Sunday, March 29, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Part 1 of 4)

Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Time: First performed in 411 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas Considered: Duty, Courage, War and Peace

[The complete text of Lysistrata can be found online at This text differs some from the Sommerstein translation I'll be quoting from, most notably in Sommerstein's playful use of a Scottish dialect to differentiate the Spartans from the Athenians.]

Among Aristophanes’ eleven extant plays, Lysistrata is the one with which modern readers most often identify though for reasons that have more to do with modernity than the play itself. This wishful story of an Athenian woman who brokers a lasting peace to the Peloponnesian War generates its humor in the typical Aristophanic fashion through the inversion of particular status quo value. In this case, Aristophanes takes the typically passive role that women played in classic Greek culture and reverses it as the women refuse to perform their wifely duties until the war’s conclusion. Lysistrata’s ribald dialogue and openness in discussing sexual relationships between men and women has made it a perpetual source of controversy and, no doubt, contributed to its persistence within the Western cultural tradition. Aristophanes’ device of placing a woman at the story’s center as its heroine has also gained attention from post-feminist thinkers as prescient in its depiction of women as co-equal to men, in deed if not social status.

In contrast to its reputation, Lysistrata is not unique among Aristophanes’ work (even among those extant) in its candid discussions of sex. If anything, Lysistrata is positively moral by Victorian standards in comparison to The Clouds which is replete with homoerotic humor and nary a female character to be found. Most of the sex discussed in Lysistrata is of the marital variety and predominantly heterosexual in nature. While it does presuppose, if only satirically, that women have sexual needs that go beyond their desire to procreate (a subject of much debate in the US up through the 1950s), no actual sex occurs within its narrative frame; literally, much ado about nothing.

As a reader well-grounded in the canon of feminist writing, I also have extreme difficulty thinking of Lysistrata as a feminist work of any sort. At best, it might be described as ‘womanist,’ tacitly acknowledging the personhood of women without seeing this distinction as grounds for a true reconsideration of the gender roles as prescribed by the traditions of culture. For all the attention paid to sex by the play and posterity that has received it, sex is but a magnified symbol of the many contributions that women make to society through their management of the household while men are away, busy slaughtering one another. In their refusal to perform the totality of those duties (including but hardly limited to sex), Lysistrata and her band of conspirators cripple the productivity of Greece in the same way that a slave rebellion or a grain embargo might. In this sense, Lysistrata can be read as a vigorous defense of the traditional Greek values of womanhood even as it upsets the social order for comedic purposes with its value inversion.

So, if Lysistrata is neither the Greek equivalent of the Tropic of Cancer nor The Feminine Mystique, then what the heck is it? To begin that discussion, it is important to set Lysistrata as most immediately relevant to a particular place and time; namely, Athens in 411 BCE, when and where the play was first performed. Socially, Athens was in utter turmoil. After fifty years of unquestioned superiority among the Greek city-states and the dominions beyond, Athens’ status began to slowly erode with the onset of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. Their military and naval might forced the first leg of the War to a conclusion in 421 but, within six years, conflict broke out again and, in 415, the Athenian navy was destroyed by Syracuse allied with Sparta. Humiliated by that defeat and the loss of some of their colonies, Athens elected to double down and use the lumber and wealth that had placed in reserve at the war’s onset to raise a second fleet. In 411, the same year that Lysistrata was first performed, the Athenian democracy was overthrown by an oligarchy known as the Council of Four Hundred. The tension between the democratic and oligarchic factions could be essentially boiled down to how the remaining funds and resources would be spent in preparation for the recommencement of full-scale war. While the Council of Four Hundred would only persist for four months before Athens’ democratic system was restored, one can only imagine the degree of anxiety about the future that the average Athenian (such as one who might have attended this play) was feeling. In a way, the mere inversion of women’s relationship to war that sits at the play’s heart would be a comfort in comparison to the whiplash reversals of fortune that had plagued the city for over two decades.

Sitting down with the Syntopicon to decide which of the Great Ideas might prove illuminating for a discussion of Lysistrata, I found myself embroiled in a quandary. Much to my surprise (and I must admit, chagrin), Gender is not one of the Great Ideas. Woman and/or Womanhood are not Great Ideas. Man, on the other hand, is a Great Idea and, as one might suspect, this is the Old School definition of Man that presumes both men and women under its authority. However one might see fit to measure it, I’m just feminist enough in my acculturation that I loathe hearing the words ‘Man’ or ’Mankind’ as a synonym for humanity. Whenever reading a passage aloud that insists upon doing it, I usually insert the parenthetical (“because they didn’t have women back then”) just to keep from feeling like an ass.

