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Aristophanes: The First Poet Critic

In the words of German poet Henrich Heine: “There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.”

Introduction

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.

The Birth Pangs of Literary Criticism

Beyond political criticism, Aristophanes also engaged in the first primitive iteration of literary criticism. While literary criticism, as a modern discipline and enterprise, began with Alexander Pope’s critical translation and assessment of Homer’s Iliad, Aristophanes was engaged in literary analysis—especially in his famous play the Frogs.  

Though a reactionary, Aristophanes was also a modernist. Aristophanes did not envision a return to the older agrarian Athens. Nor was his poetry owed to Hesiod, Homer, or Aeschylus. “The poet” whom Aristophanes was indebted to was Euripides. In fact, all of his plays make substantial homages to Euripides, and Euripides is even a central character in several of his plays. Aristophanes’ literary style was Euripidean. But Aristophanes lampooned his literary master, exposing him, in the process, of being far beneath Aeschylus and Sophocles.

This is what makes the Frogs so shocking in its conclusion. Dionysus descends into the underworld to resurrect Euripides because there are no good poets anymore. Dionysus stumbles through the underworld and makes mistake after mistake and is bailed out by his slave, Xanthias, while constantly making reference to Euripides in the process. But when Dionysus finally reaches Euripides, he beholds a conflict between Aeschylus and his favorite poet. Dionysus sits to serve as a judge over who is the greater poet.

Up to this point, the Frogs has been filled with many references and allusions of Euripides which gives the audience a false sense of pro-Euripidean security. As mentioned, he is referred to as “the poet” in the play. Dionysus loves him. As he should. Euripides’ play the Bacchae features Dionysus as a central figure (though Euripides presents Dionysus as a hollow and bloodthirsty god though Dionysus probably didn’t care much for the truthful depiction). When Dionysus judges in favor of Aeschylus and resurrects him to save Athens, Aristophanes is expecting us to know—beyond the literary merits of Aeschylus—what the great poet-playwright advocated.

Aeschylus, as we know, was the great poet of Athena, of love, reason, and justice. In the penultimate showdown between the two dramatic tragedians, Euripides simply blurts out a rhetorically florid answer, “Believe the unsure safe, the safe unsure, mistrust what you now trust, and fear no more.” Given Aristophanes’ loathing of the sophists, he is also esoterically asserting that Euripides was a sophist.

After Euripides’ answer, Dionysus is confused and asks for clarification—a moment that indicates the sophistic language employed by Euripides. Euripides reformulates his answer in a twofold response. Thus, Euripides answered three times to say the same thing.

When Dionysus approached Aeschylus, the poet disciple of Athena first asks by inquiring into the situation that Athens now finds herself, “Tell me, what kind of people is the city electing these days? Honest, noble sorts?” Dionysus answers, “Where have you been? She hates them most of all!” Aeschylus converses with Dionysus by rhetorically asking, “She prefers hypocrites and swindlers?” Dionysus answers, “She doesn’t prefer them, but she has no choice.” Aeschylus closes by saying, “Well, if the city doesn’t know its own mind, I don’t see how it can be saved.”

Euripides—like the libertarian sophist he is—does not engage in critical inquiry or conversation. He just talks. Aeschylus, being the disciple of reason and justice, inquires and converses with Dionysus—as an embodied participant of logos—before giving his response. Aeschylus’ response employs reason, conversation, and inquiry—the very things necessary for civilization to flourish. The chorus ends by singing, “Fortunate is the man who has a mind with sharp with intelligence.” Tradition and experience trump youth and passionate vigor; Aeschylus was the man of tradition and experience while Euripides, though dead, was the embodiment of youthful impetuousness. Aeschylus is subsequently resurrected to “save the city for us” for “[e]ducat[ing] the fools.” Here, Aristophanes harshly mocks Athenian exceptionalism yet again by presenting Athens as a den of fools preferring hypocrites and swindlers rather than honest and noble leaders.

