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The Humanist Comedy

The Humanist Comedy

by Alexander Welsh

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For about three thousand years comedy has applied a welcome humanist perspective to the world’s religious beliefs and practices. From the ancient Greek comedies of Aristophanes, the famous poem by Lucretius, and dialogues of Cicero to early modern and Enlightenment essays and philosophical texts, together with the inherent skepticism about life after death in


For about three thousand years comedy has applied a welcome humanist perspective to the world’s religious beliefs and practices. From the ancient Greek comedies of Aristophanes, the famous poem by Lucretius, and dialogues of Cicero to early modern and Enlightenment essays and philosophical texts, together with the inherent skepticism about life after death in tragicomedies by Plautus, Shakespeare, Molière, and nineteenth-century novels by such as Dickens and Hugo, the literary critic and historian Alexander Welsh analyzes the prevalence of openness of mind and relieving good humor in Western thought. The Humanist Comedy concludes with close examination of a postmodern novel by the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago.

Editorial Reviews

Leo Damrosch
“Deeply learned without making a parade of its learning, The Humanist Comedy is urbane and graceful in exposition; and like everything by Welsh, it is lucid and often eloquent, with a wry wit throughout.”—Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, Emeritus, Harvard University
David Bromwich
The Humanist Comedy  is an imaginative and erudite history of laughter as a means of planting truths in resistant minds. Alexander Welsh shows how Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Molière, and others have vindicated comedy as a genre of wisdom literature.”—David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English, Yale University
Gordon Braden
“Both intelligent and engaging throughout, The Humanist Comedy traces a steady tradition from classical antiquity to modern secularized Europe of serious comic skepticism about divinity and its prerogatives.”—Gordon Braden, Linden Kent Memorial Professor, University of Virginia

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Yale University Press
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Humanist Comedy



Copyright © 2014 Alexander Welsh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19751-8


Laughter at the Gods in Classical Times

The gods, the givers of good things, stand there in the forecourt, And among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter Went up as they saw the handiwork of subtle Hephaistos.

—Demodokos, in Homer's Odyssey, trans. Richmond Lattimore

First Slave. Say, do you really believe in the gods?

Second Slave. Sure.

First Slave. What's your evidence?

Second Slave. Because I'm godforsaken. Isn't that enough?

—Aristophanes, Knights, trans. Jeffrey Henderson

In a famous story, the laughter of the gods resounds in the Odyssey. The blind minstrel Demodocus, a stand-in for Homer himself we may be sure, chooses to sing of the affair of Ares and Aphrodite. The two gods are brazenly taking their pleasure together in her crippled husband's marriage bed, but Hephaestus has only pretended to be away. He has exercised his divine powers to create an unbreakable net of steel with which to ensnare the lovers in the very act of adulterous betrayal. He risks exposing his own cuckolding but cannot stop himself now. This is a vengeful practical joke, which purposes to expose the lovers and to demonstrate the power of craftsmanship over the warlike powers of his rival. Hephaestus's angry triumph attracts other gods to the scene. The goddesses modestly hold back, but no doubt enjoy the joke in their own way. Hermes and Apollo bemusedly exchange asides confessing envy of Ares locked together with Aphrodite in this way, and the laughter of the male gods continues. In the words of Stephen Halliwell, for most ancient Greeks "a deity incapable of laughter was the exception not the rule." There is evidence even in the Iliad that the Olympian gods were capable of laughing, but this instance in book 8 of the Odyssey is the best known and pretty well demonstrates that Homer's audience could join in the laughter. After all, Demodocus the singer of tales has been asked to entertain the Phaeacians and their guest, the homeward bound Odysseus, and this is what he comes up with. Homer goes about entertaining wider audiences with the story and most likely wrote down the verses for still others to read. And with which gods in the story do human listeners and readers identify, if not the laughers?

