The Fox and the Sick Lion
Illustration of La Fontaine’s fable by Gustave Doré
The Fable and its Moral
A lion that had grown too old and weak to hunt pretended to be sick as a ruse to make the other animals come and pay their respects. When they did so, he ate them one by one. The fox also came to see him but greeted him from outside the cave. When the lion asked the fox why he didn’t come in, he replied, ‘Because I can only see the tracks going in, but none coming out.’ The moral that Phaedrus draws is that ‘The dangers of others are generally of advantage to the wary.’ Others comment that ‘it is easier to get into the enemy’s toils than out again’.
Interestingly, however, the earliest applications of the fable are in an economic context. It is first mentioned, though only in passing, in First Alcibiades, a dialogue often ascribed to Plato, and in any case dated between the 390s BC and 343/2 BC, in which Socrates tries to dissuade a young man from following a political career. In describing the Spartan economy, Socrates says:
“and as to gold and silver, there is more of them in Lacedaemon than in all the rest of Hellas, for during many generations gold has been always flowing in to them from the whole Hellenic world, and often from the barbarian also, and never going out, as in the fable of Aesop the fox said to the lion, ‘The prints of the feet of those going in are distinct enough;’ but who ever saw the trace of money going out of Lacedaemon?”
It is also one of several fables to which the Latin poet Horace alludes, seeing in it the lesson that once tainted with vice there is no returning. Condemning the get-rich-quick culture of the Roman bankers in his first Epistle, he comments
Now if the people of Rome should happen to ask me
Why I don’t share their opinions, just as, in walking,
I share the same collonades; why I don’t run after
The things that they love, and flee from what they dislike,
I should answer them in the words of the wary fox
To the sick lion: Because those footprints alarm me,
All pointing towards your den, and none coming back!
(Ep.1.1, lines 69-75)
Jean de la Fontaine gives the fable a different slant by mentioning that, in bidding the animals to visit him, the lion issues them with a safe conduct pass (VI.14). The inference to be drawn is that the word of the powerful is not to be trusted.
There is a similar incident in the Buddhist Nalapana Jataka. In this tale a monkey king saves his troop from destruction by a water-ogre by reconnoitering a jungle pool and reporting that “I found the footprints all lead down, none back.”