Aristophanes not only adjudicates in favor of the literary merits of Aeschylus; he also adjudicates for the traditional wisdom, filial piety, and rationalism of Aeschylus over the passionate vigor of Euripides, even if the literary and social modernity wrought by Euripides is very much the literary river in which Aristophanes swam. As such, Aristophanes sees the greatness of Aeschylus as not simply having been literary but also societal and practical. After all, he allows Aeschylus to say, “the truly great artist has always had a useful lesson to teach.” 

Sex, Violence, and the Critique of Empire

Lysistrata is, in my opinion, the greatest of the surviving plays by Aristophanes. Modern feminist readings are crude and have been roundly criticized by classicists; the proto-feminist readings miss the weight and scope of Aristophanes’ through-going reactionary outlooks that Leo Strauss examined in Socrates and Aristophanes. Lysistrata is not the culminating work of his so-called “peace plays.” Instead, it is Aristophanes’ most daunting and profound work of civilizational criticism. It is his most mature and intellectual work, along with being his most risqué and shocking work.

Lysistrata is Aristophanes’ attempt to fully wrestle with sexual deviancy, tyranny, and war (and how they are all interrelated in way that would make Camille Paglia blush).

The play is filled, from start to finish, with sexual innuendo after sexual innuendo. Given the later date of Lysistrata in comparison to Wasps, which also—though more subtlety—dealt with sexual deviancy and degeneracy, Lysistrata is Aristophanes’ attempt to fully wrestle with sexual deviancy, tyranny, and war (and how they are all interrelated in way that would make Camille Paglia blush). The first three gods invoked in the play, Bacchus, Aphrodite, and Pan, are all nymphomaniacs. When Lysistrata begins explaining her “very big plan,” Calonice playfully responds, “món kaí pachý” (do you mean something long and thick?). Lysistrata answers with a counter pun, “kaí ní Día pachý” (indeed, something very long and thick). 

Lysistrata’s big plan is fully revealed when she says, “We must renounce – sex.” The women around her are disturbed by the plan. They begin to cry and walk away until Lysistrata convinces them to stay. Even after several days of success, the solidarity of the women is tested when various women make excuses to get away and have sex.

That the women are so disturbed by the need to renounce sex in favor of chastity or virginity testifies to the sexual violence of Athens during the final decades of the fifth century BC. (Something that Euripides deftly deals with in his plays, especially the Bacchae, Medea, and the Trojan Women). It is, therefore, significant that Lampito, the Spartan woman of the play, is the first to agree with Lysistrata. The unity of Lysistrata and Lampito, of Sparta and Athens, also mocks the notion of Athenian exceptionalism yet again. In fact, it takes a Spartan to help bring about the peace that all will benefit from.

Over the course of the play, however, Aristophanes assails the older depiction of women as nymphomaniacs. But that doesn’t mean he was a proto-feminist as some modern readings try to extrapolate—or that the women of the play are sexually modest. They most certainly are not as Lysistrata tells her sisters in arm to dress provocatively and to entice men as far as possible without succumbing to the sexual act like a “lioness-on-a-cheesegrater”; the women of the play must learn sexual modesty and control over the course of the play and devote themselves to the goddess Athena instead of Bacchus, Pan, or Aphrodite.

Nearly half-way through the play, Aristophanes reveals the most important speech by Lysistrata when she is confronting the chauvinistic and warlike Magistrate. When the Magistrate barks, “What have you ever done for the war effort?,” Lysistrata answers with the cold truth that the future of civilization rests on the family and that the burden of civilization falls on women, not men:

We’ve contributed to it twice over and more. For one thing, we’ve given you sons, and then had to send them off to fight…For another, we’re in the prime of our lives, and how can we enjoy it, with our husbands always away on campaign and us left at home like widows? And quite apart from us married women, what about the unmarried ones who are slowly turning into old maids…A man comes home – he may be old and grey – but he can get himself a young wife in no time. But a woman’s not in bloom for long, and if she isn’t taken quickly she won’t be taken at all, and before long she’s left sitting at home hoping to see some omen foretelling a happier future.

Lysistrata is a play extolling and promoting the virtue of virginity and chastity. After all, the gods Bacchus, Aphrodite, and Pan are superseded by the virgin queen Artemis and the virgin goddess Athena. (In doing so, Aristophanes nods in agreement with Aeschylus that Athena is the supreme goddess.) The reconciling image at the conclusion of the play is of men and women, husband and wife, united together in joyful song and feast. The participants sing a song to Athena to celebrate peace and the restoration of family. The peace won by women was through their learning of chastity and men also learning to control their lust to dominate.

