What Is A Parable

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Prodigal Son is one of the many parables in the New Testament: Gospel of Luke 15:11-32. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

A story, usually short and simple, that illustrates a lesson. The parable is related to the exemplum in classical rhetoric.

Parables And The New Testament

Some of the best known parables are those in the New Testament. Certain longer works of modern literature--such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and the fiction of Franz Kafka--are sometimes regarded as secular parables.

Biblical Parables

  • "The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools."
    (Proverbs 26:7, The Bible)

Secular Parables

  • The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe

There were six men of Hindustan,
to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant,
and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
at once began to bawl,
"This mystery of an elephant
is very like a wall."

The second, feeling of the tusk,
cried, "Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an elephant
is very like a spear."

The third approached the elephant,
and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
thus boldly up and spake,
"I see," quoth he,
"the elephant is very like a snake."

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
and felt above the knee,
"What this most wondrous beast
is like is very plain," said he.
"'Tis clear enough the elephant
is very like a tree."

The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
said, "E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
deny the fact who can;
This marvel of an elephant
is very like a fan."

The sixth no sooner had begun
about the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
that fell within his scope;
"I see," said he, "the elephant
is very like a rope."

So six blind men of Hindustan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The Invention of Letters

  • SOCRATES: I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, "This invention, O king," said Theuth, "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered."
  • But Thamus replied, "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise." PHAEDRUS: Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please. (Plato, Phaedrus, translated by H. N. Fowler)

Parable of the Scorpion

"There's a story I heard as a child, a parable, and I never forgot it. A scorpion was walking along the bank of a river, wondering how to get to the other side. Suddenly he saw a fox. He asked the fox to take him on his back across the river.

"The fox said, 'No. If I do that, you'll sting me, and I'll drown.'

"The scorpion assured him, 'If I did that, we'd both drown.'

"The fox thought about it, finally agreed. So the scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim. But halfway across the river, the scorpion stung him.

"As the poison filled his veins, the fox turned to the scorpion and said, 'Why did you do that? Now you'll drown, too.'

"'I couldn't help it,' said the scorpion. 'It's my nature.'"(Robert Beltran as Commander Chakotay in "Scorpion." Star Trek: Voyager, 1997)

David Foster Wallace's Fish Story

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?' . . .
"None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness--awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: 'This is water, this is water.'"
(David Foster Wallace, commencement speech at Kenyon College, Ohio. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006, ed. by Dave Eggers. Mariner Books, 2006)

Parables in Politics

  • "Right now, as [Elizabeth] Warren and [Scott] Brown meet voters, they are telling their stories as political parables, loaded with ideas about opportunity versus just deserts, social investment versus making your own way, fairness versus the free market. The ordinary Massachusetts voter--the kind who doesn’t tune in until the last minute--will have to choose between two story lines. They will talk about it this way: he’s a small-town Wrentham boy who solves problems based on facts, while she’s a leftist ideologue from Harvard. Or they will talk about it this way: he’s a lightweight with a pretty face and a truck; she’s a real person who will fight off the banks and others trying to ruin the middle class. They will assess which one is more likable and sincere. They will (or won’t) be pulled to the polls by more politically motivated neighbors. In such haphazard ways, Massachusetts independents will decide one of the most closely watched and possibly most expensive races of the 2012 campaign, outside the presidency."(E.J. Graff, "Elizabeth Warren: Yes She Can?" The Nation, April 23, 2012)


From the Greek, "to compare"

Also see:

Pronunciation: PAR-uh-bul

Also Known As: exemplum, fable

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is A Parable." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-parable-p2-1691562. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). What Is A Parable. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-parable-p2-1691562 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is A Parable." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-parable-p2-1691562 (accessed June 10, 2023).