Aristophanes was born about 450 BC, about one generation after Euripides. Euripides represents the spirit of the sophists, the rational spirit. He was skeptical of tradition. For example, the Greeks fighting at Troy were traditionally depicted as brave warriors, but Euripides says they were motivated by “brutal ambition and a bestial joy in destruction.”1 Euripides tears the veil off tradition.
Aristophanes was alarmed to see Euripides and the sophists attacking all the old traditions. Where would this end? Would we lose all that’s most valuable in our civilization, all that our ancestors had built up over countless generations? Aristophanes was skeptical of the skeptics, he satirized the sophists and Euripides.
In his comedy The Clouds, Aristophanes depicted Socrates as the typical sophist, contemplating the sun while his disciples contemplate the sand, “an atheistic scientist: the typical comic figure of the arrogant and oddly-behaved scholar.... praying to the Vortex which he says formed Primal Matter, or to the Clouds... [calling] the ether divine.”2
Euripides was the last great tragedian, the last of the line that began with Aeschylus and continued with Sophocles. In Euripides’ time, tragedy had long been part of the city festivals, while comedy had only recently been included in the festivals. So it’s not surprising that Aristophanes, the great writer of comedy, came after Euripides.
In Athens, comedy was born with democracy, and died with democracy. But according to Jaeger, comedy wasn’t simply an expression of democratic freedom, it was a critic of the excesses of freedom; democracy needed comedy to censure its excesses. Comedy “censured not only individuals, not only separate political acts, but the entire governmental system, the character and the weaknesses of the whole nation. [It] kept a constant watch on education, philosophy, poetry, and music.” All these activities were “brought to judgement in the theater before the whole Athenian people.”3
Comic actors, like tragic actors, wore masks, and comic masks often resembled actual people — the people who were being ridiculed. When Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates in The Clouds, the actor who played Socrates wore a mask that everyone in the audience would recognize as Socrates. Aristophanes
|had now discovered a figure who seemed to be designed by nature for the hero of a comedy of intellectualism.... Nature herself in a fit of humor had made [Socrates] a perfect comic mask, in the shape of a Silenus-face with a snub nose, protruding lips, and goggling eyes.4|
But when Aristophanes satirized the politician Cleon (the Trump of Athens) in his play The Knights, the mask-makers didn’t dare make a mask that looked like Cleon. Aristophanes wrote, “I couldn’t get a good mask, but you know who I mean.” Jaeger says, “It was an act of incredible boldness for Aristophanes, scarcely out of his teens, to attack the all-powerful favorite of the demos.”5 Cleon represented the philistine mob. He had a fearless foe in Aristophanes, who represented civilized values. “Aristophanes was not fighting against the state — he was fighting for the state against its temporary despot.”
Cleon had come to power after Pericles died. Pericles had died in 429 BC, two years after the Peloponnesian War began. Pericles died of the plague, which swept through Athens after everyone from the surrounding area had crowded into the city, creating unsanitary conditions. The Athenians chose to abandon the countryside and stay behind their walls rather than confront the Spartan army; the Athenians preferred a naval war to a land war.
The transition from Pericles to Cleon was an abrupt one. “Athenians who were accustomed to the magnificent manners and intellectual nobility of Pericles turned with disgust from the common tanner whose vulgarity brought discredit on the whole nation.”6 But even the respected Pericles was satirized by the comic playwrights. He had an odd-shaped head, which playwrights compared to an onion. To conceal this, Pericles habitually wore a helmet.
The city festivals had, in addition to plays, various civic ceremonies, including “a parade in full armor of the sons of warriors who died fighting for the polis and, until the end of the Peloponnesian War, a presentation of annual tribute from subject states.”7 Representatives of these subject states were in the audience. Aristophanes embarrassed Cleon, in a lost play called Babylonians, by criticizing his policy toward these subject states, and depicting them as slaves working on a treadmill. (Cleon’s rough treatment of allies reminds one of Trump’s rough treatment of allies.) Aristophanes opposed war with Sparta.8
Cleon responded to The Babylonians by saying that Aristophanes had ridiculed the polis itself. Cleon prosecuted Aristophanes. In his next play, The Knights, Aristophanes intensified his criticism of Cleon. Aristophanes found allies in his struggle with Cleon among the
|feudal squires, the cavalry corps which had attained new importance since the invasion, the deadly enemies of Cleon. His chorus of knights embodied the defensive alliance of nobility and intellect against the growing power of barbarism and political terror.|
Though he criticized Cleon harshly, Aristophanes generally stayed out of the political arena; perhaps he felt that he had a different mission. Aristophanes died at age 60. He wrote about one play per year from age 20 to 60. Of his 40 plays, 11 survive — more than of Aeschylus’ or Sophocles’ plays. There may have been other great writers of comedy in ancient Greece (Menander, for example), but their works haven’t survived (one play of Menander’s was found in 1952).
