I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock. I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition. Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact. Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.
I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books. Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.
Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section. I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.
I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time. Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.
I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world. It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.
Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks. Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time. I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important. I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.
The main protagonist in The Frogs is Dionysus, but Aristophanes shows us an altogether different side of the god than Euripides did in The Bacchae. Euripides’ Dionysus is cryptic, subtle, rather scary, and tremendously powerful. Aristophanes’ Dionysus, from the time he appears on stage in a ridiculous costume, is a bit of a buffoon. On one level this is simple caricature for comic effect; Aristophanes was fond of singling out and lampooning his audience members, and the god whose stature observed every performance had finally received his turn. We need to keep in mind, however, that Dionysus, as the god of the theater, was actually Aristophanes’ patron deity. Dionysus was god of comedy as well as tragedy, and Aristophanes’ portrayal actually captured one of the God’s aspects. Drinking, sex, and humor were all part of the god’s ethos. Even the costume, which combines a woman’s robes, a tragic actor’s shoes, and Heracles’ lion skin is appropriate for a god who was normally portrayed androgynously and was known for trickery and disguise.Dionysus’ mission is to descend into Hades to retrieve Euripides, as Athens no longer has any good tragic poets. Presumably this task has fallen to him as god of theater. We are also reminded of tradition of Orpheus in Hades, and the close association between the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus.
In many ways, The Frogs is Aristophanes’ eulogy for Euripides, who had died several months earlier. Euripides was one of the favored targets for the comedian’s humor. The Frogs is his way of showing that he actually had great respect for Euripides’ work. After all, he didn’t write a play about Dionysus going after Sophocles, who had died a year earlier.
After various comic hijinks, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias arrive at Hades’ palace. There, they find that a contest is about to take place between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine which will be allowed to dine at Hades’ table. Hades allows Dionysus to judge the contest. Furthermore, he offers to let Dionysus take home the poet of his choice. In the ensuing throw-down it becomes clear that, while Aeschylus is by far the better poet, Euripides is wittier and more accessible. Aeschylus presents larger-than-life heroic characters, while Euripides presents relatable characters with real flaws and quirks.
In the end, somewhat surprisingly, Dionysus chooses to take Aeschylus. Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War. The final defeat was a year or so off, but few citizens questioned that it was coming soon. The people didn’t need wit, satire, and realism. They needed beauty and elevation. They needed to be reminded of the days when heroes walked and Athens was still great. Aeschylus, not Euripides, was the man for the job.
The Frogs is a fantasy. In real history, no tragic poet emerged who could match the talents of the “big three”. While Greek tragedy continued to be performed for centuries, the art all but ceased to evolve after the passing of Sophocles and Euripides. In late Hellenic times Euripides was easily the most popular playwright of the three, possibly because his language and themes seemed more “modern” to later readers.
Greek comedy remained viable for a longer time. Aristophanes himself lived another twenty years, long enough to take part in the transition from old comedy to middle comedy and to see the new comedy on the horizon. His son and others wrote in the new comedy, which stayed popular throughout the Macedonian period.
Today this blog returns to the Greek theater with the works of Aristophanes. Aristophanes is the only writer of the Greek genre known as “Old Comedy” for whom complete plays have survived. Comedy, which tends to rely on pop culture references and current events, is often an ephemeral genre. The fact that Aristophanes’ plays still get laughs 2400 years after their first performance is the main reason they have survived so long. Like Shakespeare and Molière, he is one of an exclusive group of comedians whose work is timeless.The earliest extant Aristophanes play is The Acharnians, produced in 425 BCE when he was about 20 years old. Acharnia is a rural region of Attica which was particularly devastated by the Spartans’ annual raids during the Peloponnesian War, forcing its inhabitants to live as refugees within the walls of Athens. The Acharnians trivializes the Athenians’ reasons for going to war and criticizes the state for not making peace. The main character, Dicaeopolis, is an Athenian farmer who manages to negotiate a personal peace with Sparta, allowing him to live a comfortably hedonistic life, free from the hardships of war. Cameo characters of Euripides and Lamachus (whom we met in Thucydides as one of the generals of the Sicilian expedition) make appearances as Dicaeopolis’ next-door neighbors. In the final scene we see Dicaeopolis packing a food basket and preparing for a drinking party while Lamachus packs his arms and prepares to repel a Spartan attack (Euripides has long sense retired to an attic to bury himself in his poetry). At the close of the play Lamachus is carried back on stage, having been injured in battle, while a tipsy Dicaepolis wobbles in supported by two flute girls. It is simply incredible that a young playwright was allowed to ridicule state policy in time of war, and even make fun of a popular general. This is even more exceptional in that the play was performed in the Dionysian theater during one of the most important religious festivals of the year. It would be as if, at the height of World War II, the Church of England sponsored Benny Hill to write a play, put on in Westminster Abbey as part of the Christmas program, in which the main character mocked the government and made a personal peace with the Nazis. This would never have happened, even in England.
Admittedly, Aristophanes frequently ended up in hot water for his criticism of Cleon, but Cleon’s revenge took the form of private lawsuits, and he was never effective at shutting the playwright up. If anything, Cleon’s response seems to have inspired Aristophanes to greater heights of polemic. For example the next play we have, The Knights, is one long personal attack on Cleon.
Donald Kagan, in his open Yale lecture series, makes the point that the right to free of speech is one of the main factors that set the Athenian democracy apart from other Hellenistic governments. The Athenians considered it one of the most critical aspects to a functioning democracy. This is interesting, because when we think of the Athenian democracy, we tend to think of the Assembly. In fact, however, nearly every Greek city had an assembly, normally made up of all citizens of the Hopelite class and above. Only Athens had complete freedom of speech–in the assembly, on stage, and everywhere else. Contrast this to Sparta, where an Assembly vote was required to ratify declarations of war and some treaties. In these meetings the regular Spartans, who may have been mustered in ranks, were not allowed to speak. The council offered them a yes or no question and they voted by banging on their shields, with the louder side carrying the vote. In fact, Spartans did not even enjoy freedom of speech in private; Sparta was known for having one of the most efficient and ruthless secret police forces in the ancient world.
The United States today is more like Athens than Sparta. The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, and there is effectively no censorship of the theater. Even the the censors of broadcast media tend to be more concerned about obscenity than politics. This is a fairly recent state of events, though, particularly in war time. At any point from the Civil War to at least the end of the 1960’s a public performance criticizing the government during war would have landed the writer in federal prison. It was only with the backlash against McCarthyism, followed by the so-called “culture wars” of the 1960s, that Americans began to take back their First Amendment rights.
Today, as in Classical Athens, freedom of speech is essential to Democracy. I have written in the past that Democracy, as a political system, seems to be on the wane. Once artists no longer have freedom of political speech, we will know for certain that it is finally gone.