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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On Tragedy: Abrahamic, Ancient Greek and Modern Horizons

The term “tragedy” and “tragic” are bandied about in many contexts, but what exactly is it about a situation that makes it tragic? I want to suggest that the everyday use of the word tragic within developed European and North American societies is deeply out of step with the Shakespearean understanding of tragedy and more in line with the way that tragedy is understood in Ancient Greek drama.  Furthermore, this seems to be the case because there are some deep similarities between our understanding of the universe and the Ancient Greek understanding.

For Shakespeare what makes something tragic is rooted in the notion of hamartia or tragic flaw. For example, Julius Caesar is tragic because the protagonist, Brutus,  is an admirable man in almost every way  and yet he is driven by his hubris to act in ways that not only destroy himself, but also many others.  In this sense Brutus can plausibly be viewed as blameworthy for his actions, and so as someone who is punished for his tragic flaw. What makes this tragic as opposed to just being due punishment is that Brutus is very admirable, and thus we find his punishment both appropriate and regrettable. In this sense Shakespearean tragedy is very much rooted in the notion of a divine or cosmic justice, and this is very central to all Abrahamic faiths.

This conception of tragedy seems to hardly be at play by the way we typically use the term. We typically say that those young people who die in freak accidents or of disease have tragic fates. Consequently, what makes the death of the young by disease or freak accidents tragic is that they experience a great evil through no fault of their own, and consequently are not given an opportunity to live a fully developed life. Their deaths seems senseless as they have had horrible fates that do not seem to be part of any divine plan, as opposed to their deaths being merited, but regrettable.

On the other hand in Ancient Greek drama and, in particular, in the plays of Sophocles, we see a notion of tragedy that is far more like the one we ordinarily use, that that which is present in Shakespeare. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus eventually realizes that unknowingly and unwilling he has killed his Father, and married and had four children with his Mother.  Once Oedipus realizes the truth about who his parents are, he blinds himself in a fit of psychological distress and is exiled from Thebes and thus is not able to live a fully developed human life, as he is separated from his family, his home and his city, and the general fellowship of others.

Although, it should be noted that some have seen Oedipus as having the tragic flaw of an all consuming desire for knowledge, but even if this could be construed as a flaw, Oedipus’ desire for knowledge does not seem to be unreasonable, or the fundamental reason for his discovery of the truth about his own birth. Oedipus does not pay heed to Teiresias’ warning to not try to discover the reason for the previous King’s death, but he does not pay heed to this warning as it seems like a convenient ruse that would allow Creon, his wife’s brother, to take power. In addition Teiresias does not seem to offer any convincing reason for Oedipus to stop pursuing the truth; instead he just gives warnings of the doom that will come if Oedipus takes this path.  So, Oedipus does not seem to be someone who is blameworthy in any significant sense. Consequently, our conception of tragedy seems closer to the Ancient Greek understanding, as in both cases we think of tragedy as occurring when individuals experience great evils that prevent them living fully developed lives through no fault of their own.

Is it a mere historic accident that our conception of tragedy is more similar to the Ancient Greek conception than to the Shakespearean understanding? I don’t think so. I think it reflects the fact while we are the inheritors of a culture that is deeply rooted in Abrahamic faiths, many of our modes of thought resemble Ancient Greek thought.

Before I go any further I would like to contrast Ancient Greek and Abrahamic religion as this is necessary background for the rest of this discussion. The God of Abrahamic faiths is typically seen as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But this conception of God seems out of place in other forms of religion such as Ancient Greek religion. In these religions the Gods are certainly far more powerful than human beings, but they are not the eternal, necessary, morally mandated all powerful rulers of the universe. This can be seen by the fact that the fates that control all destinies are a separate agency from the Olympian Gods and thus can plausibly be seen as not under the authority of Zeus. Similarly, the Olympian Gods were not the initial rulers of the universe, but rather Zeus was able to overthrow his father Cronos through his power and cunning, rather than because he possesses some form of moral superiority.  So, in essence in Abrahamic faiths God is the morally mandated ruler of the universe, whereas in Ancient Greek religion the rulers of cosmos are but successful agencies who have managed to achieve the rule of the cosmos.

The similarity between the Ancient Greek conception of tragedy and our conception of tragedy is no coincidence.  Instead, it reflects the changing background understanding that western societies have of the universe.  Many of our current modes of thought do not reflect a universe in which a benevolent ruler ensures that good will ultimately triumph, but rather see the universe as a collection of forces that just is rather than being something that ought to be.  For example, “the environment” is one such force as it is not something that is amoral and not something fully under our control, and yet it can cause horrible damage to our lives. Likewise, “the market” is another. In our case these forces are impersonal things like “the environment,” “the market”, “the economy,” and “society” among others, whereas for the Ancient Greeks the forces that dominated the universe had the characteristics of persons. But the similarity runs deep as in both cases the universe is not something that operates according to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God’s rational plan, but according to the interplay of forces that are amoral. Against this kind of cultural background it makes sense to say that horrible things can happen to people through no fault of their own, and that these acts form no part of any divine plan, and so are tragic.

