Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: The Comedy of Politics
Poking fun at politicians? A tradition at least as old as ancient Greece, as the comedies of Aristophanes show.
Athenian drama, as we’ve seen, often raised political issues. This was true of both tragedy and comedy; but it was especially true of comedy, which satirized contemporary events and personalities in Athens, whereas the subject matter of tragedy was largely confined to stories drawn from Greek myths and legends, and set in a vague and misty past. Of the thirty‐plus Greek tragedies that survive, only one – Aeschylus’s Persians – deals with events in living memory, whereas all the surviving Greek comedies have contemporary settings.1
This is not to say that tragedies never commented on current events; we’ve seen, for example, how Euripides’ Trojan Women and Helen commented on events in the Peloponnesian War.2 But Greek comedy weighed in much more directly on the issues of the day, without the need to disguise them in Homeric trappings. While gods and epic heroes did sometimes make appearances in comedy, they did so in a modern setting, intervening in ongoing Athenian political and social controversies.
The most celebrated Greek comic playwright, and the only one from whom any complete plays survive, is Aristophanes (c. 446‐c. 386 BCE).3 Although Aristophanes drew on many sources for his humor – ranging from literary debates over the comparative merits of different tragedians, to the less high‐minded old standbys of sex and other bodily functions – his focus was nearly always political satire. He appears to have had a particular animus against the politician Kleon, whom he mercilessly pummeled in play after play, most prominently in Knights (where the dishonest politician Paphlagon is a transparent proxy for Kleon) and in Wasps (where the protagonist Bdelykleon, or “Kleon‐hater,” triumphs over the misguided Philokleon, or “Kleon‐lover”).
Aristophanes is often described as a social conservative. The term is perhaps an odd one to apply to an author who poked fun at the Greek gods, reveled in obscene jokes, mocked militarism, and flirted with feminism. But he did display a certain class snobbery – never tiring for example, of reminding audiences of Kleon’s background as a leather tanner. Aristophanes also targeted intellectual innovators like Socrates (in Clouds) and Euripides (in Thesmophoriazousai and especially Frogs), whose ideas he regarded as serving to undermine traditional values.4
The ending of Clouds, with its call to burn down Socrates’ “Thinkatorium” with Socrates still inside it, may be put down to comic exaggeration; but in light of Socrates’ eventual fate the lines have an unsettling ring, and Socrates himself seems to have regarded the play as a contributing factor in his own trial and execution.5
It seems doubtful, though, that Aristophanes would have approved of the prosecution of Socrates. In his play Ploutos, he presents a negative portrait of those self‐appointed guardians of public morals who bring charges against those they disapprove of rather than practicing a live‐and‐let‐live policy of tolerance:
— [H]ow do you live if you have no livelihood? … — I offer my services. — Your services, you toad? You mean your meddling in what’s none of your affair? — None of my affair, goose, when I do all in my power to benefit the State? — So being a tiresome busybody benefits the State? — No, by promoting law and order and cracking down on every transgressor. — I thought the State appointed justices to take care of that. — Yes, but who does the prosecuting? — Whoever’s willing. — That’s me, surely. And the reason why the State’s affairs are my affair. — And the reason why the State’s got such a poor protector. Come now, wouldn’t you rather leave well enough alone and live in tranquillity? — That’s a sheep’s life, dull with complacency.6
The citizens who prosecuted Socrates appear to have been just the sort of busybodies that Aristophanes here condemns – though, to be sure, Aristophanes can arguably be faulted for contributing to a social atmosphere that made Socrates’ condemnation more likely, whether or not he would have personally approved of it.
