A New and Complete Translation

Essay 91

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 15 March 1768[91.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Indeed, it could be said that the real names themselves often tended more to the universal than to the particular.[91.2] With the name Socrates, Aristophanes intended to make ridiculous and suspect not just the individual Socrates, but all Sophists who meddle in the upbringing of young people.[91.3] The dangerous Sophist in general was his subject, and he only called him Socrates because Socrates was decried as such. Hence a number of traits that did not apply to the Socrates, so that Socrates himself could confidently stand up in the theater and offer himself for comparison.[91.4] But the essence of comedy is very much misunderstood if these non-matching traits are declared to be nothing but malicious slanders and not recognized for what they really are: a broadening of the individual character, an elevation of the personal to the universal!

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Here several things might be said about the use of real names in Greek comedy in general that have not yet been as precisely explained by scholars as they really deserved to be. It might be noted that this use was not at all common in Old Greek Comedy;[*][91.5] that only this or that poet occasionally ventured it;[†][91.6] and that, consequently, it cannot be seen as a differentiating feature of that epoch of comedy.[‡][91.7] It might be shown that, when it was finally expressly prohibited by law, there were still certain people either explicitly excluded from the protection of this law, or implicitly assumed to be so.[91.8] Even in Menander’s plays there were still plenty of people named and made ridiculous through use of their real names.[§][91.9] But I must not drift from one digression into another.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I want only to make the application to real names in tragedy. Just as Aristophanes’ Socrates did not and was not intended to represent the individual man of that name; just as this personified model of vain and dangerous book-learning only received the name Socrates because Socrates was in part known to be such a deceiver and seducer, and in part ought to have been better known as such; just as the mere concept of social standing and character that people connected with the name Socrates, and ought to have more closely connected with it, determined the poet’s choice of the name: in just this same way, the very concept of character that we commonly associate with the names Regulus, Cato, or Brutus is the reason the tragic writer attributes these names to his characters. He puts a Regulus or Brutus on stage not to make us familiar with the real adventures of these men, not to revive their memory, but rather to entertain us with the kinds of adventures that men of their character in general could and might encounter. Now it is indeed true that we have abstracted their characters from the real events in their lives, but it does not follow that their characters must lead us back to their adventures. Often they can bring us much more quickly and naturally to completely other adventures that have nothing more in common with those real ones than that they have flowed together out of a single source, but by untraceable detours and over tracks of land that have muddied their purity. In such a case the poet will certainly give preference to the invented over the real, but still give the character the real name. And this is for two reasons: first, because we are already accustomed, upon hearing these names, to think of the character as it appears in its general form; and second, because real events seem to attach to real names, and everything that has once occurred is more believable than something that has not occurred. The first of these reasons flows from the overall connection among Aristotelian concepts; it is foundational, and Aristotle did not need to dwell on it any more laboriously. But he did need to dwell on the second, as a reason that came from elsewhere. But this latter matter falls outside my topic here, and in general the commentators have misunderstood the second reason less than the first.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Now to come back to Diderot’s claim.[91.10] If I may be permitted to believe that I have correctly explained Aristotle’s theory, then I may also be permitted to believe I have proved, through my explanation, that the matter cannot possibly be other than what Aristotle theorizes. The characters in tragedy must be just as universal as the characters in comedy. The difference Diderot asserts is wrong, or else Diderot must comprehend something completely different under the idea of universality of a character than Aristotle did.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [*] If, according to Aristotle, the scheme of comedy was taken from Homer’s Margites, οὐ ψόγον ἀλλὰ τὸ γελοῖον δραματοποιήσας [“by dramatizing the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire” – Tr. S. H. Butcher, Poetics (Part IV)], then to all appearances the invented names will have been introduced from the very beginning. For Margites was likely not the real name of a specific person, insofar as Μαργίτης was more likely derived from μαργης than μαργης originated from Μαργίτης. We also find – for example, from Pherecrates – that several of the poets of Old Comedy expressly claim that they avoid all bawdiness, which would not have been possible with the use of real names.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [†] Personal and explicit satire was so little an essential feature of Old Comedy, that we easily identify the first of their poets to venture it. It was Cratinus, who first τω χαριεντι της κωμωδιας το ὠφελιμον προσεθηκε, τους κακως πραττοντας διαβαλλων, και ὠσπερ δημοσια μαστιγι τη κωμωδια κολαζων [“to the fun of comedy added a usefulness by attacking those who behaved badly and punishing them by using comedy as a sort of public whip” – Tr. Ian C. Storey, Fragments of Old Comedy 260–1]. And even he only dared at first to do this with profligate commoners from whom he had nothing to fear. Aristophanes jealously claimed the honor of having been the first to venture this with the great men of the state (Eir. [Peace] v. 750):

