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.

1 comment:

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