One of Aesop’s most alarming fables is that of a bad child who blames his mother for his death. As the fable goes, a child brings a stolen book to his mother; however, she does not chide him for the deed. Noticing no rebuke, the child soon moved on to stealing many and greater things. Eventually, as a youth, that same child was caught stealing from a merchant on the road and killed. With his last breath, he blamed his mother for his death. Aesop closes the fable with this moral:
Μὴ οὖν μέλλετε, ὦ ἄξιαι μητέρες, τοἴς ἀναξίοις τέκνοις ἐπιπληττειν.
Do not hesitate, therefore, o worthy mothers, to chide unworthy children.
No dudéis, por lo tanto, buenas madres, en admonestar malos hijos.
There is so much meaning hidden in these few words, one can almost feel a sense of overwhelming etymology. We shall start here:
Children vs. Youths
Aesop calls the child a τἐκνον (tecnon) in this fable, a child of no more than five years old. This mother, although worthy of her title, decides to allow this child to steal since, in the beginning, he was only taking little things. The case is also illustrative of how Ancient Greek parents saw their children. A child was literally ‘that which one had made’ or, in other words, technology (the word child is exactly where technology comes from – think of ‘this project is my brain-child’). Because mortality rate was quite big in Ancient Greece, somewhere between 45 to 65 percent according to many scholars, there was a disconnect between parents and children. Although there was a ceremony to name the child after his clan once the baby was eight days old (only for boys) in order to give it what we would think of as a last name (patronym), the child would not get a first name until he overcame his first few years in the world. This child could have easily been called, because of his ‘qualities,’ Kleptiscos (little thief); but only once he had reached identifiable maturity. Consider the mother’s hopes that he would only have been a thief during his youth (hence my diminutive) and will not continue to do so as an adult. Thus, when your technology, with your last name but not a first name, misbehaved, there may have been a temptation on the part of the mother to let it do its thing.
Another fact is that τέκνον was a neuter term, meaning neither male nor female. In our modern world, we have lowered this age of cognitive thinking to a much earlier time. Toddlers (our neuter term for a boy or girl of two) are thinkers, babies have gender since birth; this, to the Ancient Greeks, was visible but not necessarily true. Until a child developed his own conscience sometime after age five, they were a thing. For us, although babies are neuter, we feel the need to ask ‘is it a boy or girl?’ After that, even babies are conscious beings. We have even pushed gender into the womb, so we can attach consciousness to fetuses within the first 12 weeks of life. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Ancient Greeks believed the child would develop according to the traits given it by the gods, and made no effort to encapsulate their being with a first name or a gender until they were quite older.
A Warning for Mothers
Aesop is warning mothers who are tempted to let the thing be because its actions are small and insignificant. While that was true of good deeds, the writer warns about bad things. After all, it is the duty of a mother ἐπιπλήττειν (literally meaning ‘to hit upon’ – chiding came with a sense of physical violence) her child, especially if the deed was bad. That is why Aesop makes the contrast between “good mothers” and “bad children.” Good mothers with good children have it easy, for they can let the child go; but it was possible to be a good mother with a bad child, in which case it was the responsibility of the mother to teach said child. However, responsibility of the mother did not take responsibility from the adult in which the child would turn into; that is why Aesop insists the mother is good, even though her child is not.
Destiny and Bad Teens
The child-now-turn-youth argues “ἐμοι ἥδ’ ἡ μοῖρα ἐστιν” (this very fate belongs to me) upon his death, because of his mother. Fate here is transient, changeable. Kleptiscos (let us keep the name we have made up for the sake of argument) says that if his mother had chided him (and possibly given him a different name like ‘the chided one’ – Epiplettos) he could have avoided his fate. Fate, then, is dictated by the actions one takes in his or her lifetime. Aesop, while agreeing with the Ancient Greek version of fate, says the boy is incorrect; for mothers do not dictate fate, but your own actions. Aesop still argues, however, that “good mothers” will chide their small children when they do something wrong since, one never knows, they could grow up to be thieves and wrongly blame them for their final fate.
But isn’t fate dictated? You ask. How can mother and child possibly be held liable for fate? Because, as we argued previously, fate is an accumulation of decisions. In “Thinking of the Ancient Greeks, Deeds and Time,” I put forward this very notion. Fate is the irrevocable destination we give ourselves when we have committed certain actions in our past. This is what was so amazing about time in Ancient Greece, if you had made the right decisions, it worked to your benefit; if you had not, you were doomed to a bad fate.