One of the most persistent and, frankly, well-earned criticisms of The Great Books series and the editorial materials that accompany it is that it is, at best, chauvinist and, at worse, openly misogynist in its organization of ideas and in its selection of works for consideration. We nearly lost Kendra a couple of weeks ago to the dunes of seething anger when we realized that the only woman represented by ALL TEN YEARS of the Great Books reading list was Jane Austen. The argument I made then and then one I present now is that the lion’s share of the scholarship that went into compiling the Great Books series was done in the early 1950s. The editorial board, at the time, didn’t feel that enough time had elapsed in the 20th century for them to develop the amount of cultural objectivity requisite to deciding what might be of lasting historical merit and what might not. When Adler and his staff returned to the task in the late 1980s, they did feel confident enough to include works published from 1900 to 1950. Consequently, the selections from the second edition highlight a virtual explosion of women contributing to the Great Conversation in the first half of the 20th century. For all the Aphra Behn’s and Sappho’s that might have been considered in the first edition but weren’t, the second edition does improve upon its relationship with women, if not repair it altogether with a more exhaustive examination of what the breadth and depth of that contribution to the written tradition might actually be.

Deprived by the Great Ideas of a direct way to address the womanist aspects of Lysistrata, my thinking turned immediately subversive. I considered selecting Slavery and drawing parallels from the play between that institution and the one of marriage. I also considered selecting Man and using it as an opportunity to criticize the inadequacies of the Great Ideas as they stand. In the end, however, my desire to utilize the Great Ideas in the constructive spirit in which they were collected prevailed. I visualized them as an elaborate Tarot Deck, broadly sketching various aspects of the human experience with the assumption that the aspirant will bring their own knowledge to the table to truly flesh out the medians between the various ideas. Narrowed down to three from a possible field of six, I chose to filter my discussion of Lysistrata through the Great Ideas of Duty, Courage, and War and Peace.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Great Conversation: Knowledge and Belief

In The Clouds, Aristophanes examines the dynamic tension between inquiry, which draws its authority from skepticism and religion, which draws its own from certainty. The two ideas can be thought of, in this sense, as two extreme points on a continuum that connects Knowledge to Belief. Geometry tells us that any line with two points on it can be bisected. What idea then lies at the mid-point between Knowledge and Belief? Are the differences between them irreconcilable?

Great Books’ Editor, Mortimer Adler, opens his Syntopicon entry on Religion with a short passage directly germane to the contrast between Knowledge and Belief.

“Argument is unprofitable—worse than that, unintelligible—when opponents do not share some common ground. Between the skeptic who denies reason’s competence and the philosopher or scientist who appeals to it, no common ground exists. Between the man who obeys the rule not to contradict himself and the man who finds nothing repugnant in answering Yes and No to the same question, there can be no argument. There is an issue between them, but the position each takes reduces the other to silence.” [466, Adler].

Despite Adler’s candid assessment of the difficulties in reconciling Belief with Knowledge (couched in his terms as Religion and Science), there are a number of truths that I, at least, hold to be self-evident that suggest that the decision to simply allow them to agree to disagree is not only unwise but, perhaps, dangerous. The first is that, for ill or well, whether by merit of truth or biology, the Belief in ideas that are either scientifically unknown or unknowable have been with us since prehistory and show no signs of becoming outmoded. The second is that Knowledge (or Science in whatever form it might take) draws unshakeable authority from its relentlessly skeptical inquiries and its discoveries may be thought of as true as anything can be until disproven. Both ideas obviously play an important part in understanding what it means to be human and so, the task falls to us to act as the arbiter in what seems to be an otherwise intractable negotiation.

We posed the question that opens this post to our growing community of readers on Facebook, evoking the active verb part of the Great Conversation by opening the broad ideas up to scrutiny in a general rather than a specialized way.

