The Smile of Truth: The French Satirical Eulogy and Its Antecedents

The Smile of Truth: The French Satirical Eulogy and Its Antecedents

by Annette H. Tomarken

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To teach the truth smilingly was, during the Renaissance, a frequently expressed goal among prose writers and poets such as Erasmus, Berni, Ronsard, Rabelais, and du Bellay, who adopted an ironic posture within their mock encomia in order to refer the reader beyond the realm of the literary structure. In this book Annette Tomarken reconstructs the history of the


To teach the truth smilingly was, during the Renaissance, a frequently expressed goal among prose writers and poets such as Erasmus, Berni, Ronsard, Rabelais, and du Bellay, who adopted an ironic posture within their mock encomia in order to refer the reader beyond the realm of the literary structure. In this book Annette Tomarken reconstructs the history of the classical satirical eulogy as it was revived, expanded, and finally adapted to new purposes in Renaissance literature. Tracing the development of this type of paradox from its classic roots through the Neo-Latin, Italian, and French mock encomia, Tomarken examines its various forms in the Renaissance, including the Pliade "hymne-blason," the mock epitaph, and the stage "harangue." Her book provides a new context for such works as In Praise of Folly and for such literary passages as Rabelais's praise of debts and Falstaff's denunciation of honor. Dividing the eulogies into three groups—praises of vices, disease, and animals and insects—Tomarken brings humor as well as close textual analysis to her study. She finds that the practitioners of the form were aware of its history and that such self-awareness became an integral part of the works themselves. An increased sensitivity to the literary structure and history of the paradoxical encomium, Tomarken stresses, first requires and then enriches our understanding of the genre's relationship to the extra-literary domain.

Originally published in 1990.

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The Smile of Truth

The French Satirical Eulogy and Its Antecedents

By Annette H. Tomarken


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06791-9


The Satirical Eulogy in Antiquity

Ridentem dicere verum / quid vetat?


Origins and Early Development

Although the writings of Lucian were the most influential in the later development of the satirical eulogy, many other classical writers, both Greek and Latin, composed similar works, which were also mentioned by Renaissance imitators. Mock encomia began to appear in the fifth century B.C. and attracted the attention of practitioners and theoreticians alike. The techniques that evolved were gradually codified in treatises that were to influence Renaissance practice. The genre flourished in both Greek and Latin and continued to appear in the Byzantine period, but fell into disuse in the Middle Ages. The early encomia and the origins of the genre have been analyzed by Theodore C. Burgess, Adolf Hauffen, Pease, and other scholars whose discussions have provided the basis for a number of more recent studies dealing primarily with Renaissance encomia. Thus, the English vogue for the satirical eulogy, Erasmus's fondness for Lucian, Ben Jonson's use of paradox in drama, and Lucian's importance for the Renaissance in general have all been investigated. In this chapter, I shall concentrate on those classical theories and encomia which were to be most influential during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In general, classical writers from Aristotle on divided rhetoric into three kinds: deliberative, judicial, and epideictic. The encomium, whether serious or ironic, belongs to the third category, the term epideictic being used to refer to the oratory of praise and blame and of sophistic display. In some instances, such pieces were composed for delivery as speeches at public ceremonies (hence the name panegyric, from the Greek panegyris). In the case of the epitahios or funeral oration, they were delivered at the annual public ceremonies for those killed in battle during the previous year. In yet other instances, they were used by the sophists as demonstrations of literary and rhetorical skill, models of technique for their students to imitate and listeners to admire. Thus, both Greek and Roman students of rhetoric learned to compose laudatory speeches, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Greek and laudes or laudationes in Latin, or their opposite, vituperationes, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Greek. The subjects of laudations and vituperations might be gods, heroes, rulers or other persons, as well as cities, rivers, countries, mountains, or even, on occasion, humbler topics such as animals, plants, and smaller inanimate objects. The use of pro and con writing for training in rhetoric and in the development of forensic skills was also prominent during the Renaissance, when authors such as Lando and Estienne produced contrasting encomia designed to enlighten and challenge readers by abrupt changes of attitude.

A number of recent studies have analyzed the significance of the idea of praise in early Greek literature. As Dio Chrysostom puts it: "Homer praised practically everything — animals, plants, water, earth, armour, and horses; in fact it may be said that there is nothing which he failed to mention with praise and honour. At any rate, there is only one out of all the characters in his poems about whom he said harsh things, namely, Thersites, and even Thersites is called a 'clear-voiced speaker.'" The serious encomium usually followed a recognizable pattern, traces of which persist in its sixteenth-century counterpart. Burgess describes a typical pattern for the praise of a person, and encomia on other topics follow a similar plan. After the prooemion, or introduction, often a profession of inadequacy before so splendid a subject, the ancestry of the person praised is discussed, with flattering reference to his native city or country. His birth, the omens and dreams preceding it, his youth, deeds, and profession are all recounted in their prescribed place. Virtuous deeds of war and peace occupy an important position, as do comparisons between the hero and classical predecessors. Finally, the epilogos sums up what has been said before the concluding prayer.