οὐκ ἰδιώτας ἀνθρωπίσκους κωμῳδῶν οὐδὲ γυναῖκας, 

ἀλλ᾽ Ἡρακλέους ὀργήν τιν᾽ ἔχων τοῖσι μεγίστοις ἐπεχείρει

[“Moreover it’s not obscure private persons or women that he stages in his comedies; but, bold as Heracles, it’s the very greatest whom he attacks” – Tr. Anonymous, Peace 699]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Indeed, he would have preferred to consider this boldness his personal privilege. He was extremely resentful when he saw that so many other poets, whom he disdained, followed his lead in this.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [‡] Which nevertheless nearly always happens. In fact, they go even further and want to maintain that real events were connected to those real names that the writer had no part in inventing. Even Dacier says: “Aristote n’a pû vouloir dire qu’Epicharmus & Phormys inventerent les sujets de leurs pieces, puisque l’un & l’autre ont été des Poëtes de la vieille Comedie, où il n’y avoit rien de feint, & que ces avantures feintes, ne commencerent à être mises sur le theatre, que du temps d’Alexandre le Grand, c’est-à-dire, dans la nouvelle Comedie.” (Remarque sur le Chap. V. de la Poetique d’Aristote). We might be justified in thinking that only someone who never even took a peek at Aristophanes’ plays could say such a thing. The arguments and plots of the Old Greek Comedies were just as invented as the arguments and plots of the New could ever be. Not a single one of Aristophanes’ extant plays presents an event that really happened; and just because they allude, in part, to real events, it still cannot be said that the poet did not invent them. When Aristotle takes as a given ὅτι τὸν ποιητὴν μᾶλλον τῶν μύθων εἶναι δεῖ ποιητὴν ἢ τῶν μέτρων [“that the poet … should be the maker of plots rather than of verses” – Tr. S. H. Butcher, Poetics (Part. IX)], would he not have had to completely exclude the authors of Old Greek Comedy from the category of poet if he had believed that they had not invented the arguments of their plays? But just as, according to him, borrowing names and circumstances from actual history can be consistent with poetic invention in tragedy, so, according to him, it must also be possible in comedy. It cannot possibly have been in keeping with his ideas that, by using real names and alluding to real events, comedy would fall back into the iambic obsession with satire; rather, he must have believed that to καθόλου ποιεῖν λόγους καὶ μύθους [“generalize his themes and plots” – Tr. S. H. Butcher, Poetics (Part V)] was quite compatible with it. He concedes this to the oldest comic poets, Ephicharmus, Phormis, and Crates, and would certainly not have denied it to Aristophanes even though he knew how much he had explicitly mocked not only Cleon and Hyperbolus, but also Pericles and Socrates.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [§] The strictness with which Plato wanted to forbid ridiculing someone in comedy in his Republic (μήτε ἄνευ θυμοῦ, μηδαμῶς μηδένα τῶν πολιτῶν κωμῳδεῖν) [“A composer of a comedy or of any iambic or lyric song shall be strictly forbidden to ridicule any of the citizens either by word or by mimicry, whether with or without passion” Plato, Laws 11.935e] was never enforced in the real Republic. I do not wish to allege that in Menander’s plays many a cynical philosopher or courtesan was called out by name: it could be answered that this scum of humanity did not belong among the citizenry. But Ctesippus, the son of Chabrias, was certainly an Athenian citizen, as good as any other, and we can see what Menander said of him (Menandri p. 137, Edit. Cl.)

  • 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
  • [91.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [91.2] Lessing continues, from [89], his discussion of Aristotle’s views on dramatic character; at the end of [90], Lessing considers to what extent ancient Greek comedy made use of the names of real people.
  • [91.3] Sophists: ancient Greek scholars and lecturers of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE; most were itinerant professional teachers. Plato and Aristotle portrayed the sophists (known for employing moral skepticism) as ethically suspect and avaricious, leading to the association of sophistry with clever, but fallacious, argumentation. Aristophanes lampoons Socrates in his comedy Clouds (423 BCE), portraying him (unfairly) as embodying the negative traits of the Sophists.
  • [91.4] This incident is related by the Roman rhetorician Claudius Aelianus (Aelian) (c. 170–c.235) in his Various History (Book II, Chapter 13).
  • [91.5] For “Old Comedy,” see [90.16]. The following are references in Lessing’s footnote. The Margites (8th century) is a bawdy epic poem, attributed to Homer; Margites is the titular (foolish) hero. “Μαργίτης was more likely derived from μαργης than μαργης originated from Μαργίτης”: Μαργίτης (Margities); μαργης (margis: mad, gluttonous, lustful). Pherecrates (5th century BCE): ancient Athenian comic playwright.
  • [91.6] The following are references in Lessing’s footnote. Contrary to Lessing’s statement, explicit satire of public persons and events is considered an essential feature of Old Comedy, although the work of the earliest comic playwrights is not extant. Cratinus (died c. 420 BCE): highly successful ancient Athenian comic playwright. Aristophanes’ Eirēnē [Peace] (421 BCE): comedy staged during the Peloponnesian War; Aristophanes’ claim occurs during the play’s parabasis (during which the playwright or choral leader directly addressed the audience). Lessing gives the title as “Irene.”
  • [91.7] The following are references in Lessing’s footnote. For the quotation from Dacier, see Dacier, “Remarques sur le Chapitre V [“Notes on Chapter 5”] in La poëtique d’Aristote 63. Epicharmus (Epicharmos) (c. 530 BCE–c. 440 BCE), Phormis (5th century BCE), Crates (Krates) (5th century BCE): early comic playwrights in Syracuse and Athens, respectively. Cleon (d. 422 BCE), Hyperbolus (d. 411 BCE), Pericles (c. 495 BCE – 429 BCE): politicians of ancient Athens lampooned by Aristophanes.
  • [91.8] Until quite recently, it was generally believed that legislation in ancient Athens forbid the slanderous comedic representation of actual persons; see Halliwell, “Comic Satire,” for the source of this belief and a detailed account of the lack of evidence for its support.
  • [91.9] The following are references in Lessing’s footnote. “The strictness with which Plato wanted to forbid ridiculing someone in comedy in his Republic [. . .] was never enforced in the real Republic”: see note 8 above. Ctesippus (Ktesippus): son of Chabrias (4th c. BCE), an Athenian general, who was said to have sold the stones of his father’s monument in order to fund his luxurious lifestyle; mentioned by Menander in his Orge [Anger] (321 BCE); see Menander, the principal fragments 417.
  • [91.10] Lessing’s multi-essay analysis of Aristotle was triggered in [83] by Diderot’s statement that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types.
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