This play begins like the Acharnians and the Clouds with the main character waiting to deploy her designs. Plaxagora (meaning something like “female speaker in parliament”) has stolen her husband’s clothes and convinced her fellow women to do the same so that they may make a serious proposal to the assembly of Athens, while they impersonate men, though pale and without beards. Praxagora is responsible for the action of the play, like Lysistrata, though their ends are different.
The play opens with a tragic praise of the lamp lighting the streets. She praises its technology (not the gods). The man-made lamp shows forth secrets not visible in the light of day. Recall, that the Republic also takes place during the night. Their is a natural connection between the city in speech and the “assemblywomen.” At any rate, the women rehearse their proposal together, since they are not versed in the art of politics. They seek to perfect the law, a law which they believe the ruling men only wish to innovate from. The ends of the secret assembly of women impersonating men are conservative in vision. This is different than Lysistrata, as her declared ends were peace, while Praxagora’s declared end is a regime-change. Praxagora is a true revolutionary.
Blepyros awakens to find his wife, Praxagora, is missing. Since she stole all his clothes and walking staff, he dons her garb and embarrassingly runs into several neighbors in the same predicament: dressed as their wives. It comes to light that he was awoken by a case of diarrea. Thus, Praxagora becomes one of the most ridiculous characters in all of Aristophanean comedy -he spends his time on the toilet while his wife takes over rulership of the city, and then in order to confront the situation he is caught at dawn wearing women’s clothes. He is the ultimate effeminate: he is older and decrepit, fearful of being discomforted, and trounced politically by his wife. Our laughter is not simply directed at Praxagora, for surely his ridiculousness is connected to the comic poet, as well. Laughter, the mother of comedy, is a social activity, and always becomes associated with the comic poet, Aristophanes. After all, writing, no matter how cloaked in fiction, is a kind of autobiography. Surely Aristophanes must, therefore, partake in the madness of this ridiculous situation in some way.
At any rate, the women successfully convince the assembly to allow the women to rule the city, as Athens has gone into a long and embarrassing decline at the hands of both Sparta, and its incompetent rulers. The women argue that they can successfully steer the ship of state back to its ancient laws, the one policy not pursued by men -however a problem arises in that ancient laws subordinated the political status of women to men. How will they navigate this problem?
Praxagora coyly explains the plan for women’s rulership -communism- and she and her husband have a fascinating exchange. All money and property will be held in common, ending the division of rich and poor. There will be only one way of life. The city becomes a single household. Marriage will be dissolved, to allow for perfect equality, however a problem arises when it comes to light that not all women are equally beautiful. Thus a new law is born -men must cohabitate with ugly women first before pursuing beautiful women. Thus, as a modern academic might say, “equity” is achieved, or preference for the ugly women. Natural equality is replaced by legal equality. Her laws make ridiculous the stately or pompous. Her goal is to allow the more egalitarian sex to rule, for in a way: every woman is in competition with every other woman, but not every man is necessarily in competition with every other man. Thus competition must be eliminated, and inferior or less beautiful women must be given preference by law, the only means capable of combatting nature.
She devises prohibitions against father-beating and incest, as both are necessary for the city to exist. For suppose a common child were to one day have sexual intercourse with his sibling, or worse his mother (a la the great tragedy of Oedipus) -would that not spell doom for the city, as Sophocles teaches in the Antigone? In addition to the previous prohibitions proposed by Praxagora, children will all be held in common. She then states, after her night of secrecy, that she will transform the courts into public dining halls, so that all privacy will be abolished (one thinks of the present-day existence of television cameras infiltrating and degrading public discourse in the halls of congress). In essence, Athenian democracy will be abolished under the new regime. Praxagora, posing as a traditionalist, represents a far more radical break with the ancients than any other Aristophanean character. She is incapable of looking upon her own things, as the ancients like Plato and Herodotus teach.
The next scene is absent of Praxagora (the parabasis is absent from Aristophanes, though it was present in his four, indicating a declining willingness for the poet to openly express his intentions in his plays). It shows two women -one beautiful and young, one less beautiful and old, competing for attention from a man. The old woman uses the letter of the law to oblige herself. She reminds him that their primary cohabitation is for the good of the city, thus eros does not listen to the letters of its lovers. Death and decay triumph over life and bloom (Socrates and Aristophanes by Leo Strauss, page 277).
We are left silent as to the happiness of the citizens of Athens under this new regime, while the women prepare a giant meal for the city, a rich and tasty meal. Certainly the slave-girl and the old hag are the happiest. At the end of all other plays, the story is resolved and we may judge the character’s fates and happiness, though not in the Ecclesiazusae. Praxagora’s revolution, as with every revolution, fails to end misery, but rather simply to redistribute it. Those who deserve to lose by nature, like an indecent old hag, now triumph. The women of Athens have successfully persuaded the men to give up life and beauty, for being well-fed and taken care of by the women. In a way, Aristophanes exposes to us and teaches us about the just things by making us laugh. He reveals the limits of the city. To what extent might we compare Aristophanes as a teacher with Socrates? In The Clouds Aristophanes makes clear that Socrates is too brash with his teaching to anyone and everyone, with little concern for tradition or convention. His critique, perhaps valid, is that Socrates dangerously encourages atheism and other necessities for the city. Recall, Leo Strauss notes three requirements for the city: belief in the gods or prohibitions against atheism, prohibitions against father-beating, and prohibitions against incest. Aristophanes’s accusation is that Socrates breaks at least two of these prohibitions.
In the end, Blepyros goes to the plump feast in Athens with several women on his arms, no longer bound by intimate obligations to his wife, and an older woman follows him in pursuit. Is he happy? Perhaps at the very least he is comfortable, in his Epicurean delights. The play ends in an absurd dream, and reveals who the new regime will truly bring happiness to -not the whole of the city as is the object of the ‘city in speech’ in Plato’s Republic. It is a regime built for the benefit of the women, and the lesser citizens by nature. It is not a regime that is in accord with natural law.
Absolute communism is seriously weighed in the play, or the common ownership of property, women, and children. With property, a man may experience luck or natural inequality to gain wealth, but with women egalitarianism is not as palpable. No two women are simply equal to one another, in the same way that five dollars will always be the same, no matter where it comes from. Envy of inferior people cannot always be appeased, according to nature. Praxagora seeks the triumph of art over nature -a new techne of the city; she looks to the light of a lamp, after all, not the sun. Her world is lifeless, devoid of manly thumos, or Platonic praise of mania (a la Plato’s Phaedrus). In this way, we discover the nauseating ills of modern communism that took place in China, Russia, and elsewhere as cold, lifeless, and anti-life-affirming. Note that the title of the play is the Ecclesiazusae, the ‘assembly of women’ not the praise of the triumph of a single name, the darkly impressive ruler of Athens, Praxagora.
For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.