The paradoxical encomium seems to have been a natural, playful extension of the serious encomium, "a result of that tendency to sheer display which was likely to mark epideictic speeches of all kinds." It did not arise at some late date in the history of classical writing, but early on. Alcidamas, Polycrates, and Gorgias, some of the earliest exponents of the mock-epideictic style, were among the celebrated orators in the great flowering of Greek city-states. By considering the varied reasons for the classical popularity of this genre, we may better understand its Renaissance vogue.

First, the paradoxical encomium provided a pleasant means of varying the customary topoi of panegyrics: praising the unpopular or the despised was a sure way to gain attention. The unexpected element in such works, their thwarting of normal audience expectations, would serve to enhance the humor of the speeches and provide a novel form of entertainment. Aristotle stated that men desire to prove paradoxes in order that they may, if successful, be considered clever, and Lucian, centuries later, may have had the genre in mind when he attributed to Aristippus the statement that "many men have on many occasions forgone discussion of the topics best and most advantageous to us and have embarked upon other subjects from which they think they bring themselves renown, although to their audience their words are of no profit."

Other critics have pointed out that the genre may have found ready acceptance because it overlapped on occasion with other genres. There is, for example, a paradoxical element in many Greek comedies, and passages of playful or burlesque praise were common in Aristophanes. The self-praise by Poverty in The Plutus is an oft-cited example of such writing. The presentation of mock encomia within a larger, different literary framework was thus an early development and was to reappear in the Renaissance in the works of Rabelais, Ben Jonson, and others. The mock encomium bore some resemblance to the nondramatic form of the description or portrait. In addition, paradoxical encomia often resembled scientific monographs on plants and animals, so much so that from the title alone it is often difficult to determine the exact status of some works. Pliny, our main source of information on authors of these latter treatises, states that Themiso wrote on the plantain (25.80), Pythagoras on bulbs (19.94), Moschion on the radish (19.87), Phanias in praise of the nettle (22.35), and Diodes on the turnip (20.10). Typical of his brief references is the following: "It would be a long task to make a list of all the praises of the cabbage, since not only did Chrysippus the physician devote to it a special volume, divided according to its effects on the various parts of the body, but Dieuches also, and Pythagoras above all, and Cato no less lavishly, have celebrated its virtues." Most of these medico-botanical studies were probably not laudations in the rhetorical sense, although they may be what Quintilian has in mind when he mentions that eulogies have been written on sleep and death as well as on certain kinds of food. Many sixteenth-century authors had no qualms about classifying medical works together with literary ones; accordingly, Cato, Themiso, and Pythagoras are frequently cited in prefaces to paradoxical encomia. The freedom to use either verse or prose in such compositions was also much exploited during the Renaissance, as were the close links between the epitaph and the speech of praise or blame.

Finally, the chief advantage of such writing is its apparent harmlessness: although increasingly used for satirical and thus more dangerous purposes, it could be passed off by authors as a mere game or exercise, at worst a "momentary lapse." Most famous of such defenses is that by Erasmus, seeking to forestall criticism of the Moriae Encomium. Although such strategies might be transparently disingenuous, easily penetrated by contemporary readers, they permitted authors to avoid the most aggressive moments of confrontation and could readily be linked to the modesty topos that was so frequent a part of the prooemion of laudations.

Despite this early and lasting popularity, the genre was not without its critics, some of whom were extremely outspoken. In addition to the relatively mild criticisms by Aristotle and Lucian quoted above, the following comments, each from a different period, are typical. They are taken from Isocrates (436–338 B.C.), Polybius (202–after 120 B.C.) and Philodemus of Gadara (ca. 110–ca. 40–35 B.C.). Although Isocrates himself composed mock encomia, he asserted elsewhere that there was no virtue in defending something which others did not care to support: "While on famous subjects one rarely finds thoughts which no one has previously uttered, yet on trifling and insignificant topics whatever the speaker may chance to say is entirely original." Polybius, on the other hand, focused on the risks of moral corruption in the young. Timaeus, he says, praised Sicily as extravagantly as do boys at schools of rhetoric who try to eulogize Thersites or censure Penelope. These sophistic games, he remarks sourly, have given young men such depraved ideas that they pay no more attention to beneficial studies, such as ethics and politics, preferring to spend their time "in the vain effort to invent useless paradoxes." Finally, the poet and Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus, dwelt on the intellectual frivolity of such writing: "They say that men are turned to virtue by their encomia, and dissuaded from vice by their denunciations. But the sophists by their praise of Busiris and similar characters, persuade men to become villains. ... Not only do they fail at times to praise anything useful, but they frequently praise bad things, and by lavishing praise on matters of small account they incline us to treat all subjects lightly."

