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.
The Birds holds special memories for me because my fourth grade teacher had us read it aloud in class. Thus, it was not just the first Aristophanes play I read, but my first exposure to any Greek drama. The play has certain characteristics that make it particularly suitable for a class of of 9-year-olds. For one thing, it has 22 speaking parts, plus the chorus, so everyone in the class can participate. More importantly, it is relatively free from the sort of political comedy and inside humor that can make Aristophanes’ other plays hard to follow for those of us not lucky enough to have grown up in Classical Athens. Rather, the play is straight-up fantasy of a sort that even children can understand.
The premise of the play is that two Athenian men, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, become fed up with modern life in Athens and leave to seek a simpler existence. They find their way to the king of the birds, the hoopoe, who tells them what a splendid life the birds live,
EUELPIDES But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.
HOOPOE Why, ’tis not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.
EUELPIDES That does away with much roguery.
HOOPOE For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.
EUELPIDES Why, ’tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.
Euelpidies and Pisthetaerus are completely sold and decide to move in with their new avian friends, convincing the birds to let them found a new city in the sky called Nephelococcygia (cloud-cuckoo-town). Nephelococcygia is not just a utopia, but is destined to become fabulously wealthy because it controls the lines of communication between men and the gods. Before the founding ceremony is even finished the new city attracts a parade of charlatans, bureaucrats, and other parasites who are trying to cash in on the project. No sooner have these been dealt with than a delegation of gods, including the slow-witted Heracles and a foreign god whom no one can understand, show up to discover why their sacrifices are being blocked. Pisthetaerus fast-talks these envoys until they agree to give him not only Zeus’ scepter, but the hand of the goddess Royalty in marriage, effectively promoting him to divinity himself.The Birds was produced at a time when the citizens of Athens needed an escapist fantasy to take their minds off current events. The Sicilian Expedition, which had been expected to be an easy victory, had become a sucking quagmire that continued to devour men, ships and money. The war with Sparta on the mainland was beginning to heat up again. Alcibiades had defected to Sparta, where he proceeded to dispense strategic advice and point out Athens’ weak spots. It would have been hard to find anything funny in the real world that year to write about.
At he same time, the city’s wealth was not yet expended to the point that it could not fund a big budget play. Everything about The Birds is written to show off the most lavish costumes, music, and effects that Aristophanes could find.
Aristophanes’ instincts were good, even though he only ended up taking second place in the Dyonisia. A spectacular, big-budget fantasy show is often just what the public needs when things are grim. Consider the wild popularity of the movie The Wizard of Oz at the height of the great depression, or the first installments of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, released in the wake of the September 11 bombings.As the Peloponnesian War dragged on the city became poorer; Aristophanes was forced to write plays with smaller casts and scale back the chorus’ song and dance interludes. Athenian culture shifted, particularly after the war, becoming more abstractly intellectual. Aristophanes’ topics shifted with it, away from politics to the literary criticism of The Frogs, and finally to the comedy of manners style of the Middle Comedy. While we must admire his adaptability and ability to evolve as a writer, it is hard not to believe that he must have looked back nostalgically to 414 BCE and The Birds, when all the people wanted was a really big show with lots of music and costumes.
Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates. Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle). At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.
Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask. When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance. Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted. On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions. We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.
Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,
I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.
We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato. The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made. Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates. His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors. After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead. Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.
The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education. The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier. The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly. To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy. As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.
“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions. We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books. On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education. At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints. The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman. Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates. More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach. The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.
In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy. This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.
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.