Aristophanes’ comedies of (political) errors

Aristophanes’ comedies of (political) errors

KENNETH ROYCE MOORE asks what we can learn about today’s politics from the Attic wit

Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship

John Zumbrunnen, University of Rochester Press, 2012


Zumbrunnen’s book takes a new look at Aristophanes, the famed 5th-4th century Athenian comic playwright and his works, in terms of (as the title suggests) their embodiment of the challenges entailed by democratic citizenship. He does so with recourse to well-established lines of critical inquiry and, in particular, the Aristophanic scholarship of Sheldon Wolin, David Konstan and Josiah Ober and others, along with more broadly political thinkers such as John Rawls and Carl Schmitt; however, he reaches a different and novel conclusion based on his synthesis and treatment of these sources. He concludes that Aristophanes was neither conservative nor radical, as others have argued, rather that his focus was on ordinary citizens and the conflicting demands that those citizens faced as indicative of a serious concern with the possibilities and problems presented by democracy.

Before I delve deeper into Zumbrunnen’s arguments, it seems appropriate first to acquaint the reader (who may otherwise be a non-specialist) with Aristophanes and his approach to drama. Aristophanes of Athens (ca. 446 BC – ca. 386 BC) was considered in antiquity to be the foremost poet of Old Attic Comedy. This particular comic tradition is one from which we have only Aristophanes himself as the (extant) exemplar and barely eleven of his forty-odd plays still survive. Old Comedy is characterised by its bawdiness, overt sexuality and a visceral engagement in political discourse and criticism. It embodied the greatly prized ethic of free speech, which Athens enjoyed up till her subjugation to the rule of Alexander the Great. Not surprisingly, when absolute monarchy replaced democracy, freedom of speech was greatly curtailed and Old Comedy ceased to be written, being replaced by New Comedy, the largely a-political comedy of manners, romance and situation. During his heyday, Aristophanes was closely acquainted with the likes of the philosopher Socrates, the playwright Euripides and Alcibiades, a leading general and statesman during the height of the Athenian Empire (yes, it should come as little surprise that a democracy can also be an empire). According to one tradition, when the leader of Syracuse, Dionysius, in the 4th century wanted to learn more about “the polity of the Athenians”, Plato sent him Aristophanes’ comedies to study. Relatively little is known about Aristophanes’ personal life apart from the fact that he was aristocratic and somewhat conservative in his political views and that he was a member of a political faction that favoured, contrary to the more radical democrats in the Athenian Assembly, an honourable peace with Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars. The latter point is highlighted in a number of his surviving plays. As a playwright, at least, Aristophanes reveals more than a keen interest in the political culture of Athens of his day and it is precisely this that occupies the central focus of Zumbrunnen’sAristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship.

Of course, a priori, even a non-specialist might raise a hand and point out that the direct democracy of Classical Athens, where only freeborn male citizens over the age of eighteen had the franchise (and everyone else did not), is considerably different from representative democratic governments of the modern era. This is true.  And Zumbrunnen addresses the issue quite neatly in his introduction in order to establish the relevance that a study of Aristophanes may still have for us today with regard to current discourses on democracy. There are three main concerns here. First is the vast institutional difference between ancient and contemporary democracies alluded to above. Secondly is the absence of anything like the modern conception of pluralism in ancient Athens and, finally, Aristotelian connotations inherent in the language of disposition, which Zumbrunnen uses throughout, and which might seem to lack contemporary resonance.

