WHETHER THE ENTERTAINER SHOULD SEAT THE GUESTS, OR LET EVERY MAN TAKE HIS OWN PLACE.
TIMON, A GUEST, PLUTARCH, PLUTARCH'S FATHER, LAMPRIAS, AND OTHERS.
MY brother Timon, making a great entertainment, desired the guests as they came to seat themselves; for he had invited strangers and citizens, neighbors and acquaintance, and all sorts of persons to the feast. A great many being already come, a certain stranger at last appeared, dressed as fine as hands could make him, his clothes rich, and an unseemly train of foot-boys at his heels; he walked up to the parlor-door, and, staring round upon those that were already seated, turned his back and scornfully retired; and when a great many stepped after him and begged him to return, he said, I see no fit place left for me. At that, the other guests (for the glasses had gone round) laughed abundantly, and desired his room rather than his company.
But after supper, my father addressing himself to me, who sat at another quarter of the table,—Timon, said he, and I have a dispute, and you are to be judge, for I have been upon his skirts already about that stranger; [p. 204] for if according to my directions he had seated every man in his proper place, we had never been thought unskilful in this matter, by one
Whose art is great in ordering horse and foot.1And story says that Paulus Aemilius, after he had conquered Perseus the king of Macedon, making an entertainment, besides his costly furniture and extraordinary provision, was very critical in the order of his feast; saying, It is the same man's task to order a terrible battle and a pleasing entertainment, for both of them require skill in the art of disposing right. Homer often calls the stoutest and the greatest princes κοσμήτορας λαῶν, disposers of the people; and you use to say that the great Creator, by this art of disposing, turned disorder into beauty, and neither taking away nor adding any new being, but setting every thing in its proper place, out of the most uncomely figure and confused chaos produced this beauteous, this surprising face of nature that appears. In these great and noble doctrines indeed you instruct us; but our own observation sufficiently assures us, that the greatest profuseness in a feast appears neither delightful nor genteel, unless beautified by order. And therefore it is absurd that cooks and waiters should be solicitous what dish must be brought first, what next, what placed in the middle, and what last; and that the garlands, and ointment, and music (if they have any) should have a proper place and order assigned, and yet that the guests should be seated promiscuously, and no respect be had to age, honor, or the like; no distinguishing order by which the man in dignity might be honored, the inferior learn to give place, and the disposer be exercised in distinguishing what is proper and convenient. For it is not rational that, when we walk or sit down to discourse, the best man should have the best place, and that the same order should not be [p. 205] observed at table; or that the entertainer should in civility drink to one before another, and yet make no difference in their seats, at the first dash making the whole company one Myconus2 (as they say), a hodge-podge and confusion. This my father brought for his opinion.
And my brother said: I am not so much wiser than Bias, that, since he refused to be arbitrator between two only of his friends, I should pretend to be a judge between so many strangers and acquaintance; especially since it is not a money matter, but about precedence and dignity, as if I invited my friends not to treat them kindly, but to abuse them. Menelaus is accounted absurd and passed into a proverb, for pretending to advise when unasked; and sure he would be more ridiculous that instead of an entertainer should set up for a judge, when nobody requests him or submits to his determination which is the best and which the worst man in the company; for the guests do not come to contend about precedency, but to feast and be merry. Besides, it is no easy task for him to distinguish; for some claim respect by reason of their age, others from their familiarity and acquaintance; and, like those that make declamations consisting of comparisons, he must have Aristotle's τόποι and Thrasymachus's ὑπερβάλλοντες (books that furnish him with heads of argument) at his fingers' end; and all this to no good purpose or profitable effect, but to bring vanity from the bar and the theatre into our feasts and entertainments, and, whilst by good fellowship we endeavor to remit all other passions, to intend pride and arrogance, from which, in my opinion, we should be more careful to cleanse our souls than to wash our feet from dirt, that our conversation may be free, simple, and fill of mirth. And while by such meetings we strive to end all differences that have at any time risen amongst the [p. 206] invited, we should make them flame anew, and kindle them again by emulation, by thus debasing some and puffing up others. And if, according as we seat them, we should drink oftener and discourse more with some than others, and set daintier dishes before them, instead of being friendly we should be lordly in our feasts. And if in other things we treat them all equally, why should we not begin at the first part, and bring it into fashion for all to take their seats promiscuously, without ceremony or pride, and to let them see, as soon as they enter, that they are invited to a dinner whose order is free and democratical, and not as particular chosen men to the government of a city where aristocracy is the form; since the richest and the poorest sit promiscuously together.
