socrates and aristophanes

Socrates and Aristophanes

By Jason McGinty

I was struck by inspiration today while in the place where all inspiration comes from (the shower), and decided to write down some thoughts. My thesis is that I think Socrates and Aristophanes are a lot more similar than they might seem at first glance.

Last week, Seminar 50 had our talk about Plato’s Meno and Phaedrus. We got onto the subject of virtue, what it is, and whether or not it is teachable, and Adam brought up an analogy Karl has talked about on the podcast before: it’s easy to tell what the virtue of a knife is, because we know what a knife is for and its virtue is connected to how well it fulfills its purpose. Then we suggested that the virtue of a human also has to do with how well a human fulfills his/her purpose, which I think is an Aristotelian idea, but we’re not there yet and I haven’t read Aristotle before so I’ll have to wait and see.

Of course, that begs the question of what a human’s purpose is. In last week’s seminar, we suggested that maybe no one has a fully coherent picture of what virtue is because no one has taken the time to step back and figure out what the purpose of a human is. But what we seem to have in the Athens of Socrates’ day is a bunch of people running around who all think they know what virtue is, and some of them (*cough cough* Protagoras *cough cough*) think they can teach virtue to other people.

I think possibly that the function Socrates (and by extension Plato) serves is to break down the opinions of people who think they know things that they don’t really know and expose the fact that no one really knows what virtue is. He doesn’t really put forward his own view of what virtue is (at least not in the dialogues we’ve read so far; if he does in other dialogues I’ll stand corrected); he only tears down other people’s views. The effect is to put people into a state of greater confusion, and if you accept Socrates’ arguments from the Meno, this is not necessarily a bad thing to do because it removes false confidence from people, just like Meno’s slave boy when he is shown that a square with double the side length does not have double the area. He is exposing a lack of knowledge that wasn’t going to be obvious without some close and sometimes pedantic-sounding investigation.

I have some predictions about Aristotle that I’ll be interested to come back to when we get to him. I think Socrates and Plato might have paved the way for Aristotle in this way. One of their effects on philosophical thought was to expose the fact that no one really knows what they’re talking about on the subject of virtue. Then later, Aristotle was able to come along and ask, “Why doesn’t anyone seem to have a coherent picture of virtue? Maybe it’s because the virtue of a thing is connected to its purpose, and no one has figured out what a human’s purpose is.”

In my notes for the Meno, I broke down Socrates’ process of learning (or recollection) into four stages:

  1. Not knowing, but thinking that you know
  2. Not knowing, and realizing that you don’t know
  3. Searching for knowledge
  4. Finding knowledge

So in this view that I’m suggesting, Socrates and Plato try to take the intellectuals of Athens from stage 1 to stage 2 on the subject of virtue. Their degree of success is up for debate, but they apparently succeeded in producing at least one philosopher who made it to stage 3: Aristotle.

The key point I’m trying to make is that Socrates serves a function of tearing something down, eventually paving the way for Aristotle to build up something better than what was there before. I’m not necessarily saying he was consciously or intentionally doing this; maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but that’s not the point. The point is that this was the effect he had.

And this is where Aristophanes comes in. This is Seminar 50’s Aristophanes month, and he’s quite a riot. After reading the first two of his plays, his style of humor reminds me a lot of Monty Python, which I’m guessing isn’t really a coincidence.

I loved the closing sequence in The Acharnians where Dikaiopolis and Lamachus are both preparing to leave their houses, Lamachus to go into battle and Dikaiopolis to go to a party/drinking contest. Lamachus ends up getting wounded in a silly accident but tries to make it out to be a glorious and honorable battle wound, which makes him an easy target for Dikaiopolis’ wit. While Lamachus tries to claim glory by overplaying his battle deeds, Dikaiopolis gets all the honor and women that Lamachus thinks he deserves by winning the drinking contest. It’s a pretty fun parody of Greek warrior culture run amok.

So I started thinking about the function of satire, and I think it might be surprisingly similar to Socrates’ function as the gadfly of Athens. Maybe when there are insufficient opportunities to win real honor and glory, men who are overly focused on those things will try to manufacture opportunities and hurt the city in the process. Maybe they do this by starting or continuing wars that aren’t really necessary and end up being more destructive than anyone thought they would be; maybe they do it by embellishing their own exploits and making themselves out to be something they’re not. In a culture like this one, I could easily imagine a bunch of generals who have read a little bit too much Homer and start to think they are Achilles or Diomedes. Maybe they start to take themselves a little bit too seriously, and a sharp-witted guy like Aristophanes could come along and take them down a few pegs by mocking them on stage.

Like Socrates, the effect of this is to tear something down, but in a different way. Aristophanes isn’t going to carefully examine philosophical ideas through close questioning, but he will relentlessly mock anyone who starts to get a little too big for his britches. Also like Socrates, I don’t really know whether this was his conscious intent or not, and it doesn’t really matter.

Maybe people like Aristophanes also had a hand in paving the way for people like Aristotle. Aristophanes tries to get everyone to focus a little bit less on honor and glory and ask what other things in life might be worthwhile to focus on. To draw an analogy with Socrates’ stages of learning, the stage of having false knowledge would be to think that glory is everything and should be pursued to the exclusion of all else. Aristophanes tears down that view through mockery and gets folks to ask what else might be worth focusing on; so they’ve moved from stage 1 (thinking glory is everything), to stage 2 (realizing there might be other things in life), and finally to stage 3 (asking what those other things might be).

So what I’m saying is, Socrates = Aristophanes.

Just kidding, but seriously, I think I’ve found a pretty significant similarity in their function. I’ll be interested to see how this view changes when we get to Aristotle.


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