Aristophanes on Reason and Society

Aristophanes was an Athenian comic poet and contemporary of Socrates most famous for lampooning Socrates in his work The Clouds. The representation we see of Socrates in The Clouds is of Socrates as a ridiculous person intent on destroying the traditional customs and way of life of Athens.  This image of Socrates fits quite closely with the charges presented to Socrates for corrupting youth, and not believing in the gods of the city, and in this sense Aristophanes` image of Socrates contrasts quite strongly with the image presented by Plato.  Against the background of The Clouds Aristophanes is often read as a stark traditionalist who opposes the impact of reason and reflection on society. I find this reading plausible in a sense, but if we look at Aristophanes` play The Frogs we are able to develop a clearer understanding of Aristophanes’ understanding and critique of reason.

In The Frogs Dionysus goes to the underworld to bring back the tragedian, Euripides, as the current crop of tragedians is disappointing and fail to meet the quality of tragedy that Dionysus expects.  Once Dionysus reaches the underworld it becomes clear that Aeschylus, an earlier Athenian tragedian, has been deemed to be the best tragedian in the underworld. However, Euripides has challenged Aeschylus for this title. In response to this dilemma Hades asks Dionysus to be the judge in a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus regarding who is the best tragedian.

In this contest Aeschylus represents the traditional martial values, against the more democratic and commercial, and rational impulses of Euripides. For example, in reference to Aeschylus Euripides says “I saw through him years ago, All that rugged grandeur-it`s all so uncultivated and unrestrained. No subtlety whatsoever. Just a torrent of verbiage, stiffened with superlatives and padded out with pretentious polysyllables.”(166, 830) In response to this Aeschylus remarks with regard to Euripides “That`s about the level of criticism one might expect from you, `son of the seed-goddess.` And what are your plays but a concatenation of commonplaces, as threadbare as the ragged beggars who populate them.”(166-167, 840)

From these remarks we can see that  Euripides sees Aeschylus as representing an aristocratic pomposity that fails to say anything subtle or interesting, while Aeschylus sees Euripides as someone who only represents the common sense of rabble and rather than populating his plays with dignified figures, populates them with “cripples and beggars.” (167, 845) To us there may be nothing inherently undignified about being crippled but in the context of Ancient Athens where a man`s ability to fight in battle was a large determinant of his social worth, being crippled reduced one`s status. Consequently, Aeschylus and Euripides are not only in disagreement about the technical skill required to create a good tragedy, but also regarding what kind of characters a tragedy should deal in. Aeschylus focuses on military leaders, gods, and kings, whereas Euripides is more inclusive in the variety of characters he is willing to present as the subject matter of tragedy.

This opposition between the noble, martial Aeschylus and the more democratic, rational Euripides is further reinforced when Euripides says that unlike Aeschylus he “wrote about everyday things, things the audience knew about and could take me up on if necessary.“ (171, 960) As a result of this Euripides notes that he has been able “to teach the audience to use its brains, introduce a bit of logic into the drama. The public have learnt from me how to think, how to run their households, to ask `why is this so? What do we mean by that?“ (171, 970) Thus, Euripides not only is more inclusive in representing a wider variety of characters from different social classes, his art also serves the purpose of encouraging and developing the audience`s capacity for reasoning, cleverness and reflection. While for our culture these are all viewed as necessarily positive things Aeschylus is still critical of Euripides approach as Aeschylus says to Euripides:“And look how you`ve encouraged people to babble. The wresting school are empty. And where have all the young men gone? Off to these notorious establishments where they practise the art of debating – and that`s not all they practise either. These days even the sailors argue with the officers; in my day the only works they knew were `slops` and `heave-ho.` “ (175, 1070) Consequently, we see how Aeschylus defend the martial values associated with physical training through wrestling and respecting the chain of command as being subverted by the Euripidean attempt to teach the audience to think. In contrast to Euripides` standpoint Aeschylus says that poets “have a duty to teach [the audience], what is right and proper,“  and this for Aeschylus seems to mean doing your duty given your station within society, rather than questioning authority through one`s reason. (174, 1050) Therefore, Euripides seems to be on the side of reflection, reason and inclusiveness, whereas Aeschylus is far more hidebound, aristocratic and concerned with defending martial values.

So, in Aristophanes The Frogs we see a battle if you will between reason, cleverness and democratic instincts and martial values, as well as other aristocratic sentiments. But the interesting thing about this is that the battle must take place through a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides. Consequently, there is a degree of irony in the idea of holding a contest between reason and martial values through the medium of reason.

I think what Aristophanes is trying to say by virtue of making use of the debate as the medium of this contest is to draw a distinction between prereflective and reflective cultures. In a prereflective culture people take their position in society and its mores as a given that is unquestioned, whereas in a reflective culture people do reflect and are willing to question their position in society and its mores. What I think Aristophanes is trying to say with the use of rational debate as a way of resolving the question of who is the best tragedian is that since Athens has become a reflective culture as a result of many occurrences including the influence of Socrates, Euripides and the Sophists, questions must be dealt with through the medium of reason.  Once a culture has become reflective the social mores and overall structure of society is no longer a mere given, but must be justified through speech. In this sense as reason comes to influence society and move it in a reflective direction reason must necessarily become the arbiter of conflicts as there is no source of authority that can be taken as an ultimate given or foundation. Now Aristophanes is certainly not celebrating the fact that Athens has become reflective in this way, in fact he seems to decry it some degree but by making use of debate and reason as the medium to determine, he seems to be saying that once a culture is under the influence of reason, reason must be the guide to determining questions; there is no way to simply return to a prereflective culture once a culture has become reflective.

In addition, Aristophanes does not merely point out that once reason has influenced society and pushed it in the reflective direction, reason and talk must become the arbiter of conflict rather than an unquestioned form of social authority, he also questions the ability to take on this task. In order to figure out who is the winner of the contest regarding who is the best tragedian Dionysus does not simply try to judge based on the poets arguments. After he hears their arguments Dionysus is unable to decide which poet to choose. So to try to decide this question an attempt is made to weigh Aeschylus, and Euripides and their poetry on a scale to figure out whose poetry is weightier, and thus better. (185, 1360)  The idea of weighing poetry is very comic, and some might think that Aristophanes is just trying to get a laugh out of it, but the weighing of the poets and their poetry is not ultimately successful in determining whose poetry is better either. The only way Dionysus is able to make this decision is by deciding the contest with regard to which poet has better advice to save Athens. (187, 1420)  It should be noted that Athens was at war with Sparta in the Peloponnesian war at the time in which this play was performed. So, in this play neither rational debate nor the weighing of poetry through some technological artifice are able to determine who is the best tragedian, and the only way to deal with the question is to change it from a question of who is best, to whose advice will best help Athens deal with its situation. The former is an extremely abstract question, while the latter is far more concrete. Consequently, Aristophanes seems to be saying that reason tends to be indeterminate when it is used to answer abstract questions. We can see this as reason, whether through speech, or as embodied in a technological tool ultimately fails to figure out who is the best tragedian. Thus, Aristophanes critique of reason seems to be that it it not always able to provide us with a determinate answer to abstract questions, and consequently, while it  may have a place in society it cannot serve as its ultimate foundation.

Now, as something of a partisan of reason I find Aristophanes` conclusion troubling, and unsettling, but he does provide an interesting challenge as it not obvious that if we argue and think about an issue for long enough that we will find an answer that any reasonable person can accept, and if reason is to serve as an ultimate foundation for society and politics it would have to provide a justification that all reasonable people can accept.


Works Cited

Aristophanes. Frogs and Other Plays. Trans. David Barrett. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.


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