Thursday, April 30, 2009

Author Sketch- Plato (Part 2)

The first part of the Author Sketch for Plato can be read here


Works Under Consideration: The Republic: Books One and Two

Place: Athens, Greece

A mere seven years after Aristophanes daydreamed about a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War in Lysistrata, Athens found itself facing utter ruin and, ultimately, surrendered to Sparta and her allies in 404 BCE. Stripped of its former glory and wealth, Athens began a slow descent that merely scouted ahead on the route of Greece’s overall decline in importance in relation to world affairs, ceding its sovereignty first to Alexander and later, to Rome.

Herma of Plato, Musei Capitolini, Rome
taken by Ricardo André Frantz

This is the Athens in which Plato would write his works; still benefiting from the concentration of learning and inquiry present in the first decades after the fall but marginalized by the ever-escalating tensions and complexities of civilization as it waded into every inlet and onto every isthmus of the Mediterranean.

Yet, even as its fortunes in world affairs begin to diminish, Greece would remain a dominant force in culture for centuries to come. Around 385 BCE, Plato founded a school just outside of Athens in a place sacred to Athena and, in so doing, laid the foundation for The Great Conversation to truly develop beyond its mostly Greek origins. The final incarnation of the Academy would not be shuttered until nearly 800 years later, having attracted minds from all over the known world in pursuit of knowledge.

Plato’s trilogy about the trial and execution of Socrates (comprised of Apology, Crito, and Phaedo) are among his earliest and most accessible works. Perhaps it is for this reason that Plato is often read (or misread) as merely the ideas of Socrates, an oral teacher, into writing. Of course, Plato doesn’t discourage this notion by using Socrates, as a character, at the core of his most widely read works including the one under discussion here, The Republic. This device, however, should not tempt us into overlooking at least two other streams important to Plato’s contribution to the Great Conversation.

The Republic is, at its simplest, an attempt to use philosophy as the means to discover the best ways for humanity to govern itself. While Plato no doubt drew upon the teachings of Socrates, most notably in his method of inquiry, he was not, as it turns out, the first person to try this sort of thing. For that honor, we must turn to the first philosopher, Pythagoras who, himself, founded a school of learning that outlived him by several centuries and, indeed, used the principles of his philosophy to intervene into politics with somewhat disastrous results. Because Pythagoras, like Socrates after him, also insisted on the primacy of oral teaching but did not, like Socrates, have someone like Plato to write some of his ideas down after his death, history offers very little credible information about what exactly Pythagoras himself may have believed or taught. His influence must be reverse-engineered from the transmission of that influence through the course of ancient philosophy until it runs, smack dab, into Plato in the early 4th century BCE.

There is every reason, however, to suspect that, in his time, Plato was perceived as a Pythagorean and his writing was read in context of that tradition. The Republic, in this sense, can be seen as Plato, still devastated from the loss of his teacher and the defeat of his city, returning to first principles and working out the fundamental relationships between people and the city-nation-states that develop in their massing just as Pythagoras had before him.

Their efforts are differentiated (as Plato and Socrates are differentiated) by the contrast between abstract philosophical inquiry, captured for posterity in the act of writing, and applied philosophical inquiry, as practiced by Socrates and Pythagoras that would ultimately get them both killed. The third important influence within the Republic is that of Plato himself, having seen the dangers in the applied school of political philosophy in action and deciding that there had to be a better way. While it may be nigh impossible to truly parse what ideas belonged first to whom, it is in this melding of three minds that we see the potential for the Great Conversation develop and, ultimately, blossom into something unlike anything that world had ever known.

Monday, April 20, 2009

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

You can find Part One of this essay here, Part Two, here, and Part Three, here.

What motivates an Athenian woman like Lysistrata to take action based on her own ideas about War and Peace, even if motivated by a sense of Duty that exceeded the cultural expectations of her time? In the Syntopicon, Adler defines a Hero as one who does “not despair in the face of almost helpless odds” as well as possessing “the strength and stamina to achieve whatever they set their minds and wills to do” before finally adding that “they would not be heroes if they were not men of courage.” [195]. In other words, Lysistrata is a Man of Courage…except, of course, that she is not a man at all. Possessed of marvelous modern minds, we can easily remedy this malapropism by calling her a Woman of Courage or, perhaps a Person of Courage.