The institutional differences have been highlighted by Sheldon Wolinand Josiah Ober. Wolin’s conception is of “fugitive democracy”, that is, that democracy is always at best a temporary form of government which periodically erupts as a “rebellious moment” in which a given demos (citizen body) acts to end its own oppression. Wolin developed his notion of “fugitive democracy”, applied to modern practices, by studying ancient Athenian politics. Democracy, read thusly, is a form of resistance to the kind of status quo imposed by elites. Josiah Ober, by contrast, “argues that democracy (demokratia) mean that ‘the capacity to act in order to effect change (kratos) lay with the public (demos) composed of many choice-making individuals’” (5).  Ober considers Athenian democracy to have evolved a set of institutions well-designed to capitalise on the knowledge and experience of individual citizens and to make that knowledge the basis of useful, collective action.  Zumbrunnen argues that Wolin and Ober are emphasising two distinct impulses within democracy which entail both the rebellious aspect and that of collective action that manifest in such as way as to exercise the power of the people. His argument ultimately maintains that the tension between these two impulses defines the challenge of democratic citizenship present in both ancient and modern democracy. As he writes, when “the power of the people had ended the rule of tyrants and oligarchs, the challenge became finding ways to preserve the rebellious impulse of democracy by, paradoxically enough, containing it within institutionalised forms” (7).

In that sense, then, the same theories that may be applied to Classical Athens may equally be compatible with a number of contemporary democracies even though their institutional structures are very different. Post-revolutionary U.S.A. and France seem two obvious examples as does the particularly British, democratic evolution of the United Kingdom. In all these cases, as too with the Cleisthenic and other reforms that brought about democratic Athens, there was a major change in constitution resulting from resistance to elite authority which was then, in turn, preserved as an on-going means of perpetuating collective action by being fixed through the advent of institutional arrangements. The forms of democracy in antiquity and the present are different but they both developed from a similar set of circumstances, ultimately reaching a similar conclusion.

The difference between the two in terms of pluralism is somewhat more problematic. Zumbrunnen rightly states that “nothing comparable to contemporary pluralism existed in ancient Athens” (8). The citizens who made up the Assembly were all males of the same ethnicity and, while representing a number of social classes, automatically precluded the sort of diversity which we expect to find in modern democracies, entailing instead a species of homogeneity virtually unheard of in contemporary societies – and therefore also precluding the prospect of pluralism in the modern sense of the word. Even so, as Zumbrunnen points out, the socio-economic distinctions between citizens in ancient Athens could be quite significant and the “dynamics of the ordinary-elite fault” represents considerable promise for making the case that, in general, something like pluralism did occur in Classical Athens (albeit in a narrowly defined manner according to social class and birth) and in particular for Aristophanes’ dramatic representations, with their special emphasis on this class divide, to be still quite relevant to our present-day incarnation of mass politics.

This issue comes to the forefront when we consider the subject of demagogy in Athenian politics which was also a special concern for Aristophanes. The democratic Assembly of Athens was where the power of the state and its citizens lay. It was where matters of law and even foreign policy were agonistically debated and directly decided by the people. Anyone who wished (who held the franchise) could speak in the Assemblybut invariably certain unelected individuals managed to lead the citizens (demos=people, agogein=to lead, thus “demagogue”) in making decisions, often through what we would perhaps consider the modern practice of “manufacturing consent”. Famous Athenian demagogues included the likes of Pericles, Cleon and Demosthenes and they were invariably representative of a social class other than that of the common people. The classicist Moses Finley has described a central problem of the stability of Classical democracy as the curious willingness on the part of people to have accepted, as the evidence suggests they did, the dominance of these demagogues who were drawn from a small elite group of politically active citizens. Zumbrunnen argues that for “elites to continue as elites” they “had to find ways to convince or persuade or manipulate or dupe the demos, and ordinary citizens had to navigate the political world in considerable part by means of the claims made by elites” (10).

