Ten theses on why Aristophanes matters

“Aristophanes” is one of those ancient Greek names that is for many people I meet vaguely familiar but hard to place…you know you’ve heard it somewhere, probably read a thing or two he wrote, but what exactly?

In future posts I will look in detail at who Aristophanes was, when and where he lived, and what he wrote (working towards a monograph entitled Aristophanes: Comedy, Power, and Politics in the Anthropocene). In this post I offer a general argument for why it’s worth doing so in the form of ten theses on why Aristophanes matters. Each thesis is followed by a relevant image, a relevant quote from Aristophanes, and a brief riff on the thesis. Enjoy, and please leave a comment!

ten theses on why Aristophanes matters

1. He understood that democracy is hard.

This device was used for the jury selection system in Athens. Bronze identification tickets were inserted to indicate eligible jurors who were also divided into tribes. By a random process, a whole row would be accepted or rejected for jury service. There was a kleroteria in front of each court.

I was hurrying back here with some treaties for you when some elders of Acharnae got wind of them, sturdy geezers, tough as hardwood, stubborn Marathon fighters, men of maple. Then they all started yelling, “Traitor! Are you bringing treaties when our vines are slashed?” And they began to fill their cloaks with stones. I ran away; they kept chasing me and shouting.

Aristophanes, Acharnians

From the perspective of this moment in 2021, the main thing we know about democracy is that it is theoretically an exceptionally fair form of government that in practice is prone to yield very disappointing results. The USA is probably the world’s foremost example of what democracy can achieve under nearly optimal circumstances–yet after 4 years of abuse by the petty, vindictive, and democratically elected Donald Trump, and with persistent gridlock in Congress and in public opinion, that example looks less compelling than it once did.

Aristophanes lived in a city, Athens, that around a half-century before Aristophanes’ birth had undertaken one of humanity’s first experiments in democracy on a large scale. One sometimes hears it called the “first democracy”, but that’s misleading at best: the core democratic procedure of making a decision by taking a majority vote after discussing the issue is as old as humanity itself. What was unique about Athens at the end of the sixth century BCE, when it became a democracy, was the number of people it tried to enfranchise in a rigorously egalitarian manner. By no means did it enfranchise everyone: women, resident foreigners, and enslaved people got no direct voice in the government. It is estimated that of the roughly 250,000 adults who lived in the city of Athens and its surrounding countryside, only some 30,000 were adult male citizens who were eligible to vote. Yet this is still a huge number of people to involve in democratic decision-making in the premodern world.

Athens confronted the logistical problems of large-scale democracy with its typical ingenuity, dividing its state apparatus into various “organs” of government. The Assembly (ekklēsia) was the city’s largest and most powerful legislative body: any adult male citizen could attend its meetings in the theater on the Pnyx hill, where he could propose, debate, and vote on resolutions concerning matters of foreign and domestic policy. In theory any adult male citizen could attend any meeting of the Assembly, but in practice the Pnyx could accommodate only about 6,000 people, so “clearly”, as John Thorley writes, “most did not attend most of the time.”

The ones who did attend were presumably mainly those who lived in or near Athens. The east coast of Attica is a good two days’ walk from Athens, and it was doubtless a rare event for someone from Marathon or Sounion to make the effort to come to an Assembly, unless he had to be in Athens for some other reason. But the evidence seems to suggest that there were usually enough at meetings to fill the Pnyx, more or less.

John Thorley, Athenian Democracy

In addition to the Assembly there was the Council (boulē) consisting of 500 men, 50 from each of the 10 tribes. Measures were in place to prevent the same people from dominating this vital organ of state, which received foreign ambassadors, prepared the agenda for each Assembly meeting, and implemented the Assembly’s decisions: no individual could serve on the Council for more than one consecutive year or more than two years total during the individual’s lifetime.