While this glissando may pave over some of Adler’s unattractive chauvinism, it does not clarify his meaning or even defuse those critics who might argue that Lysistrata is a incredible (as in not credible) character because no woman could have done what she is portrayed as doing in the time and place where she does it. In order to untangle this cluster of irreconcilables, we must do as Lysistrata herself suggests and “put it to the spindle, unwind it this way, now that way” as “that’s how we’ll unravel this war, if you’ll let us.” [853]

It would be disingenuous to characterize the unmistakable patina of phallocentrism in Adler’s opening description of Courage as a mere byproduct of his worldview and not endemic to the material he is drawing from in his delineation of the Great Ideas one from another. There is a particular telling passage a few paragraphs later where he asserts that “such courage is a virtue in the primary sense of the Latin word virtus—manliness, the spirit, or strength of spirit, required to be a man” [196].

To see the illogic inherent in a sentence like that, one must think it in three modes, Greek, Roman, and Modern. His first assertion, that Courage is a virtue sets specific parameters wherein Virtue is the Set and Courage is a sub-set. This is reasonable enough as we can easily think, as could the ancient Greeks, of other kinds of virtue as well; some masculine in nature, some feminine in nature, and some inhabiting no gender at all. The Greek word arete (translated into English as virtue) had more to do with the ultimate fulfillment of something’s function than some warm and fuzzy feelings about how people ought to treat one another.

Moving to his second premise we are told that Courage is, in itself congruous with the primary meaning of the Latin word virtus which, as we can see from his description, is neither feminine nor neuter but specifically masculine. This admission places every other kind of virtue (of which there are many) as subservient to the ultimate fulfillment of what it means to be a man. In Greek, this masculine Courage (or Courage of the body as he later defines it) is one type of virtue among many. In Latin, all virtue is made subordinate to that of being masculine. In English, the distinction is invisible but no less potent in its connotation.
Adler, to his credit, does not end his exploration of Courage with this exclusively masculine expression though he does lumps the remainder as “other sorts of Courage” [196].

The courage of the tragic hero, of Oedipus and Antigone, goes with strength of mind, not body. This, perhaps even more than being lionhearted, is a specifically human strength. Courage does not consist only in conquering fear and in withholding the body from flight no matter what the risk of pain. It consists at least as much in steeling the will, reinforcing its resolutions, and turning the mind relentlessly to seek or face the truth. [196]

Pausing for one last moment to remark upon the cluelessness of not recognizing that childbirth is pretty damn obvious example of “conquering fear” while “withholding the body from flight no matter what the risk of pain”, Adler does extend the personhood of mind to women, going so far as to describe his Courage of the mind it as a human strength rather than a manly one. He also provides more criteria by which to judge the courageousness of Lysistrata’s actions in her capacity to summon her will, enact a plan of action based on her convictions and confronting her culture’s long-held notions on gender in the service of Truth.

Turning to the text at hand, there is ample evidence of not only Lysistrata exhibiting both kinds of Courage but other women as well. There are a number of obstacles that threaten to derail the wives’ strike before it is even fully hatched. The most persistent one is the women’s own hunger for sex, already badly malnourished as they are by the never-ending war. While this is the hurdle to which Aristophanes returns to the most often (because it’s funny and this is a comedy), it is not the most dire in terms of consequences.

LYSISTRATA: Just imagine: we’re at home, beautifully made up, wearing our sheerest lawn negligees and nothing underneath…and the men are all like ramrods and can’t wait to leap into bed, and then we’ll absolutely refuse—that’ll make them make peace soon enough, you’ll see.

LAMPITO: Din ye mind how Menelaus threw away his sword when he saw but a glimpse of Helen’s breasties?

CALONICE: But, look, what if they divorce us?

LYSISTRATA: Well, that wouldn’t help them much, would it? Like Pherecrates says, it would be no more use than skinning the same dog twice.

CALONICE:…What if they take hold of us and drag us into the bedroom by force?

LYSISTRATA: Cling to the door.

CALONICE: And if they hit us and force us to let go?

LYSISTRATA: Why, in that case, you’ve got to be as damned unresponsive as possible. There’s no pleasure in it if they have to use force and give pain. They’ll give up trying soon enough. And no man is ever happy if he can’t please his woman. [827]

There is no disputing that Aristophanes’ dialogue here is very funny. There is also no disputing that anyone of those things could happen to a Greek woman if she refused to fulfill her wifely duties, whether domestic or carnal. The threat of social retribution is real. The threat of physical violence is real. Fitting in with the tone of the play, however, the men’s response to their wives’ abandonment of them is mostly one of confusion and helplessness.

Lysistrata’s usurpation of male authority does not end, however, with the mere refusal of women to act like wives. The more subversive facet of her strategy, to occupy the Acropolis, thus depriving the men of the money they need to continue waging war is not met with the same hapless amusement. A chorus of men arrive almost immediately with fire to burn them out of the Temple. Though the battle that erupts between dueling choruses of old men and old women is more comedic than threatening, the violent timbre of the men’s exasperation is unmistakable and met by an equal fury from their female counterparts.

