Aristophanes The Birds (“Ornithets”) is the only comedy written by Aristophanes whose entire action takes place far from the city of Athens. Consequently, the play makes little mention of the circumstances of the Peloponnesian War, or of contemporary Athenian politics. It won second prize at the Dionysia in 414 BC.
It is a play about the Arcadian ideal, the pastoral romance that every man has felt at one point or another in his life -to escape the drabness of the city and live out a dream in a quiet, rural town. In The Birds, we follow two men: Eulpides (meaning “Hopeful” or “son of Hopeful”) and Peisthetairos (a hybrid of “persuader of his comrade” and “trustworthy comrade”). They have literally turned their backs on Athens, tired of the endless lawsuits, and they are guided by two birds who are leading them to the fabled king, Tereus. Tereus once morphed himself into a bird, so perhaps he can help them find a better place to live, since he knows the politics of mankind but also has a better perspective, i.e. he can fly and see all things from above.
When they meet Tereus, Peisthetairos persuades the birds that they should build a great human-inspired city in the clouds like those of men, one that will rival the gods. They decide to name this new city “cloud-cuckoo-land.” In the end, the birds begin making new laws, but nevertheless gods and men start sneaking into the new city, from Iris to Prometheus. Peisthetairos’s cleverly politically outmaneuvers the new presence in the city to be crowned king. The play closes with a joyful scene of marriage between Peisthetairos and Zeus’s lovely maiden, Sovereignty (note: not every Aristophanes play concludes on a positive note, recall the ending to The Clouds). Why does Aristophanes present the ruin of Socrates in The Clouds but the triumph of Peisthetairos in The Birds? Aristophanes claims not simply to entertain his audiences, but to teach of the just things. In The Clouds he presents Socrates, the gatekeeper of the new-fangled intellectualism of Athens, a particular kind of sophistry that allows for the possibility of the non-existence of the gods, a radically a-political skepticism. He welcomes new sciences from across the Mediterranean into his “Thinkery” while turning young men against their fathers. Peisthetairos, on the other hand, maintains the validity of the gods, though he proposes to replace to the traditional pantheon at one point, convincing the birds they are the new gods. He is, no doubt, shocking in that he upends the gods and their power, even replacing himself as king of a new city in the sky. However, he expels the astronomer and is rigidly opposed to father-beating. In this way, Peisthetairos is more in line with the necessities of the city, than Socrates. Hence why Peisthetairos meets his triumph and Socrates meets his downfall in Aristophanes. To what extent does this presentation of political necessity agree with Socrates’s exposition as found in Plato’s Republic? The one obvious distinction is the musical character of Peisthetairos’s new city -his Chorus sings praises of his new Orphic theogony, whereas Socrates comes across as aloof and unmusical, intellectual and silly.
We cannot understand the play without disentangling the relationship of the two chief characters: Peisthetairos is the dreamer, the visionary builder of a new city, while on the other hand, Eulpides is the devotee to the retired, quiet, and rustic life. He is closer to Aristophanes, in a word. Thus, since Euplides disappears midway through the play, the poet expresses his disagreement with Peisthetairos’s vision -a vision sometimes echoed today by people who wish to found a new city, amongst only friends and people they agree with, a mythical dream. However, Aristophanes suggests this vision is nevertheless feasible in concept (to found a new city) but of course it is absurd and manifestly impossible to construct a city in the clouds.
However, Euplides’s rejection of the city (Athens) as well as the new city in the clouds, points us to the tension between the poet and the city, and his role as a citizen. For if ‘no man is an island entire of itself’ (to quote John Donne), even the rustic must rely upon the city for at least defense and resources. In this way, Arcadia is a dreamland, yet still within the defensible bounds of the Peloponnesus.