The third crucial organ of democratic power, besides the Assembly and the Council, was the Courts (dikastēria). Each year 6,000 men served on the Courts, 600 selected randomly from the pool of willing jurors (dikasts) in each of the 10 tribes. Random selection on the scale of hundreds of jurors was a process that occurred throughout the Athenian Court system; in order to perform it, the Athenians invented the device pictured above, called a klērōtērion. Aristophanes’ Athens, then, had a high-tech, direct democracy–as well as a misogynistic democracy (in that it excluded women from all state offices except priesthoods) with state-sanctioned slavery.

How did Athens’ unique experiment in democracy turn out? The scorecard is mixed. On the one hand, Athens’ democracy upheld the right of every male citizen to quite a high level of freedom of speech (parrhēsia), and it is this freedom that enabled Aristophanes and many other thinkers to voice their ideas and fantasies in Athens.

On the other hand, Aristophanes, like Plato and many other beneficiaries of democracy’s liberties, spent much of his energy criticizing its problems. The problem that frustrated him most was Athens’ tendency towards bellicosity. For the better part of his career, Athens was involved in the Peloponnesian War, a 28-year conflict with Sparta that literally drained the lifeblood from both cities and their allies. The end of the Peloponnesian War did not bring about any lasting reduction in the pace or intensity of armed conflict; time and again, the Assembly voted for war. Aristophanes also considered the Courts to be excessively bellicose, offering men who felt otherwise powerless, such as the elderly Philocleon in his play Wasps, a chance to feel virile by voting to ruin some wealthy citizen.

In the post-Trump era, a time when digital social media have become highly accessible and widely used platforms for free speech globally, it is easy to appreciate the problematic tendency of free speech to become excessively aggressive. The Capitol Riot that occurred on January 6, 2021, was incited by political speech that was at once groundless, persuasive, and aggressive, only a tiny fraction of which was delivered in the speeches at that day’s rallies; most of it occurred and is still occurring online, in digital fora where haters who hate the same things find each other and vent. The social unrest that gripped the USA during the presidency of Donald Trump, the first person to amass political power by aggressively using digital social media, cannot have done much to convince pro-censorship governments (like China’s) to change their ways. I have friends who are all for freedom of expression as a general rule, but who, upon seeing something that a US congressperson tweeted, have exclaimed, “How is it even legal to say that?”

The problem with simply suppressing angry political speech is that anger typically stems from some legitimate grievance. In the quotation above from Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the speaker, a semi-divine being named Amphitheus (“Semi-divine”), complains that the old men who reside in the deme of Acharnae, aka the Acharnians, have harassed him for trying to make peace with Sparta on behalf of Dikaiopolis, the play’s protagonist. The Acharnians are upset because the Spartans have destroyed their farms during the invasions of Attica that the Spartan military carried out annually during most years of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles’ celebrated strategy called for Athenians living in rural areas outside the city–by far the majority of the population–to relocate temporarily to the space inside the Long Walls that linked Athens to its port at Piraeus. The fleet could supply all of these unemployed refugees using tribute from the allied city-states that Athens dominated.

From a strategic perspective, Pericles’ plan was brilliant, and the city largely followed it throughout the Peloponnesian War even after Pericles’ death in 429 BCE. By sacrificing Attica, it enabled Athens’ formidable fleet to do even more damage to Peloponnesian territory without ever having to confront the bulk of the superior Peloponnesian army in a land battle. Yet the plan’s advantages came at a very high cost. The sudden, enormous increase in Athens’ urban population density made the plague that cost Pericles and many others their lives far more devastating than it would otherwise have been. Farmer-refugees, who must have made up a sizable portion of the original audience of Aristophanes’ early plays, were understandably furious that the Spartans and their allies kept destroying their homes and lands, which in most cases must have remained in the same agrarian family for generations. Dikaiopolis tries to make the case that while the Acharnians’ desire for vengeance is understandable, they must let go of it in order to break the self-perpetuating cycle of reciprocal violence and return to a state of peace.

The case for peace is always compelling, but it is also always hard to make. Why? Because democracy is hard.

