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paying dear for his wit. He professed, as he tells us himself, to be of great use by his writings to the state; and rated his merit so high as to complain that he was not rewarded. But, under pretence of this publick spirit, he spared no part of the publick conduct, neither was government, councils, revenues, popular assemblies, secret proceedings in judicature, choice of ministers, the government of the nobles, or that of the people spared.
The Acharnians, the Peace, and the Birds, are eternal monuments of the boldness of the poet, who was not afraid of censuring the government for the obstinate continuance of a ruinous war, for undertaking new ones, and feeding itself wtih wild imaginations, and running to destruction as it did for an idle point of honour.
Nothing can be more reproachful to the Athenians than his play of the Knights, when he represents, under an allegory that may be easily seen through, the nation of the Athenians as an old doting fellow tricked by a new man, such as Cleon and his companions, who were of the same stamp.
A single glance upon Lysistrata, and the Female Orators, must raise astonishment when the Athenian policy is set below the schemes of women, whom the author makes ridiculous for no other reason than to bring contempt upon their husbands, who held the helm of
government. The Wasps is written to expose the madness of people for law.suits and litigations, and a multitude of iniquities are laid open.
It may easily be gathered, that notwithstanding the wise laws of Solon, which they still professed to follow, the government was falling into decay, VOL III.
for we are not to understand the jest of Aristo: phanes in the literal sense. It is plain that the corruption, though we should suppose it but half as much as we are told, was very great, for it ended in the destruction of Athens, which could scarce raise its head again, after it had been taken by Lysander. Though we consider Aristophanes as a comick writer who deals in exaggeration, and bring down his stories to their true standard, we still find that the fundamentals of their government fail in almost all the essential points. That the people were inveigled by men of ambition ; that all councils and decrees had their original in factious combinations ; that avarice and private interest animated all their policy to the hurt of the publick ; that their reverues were ill managedl, their allies improperly treated ; that their good citizens were sacrificed, and the bad put in places; that a mad eagernes for judicial litigation took up
all their attention within, and that war was made without, not so much with wisdom and precaution, as with temerity and good luck; that the love of novelty and fashion in the manner of managing the publick affairs was a madness universally prevalent ; and that Melanthius says in Plutarch, the republick of Athens was continued only by the perpetual discord of those that managed its affairs. This remedied the dishonour by preserving the equilibrium, and was kept always in action by eloquence and comedy.
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 de
mnocracy, 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 vise iy 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. IV. Another part of the works of
The tragick Aristophanes are his pleasant reflec- poets rallied
the most celebrated poets: the shalts 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 thai applauded him were of his opinion. This conclusion would not be just, as I have al, ready shewn by arguments, which if I had not offered them, the reader might have discovered better than 1. But that I may leare 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 inferior 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 imi.
tation; it was the art of gross mimickry,and would have been supposed to have missed its aim, had it not copied the mein, 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 mosť, and by this make ourselves somerecompense 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
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.
V. The most troublesome dif. Frequent ridicule of the gods.
ficulty, 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
at 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 saying of a poet. Mr Collier, 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 dropt 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 mostreligious nation, and naturally the most superstitious of all Greece. How can we suppose those to be atheists who passed sentence upon Diagoras, $ocrates, 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 authorised by