Sunday, 4 January 2015

Aristophanes and Socrates

Aristophanes (c.448-386 B.C.) was the most famous of the Athenian comic playwrights. He enjoyed mocking his contemporaries in his plays: Euripides the great tragic dramatist, Cleon the rabble-rousing demagogue and Cleisthenes, an effeminate homosexual. In "The Clouds" (422), Aristophanes make the philosopher Socrates (shown here) his target.
     It is not one of his better plays, being very disjointed in structure, and it failed to win any prizes when it was first staged, but what ir says is still interesting. The central character is Strepsiades, a foolish old man, who has been placed in financial difficulties by Pheidippides, his spendthrift son. He has heard that it is possible to thwart creditors by means of specious and dishonest arguments, so he goes to see Socrates in the hope of being taught this skill.
   Socrates questions Strepsiades about his beliefs. Socrates, it transpires, worships only clouds (hence the title of the play). But surely, says Strepsiades, Zeus causes rain to fall? No,says Socrates, rain is caused by clouds. What about thunderstorms: surely Zeus causes thunder? No; thunder is also caused by clouds. Nor does Zeus strike down evildoers: at least, there's no sign that he's done this recently!  Eventually Socrates dismisses Strepsiades as too stupid to be instructed. (It is interesting that, scientifically, Socrates is quite right about the clouds!)
   Strepsiades still needs to learn how to lie and cheat, so he sends his son Pheidippides to be instructed by Socrates. There then follows a debate between two entities called "Right Reasoning" and "Wrong Reasoning". The former laments the passing of the "good old days" when men were honest, brave and frugal, and the young were respectful to their elders. "Wrong Reasoning" has no difficulty in sweeping aside all this rubbish, and then undermines respect for the gods by drawing attention to the extremely immoral conduce of Zeus in the old myths. (In our eyes, "Wrong Reasoning" has easily won this argument, but I wonder if it would appear that way to a contemporary Athenian?)
   Strepsiades then drives away two creditors by employing a string of specious and irrelevant arguments. But his satisfaction ends when Pheidippides returns from instruction by Socrates. He tells his father that he has learnt that there are no gods, but that everything in the universe is moved by a mysterious entity sometimes translated into English as "the vortex" (this is clearly what Aristotle later defined as the "first cause", the "unmoved mover", which we find in Dante and other mediaeval writers as the "primum mobile", out beyond the stars). Pheidippides then commits what to the ancient world was an unforgivable sacrilege: he beats his father and threatens to beat his mother too! He argues that, if there are no gods to punish wrongdoing, then he can do whatever he likes! (This question was to be debated endlessly by moralists: if there is no such thing as divinely-enforced justice, what is there to check wickedness? and how can we even know what right and wrong are? Or, for that matter, how can the existing social structure be justified, if not divinely ordained? as Dostoevsky put it, "If there is no God, how then can I be a captain?")
   The play ends on a dramatic note: Strepsiades, horrified by his son's impiety, goes and sets fire to Socrates's house, with all his students inside, "Because they have blasphemed to gods!"

The intention of Aristophanes in writing this play was to attack the Sophists, who, it was said, used complex and possibly dishonest arguments not to reveal the truth but to confuse it. It is strange, however, that he should use Socrates as a target, since Socrates opposed the Sophists and,famously, was always searching for truth. Perhaps Aristophanes was not familiar with Socrates's purpose? We cannot read the final scene of the play, and its accusation of blasphemy, without recalling that Socrates was to be condemned to death and executed in 399 B.C. for this very same crime: corrupting the youth of Athens.
    So was Aristophanes in any way indirectly responsible for the death of Socrates? This seems unlikely. Certainly Socrates's disciple Plato seemed not to think so, for in his dialogue "The Symposium", written some years after the execution, he portrays Aristophanes as contributing an entirely innocuous and rather charming poetic conceit about the nature of love. To this day, no-one really knows why Socrates was condemned, when no other equivalent person was treated this way; but does seem most likely that the reason was political, stemming from the violent situation in Athens at the time.
   The Peloponnesian war with Sparta,which had continued on-and-off for almost thirty years, ended in 404 B.C. with the disastrous defeat of Athens. The Spartans then abolished the democratic government of Athens and in its place imposed and oligarchic regime known as the "Thirty Tyrants". Many of the new rulers were personal friends of Socrates. The new rulers conducted a bloody purge of their opponents: over 1,000 men a month "disappeared", death-squads roamed the streets, children of opposition families were snatched, and there was much looting for personal gain. Perhaps 1,500 died in this reign of terror. Only 3,000 approved citizens were allowed to bear arms. Socrates was one of the "approved", though when he was ordered to go to Salamis and kill a pro-democracy general, he refused. Eventually the "Thirty Tyrants" were overthrown in a coup in 403, and democracy was restored.
    It was thus a democratic government which put Socrates on trial in 399 B.C. (which perhaps accounts for the contempt Plato felt for democracy, which comes across so strongly in "The Republic"). After a private prosecution (there being no system of prosecution by the Athenian state), where, according to Plato's account, very little that would pass as hard evidence by our standards was put forward, a clear majority in a jury of 501 citizens voted for conviction and then, by a larger majority, sentenced Socrates to death. He was then held in prison for a month, during which time he rejected suggestions of escaping, before drinking the fatal cup of hemlock: a recently-adopted method of death. What became of his body, or of his wife and children, is unknown.
   Aristophanes survived all this turmoil and continued to write his comedies. In 411 he staged his most openly subversive play, "Lysistrata", in which the women of Athens go on sex-strike until peace is made. Despite this flagrantly pacifist message at the height of the war with Sparta, he does not seem to have got into any trouble at all.
The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, where Aristophanes staged his plays.

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