Aristophanes lived in dangerous times, but managed to survive. “Aristophanes survived The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchic revolutions and two democratic restorations.”9 One of these oligarchic revolutions resulted in the massacre of 5% of the Athenian population. Far more than 5% died in the plague and the war. Perhaps Aristophanes wouldn’t have survived if he had been more politically involved. As Socrates said, “He who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.”10
Was Aristophanes partly responsible for the execution of Socrates? Plato said, in his Apology, that the depiction of Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds contributed to the execution of Socrates. Aristophanes depicted Socrates as a typical sophist, preoccupied with the stars, but we’ve seen (in earlier issues) that Socrates was actually opposed to the sophists, and was more interested in moral questions than scientific questions. Aristophanes mis-represented Socrates, or at least elided the differences between Socrates and the sophists.
On one key point, however, Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates is accurate: Socrates respects reason and logic, not tradition and feeling. Like the French revolutionaries and the Russian revolutionaries, Socrates worshipped the Goddess Reason. Aristophanes disapproved, as Edmund Burke disapproved of the rationalism of the French revolutionaries. In the battle between traditional education and sophist education, Aristophanes sided with traditional education. “Aristophanes instinctively turned away from an educational system whose greatest strength lay in cold rationalism.”11 Socrates shares the rationalism of the sophists, so Aristophanes lumped Socrates together with the sophists, and satirized all of them.
The Peloponnesian War dragged on for 27 years. In 406 BC, two years before the end of the war, Sophocles and Euripides died. “As the situation of Athens became more hopeless, and the pressure on the morale of her citizens increased to the breaking-point, they grew more eager for spiritual comfort and strength.”12 With Sophocles and Euripides gone, tragedy could no longer provide that spiritual comfort. “Only comedy still had a poet worthy of the name. With the passage of the years, [comedy] had risen to a height from which she could warn, teach, and encourage the Athenians as tragedy once had done. It was her supreme moment.”
Athens was in a dire situation: the Persians were helping the Spartans, Athens’ allies were falling away, Athenian naval supremacy was disappearing. If Athens lost the war, not only would her empire be destroyed, but the city itself might be destroyed, and all the people executed or enslaved.
At this moment, Aristophanes writes The Frogs, in which Dionysus descends to the underworld to fetch Euripides, believing that Euripides can provide spiritual comfort and strength. In the underworld, Euripides and Aeschylus have an agon, a contest. Aristophanes sides with the old tragedy (Aeschylus) rather than the new tragedy (Euripides), just as, in The Clouds, Aristophanes had sided with the old education against the new education.
In the agon between Aeschylus and Euripides, “Aeschylus describes how noble and martial the Athenians were until Euripides took them over from him.”13 Aeschylus says that, unlike Euripides, he never depicted women in love, women carried away by desire. Aeschylus blames Euripides for various Athenian problems; he blames Euripides for
|teaching the rich Athenians to dress in rags [and] to swear that they are poor, to avoid the expense of fitting out a warship. You have taught men to chatter and prate, and so emptied the gymnasiums, and incited sailors to mutiny against their officers.14|
Dionysus decides that the winner of the agon is Aeschylus, so the king of the underworld sends Aeschylus to Athens:
Farewell, then, Aeschylus: ascend,
and save our country by your art.
Give good advice, and educate
the fools whose name is Legion.
The driving force behind The Frogs, Jaeger says, is Aristophanes’ concern for Athens. “In every line we can hear his real inspiration — his dreadful anxiety for the future of Athens.” So The Frogs strengthens Jaeger’s main argument — that culture doesn’t exist for its own sake, it exists to inspire people to be their best self.
|At this critical juncture, the greatest of all comic poets once more emphasized the intimate connection between the spirit and the future of the state, and the vast responsibility of creative genius to the community: and thereby comedy attained the climax of its great educational mission.15|
Thucydides is the first scientific historian in Western civilization, the first historian who tried to set forth the underlying laws of politics and war. His goal was truth, he ignored entertainment value and partisan argument. He took the rational, analytical approach that was characteristic of his time, characteristic of the sophists, and paid little heed to religious and moral factors. But there’s nothing dry or mechanical about his History of the Peloponnesian War; his work is full of life and drama.