This problem is one which still faces democracy today and which it may always face. Ancient Athenian elites, as with their modern counterparts, had to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible in order to achieve their aims. And their leadership tended to remain unchallenged by the masses or, if challenged, only so by other comparable elites. This led to the mass of citizens in the Assembly who were not elite demagogues taking on the role of spectators. By extension, therefore, the comic theatre of Aristophanes, charged as it was with political energy, in which citizens of all classes were also spectators, should help us to better understand the basic challenges faced by citizens of ancient democracy. Again, many parallels may be drawn with modernity here and the differences between types of pluralism, ancient and modern, may be smoothed over somewhat as both face similar issues in terms of their place in the grand scheme of things. Of course, Zumbrunnen is quick to point out that “thinking of the demos as a mass of ordinary citizen-spectators confronting a small elite risks collapsing the diversity of the contemporary demos into a false homogeneity and unity” (10).

The disposition (hexis) of citizenship is a term frequently used by Aristotle. Zumbrunnen is quick to point out that he is not deliberately trying to be Aristotelian in his discussion of disposition, though the subject is necessary with regard to Classical democracy. For Aristotle, virtue comes from an ethical disposition that is not easy to attain: the mean between the extremes. In Zumbrunnen’s reading of Aristophanes, then, “ordinary citizenship rests on a difficult to achieve comic disposition that holds democracy’s impulses in continual tension” rather than exclusively following one or the other (12). This, he indicates, may present a problem for the modern reader (or citizen of a democracy) in terms of lacking contemporary resonance. Here he has some recourse to Michel Foucault, Steven White and others who express the notion of an ethos of late-modern, democratic citizenship in the context of an “ethical turn” that can help orient citizens’ predicament in moving beyond a focus purely on rights, duties, membership and participation. This issue is later taken up in Zumbrunnen’s conclusions where he considers whether this particularly Athenian notion of disposition is still relevant in the contemporary era. For my part, I suspect it is, insofar as the informed, democratic citizen ought to consider all sides of a given political issue and seek the most rational and moderate course of action as opposed to the trend, particularly in U.S. politics, where voters can become hyperpolarised on certain issues due to near-total immersion in myopic discourses that exclude alternatives and decry all criticisms. But the gap between the real and the ideal here is apparent and I think that the late de-emphasis of the golden mean illustrates Zumbrunnen’s concern about the lack of “contemporary resonance” with Aristotelian/Aristophanic ethical disposition in the democratic politics of our era. Similar extreme polarisation occurred at various times in the Athenian democracy and was the subject of much criticism by the likes of Socrates and Plato and, in that sense, we do find a common ground with the ancients on this matter.

Zumbrunnen next deals with Aristophanes himself and, rightly, asks whether there is any serious political commentary to be found in his comedic fictions. He quotes a passage from Assemblywomen here where the playwright himself addresses his audience, encouraging them to vote for his play’s victory in the dramatic contest, in such a way that indicates his understanding of them as divided between the political elites and everyone else:

“I have a small suggestion for the judges: if you’re intelligent, remember the intelligent parts and vote for me; if you’ve got a sense of humour, remember the jokes and vote for me. Yes, it’s virtually all of you that I’m asking to vote for me” (1155-56).

It is interesting that there was a significant element of agonist democracy present even at dramatic festivals, where the audience would have mostly consisted of those who would otherwise be making up the Assembly, and that the challenges of democratic citizenship applied even there through voting for a winner in the competition. The “impulse towards collective action”, as Zumbrunnen writes, “is deeply implicated in the city’s role in funding” dramatic performances (14). Although, it is worth noting that the individual chosen by the Archon (chief magistrate) to put on a given performance and provide the chorus was almost invariably an elite member of that society, if only because they were expected to fund part of the production from their own resources. Aristophanes’ comedy here reflects upon the political and cultural divisions present within the demos.