This is not to suggest that there are no Abrahamic elements of our culture, as there are many, such as our notion of progress, but instead that our society’s culture also contains quasi Pagan elements, and so our culture is far more than a simple secularization of Abrahamic cultural norms.

Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.

Unity and Disunity of the Self : Is a unified self a suppressed self?

In the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle the idea that humans could, and should, become unified selves is strongly defended, yet how plausible is this idea? It seems that while there are some reasons to question whether unity is valuable goal, unity gives us the best possible chance to live rich, fully developed lives.

The idea of a unified self posits that all parts of one’s being are integrated in a harmonious way such that one is not conflicted and being driven in one direction by one element of oneself and in one direction by another element of oneself. The Platonic tripartite division of the soul is the classic statement of the idea of the unified self. For Plato, there are three parts of the soul. There is the rational part of the soul, the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul. The rational part of the soul must be in control of the other two parts of the soul, so that one is not driven apart by the different desires associated with the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. This notion of unity is so attractive, because disunity would mean that one was enslaved to particular parts of one’s soul. Whereas, unity would correspond with self-mastery in that one is ordering one’s own soul through reason. Here, it should be noted that when Plato spoke of a soul he merely was referring to animacy, rather than something like the Christian conception of the soul, so soul is not being opposed to body in this context.

Contrastingly, the ideal of unity is seen to be problematic by many for a couple of reasons. Firstly, very few of us if any seem to be able to achieve unity. It seems likely that we all remain slaves to some degree to particular desires and we are driven willy-nilly by them. Consequently, this unity of the self may be an unachievable ideal. Secondly, unity is seen as problematic because any unity may come at the cost of suppressing something fundamental about being human. On this view, there are various fundamental part of the self, and any unity we achieve will come at the expense of something else. For example, if we unify ourselves through reason we will be suppressing the vitality of our emotional life, and if we put our emotions in control we may be suppressing the rational part of our nature. This is powerful critique of the ideal of unity as it seems intuitive to think that if we put one part of our self in control this would suppress other elements of the self that are vitally important to who we are.

The first criticism of the ideal of unity can quite easily be countered by pointing to the fact that even though most of us fail to achieve unity, we tend to know at least one person who has approached this ideal or met it. It may not be an ideal that all can achieve, but it does not seem to be out of reach of all human beings by any stretch of the imagination.

The second criticism poses a deeper challenge but it can be rebutted. While it may be true that there are a variety of elements of the self that are vitally important our humanity, there is really no attractive way of living that does not involve developing the self into some kind of unity. The alternative to unity would be merely to follow whatever drive catches you at that given moment, and to live in this way is to merely be a slave of whatever drive you happen to be beholden to at a particular time. In this case you are not truly self-directing, or in control of the direction of your life. Consequently, the alternative to unity hardly seems attractive.

Even though the alternative to unity presented above seems unattractive I have still not shown why unity might be more attractive. It is that task that I will handle for the rest of this entry. The danger with unity is that we will suppress something fundamental about ourselves and because of that live a life that is impoverished in a certain regard. However, this danger is an inescapable part of living itself, rather than a danger that is associated with the ideal of unity. No matter how we live we will have to make choices that guide us down certain paths and draw us away from others. For example if I choose to live my life as a political activist, this means foregoing the life of a solitary monk. In some sense by making this choice I am in danger of impoverishing myself, as I may fail to develop a tranquil spirit because of the choice that I have made, but if I had chosen the path of the monk I would equally be in danger of impoverishing my life by missing the opportunity to develop the social virtues necessary to be a good activist. So too with unity, the development of unity of the self may come with the suppression of certain elements of the self. Likewise, if I live my live without any direction towards a unified self than I will equally be in danger of impoverishing myself as there is no reason to think that my drives will direct me towards a fulfilling life. Therefore, it seems that ideal of the unity of the self is defensible, and to some extent the only choice we have, for if we do not try to achieve unity we are putting our fate into the hands of whatever our drives happen to do at any particular time, and there is little reason to think that this will lead us to lead rich, fully developed lives.

It should be noted that my defense of unity above is very different from Plato’s, as Plato thought that any person with a unified soul would live the same kind of life and have the same values, whereas I see unity of the self as consistent with individual leading a plurality of different lives and holding a variety of values. However, my defense of unity like Plato’s seeks to defend unity and show that unity gives us the best chance of living a fully developed life.