C.M. Wieland: “The Republic of Fools” Pt. 2

Excerpt, “Die Abderiten, eine sehr wahrscheinliche Geschichte,”(1774). “The Republic of Fools: Being the History of the State and People of Abdera, in Thrace.” Translated from the German of Christoph Martin Wieland by Henry Christmas; in two volumes, Vol. I; London, 1861.

Democritus of Abdera
The question whether the native city of that eminent man could
claim any share in his greatness and, if so, how much.


No air, says Juvenal, is so thick, no nation so stupid, no place so unknown to fame, but that sometimes a great man rises to reflect lustre upon it. Pindar and Epanomondas were born in Boeotia, Aristotle in Stagyra, Cicero at Arpinum, Virgil in the village of Andes near Mantua, Albertus Magnus at Lessingen, Martin Luther at Eisleben, Sextus V in the hamlet of Montalto in the marshes of Ancona, and one of the best kings that ever lived at Pau in Bearn: what wonder, then, that even Abdera should have the honor to give birth to the greatest naturalist of antiquity … Democritus?
For my part, I do not see how a place can in itself add to or detract from the reputation of any good man, as, for every one who comes into this world, a birthplace must be found. It may be doubted whether, save Lycurgus, there was ever a legislator who extended his care and precaution to the Homunculus, in order to provide the state with fine, spirited and well-organized children. We must confess that in this respect Sparta had some claim in this distinction which were shown to her citizens; but in Abdera (as in the whole world besides) chance and genius are permitted to decide.
Natale comes qui temperat astrum; and when a Prothagoras or Democritus arose amongst them, the good citizens of Abdera were as ignorant of the circumstance as were Lycurgus and his laws when a fool or a coward chanced to be born in Sparta.
But this indifference, though it might be said to concern a very important matter, must yet be allowed to pass, because nature, when left to herself, generally renders all extra care for success of her works superfluous. But although she rarely forgets to endow her favorites with all those qualities by which accomplished men are distinguished, still education — the drawing out and developing of those qualities — is exactly the task which she leaves to art, and therefore every state must seek for itself the opportunity of affording the instructions which its citizens require. In this, however, the Abderites manifested great want of wisdom, and it would be difficult to find a place where less care was bestowed upon the cultivation of the intellect, the understanding, and the hearts of the citizens.
The formation of the taste arises from a keen and true perception of the beautiful, and is the best groundwork of the celebrated “Kalokagathia” of Socrates, making internal beauty and goodness of soul to constitute the noble-minded, beneficent and happy man; and nothing is easier than to form in us this correct feeling of beauty, if all that we see and hear from our childhood be beautiful. It is no small advantage to be born in a place where the arts and the sciences are cultivated in the greatest perfection — in a well-built town filled with masterpieces of art, as in Athens; and if, as in the times of Plato and Menander, the Athenians had a thousand time more taste than other nations, they were doubtless in a great degree indebted to their native city for the advantage.
We have already stated that the Abderites were enthusiastic in their love for the fine arts, and, indeed, at the time of their greatest splendour, when they were compelled to make way for the frogs, their town was filled with splendid buildings, rich in pictures and statues, provided with a fine theatre and music hall — was, in short, a little Athens, in all save taste; but unfortunately the strong bias of which we have before spoken extended to their notions of the beautiful and becoming. Latona, the tutelary goddess of their town, had the worst temple; Jason, chief of the Argonauts (whose golden fleece they pretended to possess), the most splendid.
Their townhall looked like a warehouse, and immediately in front of the structure where the business of the state was transacted, cabbage-vendors, fruit and butter women, exposed their stores; on the contrary, the gymnasium, where their young men practiced fighting and wrestling, was built upon three rows of columns, and the fighting hall was adorned with representation of deliberate assemblies, and statues in attitudes of grief or of thoughtful repose; instead of these, within the senate house was presented a more attractive and exciting spectacle, for in its hall the eyes of the senators frequently wandered to the surrounding objects, dwelling with delight on the conspicuously placed paintings of athlete champions, of Diana bathing, of sleeping Bacchantes, or Venus entangled in Olympus with one of her lovers in Vulcan’s net.
This latter picture (immense in its proportions) was hung immediately over the benches of the most learned senators, and was always triumphantly pointed out to strangers as chef d’oeuvre. Even Phocion himself, grave as he was, would have been compelled, though it were the only time in his life, to indulge in a laugh. It is said King Lysimachus once offered six cities and a dominion of many leagues around them for this picture; but the Abderites could not make up their mind to part with so magnificent a piece, especially as it just filled the entire side of the court chamber, and, besides, one of the most celebrated critics had in a learned work suggested the connection of this allegorical painting with the place it adorned.
To relate all the absurdities of this wonderful people would indeed be endless. One, however, we must not pass over, forming as it did a prominent feature of their constitution, and exercising no small influence over the character of the Abderites.