2. He wasn’t afraid to wade into difficult conversations.

Look, now: here’s the butcher’s block, and here’s the man who’s ready to make a speech, such as he is. Don’t worry: I swear to god I won’t buckler myself, but will speak in defense of the Spartans just what I think. And yet I’m very apprehensive: I know the way country people act, deeply delighted when some fraudulent personage eulogizes them and the city, whether truly or falsely; that’s how they can be bought and sold all unawares. And I know the hearts of the oldsters too, looking forward only to biting with their ballots. And in my own case I know what Cleon did to me because of last year’s comedy. He hauled me before the Council, and slandered me, and tongue-lashed me with lies, and roared like the Cycloborus, and soaked me in abuse, so that I nearly died of mephitic miasma of misadventure. So now, before I make my speech, please let me array myself in guise most piteous.

Aristophanes, Acharnians

Aristophanes embraced the possibilities and perils of democratic speech with gusto. He liked to fight fire with fire, roasting politicians and other public figures he saw as exploiting the dēmos‘s (“people’s”) grievances in order to line their own pockets. In most other societies, abuse of the sort that Aristophanes hurled in his comedies against the city’s most powerful and influential men would have gotten him (and would still get him) swiftly imprisoned, executed, or assassinated. Early in his career it did get him sued, as Dikaiopolis, inhabited temporarily by the voice of Aristophanes, describes in the above quotation from Acharnians. Modern historians indict the poet on charges of inciting violence, for his Clouds, which inserted into the public imagination a deeply negative and wildly inaccurate caricature of the philosopher Socrates, has been thought by many, starting with Plato and perhaps Socrates himself, to have contributed to the public animosity towards him that culminated in his execution in 399 BCE on charges of “corrupting the minds of the youth” and of “impiety”.

Aristophanes’ great nemesis was Kleon, a hawkish politician who gained great power as a leader of the Assembly after Pericles’ death in 429 BCE and held it until his own death in 422. Kleon’s wealth derived not from a family inheritance of venerable lineage, but rather from his ownership of a business that manufactured leather goods. Aristophanes saw Kleon as symptomatic of a general commercialization of politics, in which war was seen as an opportunity for financial gain–a prototype of the “military-industrial complex”. This seems to have been, in broad strokes, the charge that Aristophanes leveled against Kleon and various civic magistrates in Babylonians, his second play, produced at the City Dionysia in 426 BCE. (His first play, Banqueters, involved an elderly father of two sons, one brought up in the traditional Athenian way and one in the new sophistic way; it seems to have been a polemic against what Aristophanes saw as the sophistic commercialization of education.) If we can believe the above quotation from Acharnians, Kleon took some kind of legal action against Aristophanes because of how the poet portrayed the city of Athens and Kleon himself in Babylonians.

The boldness shown by the young playwright in holding the city’s leaders accountable recalls that of young people today who create Twitter accounts in order to criticize the shortsightedness and greed of politicians and corporations. Aristophanes’ success in the theater shows the potential payoff of doing rhetorical battle with powerful people, which undoubtedly helped him to achieve notoriety and to gain “followers”, so to speak. Yet his success in influencing public policy is at best unclear. Knights, a sustained assault on Kleon’s fitness to lead, won first prize at the Lenaia festival in 424 BCE; a few weeks later, the same people who had voted for Knights voted to elect Kleon to the position of general (stratēgos), the city’s most powerful magistracy (particularly during wartime).

How many people avidly followed, laughed at, and shared tweets and SNL sketches mocking Donald Trump, and then voted to elect him president?

3. His plays focus on humanity’s Anthropocene qualities.

I can see a grand design for the race of birds.

There’s potential for power here, if you take my advice.

Aristophanes, Birds

A feature common to most work reflecting the “ecological turn” in the humanities, such as my work on Aristophanes, is to look at human culture from the perspective of geologic time scales; this is why one now sees so many books and articles with the word “Anthropocene” in the title. “Anthropocene” is a name that geologists have proposed to designate the epoch in which the human impact on the physical system of our planet has become overwhelmingly significant. As the video above nicely illustrates, one can think of the Anthropocene as a joyful, exciting thing, the era of technological progress, instant global communication, the eradication of disease and poverty, and so on; or as a scary, depressing thing, the era of mass extinctions, massive pollution, global warming, massive inequalities, and so on.

