Classics Essays

The Genius of Aristophanes

Aristophanes (c. 446 BC-380 BC) is the greatest of the classical comedians. His surviving plays are considered the high-water mark of ancient comedy and are filled with sensualism, blasphemy, and ridicule. Aristophanes, as Leo Strauss aptly said of him, was a reactionary. But he was also a modernist. In fact, reaction and modernity often occur together. Moreover, Aristophanes was the first outright social and literary critic the Western world ever produced—his plays being elongated, if not all so subtle, commentaries on Greek society, contemporary events, and literature.

Aristophanes’ Life and Epoch

While the playwrights prior to Aristophanes lived in exciting and transformative times, Aristophanes’ career spanned the apogee of Athenian power and degeneracy. His early years coincided with the turbulence of war and tyranny. And by the time of his death, formal philosophy was taking shape, with the rise of Socrates and Plato. In some sense, Aristophanes also lived through exciting, as well as turbulent, times. Although satirized by Plato in Symposium, Aristophanes was friends with Socrates, and he was respected by Socrates and Plato. Aristophanes, like Socrates (and Plato) was an opponent of the demagogues and sophists; however, Aristophanes was also a stalwart defender of the necessity of poetry and mythology (as I’ve written concerning understanding Plato’s Symposium).

While Sophocles and Euripides also lived through the turbulence of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athenian democracy, Aristophanes was too young to remember the glory days of Athens, and his formative years took place under the tyranny of Cleon, the trials and tribulations of war, and the defeat of Athens by the Peloponnesian coalition. It was in the sorrow and sad trials of war that Aristophanes’ comedy, social and political criticism, was born. Part of Aristophanes’ literary efforts, then, were aimed at  understanding how Athens had fallen into conflict and dissolution. 

The First Political Critic

Aristophanes’ comedy, the Wasps, is the first extensive and thorough work of political (and social) criticism in the Western literary tradition. It is also a battle of the generations, but it ends not how one would expect it. The two main characters are also linked to the tyrant Cleon, an Athenian general who ascended to popular acclaim in defeating Sparta at the Battle of Sphacteria (425 BC) and became the first leader of Athens from the ascendant commercial class. Philocleon, whose name literally means lover of Cleon, comes into conflict with his son, Bdelycleon, whose name in Greek means hater of Cleon. 

During the opening moments of the play, we are made to sympathize with Philocleon because his son ridicules him as insane and describes him as akin to a rodent: “My father’s got into the kitchen and he’s scurrying about like a rat. Keep an eye on the waste pipe, and see that he doesn’t get out that way.” In describing his father as a rodent, Bdelycleon is set up—intentionally—by Aristophanes as the radical, but he will later reverse this image and show Philocleon to be the radical and Bdelycleon as the pious and patriotic son (thus subverting the traditional imagery and notion of the older generation being traditional and family-oriented while the younger generation is loose in morals and simply concerned with material pleasure and prestige).

Although Athens was still a democracy during Cleon’s rule, Aristophanes penetrates the veil of political propaganda and asserts that Cleonic Athens was, in fact, tyrannical. It was tyrannical because it had become dominated by the politics of wealth and pleasure. It was tyrannical because the family had been destroyed and the demagogic state had swept into the vacuum. Cleonic Athens was tyrannical because of the collapse of filial piety and the domination of politics and human-to-human relationships by wealth and the pursuit of pleasure.

Showing his astute political skill, Aristophanes, through the speeches, criticizes the Athenian imperium. During the infamous trial scene between son and father, Bdelycleon critiques Philocleon’s worldview and practices; they are practices that produce degeneracy and weakness rather than power. Furthermore, through the speech of Bdelycleon, Aristophanes attacks the commercial way of political life: “[N]ow tell me what advantages you gain from your dominion over all Greece?” he asks his father. Philocleon responds by saying, “Well, for one thing we see all the boys in the nude when they come up for inspection.” Here, Aristophanes links wealth and power with licentious lust and pederasty, the latter of which had become a dominant practice among the wealthy elite in Athens in the late fifth century BC. This is no truly happy way to live, as Aristophanes will come to assert later. In fact, it leads to the destruction of filial warmth and the cornerstone of the polis.

