Strength, achievement, and token gestures

Phaedrus, a writer of fables in the style of Aesop in the first century A. D., tells the following tale (Phaedrus 4.17, transl. B. E. Perry):

De capris barbatis

Barbam capellae cum impetrassent ab Iove,
hirci maerentes indignari coeperunt
quod dignitatem feminae aequassent suam.
“Sinite,” inquit, “illas gloria vana frui
et usurpare vestri ornatum muneris,
pares dum non sint vestrae fortitudini.”
Hoc argumentum monet ut sustineas tibi
habitu esse similes qui sunt virtute impares

The Bearded She-Goats

When the she-goats had obtained, by application to Jupiter, the favour of a beard, the male goats were very unhappy about it and began to express their indignation that women had attained unto a dignity equal with their own. “Let them,” said Jupiter, “enjoy their empty glory and usurp your badge of service, so long as they are not your peers in stoutheartedness.”

This example teaches you to endure it with patience when those who are inferior to you in merit wear the same uniform as yourself.

Phaedrus’ fable teaches a powerful lesson: token gestures – in this case: the mere adornment of females with an item commonly associated with males – is already enough to upset some especially fragile male egos.

But real power – embodied by the father of the gods himself in this scenario – sees right through it: these token gestures are a mere distraction to satisfy the vanity of those who benefit from such ultimately meaningless adornment, boasting their gloria vana, their ’empty glory’, while parading their ornatum muneris, their ‘service badge’.

Pares dum non sint vestrae fortitudini, ‘so as long they are not your peers in stoutheartedness’, Jupiter explains to those who had complained: as long as they are not of your fortitudo, of your strength, your power, your bravado.

Phaedrus adds in his auctorial voice: sustineas tibi / habitu esse similes qui sunt virtute impares, ‘endure it with patience when those who are inferior to you in merit wear the same uniform as yourself’. Habitus, outfit, gear, and demeanour are one thing; what matters is the continued difference in virtus, in ostentatious achievement as associated with manliness.

Whether Jupiter would have granted the she-goats access to fortitudo and virtus, remains unclear. He certainly understood their relevance and their importance over mere token gestures such as permitting a certain habitus.

Alas, the she-goats, do not appear to have asked for what really mattered. Thus their inequality was perpetuated through the provision of a mere distraction.

There is a lesson in this fable – a lesson beyond the interpretation that Phaedrus provides.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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2 Responses to Strength, achievement, and token gestures

  1. chattykerry says:

    To my horror I have a she beard too although I would prefer not…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Wombwell Rainbow and commented:
    Always worth a gander


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