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General Conclusion To Brumoy’s Greek Theatre
by [?]

This is what, in general, may be drawn from the reading Aristophanes. The sagacity of the readers will go farther; they will compare the different forms of government, by which that tumultuous people endeavoured to regulate or increase the democracy, which forms were all fatal to the state, because they were not built upon lasting foundations, and had all in them the principles of destruction. A strange contrivance it was to perpetuate a state, by changing the just proportion which Solon had wisely settled between the nobles and the people, and by opening a gate to the skilful ambition of those who had art or courage enough to force themselves into the government by means of the people, whom they flattered with protections, that they might more certainly crush them.


Another part of the works of Aristophanes, are his pleasant reflections upon the most celebrated poets. The shafts which he lets fly at the three heroes of tragedy, and particularly at Euripides, might incline the reader to believe that he had little esteem for those great men, and that, probably, the spectators that applauded him were of his opinion. This conclusion would not be just, as I have already shown by arguments, which, if I had not offered them, the reader might have discovered better than I. But, that I may leave no room for objections, and prevent any shadow of captiousness, I shall venture to observe, that posterity will not consider Racine as less a master of the French stage, because his plays were ridiculed by parodies. Parody always fixes upon the best pieces, and was more to the taste of the Greeks than to ours. At present, the high theatres give it up to stages of inferiour rank; but in Athens the comick theatre considered parody as its principal ornament, for a reason which is worth examining. The ancient comedy was not, like ours, a remote and delicate imitation; it was the art of gross mimickry, and would have been supposed to have missed its aim, had it not copied the mien, the walk, the dress, the motions of the face of those whom it exhibited. Now parody is an imitation of this kind; it is a change of serious to burlesque, by a slight variation of words, inflection of voice, or an imperceptible art of mimickry. Parody is to poetry, as a masque to a face. As the tragedies of Eschylus, of Sophocles, and of Euripides were much in fashion, and were known by memory to the people, the parodies upon them would naturally strike and please, when they were accompanied by the grimaces of a good comedian, who mimicked with archness a serious character. Such is the malignity of human nature; we love to laugh at those whom we esteem most, and by this make ourselves some recompense for the unwilling homage which we pay to merit. The parodies upon these poets, made by Aristophanes, ought to be considered rather as encomiums than satires. They give us occasion to examine whether the criticisms are just or not in themselves; but, what is more important, they afford no proof that Euripides, or his predecessors, wanted the esteem of Aristophanes or his age. The statues raised to their honour, the respect paid by the Athenians to their writings, and the careful preservation of those writings themselves, are immortal testimonies in their favour, and make it unnecessary for me to stop any longer upon so plausible a solution of so frivolous an objection.


The most troublesome difficulty, and that which, so far as I know, has not yet been cleared to satisfaction, is the contemptuous manner in which Aristophanes treats the gods. Though I am persuaded, in my own mind, that I have found the true solution of this question, I am not sure that it will make more impression than that of M. Boivin, who contents himself with saying, that every thing was allowed to the comick poets; and that even atheism was permitted to the licentiousness of the stage; that the Athenians applauded all that made them laugh; and believed that Jupiter himself laughed with them at the smart sayings of a poet. Mr. Collier[1], an Englishman, in his remarks upon their stage, attempts to prove that Aristophanes was an open atheist. For my part, I am not satisfied with the account either of one or the other, and think it better to venture a new system, of which I have already dropped some hints in this work. The truth is, that the Athenians professed to be great laughers, always ready for merriment on whatever subject. But it cannot be conceived that Aristophanes should, without punishment, publish himself an atheist, unless we suppose that atheism was the opinion, likewise, of the spectators, and of the judges commissioned to examine the plays; and yet this cannot be suspected of those who boasted themselves the most religious nation, and, naturally, the most superstitious of all Greece. How can we suppose those to be atheists who passed sentence upon Diagoras, Socrates, and Alcibiades for impiety! These are glaring inconsistencies. To say, like M. Boivin, for sake of getting clear of the difficulty, that Alcibiades, Socrates, and Diagoras attacked religion seriously, and were, therefore, not allowed, but that Aristophanes did it in jest, or was authorized by custom, would be to trifle with the difficulty, and not to clear it. Though the Athenians loved merriment, it is not likely that, if Aristophanes had professed atheism, they would have spared him more than Socrates, who had as much life and pleasantry in his discourses, as the poet in his comedies. The pungent raillery of Aristophanes, and the fondness of the Athenians for it, are, therefore, not the true reason why the poet was spared, when Socrates was condemned. I shall now solve the question with great brevity.