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upon the humble and obscure Athenian, not venturing actually to attack the sophists, by the names of their avowed leaders, he let loose all his acrimony on an eccentric humorist, whose singularities caused the mob to confound him with them, if this could be proved—whatever becomes of the character of Socrates, that of Aristophanes is made most contemptible.
But not more contemptible than it is made in the third reason given above, viz. that he cherished a personal enmity to Socrates, because the latter was hostile to the comic stage. To place a man like Socrates in so odious a light, as the hero of the Clouds, because he has expressed an opinion against the poet's profession, to make this personal quarrel the pretence for calumny so broad, coarse, and unsparing, and for persecution so malignant, is to confess its author to be poorspirited in feeling and base in principle, beyond all that he has himself alleged against Socrates, or his defenders have maintained against the sophists.
The Essay of Wieland, to which we have appealed, and of which we are following the train, among its other merits has this, that it is a professed plea neither for Aristophanes nor Socrates; but an attempt philosophically and historically to explain the literary enigma, as announced at the beginning. The explanation may be reduced to these following points.— The popular comedy of Athens was an amusement of the mass of the citizens at„their festivals, and particularly at the feasts of Bacchus. The comic poets were the ministers of the popular taste and feeling, and bound to provide topics for ridicule and laughter. The natural progress was from timid and general allusion, to direct personality, and lastly to systematic caricature of characters and persons on the stage. In proportion as this license increased, the nature of things demanded that it should have no effect, beyond that immediately designed, the amusement of a petulant populace. Where character is held sacred and personalities are forbidden either by public sentiment or law, a slight attack upon it awakens sensation, and must be submitted to or repelled, on the peril of retaining or forfeiting the public confidence. But where the license is familiar and notorious, and characters are habitually vilified, for no other reason than that they are notorious, and with no other object than to amuse the curiosity of an idle populace, then the instrument, once so powerful, loses its effect. 'Euripides,' says Wieland, ' remained, notwithstanding the Frogs,
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and the Ecclesiasuza, one of the most favored and respected of the tragic poets; and Nicias continued unshaken at the head of his party. Cleon, but shortly after the representation of the Knights, received the command of the army against Brasidas, and Hyperbolus, the eternal and the indiscriminate butt of the comedians, was named to the elevated post of Hieromnemon.’ Nor was the case different with Socrates: though we sometimes see his final persecution and death ascribed in part to this attack of Aristophanes, it is to be recollected that twentyfour years elapsed between the acting of the Clouds and the prosecution by Anytus. When therefore we consider that whatever effect was produced on the public standing of Socrates by the Clouds, must have been greatest at the moment when the play was brought out, -the rather as the paucity of books limited to narrower bounds, than with our modern notions we are able to realise, the operation of literary agents, we shall be inclined to admit, that the case of Socrates furnishes another illustration of the harmlessness of these attacks from the comic stage. Such being the nature of his weapon, used rather to divert the audience by its flourish and glitter, than to inflict mortal wounds by its edge, Aristophanes seized it, with his youthful grasp. What opinion we have of the motives, with which he might employ it, and of the feelings with which he would select his objects, will depend a good deal on the estimation which we form of the personal character of Aristophanes. We do not scruple to yield our entire assent to Wieland on this head. The ancient biographies give us little or no information on the subject; nor is it doing Aristophanes or any man injustice to judge him by his works. We do not heA sitate from these to deny him any title to our respect as a truly ! good man. In admiration of his talents, we yield to none. In relish for what is truly beautiful in his poetry, (and much of every sort of beauty may be found in it,) we would as little be thought to fail. We are by no means desirous to withhold our applause from the courage, with which he assailed some of the vices and vicious men of the day; nor do we deny that his political and moral maxims are in the main sound. As a writer he is beyond praise, and the rather for having distrusted his own inspiration and his own popularity, and for having bestowed on his productions the most exemplary study and care. But here the tribute to his character, in our poor judgment, must stop. His writings are incontestably marked with an irritable, unreflecting, and remorseless temper. He often derides the distinction of true and false, and confounds them for the amusement of his audience. He indulges in bestialities so gross, that no change of times—no supposed peculiarity of ancient taste, can apologise for them, and he scorns and trifles with what other men held sacred, with a-levity inconsistent / with a good heart. A learned and sagacious critic has declar-' ed, that Aristophanes puts a violence on himself, and says, ' It was not the bent of his mind to be immoral; though, like Swift, he might not care to wade through a little nastiness, for the sake of a joke. There is no wallowing in the mud, no indecency that clings to its ground, or reluctantly gives way, "with many a longing, lingering look behind."' We are constrained to differ, in toto, from this judgment. The fine strains are not the body and general tissue of the piece, blemished or even set off by the base foil. Aristophanes is ready at,all moments, and on all occasions, to drop into hideous, indescribable, impious indecency. The modern book, which should only intimate his sins but for the sake of condemning them, would never be admitted into honest circulation. The