Suffice it to say that there are many political elements and explicit political criticisms present in Aristophanic comedy. Most of his heroes and heroines are ordinary people who try to accomplish extraordinary things, although their achievements often come with disturbing consequences. At once he seems to celebrate the fact that ordinary people can make a difference but “he also seems to undermine the possibility that their actions will lead to lasting, positive change” (15). We have numerous examples to draw upon, but I will mention briefly Praxagora in Assemblywomen who succeeds in getting the fictional Assembly to put women in charge of the state with a resulting revision of the social order that resembles a parody of Spartan, communistic society. This communism even extends to sexual matters, which is initially met with alacrity by the characters, that is, until they learn that now the young must “service” the old before they can engage in relations with others of their own age. Elsewhere, Aristophanes has people riding dung beetles (in Peace) to the gods in search of an end to war; they establish a city in the sky (in Birds) to escape the litigiousness of Athens; and so forth. But all of these end badly or, at least, in such a way that the outcome would not be considered positive to most non-fictional Athenians.

These and other plays have led some critics to assert that Aristophanes was essentially hostile to democracy. However, Zumbrunnen cites David Konstan who has argued that Aristophanes was trying, perhaps even unconsciously, to bridge the fissures that had developed from tensions and contradictions within the Athenian cultural ethos.  This bridging works not to support democracy necessarily but to “temper it” with a healthy dose of Athenian conservatism (15). Josiah Ober has observed that Aristophanes presents exaggerated versions of his fellow citizens’ most closely held political beliefs. Zumbrunnenposits that Aristophanes should therefore be treated as an “internal critic” of democracy rather than an opponent of it. He is taking on the role which the ancient Greeks believed was appropriate for a poet: to educate the people. Zumbrunnen works from the position that Aristophanes need not be considered an ardent democrat or admirer of the common people, or the elites either, in order to have valuable insights into Athenian democracy. His criticisms of democracy are considered less important, in this book, than his portrayal of “ordinary people navigating the tension that lies at the heart of democracy and democratic citizenship” (16). Zumbrunnen reads Aristophanes’ comedies as recognising both the rebellious impulse present in the very nature of democracy, discussed above, along with its impulse towards collective action. As the comedy embodies and portrays these tensions, it encourages spectators to grapple with them as well, and to think about them perhaps more than they would have done otherwise.

Aristophanes’ audience may cheer on ordinary citizens in his plays who struggle against the status quo imposed by elites. However, as conservative readings of Aristophanes rightly indicate, he also calls on spectators to stand at a critical distance from his protagonists: while celebrated, they are also ridiculed. Their schemes may represent a moment of rebelliousness, as well as collective action, acted out in a kind of democratic fantasy, but their negative consequences imply an appeal to existing institutions and forms. Aristophanes satirised both the powerful and the powerless. His plays present fantastic notions of political change and then puncture those notions often with bitter irony. Zumbrunnen argues that he was striving to nurture a complex comic disposition in his audience which is akin to the kind of disposition needed for addressing the challenges of democratic citizenship. So, in his view, Aristophanes was “neither conservative nor radical” but was rather deeply concerned with the possibilities and problems inherent in the conflicting demands that citizens face in a democracy (17). Here I feel compelled to assert that the author’s intent may not be known. We do not have what Aristophanes thought, only what he wrote. However, Zumbrunnen’s argument seems sound and his interpretation as apt as any I have seen on the subject.

Chapter 1 is titled “Peaceful Voyages” and deals particularly with Aristophanes’ Peace and Lysistrata. Both plays entail a level of political criticism as well as advancing, through the vehicle of comedy, alternative possibilities for the future of Athenian and Spartan relations. In Lysistrata, probably the most widely produced of all of Aristophanes’ plays, the eponymous heroine, an ordinary citizen-woman, has a two-pronged plan to stop the war with Sparta. This involves the women of Athens and Sparta seizing the Athenian Acropolis where the funds for the war were kept and boycotting all sexual activity with their husbands until peace is made. Aristophanes’ Peace, by contrast not so well known nor as often staged as Lysistrata, entails the protagonist, one Trygaeus, flying a giant dung beetle to the realm of the gods and freeing the imprisoned divinity Peace so that her influence can end the war. The play concludes with typical Aristophanic celebration along with some concern expressed by certain elements of the Athenian citizenry as to the negative impact that peace will have on their livelihoods, which had been geared towards the war effort. Zumbrunnen’s conclusions here are multiple and follow from the work of scholars like Martha Nussbaum and Jacques Rancière. He picks up on the theme of madness (maniās) in these plays and how it is linked to both money and politics. He also observes how the plays strongly suggest that “wily and manipulative elites have duped the Athenians into seemingly perpetual war” (24). This theme certainly holds some modern resonance.

