BMCR 2008.12.04

Philosophy and Comedy: Aristophanes, Logos, and Eros

Bernard Freydberg, Philosophy & comedy : Aristophanes, logos, and erōs. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 1 online resource (xi, 235 pages).. ISBN 9780253000385 $65.00.

Topical satire set aside, Freydberg endeavors not only to unearth the serious, “philosophic yield” buried in Aristophanes, but also to make the poet philosophic. He argues that the Aristophanic construction of logos and eros intersects with that of Plato. If the connection is made, then Aristophanes’ indulgence in comic excess discloses the limits of logos and eros, and thereby the proper measure for human existence is elicited. Thus, according to Freydberg, it is “a very incomplete picture of his achievement, if not a badly misleading one, to regard him merely or even primarily as a highly skilled satirist commentating upon Athenian politics and society” (p. 197). Now, as provocative as this may sound, let alone combative with the weighty tradition of Aristophanic scholarship, this book is beset by a flaccid methodology and a limited application of Old Comic studies and comic theory. And the search for philosophic depth ironically yields the plain, cultural surface.

The book is divided into two parts that deal respectively with logos and eros. Including only Clouds, Wasps, Assemblywomen, and Lysistrata, Freydberg (F) tackles each play in sequential, isolated chunks. I will not address all of his readings, but only the highlights of each chapter. Moreover, my primary concern rests more with F’s overall reading of Aristophanes than his ideas about Plato.

Chapter one essentially portrays Clouds as a breakdown in Platonic logos; the more the logos becomes unhinged from normative conceptions, the more Aristophanes’ characters resort to comically excessive action. The father-son relationship between Strepsiades and Pheidippides becomes a conflict of logos. Their comic inability to communicate, which drives the play, prefigures the Protagoras (337d1-338d1) and Meno (75d6-7), whereby an agreed upon dialogical logos is the prerequisite for the emergence of true logos. Also the caricature of the philosophic logos itself is comically and failingly unpractical; when actually applied it produces Pheidippides’ comic threats of domestic violence and Strepsiades’ act of arson. Further, F sees Right’s failing logos as analogous to that of Socrates in the Apology, since he is concerned with justice rather than victory. The premise is thus simple, F conjectures Platonic echoes and Socratic “images” for Aristophanes’ use of logos and its related words. Each time, the failure of logos induces comic action and at the same time reveals a lurking philosophic truth. An excessive and failingly comic logos always indicates a balanced and successfully absent one.

In chapter two, Wasps’ disclosure exists in the well-known — and clearly ironic — distance it creates between the concept of justice and the jurors who embody it. Specifically, F reads the κακία -obsessed opening dialogue between Sosias and Xanthias programmatically. The abundance of “bad” words produces a type of philosophic questioning of its definition. Aristophanes’ use of φιληλιαστής is thus not a sickness but a Platonic problem of love; the relationship between the word and the true meaning is obscured. Subsequently another breakdown in logos occurs. This time it pertains to the κακία -confused state of the Aristophanic players: Philocleon plays the problem child; Bdelycleon treats his father as such; the chorus commits injustice conscientiously. Moreover, this breakdown becomes clear through reading comic scenes seriously. Philocleon’s Homeric parody of Odysseus’ sheep-inspired escape cannot be pure ridiculous fun but is the admirable act of an old man desperate for respect. Similarly, the chorus’ predilection for injustice is also a cry for respect—they were once soldiers of Athens. F pushes for a tension between despicable acts and the serious, purportedly just reasons behind them. As Philocleon silently entertains his son’s offer of endless food, clothes, and sex, as long as he refrains from jury duty, the chorus remarks that he is perhaps listening and being sensible. F reads the chorus’ comments and Philocleon’s ultimate capitulation as indicative of philosophic silence, that quiet reflection essential to logos and dialogos (Sph. 263e2-5). Wasps’ excess κακία and philosophic silence, then, reveals the path to true logos. And so, “Philocleon is a vicarious image of all of us, as we attempt to fashion our lives by allowing the “divine advent” of logos into our souls in order to clash with our habituated, cultivated, established, unreflective identities so as so seek a life that is best” (p. 85).