Dr. Sarah Webb, a writer and practicing Buddhist, postulates that the mid-point between Knowledge and Belief was “ambiguity and staying with uncertainty.” Drawing upon her own faith as a practicing Zen Buddhist, Dr. Webb directs our attention to the “religious traditions that are apophatic (which believe that ultimate reality is beyond the verbal, the rational, the constructed, and thus not entirely knowable.)” The key in reconciling these diametric viewpoints is based in one’s willingness “not to know because complete knowledge is impossible” while “looking into one's own experience and examining it in a questioning, open way without the expectation of a final and definitive answer.”

Though the Great Books deal most specifically with Western religious traditions, we were reminded that each of the extant faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) once contained traditions (Kabbalism, Gnosticism, Sufism) that prized an experiential relationship with the source of their faith over the texts supposedly containing his Holy Writ. Turning more specifically to Christianity, we find Augustine, first, finding ambiguity to be a valuable commodity when interpreting what he supposes to be the Holy Words of God.

“When so many meanings, all of them acceptable as true, can be extracted from the words that Moses wrote, do you not see how foolish it is to make a bold assertion that one in particular is the one that he [Moses] had in mind?...There is only one God, who caused Moses to write the Holy Scriptures in the way best suited to the minds of great numbers of men who would all see truths in them, though not the same truths in each case.”

Aquinas restates Augustine’s position succinctly, noting that one must “hold the truth of Scripture without wavering” while adhering to “a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.”

Here, at this early point in the development of both Christianity and Science, the methods by which both might be further and better understood show more similarities than irreconcilable differences. In all fairness, there was a parity that existed between Religion and Philosophy (of which Science was still considered a part) in terms of describing what could be known by the latter and speculating on that which cannot with the former that has become drastically unbalanced in the modern age.

William James, writing in the late 19th century as the gap between the two yawned ever wider suggests that Philosophy might yet play some intermediary role between the warring factions. The observations validated by the scientific method are, James suggests, “anything but ultimate…the data assumed by psychology, just like those assumed by physics, must sometime be overhauled. The effort to overhaul them clearly and thoroughly is metaphysics.” While James would definitely argue that Philosophy is distinct from his conception of Metaphysics, he does imply that each of the involved parties (Religion, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Science) exist on a continuum that flows smoothly from one mode to the next and are each, in some way, dependent on the health and stability of the others for its own growth and well-being.

For James, the divergence of Science from the realm of Philosophy can be traced to the emergence of Positivism (a term coined by pioneering sociologist Auguste Comte) as the dominant scientific worldview from the mid-19th century onwards. Positivism, according to Adler, is the “identification of science with knowledge of fact, and further, the restriction of such knowledge to conclusions obtained and verified empirically. Whatever does not accord with this conception of science is either, like mathematics or logic, a purely formal discipline, or, like philosophy and religion, it is conjecture, opinion, or belief—personal, subjective, even wishful” [Adler, 542]. For James, educated liberally in all of these subjects, abandoning all other modes of knowing for one, whatever benefits it may promise, is unthinkable.

Sigmund Freud, however, did not share these reservations and sketches out the hard-line positivist position clearly enough; noting that, “There is no other source of knowledge of the Universe, but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research, and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition or inspiration.” It is ironic that a psychoanalyst and a sociologist (both from fields considered to be soft sciences) share an almost erotic attachment to empiricism (which had existed as an important if not isolated element of scientific inquiry since its genesis on the fringes of philosophic thought). They were, of course, not alone in this great migration towards the certainty of uncertainty as, by the mid-20th century, universities from all over the world joined in the fray to convert every possible discipline into a Positivistic one.

One would think that social trends pushing the agenda of Positivism to civilization writ large for over one hundred fifty years running might result in a dramatic change in the way that people saw the world in which they lived. We might expect belief in supernatural powers, at the very least, to show weakness in the face such overwhelming data to the contrary. A Harris Poll conducted in 2003 showed, surprisingly, that 90% of Americans surveyed expressed a belief in God. Another Harris poll, conducted in 2009 on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, found that nearly half (45%) of persons surveyed believed that humans were created “directly by God” while only 29% believed that they had evolved from another species. To be sure, polling data is only as useful as the questions that generate it but the contour here is unmistakable.