modern scholar, who should dare to make a vernacular translation of the Lysistrata, would never be able to hold up his head in good company; and the printer, who should publish it, would be hunted down by the law. We are aware of the state of Athenian society. It was very different (heaven be praised) from our own. On looking into their classical authors of all departments, there is a certain tinge of grossness in them, which is not wicked; but appears to have had its origin in a general want of delicacy, and is to our minds far less offensive and pernicious, than the detestable inclination of Gibbon, on all occasions, to clothe indecent pleasantry in decent words. But this is all, we do not find, in the classical writings of the Greeks, the proofs of a state of manners, which furnish us any apology for the insane filthiness of Aristophanes. Homer, with the exception of a few broad phrases, which evidently are what the obscenity of Aristophanes evidently is not, the style of a rude and simple age, is highly pure; and yet the Odyssey, which carried the poet through so many scenes of private and domestic life, would have furnished abundant occasion for the opposite quality, had the taste of the times required it. It may be excepted to this example, that between the age of Homer and that of the Athenian democracy, the female character underwent an
unhappy change, and that his poems do not furnish the means of judging of the state of manners and taste, in the time of Aristophanes—which is partly just. Then we say that the contemporary literature, the history, the oratory, the tragedy of Athens, do not allow us to regard the general state of society as so corrupt, and the general state of literature so defective, as to authorize the indecency of Aristophanes. The comedy, we grant, is very different from the other branches of literature specified; it is more licentious in its nature. But if the defence be that the license was universal, something of it must be traced in all the literature; something must be found in every department, which bears the impress of this revolting sensuality. It is true, when we come down to a much later period, to a degenerate age of Greece; to an era alike of political slavery, literary decline, and moral corruption, we fall on a most depraved and impure taste, of which Athenaeus, in his ordinary compilation, has collected monuments, that had better perished. But in defending Aristophanes, we have no more right to avail ourselves of the example of the miserable grammarians and epigrammatists, at a period subsequent by centuries to Aristophanes, than we have to quote against him the example of Homer from a period as much anterior. We just admitted that the latter cannot in justice be done, nor is there any more reason in the former. It is most unfortunate for this inquiry, that the works of the other ancient comedians are all lost; and that we are unable to compare Aristophanes with his predecessors or contemporaries, in the same department. If, however, we can appeal to the testimony of one of those who were able to make the comparison between Aristophanes and his contemporaries, of one who lived when the numerous authors of the ancient, middle, and new comedy, now lost, were yet extant, he certainly will be entitled to be heard with deference, in the question. Such a person is Plutarch, to whose diligence and philosophical curiosity we are indebted for the preservation of so many portions of Grecian history, and so many monuments and notices of Grecian manners, opinions, and literature. Among his moral works, as they are commonly but improperly termed, is the epitome of an essay containing an express and formal comparison between Aristophanes and Menander. It is much to be regretted that the entire work is lost. Still, however, there is no reason to distrust the justice of the abstract, which has come down to us. From this abstract, we shall make a free but faithful quotation, just repeating, that Plutarch had the great mass of the comic literature open before him, and was able to estimate Aristophanes, in comparison with his colleagues; that it does not appear that Plutarch had any personal motive for doing Aristophanes injustice; and that, though he censures him extravagantly, it does not appear that he had any provocation thus to censure him beyond what was furnished by the works themselves of Aristophanes. 'At this period,' says Plutarch, • that the city abounds with good actors of comedy, it is found that the comedies of Menander are replete with a spirit as innocent and even pious, as if it had its origin from the waves, whence Venus sprung. The spirit of Aristophanes, on the other hand, is bitter and harsh; it has a keen, biting, yea an ulcerating severity. Nor can I any where discern, either in the characters or language of his comedies, his boasted skill. What he imitates he debases. He represents not a polite but a malicious cunning; and his rusticity, instead of being confiding, is doltish. His humor is that not of laughter but derision, and his amours, instead of being gay, are profligate. The man seems not to have written for any person of discretion; but to have indulged in what is base and lascivious, that he might please the profligate, and in what is slanderous and bitter, that he might gratify the envious and malignant.—Op. II. 854.
This is the severe judgment of Plutarch, on the merits of Aristophanes. We may not choose to go the whole length of his condemnation, nor extend it to the literary merits of the poet. This is a point of taste, which we have a right to discuss with Plutarch. But as to his purity and impurity, which is not a matter of literary taste, but moral sentiment, and which we expressly refer to the standard of the age, to be settled by that, we maintain that Plutarch, with all the comic literature of the Greeks before him, and while instituting a formal comparison between Aristophanes and Menander, has a right to be heard.—We see not why he should not command our assent.
We have urged this topic, and have quoted this passage from Plutarch, for the sake of adding to the considerations, with which Wieland fortifies his opinion of the moral character of Aristophanes. In that opinion, we sincerely concur, and without wishing, with a puritanical sternness, to enter into judgment with the license, into which the pride of genius and