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Investigations into a fable

April 3, 2015

The Tortoise and the Hare is perhaps Aesop’s most well-known fable. It has also proved to be a useful one: the characters after which the fable is named and the moral Aesop ascribes to it – slow and steady wins the race – have been invoked by people through the ages, and for a wide array of purposes. Moreover, the fable has attracted the attention of many fableologists, largely on account of the fable’s interpretation, which has proved to be quite problematic.

The story, as one might recall, goes that Hare continually bragged to the animals of the forest about his pace, and also taunted Tortoise on more than one occasion for being slow. One fine day, tired of Hare’s constant boasting and taunting, Tortoise challenged Hare to a race.

A natural question arises here: did Tortoise really believe that he could defeat Hare? Most fableologists are of the opinion that he did. The simple reason for this, they say, is that if Tortoise didn’t believe he had any chance of winning it is unlikely that he would have challenged Hare in the first place. There are a few, however, who claim that Tortoise challenged him on an impulse and, therefore, simply didn’t think things through. But this line of thinking is not very convincing because recent studies show that tortoises are generally not impulsive.

Fablelogists have proffered several theories on why Tortoise believed he could defeat Hare. A few of these theories have proved to be quite influential, and have even helped deal with complex questions in other areas of Aesopic fableology. One such theory is that Tortoise was delusional for the simple reason that no tortoise in his right mind could really believe he could outrun a hare. Some proponents of this theory have even suggested that Tortoise might have been suffering from Schizophrenia. Others claim that Tortoise was under the influence of a powerful psychotropic drug, with at least some of its effects similar to those of Cocaine. It was the drug, in their view, that supplied him with a heightened sense of power and a false confidence that he could defeat Hare.

But there is another group of theorists who think that it really doesn’t matter what Tortoise really believed, or whether he was afflicted by mental illness, of was under the influence of drugs. The people who’re exploring such questions, they maintain, are on a wild goose chase. According to them, what matters is that the competition may have been rigged, since it is possible that some bookies paid Hare a vast sum of money (or perhaps offered him an unlimited supply of the choicest hare food) to lose the race. On this view, Hare didn’t actually fall asleep during the race, as people have been led to believe; rather, he was merely play-acting. As for the Tortoise, the theorists are not sure about his complicity in the affair.

Financial fableologists are currently looking for evidence to support this ‘Rigged race’ theory – evidence such as irregularities in Hare’s financial profile, a sharp increase in the number of his material acquisitions, a noticeable improvement in his standard of living, or an increase in his body weight due to overeating. Yet no such evidence has been found thus far, and so the fate of the theory remains uncertain. At the same time, the other theories mentioned in the preceding sections are still under investigation. Moreover, some fableologists are exploring new ideas, some of which seem quite promising. With so much happening, it’s an exciting time to be working in the field. Of course, only time will tell if any of new lines of thought are validated, or if some unexpected evidence comes to light and sends everyone back to the drawing board.

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