When did the Anthropocene begin? Experts do not agree on the answer to this basic question, which has contributed to the term’s acquiring an unfortunate aura of vagueness and mystification. The earliest date that has been proposed is the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, around 10,000 BCE; the latest is the middle of the 20th century, when the human use of nuclear power begins to leave indelible traces in the geological record.

Humanists have tended to view the Anthropocene as beginning with 19th century Romantic literature’s response to the Industrial Revolution’s drastic alterations of the environment. We can all agree, I think, that the Industrial Revolution marks a decisive inflection point in the biological, geological, and cultural history of our planet. Anthropogenic environmental degradation on the scale that became possible in the 19th century simply was not a conceivable possibility in Aristophanes’ Athens, and so it was not something he or his audience worried about. In this sense Aristophanes belongs not to the Anthropocene but to the Holocene, the preceding geological epoch (and still officially the present epoch).

However, Aristophanes’ Athens was undoubtedly a place where persistent human violence was destroying the natural environment, and his plays frequently take note of this. Prolonged war, conducted according to Pericles’ strategy, meant that Athenian farmers had every year to camp within the walls of the city and watch impotently while the Peloponnesians ravaged the land they loved. Near the beginning of Acharnians, Dikaiopolis reflects on his feelings about the urban environment of the city:

Then, in my solitude, I sigh, I yawn, I stretch myself, I fart, I fiddle, scribble, pluck my beard, do sums, while I gaze off to the countryside and pine for peace, loathing the city and yearning for my own deme, that never cried “buy coal”, “buy vinegar”, “buy oil”; it didn’t know the word “buy”; no, it produced everything itself, and the Buy Man was out of sight.

Aristophanes, Acharnians

Here Dikaiopolis describes himself as living in a kind of dystopian Anthropocene, in which boredom has replaced healthy labor and commercial exchange has replaced exchange with the land itself.

So, does that mean Aristophanes does belong to the Anthropocene after all?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to posit, for the purposes of cultural studies, not one but many Anthropocenes: the Pharaonic Anthropocene, the Classical Athenian Anthropocene, the Roman Imperial Anthropocene, the Medieval Muslim Anthropocene, the Aztec Anthropocene, and so on. In all of these societies, human activity was the dominant force shaping significant local environments, albeit not (in any appreciable sense) the global environment. The global Anthropocene that begins with the Industrial Revolution involves a change of quantity, not quality: resource extraction on a scale hitherto dearly wished for but never dreamed possible. Every Anthropocene is similar, then, insofar as it is a period when humanity is a dominant force in the physical world. But every Anthropocene is also different, and these differences make each particular one worth studying.

Birds is Aristophanes’ most brilliantly versatile Anthropocene parable. Two humans, Peisetairos and Euelpides, who have become fed up with the annoyances of urban life, abandon Athens and attempt to join the society of the birds. What initially draws them to the birds is that these “critters” (to use Donna Haraway’s preferred non-hierarchical term for any sort of vibrant being) enjoy a way of life free from commercial transactions, the same aspect of Anthropocene life that Dikaiopolis complains about in Acharnians and one that most of Aristophanes’ protagonists complain about in some way. However, the “grand design for the race of birds” that Peisetairos quickly envisions hinges on a grandiose commercial exploitation of the birds’ natural habitat, the sky: the birds are to build a massive siege wall around the aerial city that they establish and prevent the Olympian gods from having any contact with humans unless they recognize the supremacy of the birds. The birds build the wall, Peisetairos and Euelpides acquire wings, and the Olympians submit. At the end of the play, Peisetairos is the one critter who is in charge of the gleaming sci-fi city of Cloudcuckooland, and of the kosmos itself: his attempt to escape the Athenian Anthropocene has left him in a new, futuristic Anthropocene in the sky.

