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