C.M. Wieland: “The Republic of Fools”

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 Among the Abderites

Preliminary observations on the Origin of Abdera,
and the characters of its inhabitants.

The origin of the City of Abdera, in Thrace, is lost in the remote antiquity of the heroic ages. It is a matter of very little consequence at the present time whether the name be derived from Abdera, a sister of the renowned Diomedes, whose love of horses was so great, and his stud so extensive, that they consumed both him and his country; or from Abderus, his Master of the Horse; or from another Abderus, who was the favorite of Hercules.
It was many ages after its first foundation, and when Abdera was a heap of ruins, that Timesius, of Clazomenae, undertook, about the 31st Olympiad, to rebuild it. The wild Thracians, who permitted no cities to spring up in their neighborhood, allowed him no time to enjoy the fruits of his labour. They soon drove him out, and the town remained unfinished and uninhabited till about the end of the 59th Olympiad.
At that period, the inhabitants of Teos, an Ionian city, unwilling to submit to the conquering arms of Cyrus, sailed to Thrace, and finding a city already built, in one of the most fruitful parts of that country, took possession of it as a forsaken and unappropriated territory. More successful than the builders, they made head against their Thracian neighbors; they and their successors assumed the name of Abderites and founded a little state, which, like most Greek cities, was a mean between aristocracy and democracy, and was governed as small republics ever have been.
And now, cry our readers, what is the object of this unmeaning deduction — the origin and fate of this little city, Abdera? What is Abdera to us, and of what moment is it to us whether we know, or whether we know not, when, how, where, why, by whom, and to what end, was built a town which for many centuries has had no existence?
Patience, good reader, patience! till we (before I go on further) are agreed in our requirements. Heaven forbid that anybody should give himself the trouble to read the History of the Abderites if he has anything more necessary to do, and anything better to read. “I must study my sermon,” — “I must visit my patient,”– “I have bought five yoke of oxen,” — “I have married a wife,” — then, in Heaven’s name, study, prescribe, plough, buy and marry.
Busy readers are seldom good readers: Sometimes one thing distracts them, sometimes another; sometimes they half understand us — sometimes not at all — and sometimes (which is still worse) they misunderstand us.
He who would read with pleasure, or with profit, must have nothing else to do — nothing else to think of. And if you are in this condition, why should you not spend two or three minutes to learn what has cost so many hours to a Salmasius, to a Barnes, or to a Bayle, and, to be candid, to me too, since I did not in good time meet with the article in Bayle? Would you not have patiently listened to me if I had begun to relate to you the history of the king in Bohemia who had seven castles, or the legends of the three Calendars? Besides, the Abderites should have been, according to what is said of them, as refined, witty, lively, and intellectual a people as ever the world beheld.
And why so?
This question will not probably be put by the learned reader; but who would write books if every reader knew as much as the author? The question “Why?” is always a very reasonable question; it deserves, in all conversations on human affairs, an answer, and woe to him who is embarrassed, or ashamed, or angry, when he is required to give his opinion. We, for our part, should have given ours unasked, had not the reader been so impatient. Here it is. Teos was an Athenian colony, one of the twelve, or thirteen, planted in Ionia by Neleus, the son of Codrus.
The Athenians were ever a lively and intellectual people. Travelers tell us they are so still, and these Athenians settled in Ionia advanced in mental powers, under the climate of the favoured land, as the vine does in perfection when transplanted into the south. The Ionian Greeks were, above all nations of the earth, the favorite of the Muses. Homer himself was, according to all probability, an Ionian. The songs of love, the Milesian fables (the forerunners of our novels and romances), acknowledged Ionia for their native land. Alcaeus, the Horace of the Greeks; the glowing Sappho; Anacreon, the songster; Aspasia, the preceptress; Apelles, the painter of the Greeks — all were Ionians.
Anacreon was a Teiean by birth. He was a youth of about eighteen years old when his countrymen removed to Abdera; he went with them, and as a proof that his lyre devoted to the Love God was not left behind, there sang he that song to a Thracian maiden (in Barnes’ edition the 61st) — a song in which the wild tones of the indomitable Thrace are mingled, and yet beautifully contrasted, with that Ionian grace so peculiar to his lyrics.