Birds is brilliantly versatile because it can be connected to so many different things: the Athenian military expedition to Sicily, human mistreatment of nonhuman animals, technological invention, poetic invention, and so on. All of Aristophanes’ plays, in fact, may be read as Anthropocene parables that can offer us new perspectives on our own global Anthropocene.

4. He had “ecological vision”: he saw the operation of power in physical, material, ecological terms.

Hark, you whose lives are dark and dank, who fall like leaves in autumn,

You puny beings, formed from clay, you shadowy, feeble peoples,

You wingless creatures-of-a-day, pathetic dreamlike humans,

Pay close attention to our words, for we are true immortals,

Who live in air and never age, whose thoughts will never whither.

From us you’ll hear a true account of elevated matters:

The origins of birds and gods and rivers and all creation.

Aristophanes, Birds

Scholars have long observed that Greek Old Comedy is uniquely preoccupied with the physicality of the world. Human body parts that remain discreetly hidden away in tragedy, such as the genitalia, get a lot of air time in comedy. So do nonhuman animals like birds, food, and things of all kinds: scientific tools (Clouds), legal paraphernalia (Wasps), farming tools (Peace), costumes (Women at the Thesmophoria and many other plays), and so on. Old Comedy is thus a great place to find “vibrant matter“, Jane Bennet’s phrase that has become the rallying cry of New Materialism.

We can’t say for sure why Old Comedy was so preoccupied with the physical world, due to our lack of evidence about the evolution of comic drama before Aristophanes. In his Poetics Aristotle tells us the following:

But originally it [tragedy] developed from improvisations. (This is true of tragedy, and also of comedy: the former arose from the leaders of the dithyramb, the latter from the leaders of the phallic songs which are still customary even now in many cities.)

Aristotle, Poetics 3.3

What exactly these “phallic songs” were like is anyone’s guess, but the name nicely illustrates how Greek polytheism regarded every aspect of the physical world as somehow sacred. Human society inscribes the physical world with hierarchical distinctions: the “fine persons” whose actions, according to Aristotle, constitute the proper subject-matter of tragedy, are always aristocrats who glisten with royal splendor (when they are not disguised as beggars) and keep their private parts modestly hidden; the “inferior persons” whose actions are fit for comedy, on the other hand, naturally display a shameless enthusiasm for inferior materiality (nonhuman animals, genitalia, excrement, food, etc.). This hierarchy, however, was a social construct at odds with the egalitarian ideological tendencies of both polytheism and democracy, from which Old Comedy drew its strength. Aristophanes’ “ecological vision” or “ecovision” can thus be linked in a general way to Greek polytheism and democracy, and to the agrarian lifestyle that he clearly admired.

Old Comedy’s wild, dirty, joyful, zany preoccupation with the physical world vibes well with the new appreciation for the physical world, and the growing anger and grief at its destruction by humans, that one finds in ecocriticism, New Materialism, object-oriented ontology, Indigenous cultural traditions, Facebook groups dedicated to veganism and recycling, statements by the Pope, innumerable nonprofit organizations devoted to environmental conservation, and the UN. The official 2020 letter from the Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, for example, says the following:

The systemic issues that helped to create this pandemic – particularly unsustainable consumption and production – are the same ones driving the three planetary crises: the climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis. The world continued to heat up in 2020, contributing to wildfires, droughts, floods and ravenous locust swarms. The loss of nature to agriculture, infrastructure and human settlements continues to escalate. Pollution of the air, land and sea is still claiming lives and damaging crucial ecosystems.

Inger Andersen
UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director

In the above quotation from Birds, the birds promise to challenge human anthropocentrism with an avian-centric account of the physical world’s creation. Aristophanes’ ecovision is of course comic and fictional rather than bureaucratic and political like UNEP Director Andersen’s. But a serious message that runs throughout Birds and Aristophanes’ other plays, which aligns with Andersen’s letter, is that humans really do undervalue the birds and other critters who dwell with us in the real world. Aristophanes’ plays can also teach us joyful ways of appreciating the physical world, a point I say more about below.