In chapter 3 eros takes center stage. In F’s endeavor to disclose the philosophic merit of Aristophanes, he suggests that Assemblywomen reveals the limits of eros by reducing it to sexual gratification. As egalitarian as Praxagora’s new Athens may be, eros is not. All this plays out against the backdrop of an Athens that intersects with the inner workings of Plato’s ideal city. Praxagora notably becomes analogous to the philosopher-city founder through her deception and manipulative recognition of her political limitations (Republic 2). In that context, Aristophanes’ clever handling of the irony implicit in the government as οἶκος metaphor, which syllogistically proves the political ability of women — who live within —, becomes linked to the Socratic soul-body / justice-city analogy. Yet, as Plato notes in the Laws (838e4-7), eros is not easily regulated by legislation. So, Praxagora’s Athens is in turn undermined by eros. As the contest between the sex-pot and the old crone for first crack at the young man shows, a pure egalitarianism is impossible. Taking the Republic/Laws connection together, F believes that Aristophanes’ politically resistant eros, and one limited to sexual aesthetics and gratification, reveals an absent eros balanced between the public and private body.

Rounding off his project, F presents Lysistrata as final proof of Aristophanes’ philosophic potential. Apparently the play’s hilarity overshadows its philosophic side. Here, F conjectures that Lysistrata’s notorious pun in μέγα is equivalent to τά μεγάλα in the Phaedo (100b3-4), i.e., “the form of the cause.” Thus the big issue at hand is not just the war, nor even a comic penis, but there must be something beyond mortal sight at stake. Simply put, under the women’s silly, provocative humor and the men’s political ineptitude lies the nobility of an eros intrinsic to the marriage bond. Thus, “Eros, then, serves not merely as sexual desire for one beautiful body, but as the seal of a sacred promise” (p.159). This is the thing absent, that which the play philosophically discloses.

Each chapter suffers from the use of exegesis by free association in lieu of a sound intertextuality. Aristophanes shows no evidence of engaging Platonic texts. Nor does the simple occurrence of logos and its related words, let alone the topic of love/eros, necessitate a philosophic context. And in the case of Assemblywomen, F even fails to address previous scholarship on the possible relationship with the Republic. It would be rather uncharacteristic of Aristophanes to address a philosopher or philosophic concept ambiguously.

This study also pervasively neglects Old Comedy’s defining attributes. For example, in chapter two, F reshapes Aristophanes’ ironic manipulation of κακία to create his philosophic questioning. Further, he ignores the very nature of comic characterization.1 To treat these characters as psychologically real instead of comic constructs or homiletic labels is to misread comedy. It deflates the serious, and it’s why we laugh instead of gaze appallingly at the stage.

As for Lysistrata, should we read every scene of sexual titillation and libidinous banter as representing the eros of marital desire? Dover may have read the play as a celebration of marital love, but he is simultaneously aware that matrimony in Athens was a prearranged affair and largely a transmission of property.2

Lastly, to claim that the normative absence implicit in comic excess functions philosophically is to confound two different genres. Since Socrates’ irony and humor often relies upon the mortal inability to see the Forms, F assumes Aristophanes’ comedy works similarly. An intersection may be possible, but the removal of Old Comedy’s topical satire and comic deflation detracts from its carnivalesque and Dionysian release.

Unfortunately, I must conclude that Freydberg fails to provide a credible lens through which to read Aristophanes. The entire construction of Aristophanes as philosophic hangs upon a non-existent textual connection to Plato. Moreover, the absence of seminal Aristophanic scholarship is unsettling. And for a text devoted to philosophy, it neglects ancient philosophy’s long history of discourse on Old Comedy, in which its impropriety and innuendo is rejected in favor of the benignity of New Comedy. The ancients certainly did not see any philosophic merit in comic excess. Rather, they praise Old Comedy for its ability to criticize through topical satire. And yes, Aristophanes is serious about comedy. But we do not have to leave his comic, satiric stage to find it. His own discussion of his genre as τρύξ and τρυγῳδία betrays its innate oscillation between the σπουδαῖος and the γέλοιος.3 More important, even if we totaled up all of F’s philosophic disclosures, we only find the concepts of measure, balance, and propriety driving the best expressions of logos and eros. These concepts, however, are not exclusive to philosophy. As fundamental aspects of Greek culture, they rest upon the surface of many ancient genres. There is nothing really deep about them. Regardless, if one still wished to use F’s philosophic lens, I fear Aristophanic comedy would be reduced to that of Terence. All the dung, sex, and satire would be ultimately swept away. To date, the best treatment of how Platonic and Aristophanic comedy intersect is still Andrea Nightingale’s Genres in Dialogue; another important book absent from F’s study.4


1.See Silk, M. S. “The People of Aristophanes,” in C. Pelling (ed.) Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature (Oxford 1990); Silk, M. S. Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy (Oxford 2000).

2.Dover, K. J. 1972. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

3.Edwards, A. T. 1991. “Aristophanes’ Comic Poetics: τρύξ, Scatology, σκῶμμα. TAPA 121: 157-179.

4.Nightingale, A. W. Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the construct of philosophy. Cambridge 1995).