In a recent issue, we noted that the Periclean age (c. 450 BC) was keenly interested in political power; the Greeks of that period were inclined to view politics in terms of power rather than in terms of hubris, justice, divine retribution, etc. Thucydides is a perfect example of this tendency. “In his highest intellectual achievements, such as the Melian dialogue, Thucydides remained a pupil of the sophists.”16
Athens attacked the island of Melos in 416 BC, mid-way through the Peloponnesian War. They demanded that the Melians surrender and pay tribute, or be destroyed. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote a dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians. This is the only dialogue in his book, though there are many speeches in his book. Like the speeches, the dialogue is written “with entire freedom of invention,” it doesn’t claim to be an accurate record of what was said.17 Thucydides doesn’t aim at factual accuracy, he aims at general truth, universal law, just as Greek sculptures don’t depict a specific individual, but rather a type, an ideal.
“The Melians argue that they will have the assistance of the gods because their position is morally just. The Athenians counter that the gods will not intervene because it is the natural order of things for the strong to dominate the weak.”18 Melos refuses to surrender, so Athens lays siege to Melos. Finally Melos surrenders, and Athens executes the men, and enslaves the women and children.
After the Persian Wars, Athens played a leading role in the Greek world. (The period between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War is called the Pentecontaetia, the fifty-year period, roughly 480 BC to 430 BC.) At first, other city-states voluntarily contributed to the common defense, but gradually Athens demanded tribute, and converted allies into subjects, converted a league into an empire.
The growth of the Athenian empire made Athens a rival of Sparta, which had been the dominant power in the Greek world. The simmering rivalry between Athens and Sparta finally burst into open war; “the secret conflict between opposing forces finally led to an open crisis in Greek politics.”19 Doubtless many wars begin with such a simmering rivalry, such a secret conflict.
When the Peloponnesian War broke out, Thucydides naturally asked, How did we get to this point? What was the cause of this conflict? Jaeger argues that Thucydides wasn’t a scholar who saw an interesting topic; rather, he was a “statesman and admiral” who was educated by experience, whose experience drove him to become a historian. His experience was political, and he wrote political history: “He thinks only of power. Technical knowledge, economic development, and intellectual culture he tends to ignore.”20 Thucydides isn’t writing a loose, wide-ranging history of a region, as Herodotus had written; Thucydides is writing a focused history of a major war.
One might call Thucydides a political scientist; Jaeger says he has “a scientific attitude like that of the Ionian physicists.”21 But Thucydides doesn’t stop at theory, at contemplation, he wants useful truth. He believes that, since human nature is immutable, history repeats itself, and therefore the events he’s describing will happen again, and his book can be a useful guide. He tries to “reach the universal and permanent law” behind the events he’s describing.
Is his book a guide to the future? The same necessity that drove Sparta and Athens to war seemed to cause other wars, such as the American Civil War. The Spartan concern about Athens’ rising power resembles British concern, around 1900, about Germany’s rising power. Athens’ tendency to continually expand reminds one of Rome’s continual expansion. The division of the Greek world into two hostile camps reminds one of the Cold War (and the two World Wars). So I think Thucydides’ book is a guide to the future, but it’s a guide to understanding, not to action — nobody was ever led to a wise policy by Thucydides.
Thucydides emphasizes compulsion and necessity, not choice and freedom. He says that Athens was compelled to expand its empire, treat allies harshly, etc., and Sparta was compelled to declare war on Athens.22 Thucydides emphasizes what might be called “political necessity.”
But he doesn’t mention fate/prophecy, he doesn’t say that the result was ordained long in advance by fate, and foretold by prophets. On the contrary, he says that specific mistakes led to Athens’ defeat in Sicily, and to its eventual defeat. Thucydides is a rational thinker; the occult is foreign to him.
When Athens became an imperial power, Sparta could depict itself as The Liberator, the champion of freedom. But as soon as Sparta defeated Athens, Sparta became the tyrant, the oppressor. Thucydides realizes that
|the parts of tyrant and liberator did not correspond with any permanent moral quality in these states, but were simply masks which would one day be interchanged, to the astonishment of the beholder, when the balance of power was altered.23|
The same thing happened in modern times: the British Empire was unpopular, but after World War II, the British Empire collapsed, and the animosity that had been directed at Britain was re-directed at the U.S. In the 1800s, Russia represented Autocracy and Reaction, while the U.S. represented Democracy and Revolution. In the 1900s, the roles were reversed: Russia championed Revolution, and the U.S. often championed the Status Quo.