5. He stood up for the little critters.

Let it be known that if you kill Philokrates the sparrow-man,

You can claim reward–one talent. Take him captive, you’ll get four!

What’s the reason? He’s the man who sells dead siskins on a string,

Puffs up thrushes, furthermore, to put them cruelly on display,

Hangs up blackbirds too, with feathers crammed through nasal cavities,

Captures doves, what’s more, and keeps them prisoners in his ruthless style,

Forcing them to act as decoys while they’re fastened in a net.

Here’s what we desire to say, then: any man who’s caught breeding birds,

Caging them inside his house, we urge him to set them free.

Should this order go ignored, you’ll find yourselves seized by the birds:

We, in turn, will fasten you, and make you serve as decoys too!

Aristophanes, Birds

Aristophanes (like other Old Comic poets) loves to champion the rights of the oppressed, to the point that at times he can start to sound like an angry SJW (“social justice warrior”). The poor complain about their exploitation by the rich; birds complain about their oppression by humans (see the quote above); women complain about their oppression by incompetent and hyperaggressive men. Aristophanes clearly saw that his city was not the egalitarian utopia it aspired to be, and he fantasized freely and passionately about how it might become that. In this sense, Aristophanes stood up for the little critters, those whose lives have historically been regarded as mattering less. He can thus serve as a role model for feminists, human rights activists, environmental activists, BLM activists, LGBTQ+ activists, Palestinian rights activists, Muslim rights activists, and so on.

6. We can learn something from his toxic masculinity and that of his society.

You lousy and you loathsome and you bold

Bellowing rat,

Your effrontery knows no hold,

Filling Parliament and land,

The Fiscal system and the legal system and every court.

You trash collector plunging our city into oceans of muck

Who has made all Athens deaf with your din

As you scan the sea from a high rock

Like a tuna fisher hoping to spot

Where the tribute shoals are thick and where they are thin.

Aristophanes, Knights

The problem with taking Aristophanes as one’s role model for activism is that he seems awash in toxic masculinity. Most of his protagonists are old, free, citizen men; they are oppressed in the sense that they are not wealthy and feel that in the Assembly their voices will never be heard–that is to say, in the same sense that most Trump voters are oppressed. Aristophanes’ male protagonists hardly see or interact with women as anything other than sexual objects, and they are never challenged to change their ways in this regard. They regard Athenians as no better or worse than other Greeks, but they happily regard Greeks as superior to foreigners. Their aggressive masculinity frequently expresses itself in vitriolic accusations such as those hurled by the Sausage Seller against Paphlagon (Kleon) in the quotation above.

Aristophanes clearly had a lot of deeply ingrained and unexamined toxic masculinity–and how could he not have? His society excluded women from the organs of government and confined citizen women to the home; prostitutes (some enslaved, some free but not citizens) entertained the late-night gatherings of men who could afford them, but citizen women were expected to remain sexually faithful to their husbands. The audience of Aristophanes’ plays and other works of ancient Greek drama was primarily or entirely male, though no doubt at least a few people without penises snuck in. The cast and production crew were all men.

Like many scholars, my students at AUC find it easy to recognize and to critique Aristophanes’ toxic masculinity and misogyny, and they find doing so to be a worthwhile exercise. These qualities stand out to us because they are still so much a part of contemporary cultures and discourses, as the global #MeToo movement has demonstrated. We can learn from Aristophanes’ toxic masculinity that structural gender inequality is a very old problem that limits even a society’s most creative and inventive minds.

7. He imagined queer mētis as a means of disrupting existing systems.

And when they see the beards we’ve managed to fix on,

whoever’s going to know that we’re not men?

Aristophanes, Assemblywomen

My remarks in the previous section about Aristophanes’ toxic masculinity might suggest that gender studies can only regard him as one of the Bad Guys. However, the plays Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Assemblywomen all envision queer forms of resistance to the male hegemony on power in Athens–“queer” because they disrupt normative systems of gender and gendered power relations.