The gods of the ancient Greeks readily lend themselves to easy exchanges and close identifications with humankind. Except in an underworld or when rapidly traveling through the air, they operate on the same plane as human beings. Their manifestations in Homeric epic tend to be theatrical. In this very episode, as so often in the Odyssey, Athena is present disguised as a man, assisting her favorite, Odysseus, and looking out for his chances. She is the Phaeacian who marks the winning distance of the hero's discus throw, and she enhances his physical appearance as needed, here and elsewhere. It is understandable that Odysseus and others frequently compare humans to gods. He compliments a rival Phaeacian athlete's physique as that of a god, for example, but then calls the man stupid to his face. Such comparisons arise naturally because the Olympians are so obviously anthropomorphic. Some will insist that all gods are anthropomorphic in one degree or other, but, characteristically, in Homer they are simply "the immortals." Unlike us they never die; and they often travel about the world with magical speed and power. Yet in most respects they behave just like humans. Note that immortals defines their being entirely with respect to mortals. They disguise themselves as mortals and often have children by mortals; and occasionally in Greek story a human of either sex will become a god. In truth Homer's gods never seem to know any more about themselves than Homer knows. It can hardly be surprising that mortals sometimes laugh at as well as with the gods.

The god Hermes has rich associations with comedy, and rites would be devoted to him in Athens as the god of commerce, no less. This easy mingling of human and divine business manifests itself early in one of the finer so-called Homeric hymns. The authors of the hymns are unknown, but the hymn to Hermes tells of the god's childhood. His mother was the nymph Maia, who is frequently visited by Zeus in the cave where she lives while Hera is asleep in heaven, "and neither immortal gods nor mortal humans knew." The immortal child of this affair is certainly precocious. On the day he is born he sneaks out of the cave, spots a tortoise, and fashions a lyre out of its shell; rustles fifty of Apollo's cattle and herds them backward so that their hoofprints will confuse anyone attempting to track them; invents the use of fire-sticks for kindling a fire and roasts a couple of heifers; and slips back into the cave before dawn the next day. Maia scolds her child, though resignedly and therefore not very seriously. He not only comes right back at her but lays out his life plans. Here is Michael Crudden's translation of what Hermes has to say to his mother:

I shall enter whatever craft is best, so keeping us both
In clover for ever: the two of us will not endure
Staying here in this place, the only immortals deprived of gifts
And prayers, as you are bidding. Better that all one's days
Be spent conversing among the immortals with riches, wealth,
And plenty of booty, than sitting at home in a murky cave.
As for honour, I too shall enter that rite which Apollo enjoys.
If my father will not allow me, then I shall try—it is in
My power—to be the leader of thieves. (9, 166–76)

The second day in the life of this ambitious youth is already under way, and the story in the hymn occupies only two days. Apollo swiftly catches up with the thief, and they speak at one another in the Homeric manner of dialogue; indeed, the full-grown god and the infant pretty well come to an understanding as they climb to Olympus to put the case before Zeus himself. "Loud was the laughter of Zeus when he saw the roguish child / Denying about the cattle in fine and skilful speech" (389–90), but he rules that the cattle must be returned. Apollo and Hermes start off together for this purpose, and on the way Hermes demonstrates the use of the tortoise-shell lyre and sings of the birth of the gods. Apollo is so charmed that he exclaims such a lyre might be worth fifty heifers. The two are in fact reconciled and exchange gifts as the hymn comes to a close: "In this way the lord Apollo showed love for Maia's son / With friendship of every sort, and the son of Kronos bestowed / Favour upon him besides. With all mortals and immortals both / He [Hermes] has dealings; seldom though does he help, but unceasingly cheats / Throughout the gloomy night the tribes of mortal men" (574–78).