While die-hard positivists might look at this data and conclude that all it proves is that 71% of people polled about Darwin are willfully ignorant, it is more telling that the polls asks them not what they know, but what they believe. What these numbers tell me is that science is a poor substitute for belief and the sooner that we come to reconciling our innate need for both, perhaps visualized under the idea of Ambiguity, the sooner we will be able to identify which value is appropriate for judging the merits of a particular argument.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Robbing from the Public Domain

[I wrote this letter in response to an article in the Oklahoma Observer that advocated for the further extension of our copyright and common domain laws in the name of "helping out the artists."]

Robbing from the Public Domain

Kudos to the Observer for bringing much needed attention to the plight of the modern artist in your recent article, "Change the Law" (Vol 39, No.21) advocating the extension of intellectual copyright terms in the United States . As a writer and composer, I would benefit directly from the extension of these terms and so, it stands to reason, should be in favor of such a move by the Federal Government. It may surprise you to discover that I, like many artists in a variety of creative fields, am vehemently opposed to any further extension of these protections beyond what we are currently afforded.

As noted in the article, the original framers of the Constitution placed a very narrow window of fourteen years for an artist, with the option to renew for fourteen more if the author were still alive, to retain exclusive rights to their work before it entered the public domain. The assertion made by the article that they offered such seemingly meager provisions for artists because the issue affected such a small percentage of the working population ignores the obvious importance of the issue, addressed, as it was, within a year after the ratification of the Constitution itself. Neither was the span of time afforded a number chosen at random or without consideration. James Madison sponsored an act in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1785 securing similar rights for the span of twenty-one years. So, why, when introduced on a federal level, did we see this span decrease?

The historical record shows that there were those among the Founding Fathers who had reservations about extending the notion of inheritable property from the physical to the intellectual at all. In an 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson, Thomas Jefferson enunciated this position eloquently, saying

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it…That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."

Any artist unwilling to concede that ideas are drawn from a common space and then individualized in the execution of that idea is either delusional or lying. Indeed, the entire process of gaining the skills/craft necessary to be an artist is constituted of vicious copyright infraction after copyright infraction. Painters copy the work of earlier masters. Composers study (often meaning they learn and perform) the works of other musicians and composers, blending and borrowing along the way to create something new. Before we are writers, video game designers, or sculptors, we are readers, players, and admirers of the arts. Without the first, there is nothing to follow.

And so, we are fortunate that the Founding Fathers saw fit to invest in a body of art common to all the people of the United States, the Public Domain. I was frankly baffled by the Observer’s cavalier preparedness to sacrifice the Public Domain in the interest of passing the cultural wealth of the people on to the estates of the artist who, under our current laws, will have been dead for at least seventy years by the time these proposed term extensions would benefit anyone. We can measure the value of this bounty by the most casual examination of the ideas it holds even under our bloated current policy; like Christmas Carols, Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, "Amazing Grace," "Happy Birthday," or The Bible. Truly, how many of these indispensable cultural objects would anyone prefer to pay for with each usage so that the distant descendants of the artists responsible might live a little easier?

There are further arguments that can be presented to bolster the case for aggressively defending the public domain. If our concern is that we will be depriving artists of their due rewards for a lifetime of hard work, we could remedy this lingering sense of social culpability in his assured poverty by adequately funding the arts in our public schools. We could invest in more publicly funded venues for artistic expression and adult-education programs aimed at educating the people in the value of their cultural heritage, whether as Oklahomans or citizens of the United States. There is no end to the list of things that we could do to improve the lot of our artists when it will directly benefit them the most, namely, while said artist is living.

Furthermore, it is not the individual artist but the corporate entity that benefits most from a further extension of our current terms. Under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, an artist is granted copyright protection for a maximum of twenty eight years from initial publication. As a nation, we waited one hundred nineteen years before extending that privilege to a maximum of fifty-six years from initial publication. This adjustment, in the Copyright Act of 1909, made no meaningful distinction between the rights of individual owners and the corporate interests that might feasibly control them.

The twentieth century, in contrast, saw a concentration of intellectual property accumulate under corporate control on a scale unprecedented in American history. Our current system was first molded in 1976 to suit corporate interests by dramatically extending the copyright protection to an individual for fifty years after his or her death. It also established separate protections for corporations who owned content created under work-for-hire contracts at seventy-five years. These laws were substantively amended, once again, in 1998 under the terms of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act or, as it is sometimes known, The Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Under our current statutes, inheritors continue to benefit from individually-owned works for seventy years after the death of the author. Corporations now enjoy exclusive control of work-for-hire creations for one hundred twenty (!) years after creation, or ninety-five years after initial publication, whichever span of time is the shortest.