When this had been offered on both sides, and all present required my determination, I said: Being an arbitrator and not a judge, I shall close strictly with neither side, but go indifferently in the middle between both. If a man invites young men, citizens, or acquaintance, they should (as Timon says) be accustomed to be content with any place, without ceremony or concernment; and this good-nature and unconcernedness would be an excellent means to preserve and increase friendship. But if we use the same method to strangers, magistrates, or old men, I have just reason to fear that, whilst we seem to thrust our pride at the fore-door, we bring it in again at the back, together with a great deal of indifferency and disrespect. But in this, custom and the established rules of decency must guide; or else let us abolish all those modes of respect expressed by drinking to or saluting first; which we do not use promiscuously to all the company, but according to their worth we honor every one
With better places, meat, and larger cups,3[p. 207] as Agamemnon says, naming the place first, as the chiefest sign of honor. And we commend Alcinous for placing his guest next himself:
He stout Laomedon his son removed,For to place a suppliant stranger in the seat of his beloved son was wonderful kind, and extreme courteous. Nay, even amongst the Gods themselves this distinction is observed; for Neptune, though he came last into the assembly,
Who sat next him, for him he dearly loved;
Sat in the middle seat,5as if that was his proper place. And Minerva seems to have that assigned her which is next Jupiter himself; and this the poet intimates, when speaking of Thetis he says,
She sat next Jove, Minerva giving place.6And Pindar plainly says,
She sits just next the thunder-breathing flames.Indeed Timon urges, we ought not to rob many to honor one. Now it seems to me that he does this very thing himself, even more than others; for he robs that makes something that is proper common; and suitable honor to his worth is each man's property. And he gives that preeminence to running fast and making haste, which is due to virtue, kindred, magistracies, and such other qualities; and whilst he endeavors not to affront his guests, he necessarily falls into that very inconvenience; for he must affront every one by defrauding them of their proper honor. Besides, in my opinion it is no hard matter to make this distinction, and seat our guests according to their quality; for first, it very seldom happens that many of equal honor are invited to the same banquet; and then, since there are many honorable places, you have room [p. 208] enough to dispose them according to content, if you can but guess that this man must be seated uppermost, that in the middle, another next to yourself, or with his friend, acquaintance, tutor, or the like, appointing every one some place of honor; and as for the rest, I would supply their want of honor with some little presents, affability, and kind discourse. But if their qualities are not easy to be distinguished, and the men themselves hard to be pleased, see what device I have in that case; for I seat in the most honorable place my father, if invited; if not, my grandfather, father-in-law, uncle, or somebody whom the entertainer hath a more particular reason to esteem. And this is one of the many rules of decency that we have from Homer; for in his poem, when Achilles saw Menelaus and Antilochus contending about the second prize of the horserace, fearing that their strife and fury would increase, he gave the prize to another, under pretence of comforting and honoring Eumelus, but indeed to take away the cause of their contention.
When I had said this, Lamprias, sitting (as he always doth) upon a low bed, cried out: Sirs, will you give me leave to correct this sottish judge? And the company bidding him speak freely and tell me roundly of my faults, and not spare, he said: And who can forbear that philosopher, who disposes of places at a feast according to the birth, wealth, or offices of the guests, as if they were seats in a theatre or the Amphictyonic Council, so that pride and arrogance must be admitted even into our mirth and entertainments? In seating our guests we should not have respect to honor, but mirth and conversation; not look after every man's quality, but their agreement and harmony with one another, as those do that join several different things in one composure. Thus a mason doth not set an Athenian or a Spartan stone, because formed in a more noble country, before an Asian or a Spanish; nor does a painter give [p. 209] the most costly color the chiefest place; nor a shipwright the Corinthian fir or Cretan cypress; but they so distribute them as will best serve to the common end, and make the whole composure strong, beautiful, and fit for use. Nay, you see even the Deity himself (by our Pindar named the most skilful artificer) doth not everywhere place the fire above and the earth below; but, as Empedocles hath it,
The oysters, murets of the sea, and shell-fish every one,the earth not having that place that Nature appoints, but that which is necessary to compound bodies and serviceable to the common end, the preservation of the whole. Disorder is in every thing an evil; but then its badness is principally discovered, when it is amongst men whilst they are making merry; for then it breeds contentions and a thousand unspeakable mischiefs, which to foresee and hinder shows a man well skilled in good order and disposing right.
With massy coat, the tortoise eke, with crust as hard as stone,
And vaulted back, which archwise he aloft doth hollow rear,
Show all that heavy earth they do above their bodies bear;
We all agreed that he said well, but asked him why he would not instruct us how to order things aright, and communicate his skill. I am content, says he, to instruct you, if you will permit me to change the present order of the feast, and will yield as ready obedience to me as the Thebans to Epaminondas when he altered the order of their battle. We gave him full power; and he, having turned all the servants out, looked round upon every one, and said: Hear (for I will tell you first) how I design to order you together. In my mind, the Theban Pammenes justly taxeth Homer as unskilful in love matters, for setting together, in his description of an army, tribe and tribe, family and family; for he should have joined the lover and the beloved, so that the whole body being united in their minds might perfectly agree. This rule will I follow, not set one rich [p. 210] man by another, a youth by a youth, a magistrate by a magistrate, and a friend by a friend; for such an order is of no force, either to beget or increase friendship and good-will. But fitting that which wants with something that is able to supply it, next one that is willing to instruct I will place one that is as desirous to be instructed; next a morose, one good-natured; next a talkative old man, a youth patient and eager for a story; next a boaster, a jeering smooth companion; and next an angry man, a quiet one. If I see a wealthy fellow bountiful and kind, I will take some poor honest man from his obscure place, and set him next, that something may run out of that full vessel into the other empty one. A sophister I will forbid to sit by a sophister, and one poet by another;
For beggars beggars, poets poets, envy.7I separate the clamorous scoffers and the testy, by putting some good-nature between them, that they may not justle so roughly on one another; but wrestlers, hunters, and farmers I put in one company. For some of the same nature, when put together, fight as cocks; others are very sociable as daws. Drinkers and lovers I set together, not only those who (as Sophocles says) feel the sting of masculine love, but those that are mad after virgins or married women; for they being warmed with the like fire, as two pieces of iron to be joined, will more readily agree; unless perhaps they both fancy the same person.