Aristophanes simultaneously deconstructs the nymphomaniac image of women that had come to dominate Athenian consciousness by showing them to be ones who can control their sexual desires, while depicting the men as sexually depraved animals some 2,400 years before Sigmund Freud. Women set the bar for civilization and control the course of civilization because they bear the burden of child-rearing and labor. However, Aristophanes also maintains, as Lysistrata’s culminating speech indicates, that women are happy as wives and mothers. The joyful life for a woman is to live the married life with a faithful husband and children in peace and not in isolation as a widow or, heaven forbid, unwed where they sulk away in isolation and rage leading them to kill their husbands and children like Clytaemnestra or Medea. Moreover, the women of the play metaphorically represent the primacy of the household; the men, by contrast, represent the lust to dominate and the tyranny of Athens. It is women, not men, who are the heart and head of the family according to Aristophanes.

Beneath Lysistrata, Aristophanes is also engaged in a long-running commentary on the relationship of sex, violence, and war. Augustine may have summarized it better and more explicitly, but we can see in the play (and through much of Aristophanes’ surviving corpus) how sexual lust leads to the libido dominandi—the lust to dominate. Athens was guilty of provoking the war with Sparta precisely because it couldn’t control its appetites in more ways than one.

Thucydides reveals that it was always the goal of Athens to consummate an empire from the coasts of Ionia, down to Libya, Sicily, and even Carthage (cf. History of the Peloponnesian War, II 41.4, 62.2-4, 64.3-5, VI 15.2, 34.2, 90.2-3, VII 66.2). As Euripides began to reveal in his plays and as Aristophanes makes explicit in his, the sex-craved festivals, nymphomaniac gods, and the indulgence of sexual gratification and sexual slavery that had gripped Athens coincided with Athens’ lust for empire leading to the destruction of family, the imposition of tyranny, and, ultimately, the fall of Athens. There was, in Aristophanes’ mind, a direct connection between the inability to control the sexual passions with the sudden explosion of political and military violence which was thrust upon Greece by Athens.

Lysistrata is a profound play worthy of psychological and sociological consideration, even if we may not necessarily agree with Aristophanes’ “reactionary” answer to the problem of sex, violence, and imperialism (or even agree that sexual deviancy leads to societal and political violence).

The Genius of Aristophanes 

That Aristophanes is one of the few poets who Plato includes in his dialogues also reveals the respect Plato had for Athens’ great poetic genius. As I’ve previously written concerning Plato’s inclusion of Aristophanes in Symposium, “Plato, through Socrates, is decidedly on the side of the poets. He is not only engaged in a re-mythology against the de-mythologizers, but he also draws on the two partial truths revealed by the mad Aristophanes and the eloquent Agathon, synthesizing the two together in Socrates’ most remarkable dialogue and vision which has reverberated through the millennia.” Prior to the rise of the post-Socratic tradition of philosophy the true wellspring of Greek intellectual thought was not in the sophists or even the pre-Socratics, but in the poets. 

However, the supersession of poetry by philosophy revealed the eventual insufficiency of poetry to wrestle with the crises that beset Greek civilization in the fifth and fourth centuries. Greek literature dealt with what Giambattista Vico called sublime metaphysics, or poetic metaphysics. More specifically, the course of Greek literature deals with pathos. From Hesiod and Homer down through the playwrights, we see the cosmos moved by emotion and passion. While some of the pre-Socratic philosophers challenged this view, it wasn’t until the rise of Plato that the insufficiency of the pathological cosmos was superseded by the rational cosmos.

Nevertheless, among the Greek poets and playwrights, Aristophanes deserves the greatest amount of our time and consideration. Aristophanes showed how poetry can be intensely intellectual and profound. He tried, in his fight against Socrates, to preserve poetry as a rival to emergent philosophy as an intellectual enterprise worthy of our respect. If “the truly great artist has always had a useful lesson to teach,” then Aristophanes left us much to consider.

Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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