LEADER [to his neighbor]: Are we going to let them go on blethering like this? Shouldn’t we be bringing our logs down on their back?

STRATYLLIS: [to her followers]: Put down your jars too. We don’t want any encumbrances in case it comes to a fight.

LEADER [raising his fist]: Someone ought to give them a Bupalus or two on the jaw—that might shut them up for a bit.

STRATYLLIS [presenting her cheek to him]: All right, there you are; hit me; I won’t shy away. Only if you do, no dog will ever grab your balls again!

LEADER: If you don’t shut up, you old crone, I’ll knock the stuffing out of you!

STRATYLLIS: If you so much as touch me with the tip of your finger—

LEADER: All right, suppose I do; what then?

STRATYLLIS: I’ll bite your chest and tear out your inside! [830]

The women of Lysistrata are clearly shown exhibiting both physical and mental courage despite Adler’s assertion that the former is the exclusive domain of the masculine. One might say (and some have said) that the women of this play behave not as women do but as men and, therein lies its comedy. While that interpretation is open to those seeking it, Aristophanes’ comedic technique of inversion (something Lysistrata shares with The Clouds) is effective because of the unexpected truths that it uncovers. Though the women of Greece may not have been any more able to act in accord to end war (or even desire such as thing) as the women of the world today, Aristophanes’ meditations on the relationship of women to war and, on a broader level, to the societies to which they belong are universally potent in their insights.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Part 3 of 4)

You can find Part One of this essay here and Part Two, here.

Like War and Peace, the lessons regarding Duty contained within Lysistrata touch upon ideas so ubiquitous within the Greek culture that they are rarely discussed in the abstract and must, instead, be inferred from the characters’ commentary on seemingly divergent topics. What makes Lysistrata stand out from the rest of her conspirators is not the abstention from sex but her willingness to first identify that a conflict has arisen between differing modes of duty and then reconcile them, thus bringing harmony not only to her own life but to all of Greece. Aristophanes places great emphasis throughout the play on women’s primary role in Greek culture as wives and keepers of the home . In the opening scene, as Lysistrata complains to her first arrival, Calonice, about the other women’s tardiness to hear her plan, her friend plainly lays out the many obligations that may have kept them from the appointment.

CALONICE: Don’t worry, dear, they’ll come. It’s not so easy for a wife to get out of the house, you know. They’ll all be rushing to and fro for their husbands, waking up the servants, putting the baby to bed or washing and feeding it—

LYSISTRATA: Damn it, there are more important things than that.

Note that Lysistrata does not say that those things are unimportant, only that there are concerns that go beyond them in dire need of resolution. What does this tell us? First, there are than more one set of duties that a woman might have an obligation to fulfill and that some of them are more important than others. Only the most banal would argue that women are born with no obligations to duty whatsoever. The fact that a woman is a human being, subject to the same laws of life and death that govern us all means that her first and most basic obligation is, in fact, to continue living as long as possible, just as it is for anyone else.

Unlike men, women carry the potential for creating more human life; a necessity, that must acknowledged as pertinent to some percentage of women of reproductive age or the species would have terminated aeons ago. So, looking at it from a strictly biological perspective, a woman’s most basic potential obligation is to, first, survive, and, second, potentially give birth and nurture that offspring until the child is capable of fending for her own survival. Through the course of human evolution, it became advantageous for a woman trying to accomplish goals number one and two to pair-bond with a capable male partner, creating a third sense of duty; expressed mostly simply as the relationship between husband and wife—though every culture and civilization develops an unique set of mores regarding this relationship (sometimes called marriage) reflective of its peculiar values and always subject to periodic re-examination.

These three obligations (to husband, to child, to self; listed in order of importance) can be thought of three-fourths of the Greek status quo for a woman’s duties as assumed by both Aristophanes and his audience. For the purpose of placing them on a more pragmatic continuum, I found it useful to think of these obligations as Internal at one extremity and progressing from self, to child, and then to husband (the opposite of Greek attitudes) towards another extreme that might be thought of as External. While the institution of Marriage (as observed by the Greeks) still represents an Internal obligation (as it is tied at least historically into both the preservation of self and nurturing of offspring), the final duty assumed in Lysistrata, a woman’s relations to the gods and goddesses represents the only socially acceptable foray into territory that is inarguably Exterior. As one might suspect, this piety is restricted to some extent to those goddesses specifically tied to home and the hearth. Athena, goddess of wisdom, war, and patroness to the city of Athens, despite her gender, is considered, to some extent, off limits to the women. As the women storm the Acropolis (Athena’s temple), the chorus of men sound their indignation.


