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Werner Jaeger-Introduction To The Comic Poetry Of Aristophanes

Thalia, muse of comedy, gazing upon a comic mask (detail from Muses’ Sarcophagus) representing the nine Muses and their attributes. Marble, first half of the 2nd century AD, found by the Via Ostiense.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote for Volume 1 of ‘PAIDEIA’ by Werner Jaeger in its English translation by Gilbert Highet of the second edition of the original work in German. Part 5, pages 358 to 360.


No description of Greek civilization in the last quarter of the fifth century could pass over that strange but attractive phenomenon, Attic comedy. The ancients, in calling it ‘the mirror of life’, meant that it reflected the eternal spectacle of human nature and its weaknesses. And yet, it is also the most complete reflection of its own age, far surpassing any other type of literature or art in fullness and accuracy. If we whish to study the external appearances and habits of the Athenians, we can learn just as much from vase-painting, the epic of every-day life; but vivid, convenient, and varied as the vase-painting are, they tell us nothing of the loftier spiritual activities which produced the greatest comic poetry now extant. One of the inestimable advantages that we owe to Attic comedy is that it shows us both philosophy and poetry and the state itself, in the heart of this living stream of activity, surrounded and inspired by it, so that they cease to look like isolated phenomena and the full power of their immediate influence can be appreciated within the frame of their own time.

It is only in the period which we know through comedy that we can observe the development of the intellectual life of Athens as a continuous social progress, instead of studying it as crystalized in complete and permanent works of literature, history, and philosophy. And what we observe makes it plain that the antiquarian method of writing the history of civilization by reconstructing separate periods from isolated historical details, picked up and fitted together, is a hopeless task, even when the evidence is far more copious than it is for ancient Greece. Poetry alone can make the life of its own time real and human to posterity. Hence the paradox-which is, after all, perfectly natural-that hardly any historical period, even in our own immediate past, can be realized by us so vividly as the age of Attic comedy.

However, in this book we must study its artistic power (which inspired an astonishing number of authors of widely varied talents) not only as a source of evidence for the life of a vanished world, but also as one of the greatest manifestations of Greek poetic genius. More than any other art, comedy is tied to the realities of its own time and place. Although that fact makes it fascinating from a historical point of view, its sole purpose, in portraying ephemeral events and personalities, is to represent certain aspects of their eternal humanity which are overlooked by loftier types of poetry like epic and tragedy.

The philosophy of poetry which was developed in the fourth century defined tragedy and comedy as fundamentally opposite and complementary expressions of the same primitive human instinct for imitation. It asserted that tragedy, and all the other types of high poetry which succeeded the epic, sprang from the inclination of noble minds to imitate great men, notable deeds and famous lives; while it explained the origin of comedy by the irresistible imitative urge of commoner natures-or, as we should out it, by the impulse of the ordinary man, with his realistic and critical outlook-to ape bad, blameworthy, and contemptible tings.

The famous scene in the ‘Iliad’ which holds up the vulgar and hideous agitator Thersites to malicious laughter of the mob-a rare comedy among the many tragedies in Homeric poetry- is a true piece of popular comedy; for it caters to the instincts of the mob. So also, in divine farce which the enamored Ares and Aphrodite are forced to play against their will, the Olympians themselves become a laughing audience at a comedy.

If even the mighty gods could laugh and be laughed at in this frankly comic way, the Greeks obviously felt that every human being, and every being with human attributes, had not only the power of feeling heroic emotions and serious dignity, but the ability and the need to laugh. Later Greek philosophy defined man as the only animal capable of laughter, though he was usually described as a talking or thinking animal; thereby they placed laughter on the same plane with thought and speech, as an expression of intellectual freedom. If we connect that philosophical conception of human nature with the laughing gods of Homer, we shall not readily believe that comedy had lower spiritual implication than tragedy, though its origin may have been meaner.

Nothing shows the broad and deep humanity of Athenian culture so clearly as the differentiation and integration of the two genera, tragedy and comedy, in Attic drama. Plato was the first to point this out: at the end of the ‘Symposium’ he makes Socrates say the true poet must be both a tragedian and a comedian- a claim which Plato himself answered by writing ‘Phaedo’ and the ‘Symposium’. All Athenian culture was aimed at realizing that ideal. Not only did it pit tragedy and comedy against each other in the same theatre, but it taught the Athenians (in Plato’s words) to consider all human life as both a tragedy and a comedy. Its complete humanity is a mark of its classical perfection.

Modern critics were unable to apprehend the unique beauty of Aristophanic comedy until they abandoned the historical preconception that it was a crude but brilliant predecessor of the comedy of manners, studied its religious origin, and realized that it was an outpouring of the ecstatic Dionysian joy of life.

Werner Jaeger
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Werner Jaeger-Introduction To The Comic Poetry Of Aristophanes

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