"Mortals and immortals both" can serve as a refrain of the hymn to Hermes. Though neither gods nor humans witness his conceiving, both will be taken in by the trickster. "A vast vexation for mortal men and immortal gods" (161), his mother predicts when the infant is only two days old; and already Apollo testifies before Zeus that "never have I, at least, seen any who'd be his match, / Of gods or those men who swindle mortals over the earth" (339–40). As it happens, there is only one human actor in this story as told in the hymn. While walking backward in craftily designed sandals and herding backward the cattle of Apollo, Hermes is seen by "an old man who toiled at a vineyard where flowers bloomed" (87), and the baby god warns the old man not to tell of what he has seen or heard, if he knows what's good for him. Apollo encounters the same man even as he commences his search for the cattle and hears him say, "I cannot swear to it, sir, / But I thought that I saw a child, and this child, whoever he was, / Was following fine-horned heifers, although a mere infant babe" (208–10). This seems a very small part to play, but the sole witness to the theft is mortal. He tells of what he has seen despite Hermes' warning and bestows an element of reality on these goings-on. At the same time, the old man needn't have been there at all because in the next moment Apollo, famously adept at augury, "was watching a long-winged bird, / And suddenly knew that the thief was the son of Kronos' son Zeus" (214–15). So the author of the hymn wanted, it seems, to have at least one human eyewitness; and Apollo himself, despite his powers of divination, continues to employ human detective means in following the thief's tracks—"a mighty marvel is this that I see with my eyes!" (219). When he subsequently enters Maia's cave, he checks out the storerooms full of her possessions in order to be sure with whom he is dealing, as if this were the home of a ruler like Menelaus in the Odyssey rather than the cave of a mountain nymph.

The most human thing about the hymn's version of events is the amusement of the gods, their readiness to take young Hermes' behavior as a joke, trusting to signs that he means to entertain as well as get his own way. The egregiousness of his avowals—"Father Zeus, to you of course I'll tell the truth, / For I am honest, and don't know how to tell a lie" (368–69)—sets them laughing. Gods are supposed to be immortal, but in this yarn their age difference counts. One-day-olds do not ordinarily make their own musical instruments and carry out elaborate schemes to steal their families' cattle, but should an infant gesture toward something valuable, the appreciative smiles of the big gods will very likely motivate the youngster's repeating of the gesture. The expectations narrated in the Hymn to Hermes are comedic, not serious. Moral behavior, it would seem, weighs heavily even on gods, so it is a relief to make light of it. And they do make light of it. As soon as Apollo catches up with Hermes and accuses him of stealing the cattle, Hermes protests how that could be: "I was born / Just yesterday.... Yet by my father's head I'll swear, if you wish, a great oath: / I neither declare myself to be guilty, nor have I seen / Anyone else who stole your cattle, whatever it is / These 'cattle' may be" (272–77). It need not take a god as smart as Apollo to realize that Hermes hasn't sworn a thing, nor has he strictly told a lie with these words; besides, there is a "gleam" in his eye, and Apollo replies with "gentle laughter" (278, 281).

"Criminal though he is, Hermes has the devotion and admiration of the author of the Hymn," Norman O. Brown contended in his book devoted to myths about the god. "Nowhere is moral disapproval expressed." Well, yes and no: comedy has it both ways. The theft would not be funny if it were not wrong as well as winked at; Zeus would not heartily laugh at Hermes' lies if he were not about to put him straight. "How are we to explain this tolerant and admiring attitude toward theft?" Brown asks. Well, for one thing, because this theft is very cleverly carried out, especially for a one-day-old. But sometime in the sixth century BC, no doubt adopting earlier stories told about the birth of Hermes, whoever composed this delightful hymn adopted the license of comedy. At the end of his book Brown himself put the answer to his question this way: "The subject—the conflict between Hermes and Apollo—has real religious and ethical significance; but to enlist the sympathies of the audience on the side of Hermes the poet appeals chiefly to their sense of humor." And thus "the Hymn comes as close to the Aristophanic manner as is possible in the 'Homeric' style."

One reason for interpreting such texts as humanist comedy is that Greek and Latin literature often championed humanity over against divinity. The poets imagine a rivalry with the gods and then come out for the underdogs. The principals in so-called Old Comedy may be little better than clowns, yet the unfolding action and dialogue invite the audience to identify with them. Aristophanes notoriously mocked gods and philosophers both, turned the beliefs of his time topsy-turvy, yet the Athenians did not censure his blasphemy and were much more taken up with his political satire. The authors treated in the second act of the present book—Erasmus, Montaigne, Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, Hume, and Arnold—stand out from the broader Christian culture as humanists. They were in their time and are known today as humanists. And the frequency with which they cite and quote from Lucretius, Cicero, and Lucian testifies to the liberating effect of classical precedents.

