‘Je me sers d’animaux pour instruire les hommes’ – ‘I use animals to teach men’, La Fontaine declared when speaking of his Fables. And looking around us we can’t help but see that the proverbs and sayings of La Fontaine are just as relevant to our times as they were more than 300 years ago. The following are just a few of his best-known quotations:


1. Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable, Les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir (Les Animaux Malades de la Peste).

‘Depending on whether you are mighty or in lack the court will judge you white or black’.

Justice always favours the rich and powerful, never the poor and defenseless.

2. Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (le Chartier Embourbé).

‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’.

Being self-reliant is far more desirable and effective than depending on others.

3. Tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute (Le Corbeau et le Renard).

‘A flatterer lives at the expense of he who listens to him’.

Flatterers depend on people being vain enough to believe what they say. If everybody ignored them they’d lose all reason to exist.

4. Il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l’ours qu’on ne l’ait mis par terre (L’Ours et les deux Compagnons).

‘Never sell the bearskin before you’ve brought the bear down’. The French version of ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.’ In modern French this has been modified to Il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué (Never sell the bearskin before you’ve killed the bear).

Don’t anticipate reward or success. Such is the unpredictability of life that things may not turn out as positively as you had hoped.

5. On a souvent besoin d’un plus petit que soi (le Lion et le Rat).

‘We often need someone smaller than ourselves’.

Don’t scorn those who seem to be of no importance. They could be of precious assistance one day.

6. Rien n’est si dangereux qu’un ignorant ami; mieux vaudrait un sage ennemi (l’Ours et l’Amateur des Jardins).

‘Nothing is more dangerous than an ignorant friend; it’s better to have a wise enemy’.

A deviation on the theme ‘to kill by kindness’.

A foolish friend who tries to be too caring or helpful can end up doing more harm than a more sensible enemy could ever do.

7. Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point (le Lièvre et la Tortue).

‘Running serves no purpose, you have to set off at the right moment.’

We must have the wisdom and foresight to choose the most propitious circumstances to do something in. If we rush into things without thinking we could end up the loser – even though the odds appear initially to be in our favour.

8. Toute puissance est faible à moins que d’être unie (Le Vieillard et ses Enfants).

‘All power is weak unless united’.

There’s strength in numbers. As isolated individuals we are vulnerable, but together we are strong.

9. L’avarice perd tout en voulant tout gagner (La Poule aux Oeufs d’Or).

‘By wanting to win all, avarice loses all’.

Be reasonable in all your aspirations. If you’re too greedy you could lose everything.

10. La méfiance est mère de la sûreté (le Chat et un vieux Rat).

‘Wariness is the mother of safety’.

It’s better to be safe than sorry. Before embarking on a new enterprise make sure you weigh up all the risks.