In the earliest period of this city, there was probably an institution in honour of Orpheus, and the nomophylax , or protector of the laws (one of the chief magistrates), was also leader of their sacred choruses and precentor of their music in general. At this epoch, there was good reason for that regulation; but lengths of time alone will cause great revolutions, and the observance of ancient laws would become ridiculous if not modified according to changing circumstances. Such a reflection, however, never entered the minds of the poor Abderites.
It often happened that a nomophylax was chosen who tolerably well understood the laws, but sang badly, or knew nothing at all of music. In such circumstances, how managed the Abderites? After much and grave deliberation they resolved to adopt the regulation that the best singer of Abdera should in future be chosen for nomophylax, which rule was observed as long as Abdera existed. That their nomophylax and their precentor might be two distinct personages was never dreamt of — although they had twenty public meetings on the subject.
It is easy to imagine that at this period music was much esteemed in Abdera; everybody in the city was musical — all sang and played on the flute and the lyre. Their ethics and politics, their theology and cosmography, had each and all a musical foundation; nay, even their physicians cured their patients by harmonies and melodies.
As far as speculations, mere theory, was concerned, so far they seemed to attain to much the same position as that of the greatest sages of antiquity, of Orpheus, of Pythagoras, and of Plato. But it unfortunately happened that in practice they deviated all the more decidedly from the severity of the rules they professed.
Plato forbade all soft and effeminate strains in his Republic. Music was meant to awaken in the minds of his citizens neither joy nor grief, and together with the Ionian and Lydian measures he forbade all Bacchanalian ditties and love-songs. He prohibited the use of all sweet-toned instruments as the many-stringed lute and the Lydian flute, as calculated to induce pernicious and sensual feelings. The citizens, however, were allowed the use of the guitar and the lyre, and the country people had the shepherd’s reed and the pandean pipes.
Philosophical enactments similar to these would have produced great dissatisfaction among the Abderites, who never restricted themselves from enjoying all the harmony afforded by their country. They endeavored to do full justice to a very true, but unhappily by them much misunderstood maxim that “all serious matters should be treated in a mirthful spirit, and all mirthful matters in a serious one.” Extending this principle to music, they came to the most extraordinary conclusions — their sacred hymns sounded like drinking catches, but nobody ever heard strains more solemn than their dance music.
The chorus of their tragedies was irresistibly comic, while their war-songs seemed only an appropriate accompaniment for a procession to the gallows; a performance on the lyre was only esteemed as it succeeded in imitating the flute, and a songstress who wished to gain admiration was obliged to warble and quaver like a nightingale. The Abderites had no conception of music that excited the feelings of the heart, but were well satisfied if their ears were only pleased, and they would, without the slightest notice, interrupt the flow of the fullest and richest harmony.
In one word, with all their enthusiasm for the arts, the Abderites had no taste, and it was all the same to them whether that which they deemed beautiful was esteemed so on just grounds or not; nature, chance and good luck, even when they combined their forces, could scarcely ever attain to so great a power of wonder-working as to endow a born Abderite with common sense.
At least it must be allowed that if such a thing ever did happen, Abdera had done nothing towards it, for an Abderite was in general only so far a sensible man as he was destitute of all that marked him as an Abderite. This circumstance explains easily enough how it was, that the Abderites esteemed the least, those very citizens whom all foreigners regarded as doing their state the most honour. This was not one of their commonplace absurdities; they had a reason for it, and one so natural that it would be unfair to reproach them with it. This reason was not, as some suppose, because they had seen the naturalist Democritus, for instance, before he became a great man; or indeed a man at all, amuse himself by trundling a hoop, or by turning head over heels in the grass.
Neither was it because, either from spite or jealousy, they could not bear the idea of a greater man being among them than themselves. As to the infallible inscription over the Delphic Temple, not one of their number had wisdom to penetrate its meaning; or from the moment, he would have ceased to be an Abderite. The true reason, my friends, why the Abderites did not make much of their fellow citizen, Democritus, was — they did not esteem him to be a wise man.
“And why not?”
Because they could not.
“And why could they not?”
Because in such a case they must have confessed themselves fools; and that, at least, they were not absurd enough to do. In short, they could with about as much case have danced upon their heads, taken the moon between their teeth, or squared a circle, as they could have comprehended one who was in all respects their opposite; thus exemplifying a quality of human nature which must have been noticed even in the time of Adam. Helvetius gathered from this — never mind; what he deduced was thought quite new in his own day to many, but would now be deemed no novelty at all, and lost site of every moment in consequence.

To be continued…