The general politics of Aristophanes, as set forth in his plays, amount to the stock denunciation of democracy, which, for him, is summed up in the personality of Cleon. There is the usual representation of the masses as readily gulled by flattery, oracles and cries of tyranny; the agitators bid against one another with promises of cheap food and material comforts; the "classes" are represented by the knights, but there is no positive to match this negative, and not even any definite system of reform is shadowed. When Demos is boiled down, he appears simply restored to youth, with all subsequent to the age of Marathon blotted out like a bad dream.
The most definite political topic in Aristophanes is naturally that which touches the life-and-death struggle between the Athenian and Spartan leagues. He is the spokesman of the peace party, and four of his plays are passionate and eloquent pleas for peace. No one can doubt their sincerity; but here again we look in vain for any lofty ideal of politics; nor is there any trace of the poet's having felt very deeply the issues at stake in this war, while seldom does he betray any strong sympathies or antipathies as regards the different types of Greek people drawn into this mortal conflict. The speech in the Acharnians, where he makes Dicaeopolis give serious political advice, minimizes the cause of the war to a quarrel over three harlots; but here he takes care to add that he hates Lacedaemon, and longs for an earthquake to level the proud city with the ground. It is significant that when Peace is drawn up from the pit she is accompanied by Sport and Plenty; all the glories of peace, as painted by Aristophanes, amount to creature comforts and joys, with freedom from the troublesome burdens of war. Elsewhere, indeed, he is forever identifying all that is good and true with a life of martial training and naval prowess; but it is the training and prowess of the last generation.
Intermediate between political and social satire my be noted, as a topic of constant recurrence in Aristophanes, the furor for forensic proceedings which transformed Athens into a city of jurymen. This is treated as a part of democracy, and Cleon is the rallying-point of the wasp-jurors. Social morality, as we have seen, also enters largely into the matter of Greek comedy. If it were necessary to approve or condemn the moral teachings of Aristophanes, it must be confessed it would be very difficult to disentangle the poet's actual sentiments from the comic medium in which they are conveyed, and from the wildness of the Dionysiac festival. But it is a great tribute to his genius that Aristophanes, who disputes with Rabelais the preëminence in coarseness for the whole world's literature, whose highest appeals are to our animal nature, who reforms his repentant jurymen into a life of utter dissoluteness, has impressed half his readers from the days of St. Chrysostom downward as a sublime moralist.
Some of those who admire him in this capacity are troubled by the circumstances that Aristophanes should have attacked Socrates; but this is unintelligible enough when we recognize that in morals, as in every other department, he was the antagonist of what was new. The science of his age he presents as so much quackery, all its religious inquiry he regards as atheism, its varying schools of philosophy are comprehended under the idea of substituting grammatical subtleties for open-air gymnastics; the whole new thought is lumped together and identified with laxity of morals and the presumptuousness of youth. Then, so little open to moral impressions is Aristophanes, in actual fact, that he selects from the band of prominent philosophers, as a personal embodiment for his caricature, the one personage who, by common consent, is allowed to have lived the purest and noblest life that the pre-Christian world ever saw.
In the plays of Aristophanes the whole panorama of Greek society passes before us, each phase touched with the poet's inexhaustible humor. One play is opened with a meeting of Parliament, and the whole machinery of government is presented in caricature--president, ambassadors with high-sounding titles, luxurious envoys; elsewhere a magistrate with his archers of the guard perform their functions, and the punishment of the stocks and of scourging is administered on the stage. The proceedings of the law courts are continually before us, and we are familiar with the ways of the smooth-tongued advocates and the insolence of lawyer-youths. A description is given of a night in the temple of Aesculapius--prototype of our modern hospital--and one scene presents the secret mysteries of the women, while other religious celebrations--bridal and funeral processions, thank-offerings and consecrations--are constantly used to fill up the scenes.
Abundant space is devoted to caricaturing the different classes of society, whose outward guise and varying manners do so much to make up the spectacle of life. Not to speak of Spartans, Megarians, Boeotians, we have priests, sophists, poets, astronomers, public commissioners, news-vendors, leather-sellers, sausage-sellers, the opposing trades of sicklemen to represent the arts of peace; makers of crests, helmets, spears, and trumpets, with soldiers, to represent war; slaves, informers, flute-girls, artisans in general rising at cock-crow, and inn-keepers fleeced by travellers and making their successors suffer. The merry war of the sexes is a constant topic with Aristophanes, and no direct attacks on women are so sharp as the innocent self-exposure which he puts in the mouths of the sex when they are supposed to be free from the presence of men. All this is the social satire of the older comedy broadened by the added machinery of the Attic type. It reaches a climax in the Birds, and the two latest plays of Aristophanes, in which, avoiding party questions, he rests the idea of his plot upon general satire, exaggerating to a degree that passes anything attempted in regard to politics, and the whole becomes a genial mockery of human nature itself.
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