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March 2016

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Aristophanes’ Divine Comedy

Aristophanes explored the relationship between the ancient Greeks and their gods. Are people only pious to avoid bad luck? To get some boon in return?

Those who treat their fellows justly will be rewarded with worldly success, while those who murder, rob, and defraud their fellows will be meet with poverty and strife, because the gods love virtue and hate vice.  Or so Hesiod assured his readers – while at the same time admitting that divine justice could be a tad slow, and that he was unlikely to see any relief from injustice in his lifetime.1

By Aristophanes’ era, about three centuries later, the long run was looking very long indeed, and skepticism about divine justice was growing.  In a fragment from the lost play Sisyphus, of unknown authorship,2 the existence of the gods, and their concern with human justice, are described as a myth to keep wrongdoers in check:

Some shrewd man first, a man in judgment wise,
Found for mortals the fear of gods,
Thereby to frighten the wicked should they
Even act or speak or scheme in secret.
Hence it was that he introduced the divine ….3

The worry that a waning commitment to traditional religion might undermine public morality is a recurring concern in Aristophanes’ plays; yet he himself pokes fun fairly mercilessly at both the gods of Greek religion and the priests who serve them.  In his Frogs, for example, Dionysus is portrayed as cowardly and effeminate; while in Peace and Birds, the human protagonists manage to outwit some fairly buffoonish deities.  Moreover, as we saw last time,4 the central theme of his Ploutos was that the god of wealth allots his gifts randomly rather than in accordance with merit – a complaint that might well serve to undermine confidence in divine justice. 

One of the charges that Aristophanes seems to bring against the new intellectuals like Euripides and Socrates is that they encourage disbelief in the gods.  In his Thesmophoriazousai, one of two plays devoted to a critique of Euripides (the other is Frogs), we’re told that “this fellow in his tragedies / has made people believe / that the gods don’t exist.”5  Of course no surviving Euripidean play literally teaches that the gods do not exist (unless the Sisyphus fragment comes from Euripides’ pen, which is possible); but the gods do sometimes come off rather badly in his plays6 – though this is admittedly also true of the mythological source material on which he is drawing. 

In Clouds, Aristophanes has Socrates say:  “You’ll swear by the gods, will you? / Get this straight:  the gods aren’t legal tender here.”7  By contrast, other ancient sources on Socrates portray him as believing in the gods – though they do describe him as rejecting the literal truth of those myths that present the gods as quarrelsome and driven by passion.8  It’s hard to see how Socrates could be guilty of impiety for rejecting the unflattering side of Greek myths, if at the same time Euripides is guilty of impiety for accepting that same unflattering side.

Aristophanes puts in Socrates’ mouth a scientific explanation of meteorological phenomena traditionally attributed to Zeus:

— By the Earth, you don’t mean to say
that Zeus is not an Olympian god?
— What do you mean “Zeus”?  Stop gibbering.
Zeus doesn’t exist.
— What d’you mean?  Who makes it rain?
Go no further till you answer me that.
— Why these [clouds], of course,
and I’ll give you indisputable proof.
Have you ever seen rain without clouds?
Otherwise Zeus would have to produce the rain himself
when the clouds are not at home. …
— And I always thought that rain
was Zeus pissing through a sieve. …
But who’s the one, do tell me,
who makes the thunder and makes me shiver? …
— When the clouds are sodden with water …
and barge into one another, they explode. …
— Ah, but the bolt of lightning – explain that ….
— When a dry wind rises into the atmosphere
it gets locked up in these Clouds
and the wind blows them up like a bladder
and then by pressure it bursts them asunder
because of the density and
it scorches itself to nothing
because of the friction and speed.9

In other sources, Socrates seems mostly uninterested in scientific questions, preferring to focus on ethical ones; hence it is usually assumed that Aristophanes is simply using Socrates as a stand-in for modern intellectuals generally, and so he may well be.  But Plato does tell us10 that Socrates was interested in scientific questions in his youth, and as the Clouds is at least a quarter-century earlier than our other principal sources of information on Socrates, it’s possible that Aristophanes was familiar with a more scientifically-minded Socrates. 

Aristophanes also presents Socrates as teaching the twin arts of “Just Argument” and “Unjust Argument” – that is, the ability to argue both the right and the wrong side of every case – with the implication that this morally dubious skill goes hand in hand with Socrates’ theological skepticism.  This charge too is generally regarded as unfair, inasmuch as while some Greek thinkers (such as the sophists Protagoras and Gorgias) did offer to teach just this ability, Socrates is usually described as critical of this practice.  (See, for example, Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, in which Socrates is seen to take a dim view of any art of argument that is indifferent to truth.)  Yet Socrates himself is sometimes found propounding what seems like the wrong side of a case, as in Plato’s Lesser Hippias, where he argues that it is better to do wrong voluntarily than to do so involuntarily.  This argument was probably intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the thesis that it is possible to do wrong voluntarily, but that might not be obvious to a casual listener; and in any case, the interpretation in question would only confirm that Socrates sometimes argued for propositions he did not believe.

All the same, Aristophanes’ play itself includes anti-theistic arguments that go unanswered; for example, when Strepsiades ventures the opinion that lightning is “what Zeus propels against all perjurers,” Socrates counters:

If he’s a perjurer-striker, why hasn’t he stricken
Simon or Cleonymus or Theorus, those assiduous perjurers?
Instead he strikes his own temple …
as well as the mighty oaks.  What is he up to?
The oak tree is hardly a perjurer.11

If there’s a proper reply to this skeptical argument, Aristophanes doesn’t tell us what it is.

