The Worship of Wealth in the Plutos

The final surviving play of Aristophanes begins with an impatient slave, Karion, who is distraught and confused at his master, Chremylos (his name suggests a democrat, or one who is concerned for the demos). Chremylos has been following a blind man as decreed by Apollo from Delphi, a sojourn he embarked upon to learn how to make his son rich. He asked the oracle: my family is poor and virtuous, yet all around me I see unjust people who are rich, should I change my son’s lifestyle, and make him unjust so that he may become wealthy? Chremylos believes himself to be a pious and just man. The god tells Karion to cling to the first man he meets, and bring him home to Athens. Thus, Karion has grown distraught of his master, walking with a strange blind beggar on the road from Delphi to Athens.

They reveal that the man is Plutos, god of wealth. He has been blinded by Zeus so that he will not be able to determine those worthy of riches (wealth, not justice, is blind). Zeus is envious of the worthy and virtuous -the gods envy the experience of human virtue- so he blinds Plutos to prevent corruption of their virtue. Plutos is a corrupting influence on good people. Wealth is a bottomless pit from which men can never accumulate enough. The point of sacrificing to Zeus is to seek wholeness, a feeling or awareness of satiety -of having enough. However, many men sacrifice to Zeus precisely to accumulate wealth.

What is the point of being a just and virtuous person if riches do not follow? In many ways, the Plutos may be said to celebrate the spirit of the law (a la Montesquieu). Money and wealth accumulation becomes the new law, as rewards and punishments are doled out perfectly in accord with nature, as wealth is no longer blind, never mind justice. Laws do not expect men to do what is right simply because it is right, thus laws are in need of rewards (incentives as a modern person might say) and punishments. Thus in the Plutos virtue is likened to wealth and poverty becomes akin with injustice. The accumulation of wealth, replacing Zeus, becomes not such a bad thing, at least from the perspective of the vulgar peasant, Chremylos. However, virtue and justice still remain pre-requisites for Plutos to distribute wealth -i.e. he needs to be able to see who is virtuous and just.

Throughout the course of the play, Plutos replaces Zeus as the highest of the deities. Chremylos devises a plan for Plutos to regain his sight from Apollo so that he and his fellow peasants may partake of wealth. Plutos reminds us of the blindness of Chance, and that Chremylos thus seeks to eliminate Chance. Like Plaxagora in the ‘Assemblywomen’ he seeks to have art replace nature, though her art was the extreme techne of the city and Chremylos seeks a techne over nature and the gods. Karion calls together the peasant farmers -Aristophanes has a certain preference for the justness of farmers. Farmers rely only on themselves, and not on others for sustenance. However, as Leo Strauss notes, this kind of justice is only a crude or vulgar form of justice, and may not come without its fair share of temptations. Perhaps Homer agrees with Plato on this point in his portrayal of Polephemos and the Cyclops.

At the conclusion, Athens becomes changed, and injustice disappears. Asclepius has healed the blindness of Plutos (perhaps even unknowingly) and the poor people of Athens praise Plutos, including a priest, while the rich men of Athens complain of the new regime. Penia, the god of poverty, has a fascinating exchange and defense of the poor farmers of Athens as well as of Penia’s abilities to make men better, not worse, while even the god Hermes comes to Athens to discuss Plutos, but even he succumbs to the desire for wealth and joins Chremylos’s house. In total, a procession of six visitors comes to Chremylos’s house, he is chastised by his wife for his impiety. Plutos becomes the head of the treasury of Athens. The play closes with a procession of men carrying Plutos to the temple of Zeus to replace him as king of the gods.

The goal of the Plutos is to discover a new political order in which poverty is abolished, and with it vulgar craftsmanship and even government, thus allowing for the free-reign of eros and wisdom. Aristophanes’s later plays, the Lysistrata, the Assemblywomen and the Plutos, all discuss new radical utopian and revolutionary regimes for the city of Athens. Each of which is laughable for different reasons, primarily due to their impossibility.

The Plutosis a celebration of Athens’s former glory, and a wish for her recovery from decline to the former riches the city had. Like the other plays by Aristophanes, the Plutos: they all celebrate a wish-for blessing for Athens (except for the Assemblywomen) by presenting that blessing as having come about miraculously or in a laughable manner -even the burning down of Socrates’s thinkery is a blessing for Athens. The Plutos keeps in line with the requirements for the city -it does not do away with divine rule, but rather replaces it with the worship of wealth, and father-beating and incest prohibitions remain intact. Plutos is Aristophanes’s lackluster play, the least laughable, and the target audience is for older, miserly, men.

For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

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