C.M. Wieland: “The Republic of Fools” Pt. 3
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.
What kind of man Democritus was and his Travels.
Democritus was about twenty years of age when he inherited the possessions of his father, one of the richest citizens of Abdera. Instead of reflecting on the manner in which he was to increase or retain his fortune, the young man resolved to make it the means of self-improvement, by enriching and cultivating his mind to the highest degree possible.
And what did the Abderites say to this resolution of Democritus?
The good people had never dreamed that the mind could have any other interests than the mouth, the stomach and those other portions of the animal economy which go to make up the whole visible man; consequently, they were not a little astonished at the wonderful freak conceived by their countryman. For this, however, he cared nothing, but went on his way, for his instruction employed many years in traveling through all such countries and islands as were then accessible.
At that period persons anxious to obtain knowledge could only acquire it by personal observation; there were no printing presses, no newspapers, libraries, magazines, encyclopedias, lexicons, royal dictionaries, or any other of the approved means whereby a man may now, without knowing how, become a philosopher, a critic, an author, in short a universal genius. At that time wisdom could only be attained at the expense of the most costly sacrifice. It was not every man who could go to Corinth and, consequently, the number of learned men was small; but then, the knowledge they possessed was of an order all the higher.
Democritus did not merely travel as did Ulysses, to ascertain the customs and constitutions of mankind — nor as Plato, to seek after priests and visionaries — nor like Pausanias, to gaze on temples, statues, pictures and objects of archeology; neither like Dr. Solanger, to identify and classify plants and animals. But he journeyed to explore the beauties of nature and art in all their effects and causes and, especially, to study man in every state — rude or polished, ingenuous or deceitful, perfect or imperfect — and whatsoever besides might aid in thoroughly understanding human nature.
“Caterpillars,” said Democritus, “in Ethiopia, are surely but caterpillars. But what is a caterpillar? Is it so important as to become a primary study for man? Well, now we are here, we will among other objects study the caterpillars of Ethiopia. There is a worm in the land of Seres which produces clothes and maintains a million of human beings. Who knows whether the same useful caterpillar might not be found on the banks of the Niger?”
Through this mode of thinking and reflecting, Democritus collected in his travels a fund of knowledge which to him was more valuable than all the gold in the treasury of an Eastern monarch, or the pearls which adorn the arms and necks of his consorts.
His knowledge extended from the cedar of Lebanon to the mite in an Arabian cheese – running through an infinite variety of trees, shrubs, vegetables, grasses, and mosses – and was conversant not merely with their formation, names and genus; but also with their properties, powers and virtues. But what he appreciated a thousand times more than all his knowledge was, that at different places where he thought it worth his while to stop, he had become acquainted, during his sojourn, with the wisest and best men. It soon became evident that he was one after their own heart; they became his friends and in the course of conversation they spared him many years of what might have been fruitless toil, by imparting to him the results of their own experience, their own diligence or their own good fortune.
When, after an absence of twenty years, Democritus, enriched in mind and heart, returned to Abdera, his countrymen had almost forgotten him. He was become a stately and dignified man, courteous and polite, demeaning himself as a man of the world, who had gained much wisdom from mixing with his fellow-creatures; his complexion, slightly bronzed, told that he had come from the ends of the world, and he had brought with him a stuffed crocodile, a live monkey, with many other wonderful things. For some days the Abderites talked of nothing but their fellow-citizen, Democritus, who had returned home with his curiosities; but after a short time they began to think that they had perhaps overrated the great traveler.
The worthy person to whose care Democritus had entrusted his estate had, evidently, robbed him of at least half his revenues; yet the naturalist, without hesitation, passed on all his accounts. It should give a great shock to that notion of his wisdom which his countrymen had already begun to entertain. The barristers and attorneys, who had reasonably looked forward to some pretty pickings by way of lawsuits, now shrugged their shoulders and uniformly expressed their opinion that a man who had so little sense of his own private interests was obviously unfit to be entrusted with those of the republic. In the meantime, the Abderites did not doubt that he would speedily become a candidate for some honorable public employment.
Accordingly, they began to calculate at what price they might sell their votes; one offered him a daughter, another a grandchild, a sister-in-law, or aunt, in marriage, estimating the advantages they might derive from his influence when he should become their chief magistrate, priest of Latona, etc.