Incredible! Impossible!
Our women, if you please!
We’ve kept and fed within our doors
A pestilent disease!

They’ve seized our own Acropolis
With bars they’ve shut the gate!
They hold the statue of the Maid,
Protectress of our state!

Come on and let us hurry there
And put these logs around,
Smoke out the whole conspiracy
From Pallas’ sacred ground! [828]

The female chorus, a short time later responds, saying:


Some frail old men
Approach with limping gait,
And carry logs
Of an enormous weight.

Dire threats they make,
Our friends they hope to see
Roasted alive.
O Maid, this must not be!

No, may they save
All Greece from war insane
For that is why
They occupy thy fane. [829]

Later, as Lysistrata is able to make her case before the magistrate, another exchange is even more descriptive of this divine segregation inherent to the culture.

MAGISTRATE: Well, the first thing I want to know is—what in Zeus’ name do you mean by shutting and barring the gates of our own Acropolis against us?

LYSISTRATA: We want to keep the money safe and stop you from waging war.

MAGISTRATE: The war has nothing to do with the money—

LYSISTRATA: Hasn’t it? Why are Peisander and the other office-seekers always stirring things up? Isn’t it so they can take a few more dips in the public purse? Well, as far as we are concerned they can do what they like; only they’re not going to lay their hands on the money in there.

MAGISTRATE: Why, what are you going to do?

LYSISTRATA: Do? Why, we’ll be in charge of it.

MAGISTRATE: You in charge of our finances?

LYSISTRATA: Well, what’s so strange about that? We’ve been in charge of all your housekeeping finances for years.

MAGISTRATE: But that’s not the same thing.


MAGISTRATE: Because the money here is needed for the war!

LYSISTRATA: Ah, but the war itself isn’t necessary.

MAGISTRATE: Not necessary! How is the City going to be saved then?

LYSISTRATA: We’ll save it for you.



MAGISTRATE: This is intolerable!

LYSISTRATA: It may be, but it’s what’s going to happen.

MAGISTRATE: But Demeter!—I mean, it’s against nature. [832]

Parsing that passage, we see the magistrate open his attack with a double invocation of the patriarchal prerogative; first condemning her actions in the name of Zeus and then referring to the Acropolis as “our own”, meaning belonging rightly to the men. Sidestepping this condemnation to her authority, Lysistrata refutes his argument against it. He is left at the end only to invoke a “proper” female goddess, Demeter and labeling the entire spectacle as “against nature.”

Once Lysistrata moves beyond the conventions of her culture, she finds that there is very little that does not concern her more directly than she ever supposed, opening up a whole new sphere of duties that women might share alongside the men of Greece.

LYSISTRATA: In the last war we were too modest to object to anything you men did—and in any case you wouldn’t let us say a word. But don’t think we approved! We knew everything that was going on. Many times we’d hear at home about some major blunder of yours, and then when you came home, we’d be burning inside but we’d have to put on a smile and ask what it was you’d decided to inscribe on the pillar beneath the Peace Treaty.—And what did my husband always say?—“Shut up and mind your own business!” And I did.

MAGISTRATE: He’d have given you one if you hadn’t!

LYSISTRATA: Exactly—so I kept quiet. But, sure enough, next thing we knew you’d make an even sillier decision. And if I so much as said, “Darling, why are you still carrying on with this silly policy?” he would glare at me and say, “Back to your weaving, woman, or you’ll have a headache for a month. ‘Go and attend to your work; let war be the care of the menfolk.’”

MAGISTRATE: Quite right too, by Zeus.

LYSISTRATA: Right? That we should not be allowed to make the least little suggestion to you, no matter how much you mismanage the City’s affairs? And, now, look, every time two people meet in the street, what do they say? “Isn’t there a man in the country?” and the answer comes, “Not one.” That’s why we women got together and decided we were going to save Greece. What was the point of waiting any longer, we asked ourselves. Well now, we’ll make a deal. You listen to us—and we’ll talk sense, not like you used to—listen to us and keep quiet, as we’ve had to do up to now, and we’ll clear up the mess you’ve made. [833]

Now our continuum continues on its journey away from the traditional Greek sphere of women's obligation and into territory deemed by culture, convention and dogma to be exclusively male. This is Aristophanes’ radical leap as he begins to question what a woman’s obligations to her City, to Greece, and, indeed, to all humanity might very well be.

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.