Zumbrunnen connects the fantastical elements of these two plays with his notion of “comic voyaging” whereby the audience is permitted to contemplate alternative modes of existence, through humour, so that they may then perhaps step back from their own, more normative, existence and consider  different paths. Both plays demonstrate the tension between rebellion and collective action and both invite the spectator to reconsider their own identity with regard to society as a whole. Zumbrunnen argues that these plays reveal, at once, that rebellious individuals as well as concerted, collective action can change the status quo, but also that neither radical change nor collective action by ordinary individuals alone will suffice to solve the problems faced by the Athenians. This is a seemingly paradoxical conclusion but one which seems consistent with Zumbrunnen’s reading of Aristophanes whose intentions must be regarded as subtle and complex at the very least.

Chapter 2 is titled “Ordinary Citizens, High Culture, and the Salvation of the City”. It deals with Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs. Here Zumbrunnen picks up on the theme, discussed in his general introduction, of what it actually means to be an “ordinary citizen”. He accepts that this is a broadly generalising term but one to which many people, ancient and modern, can in some sense relate. These three plays illustrate and explore the relationship between ordinary “heroes” and cultural elites. In the Clouds, the protagonist, Strepsiades, sends his son to the “Thinkery” run by a heavily fictionalised Socrates in order that he may learn how to escape his debts. The scheme goes awry when his son uses his new found sophistry to convince his father that it is acceptable for him (the son) to beat him (his father). Strepsiades then seeks his revenge by burning down the Thinkery. Both Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs feature the tragic playwright Euripides, himself an acquaintance of Aristophanes, as a principle character in each. In the former, the women of Athens, at their annual all-female festival to Demeter “Bearer of the Thesmos (custom, tradition, law)”, decide, in a scene reminiscent of the Athenian courtroom (where only men were normally allowed—thus a comic reversal), to impeach and execute Euripides for portraying women negatively in his plays. After much comedic wangling, he convinces them to let him go by promising to be nicer in the future. In the latter, Frogs, the god Dionysus goes to the underworld to bring back one of the three great tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides), at this time all deceased, so that the greatest of them can educate the Athenians again and help them to improve their political and civic situation, which has gone downhill due to the wars with Sparta. After a humorous contest between them, judged by Hades and Persephone, the eldest one, Aeschylus, is chosen for his conservative and manly values, having taught the Athenians of the generation of Marathon, at which he fought, to “breathe spears” by his poetic exemplars of virtue and courage. Euripides, quite popular though controversial, is rejected. Zumbrunnendoes not take the position, as some scholars have done, that these plays are “either straightforward populist celebrations or simple elitist warnings about ordinary people”, rather that they work to destabilise the category of the “ordinary” (43).

Chapter 3 is concerned withWasps and Birds, which Zumbrunnen argues, amongst other things, demonstrate the anger of ordinary citizens with the rule of elites. Wasps involves a conflict between father and son whereby the father, a follower of the demagogue Cleon, is addicted to attending court and prosecuting whomever Cleon wishes. In the end, through comedy, the old man is broken from his habit and Cleon’s demagoguery is brought low through ridicule. In Birds, the protagonists seek to establish a utopian society in the air which is aptly called “Cloud-cuckoo-land”, though the whole undertaking proves untenable and comes crashing down, so to speak. Zumbrunnen writes that these plays show both the possibilities and limitations of human imagination but that human beings cannot, godlike, rise too far above the pragmatic details and rules of ordinary life. Even so, while emphasising the inevitable fallibility of illogic, these plays also hint at the possibility of new beginnings.

