“Aristophanes IV” by Aristophanes

Aristophanes IV

Aristophanes is best remembered (by me) for travestying Socrates and Euripides in his plays. Much as I dislike his buffoonery, he might provide an interesting study of the irrational national sentiments and the sway of public opinion. He raises two issues which are quite relevant today: 1. How does art influence morality and vice versa? 2. How does rationality influence morality?

The Frogs was performed at the Festivals of Dionysus in 405 BC, a year before the final defeat of Athens. It was a time of national unrest and decline, and the public opinion was characterized by nostalgia and xenophobia. In the play, Aristophanes conjures up a literary critic in search of a poet-savior of Athens in the Underworld. The critic, the god Dionysus, presides over a contest between Aeschylus and Euripides. who takes turn to attack the each other’s poetry. Euripides is ridiculed for the baseness of his subjects, and triviality of the imagery and meter of his poems. Whereas Aeschylus writes exalted themes of Gods and heroes of old, it is argued, Euripides tells undignified tales about lowlifes and foreigners, thereby corrupting the audience and weakens the national character. Dionysus concludes by choosing Aeschylus and assigning him the task of saving Athens.

I can’t help but think that, if poets have the power to change the people and the fate of the nation, and Aeschylus made the Greeks larger-than-life heroes, Euripides deeply flawed human beings, Aristophanes must have made them satyr-like buffoons.

In Assemblywomen, Aristophanes touched upon form of government, and jestingly suggested the rule of women and communism (sharing of property and spouse among all citizens) as an alternative to Athenian democracy which had fallen apart. One of the earliest conceptions of utopia.

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8 thoughts on ““Aristophanes IV” by Aristophanes

  1. You should take a look at Leo Strauss’ Socrates and Aristophanes where addresses this conflict between Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes. In his account Aristophanes is every bit the serious political theorist and perhaps more successful as he escaped the persecution that undid Socrates.

      1. There are additional sources (e.g., http://www.attalus.org/names/a/aristophanes.html) but I don’t think they are very helpful. The better approach is to look at the chronology of the plays and the texts that they are possibly interacting with (Plato, Xenophon, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, etc. You begin to get a glimpse of “conversations” between the works and how they are reacting to events around them.

      2. A good approach indeed. Thanks for the suggestion. Aristophanes seemed to derive pleasure from lampoons not conversations, criticizing Euripides’ plays when the latter was already dead.

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