Aristophanes' Critique of Philosophic Wisdom in Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs
This dissertation seeks to understand Aristophanes’ critique of philosophic wisdom in three of his comedies: Clouds (423 BC), Women at the Thesmophoria (411 BC) and Frogs (405 BC). Written over the politically turbulent period of the Peloponnesian war (434-404 BC), these comedies navigate a generational conflict between conservative defenders of Athens’s customs, laws and gods and the younger generation influenced by the atheistic teachings of the sophists. This dissertation seeks to contribute to our understanding of Aristophanes’ critique by comparing his presentation of Socrates with that of Euripides, a tragedian who ingenuously fuses poetry with the new sophistic teaching. The first chapter considers Aristophanes’ representation of Socrates in Clouds as the sophist par excellence who replaces the gods of the city with natural causes, and respect for the city’s laws with rhetoric. Although the comedy looks like a conservative defense of traditional morality against the corrupting effects of philosophic novelty, the grounds of Aristophanes’ attack on Socrates are anything but clear. As Aristophanes’ depiction of the Clouds (strange airy deities worshipped by poets and sophists alike) shows, Socrates’ destruction at the end of the play occurs not because what Socrates teaches is false, but because his political isolation blinds him to the city’s demands and makes him vulnerable to persecution. Socrates’ failure in Clouds establishes the basis for considering Euripides’ (partially) successful confrontation with the city in Women at the Thesmophoria. The second chapter assesses the extent to which this hybrid of tragedian and sophist can be harmonized with the needs of the city without compromising his own integrity as a poet whose power lies in his psychologically accurate depictions of human nature. Aristophanes thus points to the superiority of Euripides the poet over Socrates the philosopher, at the same time as he exposes Euripides’ limitations. In Frogs, Aristophanes raises the stakes by pitting Euripides against another giant of tragedy, Aeschylus, in the Thunderdome of Hades with the god of the theatre, Dionysus, as judge. The comedy thus compares the two greatest poetic representatives of the generational conflict between conservative and sophist, old and new, common good and individual good, deciding at the last second in favor of Aeschylus. The chapter argues that Euripides fails because he cannot provide a sufficient political defense of his tragedy at the moment in which Athens faces imminent destruction at the hands of the Spartans. The conclusion reflects on Aristophanes’ implicit claim to teach justice and the good through comedy’s capacity to mediate between the demands of the city, on the one hand, and the insights on human nature afforded by philosophy, on the other.