And now, who would not have supposed that the Teieans — in their first origin Athenian, as long established in Ionia, the fellow-citizens as an Anacreon — would have preserved, even in Thrace, the character of an intellectual people? The contrary, however, whatever may have been the reason of it, was without a doubt the case. Scarcely had the Teieans become Abderites when they began to degenerate; not that they altogether lost their former liveliness, and were changed into sheep, as Juvenal asserts of them — their liveliness merely took an extraordinary turn, and their imagination stole so decided a march upon their intellect, that they were never subsequently able to recall it.
The Abderites were not deficient in ideas, but their ideas seldom suited the present occasion — they spoke much, but ever without a moment’s thought what they should say, or how they should say it. The natural consequence of it was, that they rarely opened their mouths without giving utterance to some folly. Unluckily this bad habit extended itself to their deeds as well as their words, for they commonly shut the cage when the bird was flown. This drew upon them the reproach of thoughtlessness, but experience proved that they were none the better off when they did think.
Did any of their proceedings turn out exceedingly stupid (a circumstance anything but rare), the cause was sure to be that they wished to do it too well; and if any state business gave occasion to long and serious deliberation, it was almost a matter of certainty that of all possible decisions they would come to the very worst. They became at last a proverb among the Greeks; an Abderitish idea, an Abderitish trick, was among them pretty much the same thing as a Bull with us; or a Lalleburger among the Swiss; and the worthy Abderites failed not to furnish both jesters and laughers and a rich supply of subjects.
For the present, a few examples will do by way of proof. It once occurred to them that though a city like Abdera ought to have a fine fountain. They decided that it should be in the centre of the market-place , and in order to defray the cost they laid on a new tax; a celebrated sculptor was sent for from Athens in order to prepare a group of statues representing the god of the sea in a chariot drawn by sea-horses, and surrounded by Nymphs, Tritons and dolphins. It was intended that the sea-horses and dolphins should send forth jets d’eau from their nostrils.
But when the work was completed, and the statues placed in the spot, it unfortunately appeared that there was scarcely enough water to wet the noses of the dolphins; and when the fountain was playing, both they and the horses had the uncomfortable appearance of being afflicted with a severe cold. In order to put a stop to the laugh, the group was brought into the Temple of Neptune, and when exhibited to strangers the sacristan expressed his sorrow, in the name of the worshipful city of Abdera, that so rich and splendid a work of art was rendered useless by the poverty of Nature.
At another time they purchased a very lovely Venus, of ivory, which was reckoned upon the masterpiece of Praxiteles. It was about five feet high, and ought to have been placed upon an altar of the goddess. As soon as it arrived, all Abdera fell into ecstasies about the beauty of their Venus; for the Abderites considered themselves acute connoisseurs and enthusiastic lovers of the arts. “She is too beautiful,” exclaimed they with one voice, “to be placed on a low pedestal. A masterpiece that does our city so much honour, and which has cost us so much money, can scarcely be set too high; it should be the first thing that strikes the eye of the stranger on his entrance into Abdera.”
In consequence of this happy thought, they placed the small and exquisite statue upon an obelisk eighty feet in height; and as it was quite impossible at that distance to know whether it was a Venus or an oyster-wench, it became necessary to assure all strangers that nothing more could be seen.
These instances will be sufficient to prove that no injustice was done to the Abderites when they were characterized as blunderers; but it is doubtful whether any proceeding could display their character in a stronger light than the following. According to the testimony of Justin, they allowed the frogs to increase in and about their city to such an extent that they were at last obliged to give place to their croaking fellow-citizens, and the result was, that, under the protection of King Cassander, the Abderites removed the frogs to another place. The misfortune did not fall upon them without warning. A wise man who dwelt among them told them long previously that this would finally be the case.
Indeed, the fault lay wholly in the means the Abderites adopted to avoid the evil; only they could not be induced to see this. What ought, however, to have opened their eyes was the fact that they had not been many months removed from Abdera when a number of cranes came down from the region of Gerania, and so completely cleared away the frogs, that, for a mile round Abdera, not one remained to greet the returning spring with the chorus “croak! croak!”

To be continued…


Christoph Martin Wieland by Jagemann 1805

Christoph Martin Wieland by Jagemann 1805