The expression “fish out of water” dates back to the year 1483, when it was used by English writer Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous book, The Canterbury Tales, to describe one of the characters who did not feel comfortable riding a horse. Fish want to be in the water, because they need it to survive, but some people experience an intense discomfort when they are trying to do something that they have never done, because it does not come naturally to them. I used to own a 55 gallon aquarium that was filled with freshwater tropical fish.
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he imagined human prisoners chained to a wall with their legs and necks so shackled and although they can look out at shadows produced by figures behind them that they cannot see. A number of men are living in an underground chamber since their childhood. The entrance is open to the light, extending along the entire length of the chamber, and they are obliged to sit still and look straight ahead of them, because their chains render it impossible for them to turn their heads round. This bright fire is burning off in the distance, above and behind them, and there is an elevated roadway passing between the fire and the prisoners, with a low wall built along it. The prisoners are convinced that the shadows are reality. When one of the chained members escapes and visits the outside world, he then returns to tell his brethren about the real world and they cannot be convinced. These prisoners were like fish out of water, because what they were told was unfamiliar to them and it made them feel uncomfortable.
Around the same time Plato also wrote Phaedrus which is a dialogue between Plato’s protagonist Socrates, and Phaedrus an analytical academic prodigy who grew disenchanted with the western intellectual tradition’s limited notion of reason. A description is given of the earth, how it is much larger than we imagine it to be and then we get the comparison to a fish, if it could lift its head above the water and see what is happening upon the earth. By weakness and stupidity we are not able to pass through to the farthest aether. Since, if someone were to go to the heights of the earth or having become winged, took flight, he would lift his head and look around, just as here the fish in the sea can lift their heads to see the things on earth, so someone could see the things there in the realm above. In Phaedrus, the fish is literally out of water.
Written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Sunday Writing Prompt “A Fish Out Of Water” hosted by Yves.