without any luck reaching what he desired at the pitcher’s bottom.

He was almost frantic with thirst by this point. A lesser crow might have given into despair but, as I think I previously mentioned, this was an especially smart crow. What made him so clever is also unclear. Perhaps in his quest for suitable bodies of drinking water, he happened to perch upon the bathtub of Archimedes at the very moment when that eminent mathematician and sage had his revelation about proportional displacement by volume.

If that was what happened, we must forgive the crow for not drinking at this point because it was bathwater, after all, and not that of Angelina Jolie. Plus, he was frightened away, as I am sure most of us would have been by the sight of a naked and possibly mentally unstable Greek man jumping up out of a bathtub.

Whatever the case, the bird had a “Eureka!” moment of its own. It immediately flew off – not in search of water this time but small rocks. It soon returned with one clutched in its beak and dropped it into the pitcher.

Because the mouth of the pitcher was so narrow, the rocks were really no larger than pebbles and the bird had to repeat the process over and over and over again. Nonetheless, the accumulation of rocks, which sank to the bottom, caused the level of the fluid in the pitcher to rise until it was quite close to the top.

Only then did the thirsty crow pause in its efforts to take a much-deserved drink . . .

. . . and promptly fell over to commence a protracted and unpleasant death.

You see, the liquid in the pitcher was not fresh water but rather a distillation of hemlock. Incredibly, it contained the remains of the poison drunk earlier that day by Socrates as his accepted punishment for the crime of “corrupting” Athenian youth.

The crow might have alerted himself to his danger had he bothered to sniff the liquid and detected its pungent odor, reminiscent of parsnips. In fairness, crows rely much more on their sense of sight than that of smell, so perhaps we cannot damn him too much on this point. Conversely, his reliance on vision places the crow in a particularly bad light for failing to notice the body of the dead philosopher lying stretched out a mere five feet away from the pitcher.

Apparently, cleverness and acute observation are not mutually dependent.


“By necessity, some inventions are a real mutha.”

– or –

“Little by little gets the futile job done.”

– or –

“It is not whether you see the glass (i.e. pitcher) as half-empty or half-full but rather you correctly see what is next to the glass that marks discerning judgment.”

– or –

“Sometimes knowledge is much more important than imagination (sorry, Einstein).”

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