Democritus, however, declared that he had no wish to become a common councilman in Abdera, or to marry an Abderite lady. Although this resolution frustrated all such plans, they yet hoped to profit, in some way or other, by his acquaintance and conversation. A man who had brought with him from his travels an ape, a crocodile and a tame dragon must have many wonderful adventures to relate. They expected he would tell them of giants twelve yards, and of dwarfs twelve inches high, and men with dogs’ and asses’ heads, of mermaids with green hair, and blue Centaurs.
But Democritus lied little, and indeed less than as if he never crossed the Thracian Bosphorus.
They asked him whether in the country of the Garamantes he had not met with people without heads, or having their eyes, noses and mouths upon their breasts; and an extremely wise scholar, who, though he had never been beyond the walls of his native city, gave himself such airs as though there was not a hole in the earth that he had not crept through, intimated his opinion to a large company, that Democritus had either never been to Ethiopia, or must, when there, have necessarily made acquaintance with the Agriophagae, whose king had only one eye, placed exactly over his nose; with the Ptaeambatoe, who always chose a dog for their king; or with the Artabatites, who go on all fours. [Author’s Note: Pliny’s Natural History.]
And if you have penetrated into the extreme part of western Ethiopia,” continued the learned man, “I am certain that you must have encountered a people without noses, and another part where the inhabitants have such small mouths that they are compelled to take their soup through a tube of straw.” [Author’s Note: Solinus, B., also Pliny, Mela Pomponius, and other ancient and modern writers who unhesitatingly speak of such wonderful creatures as if they really existed.]
Democritus protested by Castor and Pollux that he could not remember ever having had the honor of meeting with such. “At least,” said the questioner, “you met in India with people born with only one leg, but who, notwithstanding, in consequence of the extraordinary breadth of their feet, glide over the ground so quickly that a man on horseback can scarcely keep pace with them.” [Author’s Note: Solinus Polyhistor.]
“What can you say to that? Did you not also, at the source of the Ganges, meet with a people whose sole nutrition was the scent of apples?” [Author’s Note: Idem.]
“Oh, do tell us all about it,” cried out eagerly the Abderite ladies. “Do tell us, Mr. Democritus. What could you not tell us, if only you would?”
Democritus swore, but to no purpose, that neither in India nor Ethiopia had he seen or heard of such wonderful creatures. “Well, what have you seen, then?” asked a round, short personage, who was indeed neither one-eyed like the Agriophagae, nor dog-eared like the Cynomolgi; neither did he carry his eye on his shoulders like an Omophthalmian; neither, from the simple act of inhaling did he subsist like the Bird of Paradise. Notwithstanding all this, he had no more brains in his head than an American humming-bird, but was nonetheless qualified for being a town council-man of Abdera. “Well! What have you seen?” said the fat gentleman; “you who for twenty years has been traveling about the world, and have seen nothing of all these things. What else can you have seen that is wonderful in those distant countries?”
“Wonderful!” replied Democritus, smiling. “I really found my time so much occupied in examining that which was natural, that I had no time to spare for the merely wonderful.”
“I must confess,” said the stout gentleman, “that it does not repay one for the fatigue of passing over so many seas, and ascending so many high mountains, not to see more than one of us can see just as well at home.”
Democritus did not like to quarrel with people about their opinions, and least of all with the Abderites, yet he was unwilling that they should suppose that after all his travels he had absolutely nothing to say; he, therefore, endeavored to choose from among the fair Abderites who were of the party, one to whom he could unreservedly explain all he had to tell. He fixed on one with the eyes of a Juno, which, in spite of his great experience, led him erroneously to suppose that their owner possessed a little more intellect and perception than the rest.
“What could I do ?” said he to her, “with a lady whose eye was placed on her forehead or on her elbow? or how would my knowledge of art help me to awaken a cannibal beauty? Besides, I have always been too well satisfied with the soft influence of two fine eyes placed in their natural position, to be tempted to look tenderly on the great eye of a female Cyclops.”
The beauty with the large eyes was doubtful how to understand this speech, and gazed at the speaker with silent astonishment, smiled, displayed her fine teeth, and then looked from side to side, as though endeavoring to penetrate his meaning.
The other ladies had understood it as little as she did, but because Democritus had addressed himself to this one with the large eyes, they decided he had said something very agreeable to her, and this they signified to each other by a variety of grimaces. One wrinkled up her little nose; another pursed up her mouth; a third distended hers, which was already round enough; a fourth drew herself up to her full height; and Democritus saw all this, remembered he was in Abdera, and was … silent.