The Fox and the Sick Lion
The fable and its moral
A lion grown too old and weak to hunt pretended to be sick as a ruse and ate the animals that came to visit him. The fox greeted him from outside the cave and, on being asked why it did not come in, replied "Because I can only see tracks going in, but none coming out".
The moral that Phaedrus draws in his Latin retelling is that one should learn from the misfortunes of others, the lesson repeated in his version by William Caxton. Others make a distinction between the effectiveness of cunning and wisdom. However, the earliest application of the fable is in an economic context in First Alcibiades, a dialogue often ascribed to Plato and dated to the 4th century BCE. There Socrates tries to dissuade a young man from following a political career and, in describing the Spartan economy, 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?
The fable is also one among several 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:
- If the people of Rome chanced to ask me why
- I delight in the same colonnades as them, yet not
- The same opinions, nor follow or flee what they love
- Or hate, I’d reply as the wary fox once responded to
- The sick lion: Because those tracks I can see scare me,
- They all lead towards your den and none lead away.
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."
- Young, Charles M. (1998). Smith, Nicholas D., ed. Plato: Critical Assessments volume 1: General Issues of Interpretation. Routledge. pp. 29–49. ISBN 978-0-415-12605-2. and Bluck, R. S. "The Origin of the Greater Alcibiades", Classical Quarterly N.S. 3 (1953), pp. 46-52
- Alcibiades I at Project Gutenberg
- Others are The Frog and the Ox and The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
- Epistle 1, line 70ff Poetry in translation
- Cowell, E. B. (2007). The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, Volume 7. Asian Educational Services,India; New ed of 1913 ed edition. pp. 54–55. ISBN 978-81-206-1469-7.
- 15th-20th century illustrations from books