In my opinion, this is the cultural equivalent of egregious deficient spending to promote corporate interests over that of the public. Extending the current limits does absolutely nothing to improve the lot of artists while they are alive. The contour of the last one hundred years suggests, however, that changes in Constitutional Copyright Law have served, regardless of the aims under which they were originally conceived, to transfer a wealth that was intended by the framers of the Constitution to serve the public good into the hands of coporate interests. Where this trend will eventually terminate is a matter yet unresolved; but the words of former California senator Mary Bono upon the passage of the aforementioned Bono Act of 1998 provide us with an ominous note on which to end:

"Actually, Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever. I am informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution. … As you know, there is also [Motion Picture Association of America president at the time)] Jack Valenti’s proposal for term to last forever less one day. Perhaps the Committee may look at that next Congress…"

Monday, March 9, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' The Clouds (Part 3)

Parts One and Two can be found here and here respectively.

Of the three Great Ideas considered within this discussion of The Clouds, Custom and Convention is the most important because the first two, Knowledge and Justice, may be read as subsets within a broader discussion about the importance of tradition. While we have already looked at the tensions between Faith and Fact and Justice and Law, Aristophanes includes some interesting tidbits about the nature of these shifts in other areas. One that sticks out repeatedly is the contrast that Aristophanes presents between the Rural and the Urban.

It begins early in the play as Strepsiades recalls, with deep regret, the circumstances that led to his marriage, describing himself as having “a life without worries in the country” and “happy with my bees and my sheep and my olives.” He reiterates this idea just a few passages later while bemoaning his wife’s bad influence on his son.

STREPSIADES: When she was holding him and fondling him she used to say something like, “When you’re a big boy and ride in procession to the Acropolis in your chariot, wearing a lovely yellow coat, like your Uncle Megacles…” I did what I could; when it was my turn, I said, “No my son, when you’re a big boy and drive the goats, home from the hills, like your daddy did before you, wearing your good old leather smock…”—but it never did any good. He never took any notice of anything his father said.

The argument presented by the Right during the big debate provides an extended articulation of what values Aristophanes allies with tradition. He begins with education, extolling the virtues of order and solemnity among students. Older styles of music are emphasized over “modern” innovations as is sexual modesty and physical fitness. It should be noted that Aristophanes presents the Right’s argument in a less than flattering light. While extolling the virtues of chastity and modesty in the youth, Right makes licentious comments about the young men that suggest he himself is not above enjoying the more relaxed modern atmosphere. By its end, Right’s argument never presents any meaningful observations about why the traditions of the past were better, only that Athens of the past produced better men than those currently occupying her walls.

If anything, it is this ambiguity that makes The Clouds such a difficult piece of satire to mine for any sense of what Aristophanes himself might have thought about any given issue. While traditional values are extolled, mythologized and, finally, entombed in the course of the play, it is the audience (or in our case, the reader) that must decide for the most part what those might be. It is a cunning device that enables the Clouds to be relevant some 2500 years after its original performance as each new generation has met its obligation to produce a segment of people convinced that the solution to today’s problems is the re-application of yesterday’s values—a description that, for some, might include the writers of this blog!

Given this ambiguity, what are we to make of The Clouds? The humor of The Clouds that endures comes from the lengths that Strepsiades is willing to traverse in order to deny his own culpability in indulging his son’s vices in the first place. His error, Aristophanes seems to suggest, is in going up into his head (or up into the Clouds) to concoct an over-elaborate solution to a simple problem. Despite the eventual damage it may have done to his public reputation, Socrates is a secondary target and is satirized in the broadest strokes as a stand-in for teachers and philosophers as a whole. Aristophanes’ treatment of Strepsiades is much more pointed and the full consequences of his error made plain within the course of the play’s action. The playwright’s inability or unwillingness to prescribe a remedial action for this cultural shift towards laxity suggests that Aristophanes, like Strepsiades, may have felt equally paralyzed by the complexity of the changes that occurred in his lifetime. The fact that these tensions between the values of the past and the future continue to surface in social and political dialogue to this very day indicate that Aristophanes may have correctly identified it as an irreconcilable difference and, wisely, refused to pick a side.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' The Clouds (Part 2)

