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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Sadistic Violence as Ridiculous: Bloodbath, South Park and American Psycho

Bloodbath, are probably my favourite straight up Death Metal band. While I like them from a strictly a musical perspective, one other thing that draws me to them is their ability to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light that makes extreme violence something that can be laughed at as opposed to being feared. But, this raises the question of how the arts can present sadistic violence in this way, as it would seem that extreme violence and sadism are always horrifying and threatening. In considering Bloodbath three factors come to light that contribute to the ability of art able to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light. Firstly, when art takes violence and sadism to the furthest possible extremes it can make violence seem silly and thus ridiculous. Likewise, when the perpetrator of violence somehow seems very unthreatening this can also contribute to the ability of art to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light. Lastly, the fact that music is intended to evoke beauty makes the forthright statement of violent sadistic desires in song seem quite ridiculous. It should be noted that there may be other factors that I have not taken into consideration, and I do not claim that the list I have developed is exhaustive.

For example if we look at some of the lyrics of the song “Cry My Name” by Bloodbath we see that the lyrics present violent, disturbing grotesque imagery, but that this grotesqueness is more akin to a ridiculous horror movie than to a something that is genuinely worth fearing. For example the vocalist of Bloodbath on this album, Mikael Akerfeldt, sings, or rather growls:

You will see
My burning inferno
And there is no way
In your wildest dreams
That you can say no

I suffocate your soul
And drain you of your lifeblood
The breathing darkness here
Will make you disappear
There is no return

I steal your soul
And carve a hole right where your heart once used to be
I watch you die
I hear you cry
It fills my soul with such delight

There is something quite ridiculous about these lyrics. The idea of somebody being delighted watching somebody die and hearing someone cry is might seem horrifying, but when presented in an entirely deadpan, shameless way in the context of a piece of music it hardly seems threatening and just seems absurd. In many ways a song like this is analogous to much of the imagery presented in American Psycho. While I have not read the book, in the film, American Pyscho, we see a character in Patrick Bateman who genuinely delights in horrific violence and sadism, but we are not made to be frightened of him as we are of a character like Hannibal Lector. Instead, we are supposed to find him ridiculous.  Likewise in Bloodbath’s lyrics the deadpan presentation of sadistic, violent imagery allows us to see that these desires have a certain comedic element

The question that this raises is how do we present the truly horrific in a way that it renders it absurd? If I confronted a person as described in “Cry My Name” I would certainly be afraid of being with them alone. But when we are presented the image a person not as a person we have to deal with, but just as a fabrication it can render them ridiculous. The first factor that allows artists to present violent sadism as ridiculous is to take their violence and sadism to the most implausible of extremes such that it seems far less imaginable.

In South Park, the Christmas Critters are among the most violent and sadistic of beings, but they take their violence so far that we cannot help but laugh at it, rather than being afraid. Part of what makes the Christmas Critters ridiculous is that they are adorable woodland animals, but contrastingly part of this is driven by the fact that their violence and sadism has been taken to such an extreme. For example in the episode, “Imaginationland II” the Christmas Critters propose to make Strawberry Shortcake’s torture worse by forcing her to eat the eye that the other evil characters have gouged out and then having someone with AIDS urinate in her eye socket to give her the disease. This is possibly one of the most horrible and disturbing images of sadism, and yet we laugh at the Christmas Critters as they have taken the urge for violence to the most extreme limits, such that we cannot imagine somebody having these desires. Similarly, in the song “Mass Strangulation” Bloodbath take the frightening premise of strangulation to such an extreme that it becomes absurd and somewhat ridiculous. For example, the lyrics say

40 people or more – tied to hands and feet
Awaiting strangulation – darkening deceit
Rope around the neck – eyes falling out slow
Extreme asphyxiation – blackened murder flow
Your eyes start to spray, panic in dismay
Deathwish appearing fast
Insanity supreme, praying to be free
Guts explode in a blast

These lyrics present a horrifying spectacle, but at the same time the notion of “eyes starting to spray” and “guts exploding in a blast” is so extreme that it seems ridiculous. Consequently, one factor that contributes to the ability of some art to present violent sadism in a mocking light is by taking certain violent sadistic displays to the farthest possible extreme.

An additional factor that contributes to the ability of art to present violent sadism as something to be laughed at or mocked is our understanding of the character engaging in these acts. In the case of the Christmas Critters it is just funny to think of cute talking woodland critters doing the most horrific acts imaginable. In the case of Bloodbath for a good section of their career they have had a vocalist in Mikael Akerfeldt who comes across as very mild mannered, and hardly threatening and who has written beautiful ballads with Opeth like “Benighted,” “Face of Melinda,” and “Windowpane.” Knowledge of who Mikael Akerfeldt is probably further engrains the fact that the violent sadism is being presented in a mocking light as opposed to a genuine desire as he does not seem like a person with any sort of harsh violent sadistic tendencies. Thus, it seems that the presentation of a seemingly unthreatening agent as the perpetrator of violent sadism allows art to present violent sadism in a mocking light.

The last factor is the contrast between the purported aim of music to evoke beauty and lyrics that present the most horrific of desires. For example, if I were to write a song about how I much I enjoy eating babies when they are slow roasted over an open fire pit and stuffed with 40 cloves of garlic it is hard to not see my song as ridiculous. The musician typically bares his inner self, but this inner self has to be presented as humane and understandable in order to be taken as a serious presentation of beauty. Like my song about the epicurean delight of baby eating, Bloodbath’s music reveals horrific desires, but in the context of a form of art that is supposed to evoke beauty. This contrast allow us to see past the surface level horror presented in the lyrics to see that these violent urges are being mocked as opposed to being glorified. Thus, it seems that the factors noted in the preceding allow art to show violence as something to be mocked and laughed at rather than feared.

I would be interested to know what others think about this issue:

What other factors contribute to the ability of art to present the most horrific violence as ridiculous?

Do you think that any of the factors elucidated above is more important than the others?

Do you think that “Cry My Name” is a fantastic, clever song?