In critiquing what has become of the Athenian political system, Bdelycleon says, “The people you elect to rule over you, because you’re taken in by their speeches. And on top of that there are bribes they get from subject cities: three hundred thousand drachmas at a time, extorted by threats and intimidation.” Aristophanes is critiquing the Athenian practice of extortionist imperialism through and through. No one can miss the obvious (hence why Cleon hated Aristophanes and the two came into conflict regularly before Cleon’s death). 

The critical speech given by Bdelycleon contrasts so substantially from the speech of the Athenian delegates in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, who assert, “We did not gain this empire by force. It came to us at a time when you were unwilling to fight on to the end against the Persians,” and, “At this time our allies came to us on their own accord and begged us to lead them.” While Thucydides wrote after Aristophanes, the mentality of the Athenian delegates presented by Thucydides was the mentality of the Athenian exceptionalism that Aristophanes skewered and undressed in the Wasps.

Once we accept the reality that Aristophanes was undertaking a heroic attempt at political criticism never before seen in Western literature, we can come to appreciate his great insight that when tyranny is threatened it lashes out at its critics with charges of conspiracy and tyranny in return. When Bdelycleon threatens the pleasurable and licentious life of his father, the chorus boldly (and ridiculously) proclaims, “Treason and treachery! Now it is clear! Tyranny, as ever, strikes from the rear.” (Do note the comedic construction from Aristophanes’ genius.) Bdelycleon responds, “It’s always ‘tyranny’ and ‘conspiracy’ with you people, isn’t it?”

“After all, the setting of the Wasps is in court, a trial, but it is not Bdelycleon and Philocleon that are on trial; it is Athens herself on trial through the dazzling criticism of Aristophanes who is interrogating it.”

In the first act of the Wasps, Aristophanes engages in some of the most robust and scandalous political criticism which remained unrivaled until St. Augustine’s deconstruction of Rome in the City of God. Aristophanes accuses his native Athens of engaging in extortionist imperial politics. He asserts that the licentious and pederastic way of life developing in Athens weakens her and makes her a slave instead of being strong and free. He also mocks the Athenian justice system as being unconcerned with innocence and justice. He also suggests and that sophistic speeches and money (i.e. bribery and corruption) are the only things that matter to judge and jury. After all, the setting of the Wasps is in court, a trial, but it is not Bdelycleon and Philocleon that are on trial; it is Athens herself on trial through the dazzling criticism of Aristophanes who is interrogating it.

The conclusion of the Wasps is equally shocking. Philocleon is seen pleasuring himself with a slave girl. Bdelycleon frees her from his father’s lustful grip. Philocleon slaps Bdelycleon across the face in return. But the two eventually reconcile, and Philocleon comes to see the errors of his ways. 

In an image that is reminiscent of the greatest image of filial piety in the ancient world—Aeneas carrying his father out of the burning ashes of Troy (a story the Greeks knew and wasn’t invented by Virgil)—Bdelycleon carries his father indoors for his own safety and benefit. That image reveals Bdelycleon to be the defender of the old virtues and not his father. The chorus sings in rapturous applause, “At last he has fallen on happier days…His son, as all right-thinking men will agree, has shown both good sense and devotion; His kindness and charm are so touching to see that I’m quite overcome with emotion…The success that he’s had in defending his father is a mark of his filial affection.”

In offering political criticism, Aristophanes’ show offers us the way forward, ironically, by going backward. To escape the lustful grip of tyranny, conspiracy, and slavery, we must return to filial affection and the resuscitation of the family. This is patently clear given that the chaos of most of the play pits a father against a son—in other words: family against family. At the same time, the decadence and degeneracy of Athens was brought forth by the commercial interests and way of life embodied by Cleon, who is instantiated in the play as Philocleon, and one could maintain that Aristophanes inserted himself into the play as Bdelycleon. Aristophanes did pay a great price in accosting Cleon during his reign over Athens. Aristophanes was denounced by Cleon and his critical plays dealing with Cleon did not win the awards that he would later win after Cleon’s death…

Read the rest of my essay: Aristophanes The First Poet Critic (Merion West, 4 September 2019)

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