Part One can be read here

While Aristophanes exaggerates the tension between faith and fact on the surface of the Clouds, what he intends to convey about Justice is done so with more subtlety. Though Strepsiades is afforded more likeable qualities than the other characters in the Clouds, the story’s genesis lies in his desire to avoid Justice; that is, to avoid paying debts that he otherwise legally incurred. In order to avoid Justice (a Great Idea still conceived of by the Athenians as one governed by the divine if implemented by human hands), Strepsiades must turn to Socrates who, in turn, reduces it from a matter of divine sanction to one of human sophistry. This transition can be seen most plainly when the great debate between the argument known as Right and the argument known as Wrong unfolds with predictable consequences. Speaking to Socrates about his son, Strepsiades opens this debate with a final statement of his ambition.

STREPSIADES: Well, anyway, see that he learns your two Arguments, whatever you call them—oh yes, Right and Wrong—the one that takes a bad case and defeats Right with it. If he can’t manage both, then at least Wrong—that will do—but that he must have.

SOCRATES: Well, I’ll go and send the Arguments here in person, and they’ll teach him themselves.

STREPSIADES: [calling after SOCRATES as he goes out}: Don’t forget, he’s got to be able to argue against any kind of justified claim at all.

[Enter RIGHT, dressed in the good old Attic style. He is followed by the smirking figure of WRONG, dressed similarly to PHEIDIPPIDES except that his tunic is embroidered with tongues.]

That brief description tagged on to the end of their exchange is valuable because it frames the real parameters for this debate along the same lines as Aristophanes' dialogue. The struggle between Right and Wrong is presented as a generational one, which spills over into the third Great Idea, Custom and Convention and parsing Aristophanes’ views on one from the other in this passage proves difficult. Still, after basing his entire defense of the Right on adhering to proven traditions, Right offers, as the summation of his argument, a final warning in verse to Pheiddipides and the audience


If contrariwise you spurn my society and turn
To these modern ways, you’ll get a pale complexion
And with two exceptions, all your limbs will be too small
The exceptions are the tongue and the e-lection;

You will sing the trendy song, “Wrong is right
And right is wrong,
There’s no difference, there’s no Justice, there’s no God,”
And you’ll catch the current craze for Antimachus’ ways—
Or in plainer language, you’ll become a sod.

Here, Right asserts a causative link between the existence of Justice and reverence of the Divine. Borrowing, for just a moment, from Plato’s depiction of Socrates in Apology, Wisdom, which is the sole province of the Divine except in humanity’s ability to recognize that it has none, can be seen as in harmony with Aristophanes’ view of Justice. As these lofty ideals, once integrally intertwined with the idea of Divine influence on mortals, are relegated to the province of human achievement, both seem to suggest, they become a weapon in the hands of the self-assured and, invariably, incapable.

Later, after his son has been thoroughly trained in the argument for the Wrong, Strepsiades learns the awful consequences of subverting Justice when his son beats him and then uses the argument to defend his actions.

STREPSIADES: But look at the laws! Can you name a city where the law allows you to do this to your father?

PHEIDIPPIDES: But what is a law anyway? It must have been made at some time, and made by a man just like you or me; and he must have persuaded his people by argument to accept it. Why shouldn’t I now make a new law allowing sons to beat their fathers in return?

Even in this comedic setting, we can hear the supposed words of Pontius Pilate ringing hollow at the feet of a Jewish teacher who also believed, unlike the Romans of his time, that Justice was the sole province of the Divine; its very existence, the proof of Divine influence over the affairs of humanity. Athenian law was transformed from a matter of tradition to a matter of human avocation (a skill that might be learned) by the increasing demands on its social structure brought on by rapid population growth and the concentration of human learning. While most modern readers would cite a preference for being judged by human laws rather than Divinely inspired ones, there are few among us attesting to the ease with which Justice might be sought and found, in those times or these, whether inside a court or out.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' The Clouds (Pt 1)

The Clouds by Aristophanes
Time: Written towards the end of the Fifth Century BCE
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas: Knowledge, Justice, Custom and Convention

[The complete text of The Clouds may be accessed online at though the translation is slightly different than the Alan Sommerstein translation used in the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World from which I'm quoting]