Thucydides has a high opinion of Pericles, who led Athens into the Peloponnesian War, and died in 429 BC, two years after the war began. Thucydides thinks that Pericles could have avoided the mistakes that led to Athens’ defeat. Pericles advocated a cautious, defensive policy: stay behind the walls, don’t fight Sparta on land, don’t extend the empire in wartime, don’t take unnecessary risks. “In peace and war,” Jaeger writes, “Pericles kept Athens safe as long as he was at its head, and guided it along the narrow line of moderation between the two radical extremes.”24
But after Pericles died, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to launch the ambitious Sicilian expedition. Alcibiades was talented and persuasive, but he was also arrogant, and had a penchant for making enemies. Soon after the Sicilian expedition began, Alcibiades’ enemies charged him with crimes, and Athens lost the leader they needed to succeed in Sicily. Athens suffered a disastrous defeat in Sicily, and that prompted several of its allies to throw off the Athenian yoke. Jaeger calls the Sicilian expedition a “peripeteia” (turning point).
Meanwhile, Alcibiades slipped away from the Athenians who had been sent to arrest him, and joined the Spartan cause. He rendered “valuable contributions to the Spartan cause.”25 Later he quarreled with the Spartans, and joined the Persians, before finally returning to Athens, and leading Athens to a string of victories over Sparta. Alcibiades was a friend/student of Socrates, and appears in several of Plato’s dialogues. Alcibiades was a relative of Pericles; both were members of an aristocratic family, the Alcmaeonid.
Thucydides argues that the Athenian people were prone to grandiose plans, and needed a firm leader to control them.26 Pericles was such a leader. Under Pericles, Thucydides says, Athens was only “nominally a democracy,” but was really an “aristocracy of talent.”27 But after Pericles died, Athens experienced decades of “complete mob-rule.”28
Thucydides praises the Athenian constitution for being mixed, a balance of opposites, not “a static thing,” not “a rigid legal structure,” not “the mechanical ideal of external equality.”29 Athens was full of energy, “the restless, fearless, limitless optimism and enterprise of the Athenian character.”30 Thucydides praises Athens for its balanced energies, a tension of opposites such as Heraclitus found throughout the universe. This balance/tension was not only in the Athenian constitution:
|Constitutionally and economically and spiritually [Thucydides] holds [Athens] to be a sort of Heraclitean harmony of radical and inevitable opposites, maintaining itself through its tension and equilibrium. He therefore makes Pericles describe it [in his funeral oration] as the interaction of delicately balanced opposites — self-support and enjoyment of the world’s products, labor and recreation, business and holiday, spirit and ethos, thought and energy.31|
I’m reminded of John Stuart Mill’s view that the ideal person has “great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will.”32 Mill’s ideal is energy, balance, tension.
Thucydides views Athens as a balance of opposites, and he also views its foreign affairs as a balance of opposites: “[Thucydides] was accustomed to envisage the relation of one state to another as the natural and necessary conflict of opposing principles.”33
Thucydides is more than a penetrating analyst of politics and war. He views politics as the hub of a larger wheel, he views politeia as “the entire life of the state.”34 Athenian culture influenced the entire Greek world, justified Athenian ambition, and consoled Athens in defeat.
That concludes my discussion of Thucydides, and my discussion of Jaeger’s work on Greek culture. In the future, I may return to Jaeger, and discuss the second volume of Paideia. If you want to explore this subject further, consider
|1.||Ch. 4, p. 351. This is a quote from Jaeger, not Euripides. back|
|2.||Ch. 5, p. 371. As Aristophanes pokes fun at the sophists, so too Plato poked fun at the sophists. “The comic element in Plato’s Protagoras is so strong that no doubt is left of Plato’s intention of vying with the comic poets who had treated the same subject before him.”(Ch. 5, footnote 31, p. 483) As Plato wrote dialogues that resembled comedies, so too he wrote dialogues that resembled tragedies, such as Phaedo.
Jaeger: “At the end of The Symposium [Plato] makes Socrates say that the true poet must be both a tragedian and a comedian — a claim which Plato himself answered by writing Phaedo and The Symposium.”(Ch. 5, p. 360) Shakespeare wrote both tragedy and comedy, but few other dramatists have managed that feat.
