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Rhetorical Trope #48 – The Parable

First, because they are so easily and so often confused, let’s differentiate between a parable and a fable. While both are brief stories meant to illustrate an abstract or moral point, a parable only involves people while a fable can assign speaking roles to players not usually considered sentient such as animals, minerals and botanicals.

Darn it! We’ve already heard this one…

So, where the fox mutters about the out-of-reach grapes probably being sour, that’s a fable. And where the prodigal (human) son returns to his welcoming father, that’s a parable.

There are authorities who reserve the term “parable” for those attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and recorded in Christian Scripture. This is, however, too restrictive a usage. Parables can be found in the sacred literature of many, if not all, spiritual traditions. Nor are they exclusively religious; many business books include both parables and fables. Indeed, some are based entirely upon a single edifying tale.

Parables work in at least two ways: they’re entertaining and therefore memorable. This gives them a strong rhetorical aspect. They have as well a good dose of logic, in that they invite the listener to put him or herself into the story and think about how they might react in the same or similar circumstances.
Here’s a parable from the Zen Buddhist tradition that’s one of our personal favorites. (Don’t worry, there’s no one-handed claps.) The principle underlying this tale is the wisdom of not jumping to conclusions.

A man lived with his wife and son on a farm close to the village.

One day, the farmer’s only horse – a mare – got out of the paddock and ran off into the woods.

The villagers came by to commiserate with him over the bad luck he’d experienced.

To this sentiment, the farmer only said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the mare returned and following it was a handsome young stallion.

The villagers came by to marvel at what good luck he had.

To this, the farmer only said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the farmer’s son began to train their new stallion to take a saddle. The wild horse threw the boy whose leg was broken in the fall.

Once again the villagers came by to express their regrets for his bad luck.

And, of course, once again, the farmer merely said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day an army passed through the village, conscripting all the young men. The farmer’s son, with his broken leg, was the only one not taken off to war taking in a far-off province.

We’d hope that by that point the villagers had taken the lesson that the long-term goodness or badness of one’s immediate experiences cannot be judged; such things take time to play out. We also hope that the young man’s leg healed quickly, the stallion was domesticated and the farmer’s inherent wisdom brought him, his family and horses long, happy and productive lives.

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