As previously noted, in his play Ploutos the restoration of the wealth-god’s eyesight brings about a distribution of riches according to merit.  As a result, the decent majority no longer feels the need to make sacrifices to the gods, since they already possess the blessings they would ordinarily ask for.  What’s more, the priests, accustomed to eating the food that petitioners offer to the gods, are going hungry.  As one priest complains:

I’m dying of starvation
ever since Plutus got his sight back again.
I’ve simply not a thing to eat.  I, Zeus the Savior’s priest! …
Nobody sacrifices.  Nobody takes the trouble. …
In the days when people had nothing, the businessman
safely home from his trip
would offer a sacrifice in thanks,
so would the man acquitted in court,
and the sacrificers would ask me to be the priest.
But not so now.
No one offers a thing or sets a foot
inside the temple except to find a loo ….12

Note that the priest is apparently not virtuous himself, since otherwise he would have benefited from the new dispensation without the help of any petitioners.

The gods themselves prove to be no less mercenary.  Hermes, the messenger of the gods, complains to Chremylus, the human who has arranged to have Ploutos’s eyesight restored:

It’s Zeus, you scamp.
He’s in a terrible temper and ready to pound you all ….
Because you’ve committed the most heinous crime.
Ever since Plutus was able to see again
no one’s bothered to sacrifice anything at all to any of us divine:
no incense, sweet bay, barley cake, slaughtered beast –
not a bloody thing.13

The theme of gods’ being anxiously greedy to receive the sacrificial offerings made by their mortal worshippers recurs in the Assemblywomen, where divine avarice is treated as a justification for humans to behave similarly.  One character, when asked “You mean, we should just take?” replies:

God, yes!  Do as the deities will.
Isn’t it obvious when we pray before their effigies
that they’re on the make?
They just stand there, hands extended, palms up,
not to give but to receive.14

Likewise in the Birds, the Athenian Peisetairus drives the gods into a frenzy of desperation by arranging for the birds of the air to impose an embargo on commerce between gods and mortals:

As for the gods,
you’ll starve them out, like the unfortunate
natives of Melos. …
Because in between them and us is air.  Right?
And just as we have to ask for visas from the Boeotians
when we want to visit Delphi, so will humans
when they sacrifice to the gods have to get visas
from you for the savory smell of fried bacon
to reach heaven.15

Notice the reference to the harsh Athenian treatment of Melos, which we’ve previously discussed in connection with Euripides’ Trojan Women.16  (We’ll revisit this incident when we discuss Thucydides.) 

Aristophanes’ unflattering depiction of gods (and their priests) as driven by greed for sacrifices may seem incongruous in an author who’s otherwise very free with charges that others are undermining traditional morality through lack of respect for the gods.  We might, however, see as the target of Aristophanes’ satire not the gods themselves, but rather a certain popular conception of the gods and of their relation with human beings. 

In a passage in Plato’s Euthyphro that may well have been inspired by reflection on Aristophanes, and in particular on the embargo scene in Birds, Socrates pokes fun at excessively mercantile conceptions of religion.

— But tell me, what is this service to the gods? You say it is making requests of them and giving to them? …  And proper requests would be requests for what we need from them, asking them for these things? … And again, giving properly would be giving what they happen to want from us, to give these things to them in return? …
— That’s true, Socrates.
— So piousness for gods and humans, Euthyphro, would be some skill of trading with one another?17

This trading aspect is certainly a common feature of ancient prayers, which usually began with a reminder of past services the petitioner had rendered to the gods, followed by a request for some divine favor in return.  But when Socrates asks whether a human worshipper has the ability to “benefit the gods and make the gods better,” so that what the pious do “results in some improvement of the gods,”18 his interlocutor is quick to deny that “the gods are benefited by what they receive from us,”19 and so the commercial-exchange model of human-divine relations is rejected. 

Thus Aristophanes, professedly at odds with Socrates on the topic of religion, may be closer to his concerns on this issue than he realizes: both thinkers mock popular attitudes toward prayer as based on an inappropriately mercantile model of relations between humanity and the gods. 

All the same, Aristophanes offers his audience little guidance as to how to reconcile the traditional notion of the gods as guarantors of justice with the Zeus who blasts harmless trees and his own temples with his lightning bolts while letting perjurers run free.  Hesiod’s worry remains:  if the gods do not reward justice and punish injustice, what reason do we have to treat our neighbors justly?  Or is justice rewarded after all, but in some manner other than what Hesiod was expecting?  These are questions that Socrates and his followers will address.


  1. See part 5 of this series.
  2. Some sources attribute the play to Euripides, others to Critias (uncle of Plato and leader of the Thirty Tyrants).  The context and speaker of the passage are unknown; and its sentiments, of course, should not necessarily be attributed to its author, whoever that was.
  3. Sisyphus fragment 12-16; R. G. Bury and J. Garrett translation.
  4. See part 19 of this series.
  5. Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai 478-481; in Aristophanes, The Complete Plays: The New Translations, trans. Paul Roche (New York:  New American Library, 2005), p. 500.
  6. See, for example, the depiction of Apollo in Euripides’ Ion, as described in part 15 of this series.
  7. Aristophanes, Clouds 247-248; Roche translation, p. 144.
  8. See, e.g.., Plato, Euthyphro 5e-6b.
  9. Clouds 366-407; Roche translation, pp. 150-153.
  10. See Plato, Phædo 97c-98b.
  11. Clouds 397-402; Roche translation, p. 152.
  12. Ploutos 1173-1184; Roche translation, p. 714.
  13. Ploutos 1107-1116; Roche translation, p. 711.
  14. Assemblywomen 778-782; p. 645.
  15. Birds 184-192; Roche translation, p. 346.
  16. See part 14 of this series.
  17. Plato, Euthyphro 14d-e; Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack translation.
  18. Ibid., 13c.
  19. Ibid., 15a.

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