But despite Aristophanes’ partial complicity with the forces of reaction, his plays contain much for a libertarian to celebrate. He’s hostile to politicians generally, not just Kleon:
Just look at our politicians in every town: when they are poor they behave properly, but after they’ve fleeced the treasury and waxed wealthy they change their tune, undermining democracy and turning against the people. 7
He’s also skeptical of the extravagant promises that politicians offer on behalf of their proposals:
And not long ago, didn’t we all swear that the two‐and‐a‐half percent tax proposed by Heurippides would yield the state five hundred talents? And immediately wasn’t Heurippides our darling golden boy, till we looked into the matter more closely and saw that the whole thing was a damn fantasy, impossible to realize?8
And he expresses his exasperation with bureaucratic micromanagement; in the Birds, when an official messenger from Athens arrives at the newly founded celestial utopia of Cloudcuckooland to announce a decree that “[t]he Cloudcuckoolanders shall use / the same weights, measures, and decrees / as do the Olophyxians,” he is told to “[r]emove yourself and your bloody decrees.”9
Contrary to the widespread view that jurors, being unconstrained by judges’ instructions or rules of evidence, were the true masters of Athens, Aristophanes has his protagonist Bdelykleon, in the Wasps, argue that jurors, far from being masters, are actually the slaves of Athens’ political elite:
— Reckon roughly on your fingers … how much comes to us in revenue from the allied towns. Then make a separate list of how much we get in fees, mining rights, harbor rights, imports, and court dues, markets, rents, and penalties. The gross income from all this comes to nearly two thousand talents. Now calculate what we spend on judges every year – all six thousand of them – judges galore! – and you come up with – what’s the balance? – a measly hundred and fifty talents. — So our salaries don’t even come to a tithe of the revenue? … Then where does the rest go? … — It goes to that horde of the “I won’t let down the Athenian people,” and “I’ll fight for the hoi polloi.” These are the cartel you choose to rule you … And these are the slogans they employ.10
But perhaps the most libertarian aspect of Aristophanes’ plays is their critique of war – as we’ll see in my next post.
1. Aeschylus’s Persians, produced in 472 BCE, dealt with the Greek victory over the invading Persian fleet at Salamis just eight years earlier. Two of the lost tragedies of Phrynicus are likewise known to have dramatized events from the Greco‐Persian wars; one of them evidently depicted a Greek defeat and was consequently banned from the stage. (Yes, Athens had mostly unfettered free speech; but recall that Athenian drama was publicly funded.)
3. We also possess one almost‐complete play, the Dyskolos, by the later comic playwright Menander (c. 342‐c. 290 BCE); but the Greek comedy of Menander’s day – often called “New Comedy” by contrast with Aristophanes’ “Old Comedy” – had grown less politically topical, perhaps in part because Athens was no longer a self‐governing democracy, and a culture of public criticism was consequently no longer encouraged. Roman comic playwrights like Plautus and Terence mainly – and prudently – followed Menander’s rather than Aristophanes’ model.
6. Aristophanes, Ploutos 906–924; in Aristophanes, The Complete Plays: The New Translations, trans. Paul Roche (New York: New American Library, 2005), pp. 704–05. There are very few accurate translations of Aristophanes; older translators censor the obscenities, while modern translators can’t resist the tendency to update the jokes by introducing anachronisms. Roche doesn’t censor (indeed he sometimes introduces obscenities not in the original!), but he is no exception to the anachronism temptation; however, he is at least one of the less egregious offenders in this regard, and his translations have the advantage of all being available in a single volume. Hence my choice of Roche for my Aristophanes citations.
The busybody’s characterization of a live‐and‐let‐live policy as “a sheep’s life, dull with complacency” resembles Plutarch’s description of Pyrrhus: “When Pyrrhus had thus retired into Epirus, and left Macedonia, he had a fair occasion given him by fortune to enjoy himself in quiet, and to govern his own kingdom in peace. But he was persuaded, that neither to annoy others, nor to be annoyed by them, was a life insufferably languishing and tedious.” Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus 13.1; in John and William Langhorne, trans., Plutarch’s Lives, Translated From the Original Greek, vol. 3 (Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas Jr., 1804), p. 14.
7. Ploutos 567–570; Roche translation, op. cit., p. 692.
8. Aristophanes, Assemblywomen 823–828; Roche translation, op. cit., p. 647.
9. Aristophanes, Birds 1040–1044; Roche translation, op. cit., pp. 385–386.
10. Aristophanes, Wasps 650–668; Roche translation, op. cit., pp. 232–233.