The Clouds is a play, written by Aristophanes in the Greek tradition of Old Comedy, that appears on its surface to be a straight-forward satire directed at the Socratic school of inquiry in particular and at philosophy in general. As one of only eleven plays written by Aristophanes that have survived into modern times, the reader is tempted to place special significance on Aristophanes’ relentless lampooning of a figure revered by Plato among others for his thoughtfulness and humility; not unlike eavesdropping in on an East Coast/West Coast MC battle from which we are removed in time and culture by almost 2500 years. In this sense, The Clouds provides a vital and complementary voice to Plato’s own on Socrates that sketches a much detailed picture of how the average Athenian might have viewed the obstreperous philosopher—as a polarizing figure and a man about whom it was difficult to be ambivalent.

That opposing balance, however, is not The Clouds most valuable contribution to our understanding of Aristophanes’ Athens or insight into the human condition. Under cover from his relentless lampooning of Socrates, Aristophanes constructs a haunting picture of a culture on a fulcrum between its more pastoral past and its increasingly complex urban future. While he hangs this paradox on a comedic frame, thus muting its medicinal flavor, his unity of action is pointed specifically at suggesting a bleak moral for which he neither provides nor, one assumes, knows a remedy. Though Aristophanes touches on a wide number of the Great Ideas in this and other plays, his themes in the Clouds address most directly the notions of Knowledge, Justice, and Custom and Convention.

The Clouds is the story of Strepsiades, an Athenian citizen whose son, Pheidippides, has run up a lot of debt due to his fixation with horse racing. Strepsiades decides that the only way he can avoid being sued is to enroll his son in the Thinkery, a school nearby overseen by Socrates where, “if you pay them well, they can teach you how to win your case—whether you’re in the right or not”. When Pheidippides shows little interest in this new-fangled learning, Strepsiades enrolls in the school, hoping to find out for himself what this argument known as “Wrong” is all about.

When Strepsiades meets Socrates, this fictionalized rendition of history’s most silent teacher lives up to his reputation of exposing how little men know but quite differently than Plato’s no-less fictionalized version. Aristophanes introduces him suspended above the stage “like a god in tragedy, in a contrivance like the gondola of a balloon.” It becomes clear quickly that the two men barely speak the same language.

SOCRATES: Why call’st me, O thou creature of a day?

STREPSIADES: Well, for a start, I’d be very interested to know what you’re doing up there.

SOCRATES: I am walking upon air and attacking the mystery of the sun.

STREPSIADES: Well, if you must attack the Mysteries of the gods why can’t you do it on the ground?

SOCRATES: Why, for accurate investigation of meteorological phenomena it is essential to get one’s thoughts into a state of, er, suspension by mixing small quantities of them with air—for air, you know, is of very similar physical constitution to thought—at least, to mine. So I could never make any discoveries by looking up from the ground—there is a powerful attractive force between the earth and the moisture contained in thought. Something similar may be observed to happen in the case of watercress.

While the comedic value of having Socrates address his newest student in a manner normally reserved for the gods in the theatre is obvious, there is a precision to Aristophanes’ language here that suggests he may not be merely kidding around. Though Socrates explains that he is attacking the “mystery” of the sun, Strepsiades immediately conflates that with attacking the “Mysteries of the gods.” In passage after passage, Aristophanes suggests that Socrates is, in effect, blaspheming against the gods by engaging in inquiry about phenomena once relegated to their authority.

After introducing Strepsiades to the Clouds (the Chorus but costumed “with dresses shaped and colored like clouds”), he brashly announces that they are, in fact, “the only divine beings—all the rest is just a lot of fairy tales.”

STREPSIADES: What on earth—! You mean you don’t believe in Zeus?

SOCRATES: Zeus? Who’s Zeus?

STREPSIADES: Zeus who lives on Olympus, of course.

SOCRATES: Now really, you should know better. [Confidentially] There is no Zeus.

STREPSIADES: What? Well, who sends the rain, then? Answer me that.

SOCRATES: Why, our friends here do that, and I’ll prove it. Have you ever seen it rain when the sky was blue? Surely Zeus, if it was him, would be able to send rain even when the Clouds were out of town.

STREPSIADES: That certainly backs your argument. I wonder why I was so na├»ve as to think that rain was just Zeus pissing into a sieve. Well, that’s one thing; but who is it that thunders and sends shivers up my spine?

