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On Satire in Aristophanes The Clouds

Ian Johnston’s inquiry into the function and nature of satire in Aristophanes’ The Clouds invites the reader to contemplate various levels of satirical or ironic expression and to view the play as perhaps much more than a comedic slap at the social conventions or social mores of Aristophanes’ time. Instead, Johnston would like the reader to recognize that satire in The Clouds functions at a multi-tiered levels, with many distinct purposes and expressive functions.

Johnston identifies “three distinct stages” that typify the evolution of satire in The Clouds and he indicates that “in going through these stages, the tone of the satire changes from something very amusing and distant from us to something much closer to us, more potentially disturbing, and perhaps apocalyptic” (Johnston). it is this latter observation that is both the most intriguing and the most complicated, conceptionally, to explicate from the play itself.

In order to more fully appreciate that Aristophanes’ form of satire, indeed, moves toward the “apcalyptic” it is important to reaffirm the philosophical and ethical ideas with which Aristophanes was most concerned when writing The Clouds. At the time of the play’s creation, a debate concerning the nature and power of rhetoric and the spoken word was enjoying currency in Greek culture.

This argument was seen as being crucial to all aspects of a democratic society:”conflict between logos and the city, justice, and law undermined traditional distinctions and relationships that were fundamental to the self-definition and the idealized and ideological history of the democratic polis” (O’Regan, 18). Into this apparently ambiguous area, many differing philosophies of justice flowed. One of the most important theorists was Plato who offered a philosophical basis for both rationality and human justice.

Plato’s exhaustive treatment of the theme of justice in “The Republic” s articulated by Socrates results not only in the probing of metaphysical and philosophical themes, but in the theoretical construction of the ideal society, envisioned as a great city during the symposium where “The Republic” takes place. The primary focus point of the structure of the society is the pursuit or emulation of Plato’s ultimate notion of justice. While Plato’s notion of “class” strikes the modern reader of being merely a euphemism for “caste system” and the resultant lack of individual liberty and freedom seems more autocratic than ideal.

Plato’s idea of class emerges from the top down, so to speak, in that he recommends that the ideal city be ruled by the “smallest group and part of itself and the knowledge in it, from the supervising and ruling part, that a city founded according to nature would be wise as a whole” which openly endorses rule by an elite. (Plato 107) For one to accept Plato’s notions of class control and civility, it is probable that one must first embrace his idea of justice, which is, itself, only achievable within the context of his ideally imagined city.

Against this backdrop, Aristophanes form of satire in The Clouds is an attempt to articulate a “joke that will turn everything preceding on its head” (O’Regan, 114) and the method by which this accomplished is a comic inversion of Platonic ideas of justice. In The Clouds, “we will see comic justice at work, witnessing a “comedy of inversion,” in which characters are entrapped by their desires and enmeshed in their own schemes” (O’Regan, 114).

The implication is that comic justice or satire is as complete a system and as complete a recognition of Divine justice as any elaborately constructed philosophical argument. In other words, while comic justice “should not be confused with moral justice” (O’Regan, 114), it is by Aristophanes’ reckoning, according to Johnston, a force which “functions not morally but logistically” (O’Regan, 114). And by functioning logistically, comic justice accomplishes what moral reason cannot: the simultaneous expression of justice and the embracing of irony.

This later fact is key because, as Johnston points out, Aristophanes’ real concern is not with justice, per se, but with the corruptive influence of language adn rhetoric and the way that these powers are used to manipulate and disturb the social order. So while it would be far too simplistic (and factually incorrect) to cast Aristophanes as an “anti-philsopher” or even as an “anti-rhetorician” it would not be too far of a stretch to forward the idea that Aristophanes is concerned, in The Clouds at identifying where the manipulation of language and the breakdown of moral strictures and social mores are connected.

This does not, of course, presume that Aristophanes was a conservative or a reactionary, necessarily. As Johnston points out “. It may be the case that Aristophanes is a staunch defender of the old values. But that need not be so. After all, the old philosophy comes in for some satiric jibes, especially for his prurience and rather simply indignation, which might well be presented as a sort of naive stuffiness” (Johnston).

That is well-enough in and of itself, but what of the foregoing observation by Johnston that Aristophanes’ satire is “apocalyptic? ” The answer to that, according to Johnston, is that “the erosion of old values enshrined in a shared tradition and a communal respect for that tradition” has brought forth the scathing satire of The Clouds and this erosion is due to language: “Its clear, too, just what is eroding that tradition: the ability to manipulate language” (Johnston).

AN example of this from the play itself is when “Pheidippides acts and treats his victims in ways more bestial than human,” (O’Regan, 118-119) and later “claims the cock (a symbol of hubris) as his model” (O’Regan, 118-119) because in this seemingly slight aspect of the play is revealed the devastating fact that “logos itself, man’s supreme achievement, the cornerstone of justice and the city, [has] become an agent in the return to savagery. (O’Regan, 118-119).

Aristophanes satire is apocalyptic because it defines by irony and negative consequence, lacking prescription and offering instead recognition of ironic injustice rather than an idealized moral structure of human justice as imagined by Plato. Works Cited Aristophanes. Clouds. Trans. Peter Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000. Johnston, Ian, J. “Application to the Play” O’Regan, Daphne Elizabeth. Rhetoric, Comedy, and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes’ Clouds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

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