Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


He was a very subtle schoolman, who first said that we owe the origin of the word “buffoon” to a little Athenian sacrificer called Bupho, who, being tired of his employment, absconded, and never returned. The Areopagus, as they could not punish the priest, proceeded against his hatchet. This farce, which was played every year in the temple of Jupiter, is said to have been called “buffoonery.” This story is not entitled to much credit. Buffoon was not a proper name; bouphonos signifies an immolator of oxen. The Greeks never called any jest bouphonia. This ceremony, frivolous as it appears, might have an origin wise and humane, worthy of true Athenians.

Once a year, the subaltern sacrificer, or more properly the holy butcher, when on the point of immolating an ox, fled as if struck with horror, to put men in mind that in wiser and happier times only flowers and fruits were offered to the gods, and that the barbarity of immolating innocent and useful animals was not introduced until there were priests desirous of fattening on their blood and living at the expense of the people. In this idea there is no buffoonery.

This word “buffoon” has long been received among the Italians and the Spaniards, signifying mimus, scurra, joculator — a mimic, a jester, a player of tricks. Ménage, after Salmasius, derives it from bocca infiata — a bloated face; and it is true that a round face and swollen cheeks are requisite in a buffoon. The Italians say bufo magro — a meagre buffoon, to express a poor jester who cannot make you laugh.

Buffoon and buffoonery appertain to low comedy, to mountebanking, to all that can amuse the populace. In this it was — to the shame of the human mind be it spoken — that tragedy had its beginning: Thespis was a buffoon before Sophocles was a great man.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spanish and English tragedies were all degraded by disgusting buffooneries. The courts were still more disgraced by buffoons than the stage. So strong was the rust of barbarism, that men had no taste for more refined pleasures. Boileau says of Molière:

C’est par-là que Molière, illustrant ses écrits,

Peut-être de son art eût emporté le prix,

Si, moins ami du peuple en ses doctes peintures,

Il n’eût fait quelquefois, grimacer ses figures,

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et fin,

Et sans honte à Terence allié Tabarin.

Dans ce sac ridicule où Scapin s’enveloppe,

Je ne reconnais plus l’auteur du Misanthrope.

Molière in comic genius had excelled,

And might, perhaps, have stood unparalleled,

Had he his faithful portraits ne’er allowed

To gape and grin to gratify the crowd;

Deserting wit for low grimace and jest,

And showing Terence in a motley vest.

Who in the sack, where Scapin plays the fool,

Will find the genius of the comic school?

But it must be considered that Raphael condescended to paint grotesque figures. Molière would not have descended so low, if all his spectators had been such men as Louis XIV., Condé, Turenne, La Rochefoucauld, Montausier, Beauvilliers, and such women as Montespan and Thianges; but he had also to please the whole people of Paris, who were yet quite unpolished. The citizen liked broad farce, and he paid for it. Scarron’s “Jodelets” were all the rage. We are obliged to place ourselves on the level of our age, before we can rise above it; and, after all, we like to laugh now and then. What is Homer’s “Battle of the Frogs and Mice,” but a piece of buffoonery — a burlesque poem?

Works of this kind give no reputation, but they may take from that which we already enjoy.

Buffoonery is not always in the burlesque style. “The Physician in Spite of Himself,” and the “Rogueries of Scapin,” are not in the style of Scarron’s “Jodelets.” Molière does not, like Scarron, go in search of slang terms; his lowest characters do not play the mountebank. Buffoonery is in the thing, not in the expression.

Boileau’s “Lutrin” was at first called a burlesque poem, but it was the subject that was burlesque; the style was pleasing and refined, and sometimes even heroic.

The Italians had another kind of burlesque, much superior to ours — that of Aretin, of Archbishop La Caza, of Berni, Mauro, and Dolce. It often sacrifices decorum to pleasantry, but obscene words are wholly banished from it. The subject of Archbishop La Caza’s “Capitolo del Forno” is, indeed, that which sends the Desfontaines to the Bicêtre, and the Deschaufours to the Place de Grève: but there is not one word offensive to the ear of chastity; you have to divine the meaning.

Three or four Englishmen have excelled in this way: Butler, in his “Hudibras,” which was the civil war excited by the Puritans turned into ridicule; Dr. Garth, in his “Dispensary”; Prior, in his “Alma,” in which he very pleasantly makes a jest of his subject; and Phillips, in his “Splendid Shilling.”

Butler is as much above Scarron as a man accustomed to good company is above a singer at a pothouse. The hero of “Hudibras” was a real personage, one Sir Samuel Luke, who had been a captain in the armies of Fairfax and Cromwell. See the commencement of the poem, in the article “Prior,” “Butler,” and “Swift.”

Garth’s poem on the physicians and apothecaries is not so much in the burlesque style as Boileau’s “Lutrin”: it has more imagination, variety, and naïveté than the “Lutrin”; and, which is rather astonishing, it displays profound erudition, embellished with all the graces of refinement. It begins thus:

Speak, Goddess, since ’tis thou that best canst tell

How ancient leagues to modern discord fell;

And why physicians were so cautious grown

Of others’ lives, and lavish of their own.

Prior, whom we have seen a plenipotentiary in France before the Peace of Utrecht, assumed the office of mediator between the philosophers who dispute about the soul. This poem is in the style of “Hudibras,” called doggerel rhyme, which is the stilo Berniesco of the Italians.

The great first question is, whether the soul is all in all, or is lodged behind the nose and eyes in a corner which it never quits. According to the latter system, Prior compares it to the pope, who constantly remains at Rome, whence he sends his nuncios and spies to learn all that is doing in Christendom.

Prior, after making a jest of several systems, proposes his own. He remarks that the two-legged animal, new-born, throws its feet about as much as possible, when its nurse is so stupid as to swaddle it: thence he judges that the soul enters it by the feet; that about fifteen it reaches the middle; then it ascends to the heart; then to the head, which it quits altogether when the animal ceases to live.

At the end of this singular poem, full of ingenious versification, and of ideas alike subtle and pleasing, we find this charming line of Fontenelle: “Il est des hochets pour tout âge.” Prior begs of fortune to “Give us play-things for old age.”

Yet it is quite certain that Fontenelle did not take this line from Prior, nor Prior from Fontenelle. Prior’s work is twenty years anterior, and Fontenelle did not understand English. The poem terminates with this conclusion:

For Plato’s fancies what care I?

I hope you would not have me die

Like simple Cato in the play,

For anything that he can say:

E’en let him of ideas speak

To heathens, in his native Greek.

If to be sad is to be wise,

I do most heartily despise

Whatever Socrates has said,

Or Tully writ, or Wanley read.

Dear Drift, to set our matters right,

Remove these papers from my sight;

Burn Mat’s Descartes and Aristotle —

Here, Jonathan — your master’s bottle.

In all these poems, let us distinguish the pleasant, the lively, the natural, the familiar — from the grotesque, the farcical, the low, and, above all, the stiff and forced. These various shades are discriminated by the connoisseurs, who alone, in the end, decide the fate of every work.

La Fontaine would sometimes descend to the burlesque style — Phædrus never; but the latter has not the grace and unaffected softness of La Fontaine, though he has greater precision and purity.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01