Merely to take note of this liberating effect calls attention to a split in Western thought that widened with the rise of Christianity. Some classical philosophy, notably that originating with Plato and Aristotle, could be absorbed by and literally contribute to subsequent Christian theology. But it is easy to see how monotheism, as compared to polytheism, raises the stakes of freely producing plays or writing stories about the deity. As for laughter, it is inconceivable to laugh at—or in company with—the God of Abraham. Essentially the reasons for this were spelled out by Erich Auerbach in the first chapter of Mimesis, where he compared the representation of this world by Homer to that of the Elohist in Genesis 22. Whereas Homeric epic foregrounds all the action and dialogue, divine or human, the biblical narrative of Abraham and Isaac sets forth a "claim of absolute authority," and we are not told where God's voice originates because "the two speakers," divine and human, "are not on the same level."

No doubt that is why later humanists were pleased to tap the vein of humor in the classical modes of narrating and staging roles for the gods. Otherwise it was hard to challenge or even question an awesome voice coming from on high. The humanists' listeners or readers similarly have their feet on the ground, prepared to tolerate, not to say enjoy, the comedy for its penchant to say certain things and yet not to say them, at least not to insist.


If it were not for Aristophanes we would have little understanding of what so-called Old Comedy was like. We know a good deal of the wider background, the flourishing of comedy in Attica in the fifth century BC. There were two well-attended festivals a year with competition for the best performances. Anyone was welcome in the large outdoor theater. Spectators did have to pay, though at least by the fourth century subsidies were available for poor people. The competition was more of a secular than a sacred event. We know the names of playwrights and producers and a great many comedies, not least the first-, second-, and third-prize winners. We know of at least forty plays by Aristophanes, but the texts of only eleven have survived intact. With the exception of Menander's Dyskolos, the comedies of his contemporaries survive only in fragments.

In any society, performance onstage is in itself liberating. Playing a part is not the same thing as being that person; writing and producing a play are not the same thing as plotting and carrying out actions in the home or marketplace, in heaven or the political sphere. Also, the actors and chorus in Attic theater wore masks and costumes not to be seen on the street. Comedy redoubled this freedom, since laughter can liberate onstage or off. The spoken language thought appropriate to comedy, including vulgarity and obscenity, was not proper to public life. Aristophanes brilliantly exploited this theatrical opportunity to increase the fun and to get away with it. Unlike the practice of New Comedy in the following century, actors impersonated living celebrities of the day onstage, often by name. Aristophanes pilloried the politician Cleon in play after play, brought on Euripides whenever he pleased to differ with the tragedian, and remorselessly satirized Socrates in Clouds.

The long drawn-out Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta (431–404 BC) dominated the political consciousness of the audience during the height of Aristophanes' writing and producing of comedies. Notoriously, it is very hard for mankind, at any rate, to oppose a war, no matter how destructive, once it is under way. But Aristophanes, a conservative politically, came out in his plays for peace. In his first surviving comedy, Acharnians, which won first prize in 425, the hero from the countryside, Dicaeopolis (the name means something like good advice for the city), manages to negotiate a private peace with the Spartans for himself and his family. In Peace, awarded second prize in 421, the hero Trygaeus fails to reach Zeus and persuade him to stop the war, but deals with Hermes and manages to rescue the statue of Peace from the cave where War has put her away: again, the fertile life of country folk is the alternative posed to warfare. Lysistrata, perhaps the best known of Aristophanes' comedies today, was produced in 411, after the overwhelming defeat of Athens in the battle of Syracuse. Famously, the heroine leads a strike of warriors' wives on the home front while others occupy the Acropolis, all with the purpose of bringing the war to an end.


Excerpted from The Humanist Comedy by ALEXANDER WELSH. Copyright © 2014 Alexander Welsh. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alexander Welsh is Emily Sanford Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Yale University. His many publications include The City of Dickens, Reflections on the Hero as Quixote, and Hamlet in His Modern Guises. He lives in Bethany, CT.

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