SOCRATES: The Clouds do that too—when they get in a whirl.

STREPSIADES: I can see I’m never going to trip you. But what do you mean, a whirl?

SOCRATES: Well, being suspended in the air, you see, when they get swollen with rain they are necessarily set in motion, and of course they collide with one another, and because of their weight they get broken and let out this great noise.

STREPSIADES: “Necessarily set in motion,” you say. Ah, but who sets them in motion? Now that’s got to be Zeus!

SOCRATES: Not a bit of it; as I say, it’s a whirl in the sky.

STREPSIADES: A whirl!—ah, I get you. That I must say I hadn’t been told before. I get it. Zeus is dead and now a whirl is the new king. But you still haven’t told me what causes the thunder.

SOCRATES: Didn’t you hear? I said that it occurs when Clouds swollen with rain collide with one another, and is caused by their density.

The spookiest thing about this passage is how accurate even this Bizarro-Socrates’ explanation of rain as a natural phenomena rather than a supernatural one is. I find myself torn between two readings; one which assumes that the audience would have found these explanations laughable despite the fact that they were, in time, proven to be essentially correct and the second, which assumes that the audience would have recognized the paradigmatic shift that these explanations represented and yet found themselves, like Strepsiades, clinging to a supernatural explanation despite evidence mounting to the contrary. This tug-of-war over causality (ie do things just happen or do they happen for a reason?) is one that science, religion, and philosophy have continued to wage for over two millennia since Aristophanes wrote The Clouds. That alone may be enough to justify the assumption that the second interpretation is the more accurate.

[To be Continued]

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Author Sketch: Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata)

455 – 380 BCE

World Events during Aristophanes’ Lifetime:
- Siddhartha Gautama dies – 480 BCE
- the wall of Jerusalem was built by Nehemiah and Ezra
- Xerxes II becomes the King of Persia and is quickly succeeded by Darius II
- Indian Civilization in Mexico declines
- The Fourche Maline culture reaches its apex in North America
- The 30th dynasty becomes the final native house to rule Egypt

Very little is known about the life of Aristophanes outside of the information that may be gleaned from his eleven comedic plays still extant. An Athenian by birthright, Aristophanes enjoyed a very long life and he, like Socrates, lived during a time of dramatic political change and upheaval. It is important to keep in mind that Greek theatre was a competitive sport and, at this, Aristophanes can be seen as a great success. His first play (The Banqueters) won second prize when he was only 18 years old. Embedded within the chorus’ dialogue (usually understood to be the voice of the author) we can hear that Aristophanes himself was understandably concerned with the success of his plays. The course of Aristophanes’ lifetime ran parallel to The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchies and two democratic “restorations”. One might ask how it was that Aristophanes could have possibly lived such a long life utilizing his satiric wit in the Old Comedic tradition that involved public ridicule for many local Athenian peoples of prestige.

His life was not void of political danger, however, and most notably he was put on trial by Cleon for allegedly committing slander against the Polis who were the only people who were “off limits” in Greek Comedy. Aristophanes was cleared of all charges but made Cleon a comedic target for many years to come. Cleon’s political life, ironically, was as long as Aristophanes’ 40 year long career as a poet and playwright and neither of them seemed to suffer from their extended “war of words”. One argument that scholars have put forth is that Aristophanes’ long life can be attributed to his willingness to be censored by whatever ruling political party happened to be in power at the time. This theory may explain why only eleven of his supposed 40-60 plays are still extant today. It may also explain the typically hard line conservative voice that seems to emanate from his written works. We will never know whether these views were actually his own or merely a reflection of his audience.

The fact that Aristophanes is a transitional figure between the traditions of Old and New Comedy should not be forgotten by the reader. Old Comedy is more localized and distinctly Athenian whereas New Comedy has a broader perspective and is suggestive of an emergent and distinctly Greek worldview. I have found that these transitional authors are among the more interesting to read, mostly due to the fact that the writing is in the voice of the declining and ascendant traditions at the same time. Unfortunately, because we do not have access to the whole of Aristophanes’ works, we cannot know the degree of fluidity with which this transition was made. We do know that his last play (which is lost) was written in the tradition of New Comedy but we do not know if it was a success or even if it was any good. His sons continued their father’s legacy as playwrights in the tradition of New Comedy and achieved marked competitive success.