Thoughts on Aristophanean Comedy

In each of Aristophanes’s surviving plays, the subject or context of his comedies points to the city, and the nature of politics. Unlike other comedic poets from antiquity, such as Menander, the particular character of Aristophanean comedy is political. In his plays, Aristophanes reveals himself to be a teacher of the just things.

In the Acharnians, Dikaipolois must provide a defense of himself to avoid charges of treason; in the Knights, Paphlagonian (the parody of Cleon) is upstaged by a sausage-seller in his favoritism by the demos; in the Clouds Socrates is exposed as a teacher of unjust things, whose followers turn against their fathers and lose faith in the gods (recall the three requirements for the city are 1) affirmations of faith in divinity, 2) prohibitions against father-beating, and 3) prohibitions against incest); in the Wasps the tensions are exposed between the city (along with its court system) and the home or family; in the Peace Trygaios razes an army to rescue the god of “peace” – he turns his back on the city but not the gods; in the Birds Peisthetairos takes on an adventure to build a new city among the birds, far from the lawsuits and troubles of the present-day city; in the Lysistrata women form a striking ruling block in the city of Athens in an effort to achieve peace; in the Thesmophoriazusae Euripides (or the poets) must defend themselves against he accusations of the women of Athens; in the Frogs the edifying effects of drama are exposed as Dionysus descends into Hades (disguised) to bring a qualified poet back from the dead; in the Assemblywomen socialism triumphs as a revolutionary gender regime-change takes place, as the whole city resembles one single household, one art for the women to attend to; in the Plutos the god of wealth replaces Zeus as the supreme deity, as wealth becomes akin with virtue and justice.

In each case, Aristophanes portrays laughable characters in laughable situations. Our laughter is both a release and an acknowledgement. First, in laughing we release ourselves from thought, from the heaviness that comes with tragic suffering. We live lightly when we laugh, and certain tensions released. Who could not laugh at the notion of a man riding up to heaven on the back of a dung beetle? Surely he has lost his mind, like Don Quixote. He believes himself to be wiser and more capable than he actually is: he is a boaster. Second, laughter brings an acknowledgement of things not previously seen. It gives one a feeling of superiority, being ‘part of the joke’ in recognizing comical characters in their lack of wisdom (like Socrates in his absurd inquiries at the Thinkery). In Aristophanes we also acknowledge the limits of politics, of the city. These limits come in the form of absurdly imaginative scenarios that, in many cases, reveal themselves to be impossible (the socialist utopia, the pursuit of riches as justice, the revolutionary regime, the dream of a new Arcadian city among the birds, and so on).

The voice of Aristophanes speaks for the city, the people of Athens. His voice echoes the ordinary man -the farmer, the man who wants the war with Sparta to end, women who lust for power, the majority’s belief that philosophy is frivolous). His teaching is esoteric, his comedy is for the applause of the masses. His comedy is only a partial reflection of the “Just Speech” as we noted earlier that his comedies pose absurd and often impossible scenarios, thus pointing to an abstraction toward the just things -i.e. defining a limit between physis and nomos and acknowledging that limit in laughter.

Aristophanes sees himself as superior, the conservative critic of the city, filled with nostalgia, but also with greater wisdom and self-restraint than his enemies. His criticism of Socrates in the Clouds is the greatest surviving account of Socrates we possess from one who is not a pupil of Socrates (like Plato or Xenophon). His criticism comes to light as pointed: Socrates is too brash and public with his open inquiry into the nature of things. So much so, in fact, that he excessively rejects the essential limits and necessary prohibitions required for the city. His teaching encourages atheism and resistance at home (i.e. father-beating).  Aristophanes’s attack on Socrates is that he is too revealing in his open-ended inquiry that he allows for the denial of the laws and customs of the city of Athens (including the gods), and in doing so he is a poor judge of character by engaging with anyone and everyone as a student, and lastly Aristophanes accuses Socrates as being unerotic, focused on debunking any argument rather than displaying his manly thumos and pursuing a musical art or life. His ridicule of Socrates is for not keeping his teaching more of a secret, in the same way that a comic poet can hide behind his laughter, conceal himself in the applause of the crowd. Socrates has little defense in this respect. The Platonic and Xenophonic Socrates differs almost wholly from Aristophanes’s characterization.

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