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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Is solitude compatible with the best kind of life?

The question of what is the best kind of life for man has been answered in a large variety of ways, but one particularly dominant issue that this question raises, is whether the best life requires substantial relationships with other beings, or whether the best life can be lived in solitude. I want to illuminate two different ways of thinking about whether the best life requires relationships with others or whether the best life is a solitary one, and suggest a solution to this problem that seems to me to fit with our intuitions.

One of the clearest statements of why the best life requires particular kinds of relationships with others can be gleaned from the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes in The Symposium. I specify that these are the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes as The Symposium is a dialogue written by Plato, and consequently we cannot be sure whether it represents the authentic voice of Aristophanes himself. For the sake of this entry I will refer to Plato’s Aristophanes as Plaristophanes. In The Symposium, each guest of a drinking party is to give a speech in praise of Love (Eros).  When it comes to Plaristophanes turn to give a speech he says that Love “is the helper and the doctor of those sicknesses whose cure constitutes the greatest happiness for the human race.” Furthermore, to explain why Love is so important to human happiness Plaristophanes provides an origin story about the nature of humanity, which states that originally humans had four legs, four arms, two sets of genitals, and two heads. Similarly, there were three genders: one that had two sets of male genitals, one with two sets of female genitals, and one with one set of female and one set of male genitals. These beings were much more powerful than humans are today, and made an attack on the gods, and as punishment Zeus, with the assistance of Apollo, cut the beings in two so that they take on the shape that they have today. Plaristophanes then notes that Love is the longing of each for his or her other half. Specifically, he says “each of us is a matching half of a human being because we’ve been cut in half like flatfish, making two out of one, and each of us is looking for his own matching half.” Consequently, for Plaristophanes, Love is the name of the desire we have to pursue wholeness by finding the half from which we have been cut off.

Plaristophanes’s speech, while humorous and absurd, expresses a reading of the human spiritual predicament in which humans as we exist now are incapable of living the best life in solitude, as we are incomplete halves of a wider whole. If we are only part of a whole, how could we live a fully developed life without our other half? So, if we tend to agree with Plaristophanes that we are not whole, but rather parts of a whole, it seems that the best life would necessarily require a relationship with our other half. On this view humans cannot be complete in solitude; the solitary sage or philosopher lives a radically impoverished life because he is not able to try to approach his completion through a relationship with another. Furthermore, this viewpoint is very appealing to members of modern postindustrial societies as we tend to see the pursuit of romantic love and the finding of a “soulmate” as essential to the best kind of life. Likewise, we typically feel that something has gone wrong in someone’s life if they have not been able to find their soulmate, or at the very least develop substantial friendships.

On the other hand we have the viewpoint that is expressed in Plato, but is also present in other philosophers, that the best kind of life is one spent in contemplation of the forms (the fundamental constituents of reality.) On this reading of our existential predicament while human beings do require a particular form of activity to live the best life, this form of activity does not necessarily require others.  On this view humans are being who fundamentally reach out to know, and thus the best life for us is one that fully allows us to reach that end, and it is only a life of contemplation that fully devotes us to understanding the whole and our place in it. While initially we may find this attitude hard to understand. It seems to me this viewpoint is very powerful for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the good of contemplation is not vulnerable to circumstance; no matter what happens in my life as long as I am alive, I can still try to comprehend the fundamental constituents of reality. Presumably, even if I become a slave I can still contemplate, whereas the forming of relationships is much more vulnerable to circumstance. If the best life requires grounded, developed relationships, than the best kind of life requires me to be fortunate and meet people who I can form these kinds of relationships with and there is no guarantee that this will happen, thus if the best life involves relationships necessarily many will be barred from living the best life by virtue of misfortune. Similarly, one other reason why I find this Platonic viewpoint powerful is that one fundamental constituent of humanity is the desire to understand our place within the universe, and the Platonic view about the best kind of life takes the aforementioned desire very seriously, rather than viewing it as something that is good, but perhaps not necessary to the best kind of life.

I want to suggest a solution to the question of whether the best kind of life can be lived in solitude that argues that the best life will involve relationships, but also that these relationships are not the only source of value in that life. The view that the best life requires significant relationships with others seems correct in one sense, for I cannot think of someone living a complete life without friendship. Part of what makes Socrates’ life such a model is that he did have friendships, and did not simply live a quiet life devoid of friendship to pursue contemplation. However, the reason why the best life requires friendships of some kind is not because friendships or relationships are more important than activities like contemplation that can be pursued in solitude, but rather because relationships with others can enhance many goods that we can pursue in solitude. For example, if I am interested in pursuing the good of understanding the universe, my efforts are enhanced by conversations with others, as they may assist me in trying to come up with solutions to problems with my current understanding. Likewise,  if I am drawn to the value of the appreciation of music or art, this is enhanced again by conversing with friends about what we enjoy and why enjoy it, as we may have our eyes opened to other artists, or return to a work of art that we have dismissed, but which might be quite valuable if appropriately appreciated.

In this sense sharing in a good with others seems to enhance that good. I don’t mean to completely reduce the value of relationships to an instrumental one in which their value simply lies in enhancing other goods. Relationships do have an intrinsic value, but the reason why they are so vital to our lives is because they not only provide a unique value to our lives, they also enhance other activities that we engage in. On the other hand, a life that was filled with relationships, but relationships that failed to enhance particular goods would hardly be eligible to be considered to be the best kind of life. Furthermore, a solitary life might be preferable to one that involved the aforementioned kinds of relationships with others.  In this sense, I would affirm that relationships are essential to the best kind of life, but these relationships must enhance important goods, rather than detract from them.

One other element of the best kind of life is that relationships themselves cannot be the only source of value in that life. While relationships are deeply important and can be valued on their own account, if the only value in one’s life is relationships with others, than one is leading a deeply impoverished life, as there are a whole host of goods that are separable from relationships, that one is missing out upon. This is not to say that one has some obligation to pursue all goods, but rather to say that focus on one good at the expense of others tends to lead to an impoverishment, as differing good realize different fundamental human capacities that ought to be valued on their own account. This is also simply the other side of my previous comment that relationships are a necessary part of the best life because they enhance other goods, but if the only good in one’s life is relationships with others, than one’s relationships, are by definition, failing to meet the standard of the best kind of life, because they are not enhancing other goods.

It will be noted that I did not directly respond to the questions of whether contemplation is a necessary part of the best life? And whether we are irreducibly incomplete parts of a whole? I lean towards an affirmative answer to the former question although I will leave answering that question to another entry. With regard to the latter question while I find the views of Plaristophanes fascinating, I tend to disagree with them, although it would take an entry far longer than this one to explain all of the reasons why. I will just say that I tend to see things in more Platonic terms, rather than Plaristophanic terms, and because of that I tend to see our most full realization as in principle separable from a specific relation with another.

Works Cited

 Plato. The Symposium. Trans. Christopher Gill. Toronto: Penguin, 1999. Print.