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.

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