One of the best known is that of Jotham in the Book of Judges (9:7-15); others are "The City Rat and Field Rat," by Horace; "The Belly and its Members," by the patrician Menenius Agrippa in the second book of Livy; and perhaps most famous of all, those of Aesop. The term is applied more particularly to a story in which the actors or speakers are taken from the brute creation or inanimate nature. An apologue is distinguished from a fable in that there is always some moral sense present, which there need not be in a fable. It is generally dramatic, and has been defined as "a satire in action."
An apologue differs from a parable in several respects. A parable is equally an ingenious tale intended to correct manners, but it can be true, while an apologue, with its introduction of animals and plants, to which it lends ideas, language and emotions, is necessarily devoid of real truth, and even of all probability. The parable reaches heights to which the apologue cannot aspire, for the points in which brutes and inanimate nature present analogies to man are principally those of his lower nature, and the lessons taught by the apologue seldom therefore reach beyond prudential morality, whereas the parable aims at representing the relations between man and God. It finds its framework in the world of nature as it actually is, and not in any grotesque parody of it, and it exhibits real and not fanciful analogies. The apologue seizes on that which man has in common with creatures below him, and the parable on that which he has in common with God. Still, in spite of the difference of moral level, Martin Luther thought so highly of apologues as counsellors of virtue that he edited and revised Aesop and wrote a characteristic preface to the volume.
The origin of the apologue is extremely ancient and comes from the East, which is the natural fatherland of everything connected with allegory, metaphor and imagination. Veiled truth was often necessary in the East, particularly with the slaves, who dared not reveal their minds too openly. It is noteworthy that the two fathers of apologue in the West were slaves, namely Aesop and Phaedrus. La Fontaine in France; Gay and Dodsley in England; Gellert, Lessing and Hagedorn in Germany; Tomas de Iriarte in Spain, and Krilov in Russia, are leading modern writers of apologues.
Length is not an essential matter in the definition of an apologue. Those of La Fontaine are often very short, as, for example, "Le Coque et la Perle." On the other hand, in the romances of Reynard the Fox we have medieval apologues arranged in cycles, and attaining epical dimensions. An Italian fabulist, Corti, is said to have developed an apologue of "The Talking Animals" to the bulk of twenty-six cantos.
La Motte, writing at a time when this species of literature was universally admired, attributes its popularity to the fact that it "ménage et flatte l'amour-propre" by inculcating virtue in an amusing manner without seeming to dictate or insist. This was the ordinary 18th-century view of the matter, but Rousseau contested the educational value of instruction given in this indirect form.
A work by P. Soullé, La Fontaine et ses devanciers (1866), is a history of the apologue from the earliest times until its final triumph in France.
Montesquieu wrote a propos his Persian Letters "There are certain truths of which it is not enough to persuade, but which must be made to be felt Such are the moral verities. Perhaps a bit of history will be more touching than subtle philosophy."