Jaeger: “All Athenian culture... taught the Athenians... to consider all human life as both a tragedy and a comedy.” back
|3.||Ch. 5, p. 364 back|
|4.||Ch. 5, p. 371. One thinks of Kierkegaard, who had a similar set of odd characteristics, and was similarly satirized. Since Kierkegaard was a great admirer of Socrates, one wonders if he noticed the parallel between himself and Socrates. back|
|5.||Ch. 5, p. 366 back|
|6.||Ch. 5, p. 366 back|
|8.||“The Acharnians made an ardent plea for peace, directed against the official policy of Athens, as did Peace a few years later.”(Ch. 5, footnote 29, p. 482) back|
|10.||Plato’s Apology, quoted in Wikipedia back|
|11.||Ch. 5, p. 376. Jaeger says that Aristophanes criticizes modern music in the same way that Plato did in his Laws. Jaeger says that Aristophanes’ whole attitude toward modern culture resembles Plato’s.(Ch. 5, footnote 44, p. 483)
William F. Buckley said, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Aristophanes was such a conservative. back
|12.||Ch. 5, p. 377 back|
|13.||Ch. 5, p. 379 back|
|14.||Ch. 5, p. 380 back|
|15.||Ch. 5, p. 381. If you want to read Aristophanes, consider the Peter Meineck translation, which has explanatory notes. If you want to read essays about Aristophanes, consider Gilbert Murray’s Aristophanes. back|
|16.||Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Book II, Ch. 6, p. 402 back|
|17.||Jaeger says that the famous funeral oration of Pericles isn’t really by Pericles, it’s by Thucydides.(p. 395) back|
|18.||Wikipedia. Thucydides argues that “war and justice cannot coexist.”(Ch. 6, p. 399)
When people are fighting for survival, morality goes by the board. This is the lesson of the revolution in Corcyra, the plague in Athens, and the Peloponnesian War as a whole.(Ch. 6, pp. 399, 400) back
|19.||Ch. 6, p. 393 back|
|20.||Ch. 6, p. 386 back|
|21.||Ch. 6, p. 388. Elsewhere Jaeger compares Thucydides to a doctor looking for the root cause of an illness. Thucydides abandons “Solon’s religious conception of the state,”(p. 390) and replaces it with a scientific, objective, amoral conception. “Thereby politics were marked off as an independent field of natural causality.”(p. 393)|
|22.||Discussing the necessity of Athens’ conflict with Melos, Jaeger says, “It is this necessity which Thucydides keeps emphasizing throughout his work.”(Ch. 6, footnote 64, p. 488) Before the war started, Athens was under “the necessity of extending Athenian power without cessation.”(Ch. 6, p. 403) Jaeger says that Thucydides “presents one single political thesis of very large scope.”(Ch. 6, p. 394)
According to Thucydides, the imperial policy of Athens was driven by “fear of the envy of Sparta,” ambition, and self-interest.(Ch. 6, pp. 396, 397) In my view, ambition is related to hubris, so it’s not unreasonable to say that hubris caused Athens’ downfall. One could argue that hubris was a factor behind the Sicilian expedition, which in turn was a factor behind Athens’ downfall. back
|23.||Ch. 6, p. 397. This is a quote from Jaeger, not Thucydides. back|
|24.||Ch. 6, p. 405. Jaeger is paraphrasing Thucydides. back|
|25.||Wikipedia. John Stuart Mill viewed Alcibiades as an example of “self-assertion,” John Knox as an example of self-denial, and Pericles as a blend of both: “‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial’.... It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either.”(On Liberty, Ch. 3) back|
|26.||Ch. 6, p. 404 back|
|27.||Ch. 6, p. 409. Thucydides also calls Athens “a monarchy under the foremost man.”(Ch. 6, p. 406)
“In Plato’s Menexenus, Aspasia, the wife of Pericles, delivers in her literary salon a model funeral speech which is of course intended to be a witty companion piece to the famous funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides’ history. In this speech Aspasia calls the Athenian polity under Pericles an aristocracy and tries to prove that it is and always was ‘the rule of the best with the consent of the people.’”(Ch. 6, footnote 100, p. 489) back
|28.||Ch. 6, p. 409 back|
|29.||Ch. 6, footnote 104, p. 490 and pp. 409, 410 back|
|30.||Ch. 6, p. 403 back|
|31.||Ch. 6, p. 410 back|
|32.||On Liberty, Ch. 3 back|
|33.||Ch. 6, p. 408 back|
|34.||Ch. 6, p. 410 back|