In Lysistrata women from various Greek cities, led by the Athenian Lysistrata, band together in order to execute a plan: they will deprive their husbands of the right to use their bodies for sexual pleasure until their husbands agree to end the Peloponnesian War. This play shows women acting like men: not only do they take political action through their sex strike, they also occupy the Acropolis and hold it by force. But it also shows women acting like women, affirming their principal role, from the perspective of normative Greek misogyny, as sex objects. A queer play indeed.

In Women at the Thesmophoria the women of Athens have gathered at a women-only religious festival, the Thesmophoria, to conspire to have Euripides brought to court for slandering women in his tragedies. Did Aristophanes come up with this scenario because he was angry at Euripides on behalf of Greek women everywhere? Or did it occur to him as another sneaky way he could stick it to his tragic nemesis? The latter seems far more likely to me, but regardless, the play does women a good service by reminding everyone that real women were actually affected by the way women were portrayed in the theater.

Euripides sends his cousin, disguised as a woman, to try to convince the women not to prosecute him. Euripides’ cousin is a poster boy for toxic masculinity, so much hilarity ensues from his failure to play the feminine role the great Euripides has cast him in. Euripides himself ends up playing several theatrical roles while attempting to rescue his cousin. Women at the Thesmophoria suggests that queer performance opens up pathways across the boundaries erected by traditional gender norms.

In Assemblywomen the women of Athens dress up as men (see the quote above) in order to attend the Assembly and vote to make women its rulers. Fed up with their husbands’ mismanagement, the women see their conspiracy as their only hope of living in a well-run city. They vote to implement a system of communal ownership of property, in which individual citizens deposit their private possessions into the communal store and then take from the common store what they need, and a radically egalitarian system of sexual gratification, in which young, attractive people must have sex with older, less attractive people before having sex with each other. Whatever its skepticism about the women’s political plans, the play leads the audience to admire the women’s queer resistance to their exclusion from public life.

Assemblywomen is a play about passing: when you belong to a disenfranchised identity group, one way to get access to power is to perform the identity of, or “pass for”, the enfranchised class, as the women in the play do by dressing up as men. Although today women have voting rights in almost all countries, we still live in a world in which people are quite commonly disenfranchised and discriminated against because of their gender identity. The persistent stranglehold of men globally over governments, militaries, corporate governance, and so on, is clear evidence that the gender trouble Aristophanes’ plays about gender confront has not gone away. Countries where women and LGBTQ+ folks do have full political rights, like the USA and New Zealand (to name only two), still lack adequate models of power exercised by people who are not male-presenting. Even today, non-male people have to pass as masculine in order to wield political power.

I think Aristophanes’ plays suggest that the most powerful tool marginalized folks have is mētis, “cunning intelligence”. As Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant show in their wide-ranging study, one encounters mētis in many wildly different contexts in Greek culture; it is a kind of Ariadne’s thread running through the labyrinth of Greek culture. The basic idea of mētis is something like savvy street smarts, creative tactical instincts–the ability to seize an opportunity to achieve an advantage without putting oneself at too much risk. Mētis is the best thing you’ve got if you don’t have privilege. Mētis helps Greek heroes to defeat barbarian monsters, and helps Black people to survive in racist communities, and helps femme-presenting people to survive in misogynistic communities, and helps queer people to survive in homophobic countries, and helps disabled people to survive in ableist communities…

Mētis may also be the best survival tool our decimated, polluted, exploited biotic community has left in the global Anthropocene.

8. He knew that physical pleasure solves many problems.

Soon they’ll be fed every prodigious dish:

limpets-oysters-rocksalmon-salted fish,

sharksteaks-mullets-pickled herring,

blackbirds-thrushes-pigeons-capons,

larks-and-wagtails roasted in the pan,

jugged hare stewed in wine,

with honey and silphium capping every blessed thing

not forgetting oil-and-vinegar and every blessed dressing.

Aristophanes, Assemblywomen

This one is pretty straightforward. Aristophanes and his fellow Old Comic poets were hedonists. The word “hedonist” comes from the Greek hēdonē, which means “pleasure”, usually pleasure that is primarily or entirely physical. A hedonist is someone who considers physical pleasure, hēdonē, the highest good. Old Comedy is a fundamentally hedonistic genre: it assumes that what people want most in life is to eat and drink well, enjoy good music and good company, have good sex, and get a good night’s sleep.