Despite these criticisms, which were to be echoed in the Renaissance, mock encomia continued to be composed by both major and minor orators attracted by the freedom and variety of the genre. The earliest such works concentrated on legendary or historical figures, but the range of topics soon increased. After Gorgias's fifth-century praise of Helen came Polycrates' reported writings on mice and on pebbles. Following Gorgias, Isocrates wrote on Helen and Alcidamas on death. Alcidamas also praised poverty and, trying to improve on Polycrates' treatment of the theme, defended the mythical and inhuman Egyptian king Busiris. The writers employ the various methods of praise noted by the theorist Aristides — the exaggeration of meritorious features, the suppression of undesirable ones, favorable contrasts with something else, and the clever turning of an unpleasant fact into a pleasant one. Thus, Polycrates' encomium on mice dwelt upon their service to the Egyptians in gnawing the bowstrings and shield handles of invading enemies, while Philostratus, praising hair, gave examples of longhaired heroes at Troy. Appion's praise of adultery recounts the love affairs of Zeus and other gods, and Libanius stresses the good parentage of Thersites, ugliest of the Greeks who fought against Troy. But for all their diversity of individual arguments, the overall pattern for these playful or "adoxographic" works remains that of the serious encomium, and their subject matter can conveniently be grouped under the three broad headings of vice, disease, and animals.

To the class of eulogy devoted to vices or bad habits belong the praise of negligence by Fronto and of adultery in the Pseudo-Clementine homilies. Among encomia on vices embodied in a given individual are four praises of Thersites, encomia of Busiris by Polycrates and Isocrates, and vindications of Helen by Isocrates and Gorgias. Well known vituperations are those of Penelope (mentioned by Polybius) and of Achilles and Hector by Libanius.

The second category, the encomia on disease, is exemplified by that on the quartan fever by Favorinus. In addition, Plutarch mentions works on vomiting and fever, while, in describing a young poet who had composed encomia on gout, blindness, and deafness, Philostratus (A.D. 170–ca. 244), makes Apollonius sarcastically advise the youth to extend his efforts further: "'And why not of dropsy too/ said Apollonius, 'for surely you won't rule out influenza from the sphere of your cleverness, since you are minded to praise such things?'" Whether or not the pieces referred to here actually existed, they show clearly Philostratus's awareness of the disease eulogy. Insomnia was eulogized by Fronto, and we know of works on old age, death, and poverty that are probably philosophic and consolatory, rather than paradoxical. In the same group one can place eulogies on external physical defects or peculiarities. Here, the presence or absence of hair was a popular topic, probably because beards, the distinguishing mark of certain Greek philosophers, could readily be exploited in satire. The best known of these works, by Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, was also popular during the sixteenth century.

The third group of encomia, although customarily associated with small animals and insects, can be conveniently extended to works on larger animals and to pieces on various aspects of the natural world. It is also frequently related to the tradition of the animal epitaph, a tradition in which the Renaissance followed chiefly Catullus, Martial, and the writers of the Greek Anthology. Dio is said to have written on the parrot, and Isocrates refers to eulogies on the bumblebee. Fleas, gnats, and lice proved a challenge to even the most skillful orators. Eulogies of plants have already been mentioned: in them and in the encomia on inanimate objects the satirical element is reduced to a minimum, often to a kind of gentle badinage. The majority of these pieces were known to the Renaissance only by name or as brief descriptive references (for example, the eulogy on salt mentioned by Plato); they could not, therefore, provide later writers with more than points of departure, instances of what could be and probably had been done within the limits of the genre.

Lucian's Satirical Eulogies

In Lucian, on the other hand, imitators found a body of satires that included mock encomia belonging to each of the categories described above. The use by many modern critics of a tripartite, topical grouping of these works is probably due to the dominant influence of Lucian as a model in all three areas. He was to exercise both a direct influence, by way of the numerous Renaissance editions of his writings, and an indirect one, in that famous later eulogies, such as Erasmus's Moriae Encomium, so obviously owed much to him. For the sixteenth century, Lucian was without doubt the principal source of paradoxical encomia. We may therefore turn to Lucian's satirical eulogies before considering other similar works regularly mentioned in the sixteenth century.

The De Parasito is Lucian's longest encomium, although some scholars have questioned that he is in fact the author. Similar reservations have been expressed with regard to the Podagra and the Muscae Encomium. However, during the Renaissance all three works were generally accepted as by Lucian. In any case, doubts as to authorship did not at that time necessarily prevent suspect writings from being printed alongside unquestioned productions. Some works that have since been proved beyond all doubt to be spurious, such as the Philopatris, were accepted as genuine by many humanists. We may therefore consider together all encomia that Renaissance publishers presented as by Lucian.

In the De Parasito, a parasite or professional sponger, Simon, praises a way of life generally scorned, defending it as the best of all possible lives. In composing this dialogue, Lucian seems to have had a twofold aim. First, he sought to parody the Platonic dialogue by using its methods on an apparently absurd subject. Second, he wished to formulate a general attack on parasites. Accordingly, he presents a parasite who inadvertently confesses his faults while imagining he is defending himself. Simon becomes what Christopher Robinson has labeled a "self-denouncer," and his narrative takes the form of a "récit-aveu." The inside witness, then, is a representative of a given group who extols and defends his opinions in such a way as to provide the wary reader with a more balanced and "normal" picture. Much is gained in dramatic impact by this indirect manner of presentation; Erasmus was to exploit it most effectively in the Moriae Encomium, where Folly is the "self-denouncer."


Excerpted from The Smile of Truth by Annette H. Tomarken. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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