Monday, April 6, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Part 2 of 4)

The first part of this essay can be found at

The contemplation of War and Peace, whether in Ancient Greece or today, spills over messily into other avenues of consideration like Belief, Custom and Convention, and Man. While there have been countless intellectual developments in the world since the time of Aristophanes, we, as a species, have come little closer to answering the fundamental questions regarding war and its complement, peace. War, as a phenomenon, stretches back to the outer limits of history (which is to say history begins with the invention of writing) and so even as Aristophanes contemplates it in a time now twenty-five hundred years separated from us, war already had a track record as a constant among human activity stretching back twenty-five hundred years before that. It is easy to see then, as it is easy to see now, why War might be considered an integral component of the human framework and Peace, an object of great fragility that few might expect to hold for long.

In one sense, Lysistrata is very much a piece of its time, taking on the hard questions about War and Peace through the filter of Belief. War in the Greek tradition bore the sanction of the gods. It was an act of devotion. It was a rite, governed like any sacrifice, by rules and traditions. Yet, the Peloponnesian War was one unlike any the Athenians (or any other Greek for that matter) had known. While the frequent skirmishes between cities in the past had been limited in scope and duration by the finite resources of the warring factions, successful colonization and alliance with more distant kingdoms allowed this war that pitted all of Greece against itself to escalate beyond the settling of a particular grievance or boundary dispute. It was endless war for endless war’s sake. It was war that had taken on a life and a purpose of its own.

Lysistrata’s plan to end this conflict actually entails two steps; the first, to force the men to listen to her through the wives’ strike and, the second, to bring them to reconciliation through an indictment of the War and those determined to fight it. The latter deals more specifically with the idea of War though some groundwork for her argument gets laid (no pun intended) earlier in the piece. As she makes her pitch to another Athenian woman in the opening scene, Lysistrata’s assessment of the stakes of their mission are haunting in their accuracy.

LYSISTRATA- …the whole future of the city is up to us. Either the Peloponnesians are all going to be wiped out…--and Athens—well, I won’t say it but you know what might happen.

As history would have it, the Peloponnesian War resulted in Macedonia breaking free of both Greek and Persian influence and, in turn, producing an Alexander to conquer them both. The peace Lysistrata seeks would eventually come, albeit temporarily, but it would come under the boot of Alexander’s conquest. This provides us with a contrast between at least two types of peace: Peace by Reconciliation and Peace through Victory. History provides innumerable lessons on the benefits and shortcomings of Peace through Victory (Google: Pax Romana), but Peace by Reconciliation has proven to be more of an exercise of the imagination than of experience.

Reconciliation, in Lysistrata, however, is much more than just an agreement to stop fighting. In the play, Reconciliation is presented as “[a]n extremely beautiful and totally unclothed girl” who essentially distracts the negotiating partners into making compromises that seemed too onerous to consider mere moments earlier. As they ogle and fondle Reconciliation, Lysistrata delivers the core of her argument.


I am a woman, but I am not brainless:
I have my share of native wit, and more,
Both from my father and from other elders
Instruction I’ve received. Now listen, both:
Hard will my words be, but not undeserved.
You worship the same gods at the same shrines,
Use the same lustral water, just as if
You were a single family—which you are—
Delphi, Olympia, Thermopylae—
How many other Panhellenic shrines
Could I make mention of, if it were needed!
And yet, although the Mede is at our gates,
You ruin Greece with mad intestine wars,
This is my first reproach to both of you. [842]

In this role, Reconciliation is herself, a divine presence among mortals on the stage. The crass manner in which she is handled by the negotiating partners does not diminish her status. If anything, it is proof of her functionality as a Divine player in mortal affairs. The men, fascinated by her charms, are essentially helpless to assert their customary grievances and Lysistrata’s well-argued reasoning is able to win them over to the cause of peace among the Greeks. While modern readers might be put off by the subservient role Reconciliation plays here, Lysistrata herself is described in a nearby passage as a “mighty lady with a mission/Paragon of common sense/Running Fount of Erudition/Miracle of Eloquence!” [842]. She is subordinate only to the gods and, as such, is every bit the hero of this play that the conventions of Old Comedy will allow.

Aristophanes’ vision of peace by some means other than bloodshed is tantalizing in its simplicity which explains, to some extent, Lysistrata’s lasting impression on the Western canon. Paul’s vision of Peace through Christ was similarly conceived hundreds of years before it displaced Peace through Victory in the Roman ethos and hinges on a similar premise that War might cease if only Men loved Christ (as opposed to Sex) more than they loved killing each other. While belief in Victory or Christ has failed to end war in the Western tradition (or anywhere else for that matter), it doesn’t take much effort to see the fragile peace sustained by both as an improvement over their absences, illustrated respectively by the sack of Rome and the atrocities of the First and Second World Wars. The lesson would seem to be that, in a vacuum of a shared belief to redirect its energy, Humanity seems predisposed by some invisible synergy of its biological, intellectual, and social evolution to warring with itself over abstractions.

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