Hedonism is a hippie philosophy, and Aristophanes and his fellow Old Comic poets were definitely hippies. They enjoyed the luxuries of urban life while fantasizing about the pleasures of rural life in times of peace; no doubt they spent time enjoying the luxuries of the countryside as well, and observed farmers hard at work, but I can’t imagine them doing much hard work themselves. Judging from their surviving works, what they enjoyed more than anything was eating delicious food, drinking wine, singing, dancing, and fantasizing about sex. They thought that if everyone else valued these things more highly, as they did, and stopped valuing vengeance and military glory and other things that sustain armed conflicts, the world would be a better place.

Hedonism can be criticized as a philosophy fit only for the narcissistic wealthy: eat, drink, and be merry, not worrying that others are starving, overworked, being killed… While it is true that having some money makes a hedonist’s life easier, having too much money can lead one into an obsession with acquiring more, which is not a physical pleasure. Ancient Greek hedonism recommended being satisfied with the pleasures one can easily get rather than driving oneself mad chasing exotic pleasures. While hedonists have a reputation, unfortunately deserved, for being individualistic, Old Comic hedonism is communal. The quotation above from Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, for example, describes a communal banquet that citizens will enjoy after giving up all of their private property.

Lust for limitless gain is causing the problems of the Anthropocene. Perhaps Old Comic communal hedonism is part of the solution.

9. He knew how to use art as a means of bringing people together and thus effecting reconciliation.

For doesn’t it make sense that the sailors who’ve fought so often at your side,

As have their fathers, and are in fact your kith and kin, should be forgiven

For this one misjudgment, especially as they ask you?

So let it slide.

You’re a fairly intelligent lot and you ought to welcome as fellow citizens

Every man who fights in our ships no matter who.

If we can’t do this,

Because we’ve become inflated (though we’re all related), and proud of a city

Hugged by the ocean main, one day it will be seen what fools we’ve been.

Aristophanes, Frogs

Aristophanes did more in his plays than just attack people like Kleon. In the above passage from Frogs, he recommends that the city reinstate as citizens those men who had joined the short-lived oligarchic revolution in 411 BCE. The city did so, and it voted Aristophanes an olive wreath in thanks for his efforts toward effecting this reconciliation.

The theater gave Aristophanes the opportunity to communicate with lots of Athenian citizens, as well as numerous foreigners, when their guard was down–when they were not stressed about some immediately pressing political or financial decision. He used this opportunity to try to help people feel their way past their ordinary fears and biases. He used drama to promote good communication.

Much social conflict results from the fact that people in the same society don’t know each other. We tend to form skewed mental images of people we don’t know, finding all sorts of implausible reasons to fear them. A reason for this may perhaps be found in evolutionary psychology: for most of our history as a species, it isn’t likely to have been very safe to talk to strangers. And, life being a bitch, it’s arguably prudent to expect the worst.

But a climate of mutual distrust makes it impossible for any group of critters to work together effectively. This was true in the Classical Athenian Anthropocene, and it is true in today’s global Anthropocene. If we are to cooperate to solve our collective problems, we will need lots of reconciliation–and we can learn from Aristophanes how to use art to bring that about.

10. He knew that the good life was the chill life.

Foot it featly, prancer,

And chant a canticle to Sparta,

Nursery of the god-directed dance

And the twinkle of feet by the river

Erotas of blossoming girls

Frolicking like fillies, tossing their curls,

Waving their wands, and churning up whorls

Of dust, like maenads in their gambols,

Led by Helen, Leda’s daughter,

Chaste and pure.

Aristophanes, Lysistrata

You’ve made it to the end of a long blog post–now go chillax! Turn on some music, have a glass of wine or orange juice, dance…enjoy being a bodily critter, because life, as Aristophanes’ birds remind us, is short.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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