Chapter 4 deals with Acharnians and Knights which consider the possibilities of rebellion by ordinary citizens against political elites. They illustrate the recurring themes of political populism, with the rhetoric of rebellion, alongside its susceptibility to elitist demagoguery. Zumbrunnen suggests that Aristophanes is exploring the difficulties of balancing these two impulses and, more particularly, how often ordinary citizens fail to meet the challenges of democratic citizenship represented by these opposing forces, albeit with some hint of faith in the possibility that cleverness on the part of individuals may yet point the way to salvation. Clever individuals may resist elite domination whilst coexisting alongside the sort of democratic anger discussed in chapter 3. Chapter 5, in turn, addresses Assemblywomen and Wealth, two of Aristophanes’ later plays which are sometimes characterised as “Middle Comedy” (inasmuch as they begin to transition towards the modes of New Comedy, mentioned above). These plays, Zumbrunnen argues, indicate a return to the sort of optimism for change encountered in some of Aristophanes’ earlier works by “holding fantasy and irony in perpetual and productive tension” (99). The fantasy element entails social justice—in the case of Assemblywomen by proposing a utopian society ruled by women, in Wealth by the fair redistribution of resources through (comic) divine agency—but the irony comes from the dystopian elements that obtain in these comedies. Assemblywomen in particular should not be read exclusively as some proto-feminist statement, as some have done, since the comedy largely derives from the reversal of the norm—women running the state, which is men’s business. But it does give the spectators pause to think, considering that women did run the households of Athens. Even so, the resulting dystopia ironically portrays the protagonist’s rebellious scheme as the subject of ridicule and humour.

After splendidly tying together all of the themes discussed here, and others, Zumbrunnen returns to his initial argument as to the value of Aristophanes’ dramatic engagement with democracy in Classical Athens and the issues faced by democracies in our own era. His position is concerned with modern debates on democracy as either “rebellious disruption” or “ordered and responsible collective action”, alongside the influential role of elites, and how these relate to Aristophanic comedy as revealing a similar theme (133). He asserts that Aristophanes’ position, as applicable in his own time as now, is that democracy is not a choice between these alternatives or extremes. Rather, these are competing democratic impulses, well illustrated by ancient Greek comedies and their own political experiences, and that Aristophanes is pointing us towards a comic disposition attuned to the tensions inherent in democracy. They serve to remind us that it is difficult to face the challenge of democratic citizenship and that we need to develop a “complex and fluid” disposition in order to meet that challenge. Such issues as who is “ordinary” and who is elite and what can be done to effect change remain central to democracy today as in Classical Athens. Aristophanes does not offer us an answer to these difficulties but his plays “suggest the disposition with which we should approach the questions” (135). And Aristophanes constantly reminds us that democratic citizenship is, and likely should always be, hard work.

Zumbrunnen’s scholarship is, on the whole, excellent and comprehensive. His readings of Aristophanes are as sound as any that I have seen and he makes thorough recourse to a wide range of secondary sources. On the latter point, I was particularly pleased that the book, despite being clearly composed within and largely for the North American cultural context, utilises a healthy array of sources from British and, to a lesser extent, European scholars, including such luminaries on the subject of Aristophanic comedy as one would consider appropriate for a project of this type. Indeed, without which, it would have suffered much by way of critical dearth. John Zumbrunnen’s Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship should prove extremely useful to any student or academic interested in Aristophanes’ and the Classics as well, more broadly, to those in International Relations and Political History. I also suggest that it would prove equally useful to any individual, ordinary or elite, in a democracy who hopes to navigate the complex tensions afforded by that polity and who wants to be a “clever” and effective citizen – so too would it serve them well to view or read Aristophanes.

KENNETH ROYCE MOORE is a classicist

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