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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  11 While Heath sees comic opportunism in Aristophanes’ depiction of Athenian politics, Jeffrey Henderson finds a serious and consistent political position that favors the conservative, aristocratic elite over more radically democratic politicians such as Cleon. This political conservatism extends also into the social and cultural realms where Aristophanes consistently sides with the old forms of education against the innovative teachings of figures like Socrates and Euripides. For Henderson, the endings of Clouds and Frogs - the former showing Socrates’ ‘Thinkery’ being burned down by the comic ‘hero’ Strepsiades and the latter depicting Aeschylus emerging victorious from a poetic competition with Euripides – clearly illustrate Aristophanes’ conservative preferences. Aristophanic comedy, in Henderson’s view, is seriously political, then, in the sense that it sought to educate the demos by systematically satirizing certain groups and individuals while consistently withholding its ridicule from other groups and individuals. Through comic ridicule Aristophanes sought to provide the dêmos with an annual review of Athenian politics that would guide their political and social actions in the future. 54 Henderson’s view certainly represents a rather straightforward account of Aristophanic comedy and its ‘serious’ relation to political practice. Yet, it relies upon a somewhat simplistic formulation of Aristophanic comedy, one that places far too much importance on oppositions and the outcomes of agonal contests. It is a view that fails to adequately account for Aristophanes’ vitriolic criticisms of both sides of these oppositions, criticisms that the outcomes of these contests do very little to resolve. Even in Frogs, which perhaps presents the strongest case for Henderson’s interpretation, Dionysus, who judges the competition between Aeschylus and Euripides, is at first unable to determine the winner. When Dionysus ultimately does render his verdict, the decision seems somewhat arbitrary. Dionysus himself gives no explanation as to why he chooses the way he does, and while the Chorus reinforces this decision by equating Euripides with Socrates’ idle chatter, it is difficult to see how this approval corresponds with the conclusion of the actual contest. Similarly, one could point to Clouds, where the Chorus clearly states that the outcome of the agon between the Better and Worse Arguments will be determined by a roll of dice. 55 In short, there are moments internal to the comedy itself that not only raise suspicions concerning the validity of such dichotomies, but further shed doubt on any claim that Aristophanes’ serious political ‘point’ is that we should simply favor socially conservative politicians and intellectuals. For M.S. Silk, both Heath and Henderson err in assuming a false opposition between seriousness and humor, one that stems from a common misunderstanding of seriousness. In order to shed light on this problem, Silk distinguishes between three meanings of the word ‘serious’: ‘sober,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘substantial.’ While Aristophanes is rarely serious in the sense of being sober, and it is almost impossible to determine whether he is serious in terms of being honest or sincere, Silk claims that Aristophanes is most certainly serious in the sense of being substantial, meaning that there is some profundity lurking behind Aristophanic comedy if we are only clever enough to find it. Yet, Silk is quick to advance the claim that “Aristophanic comedy, whether or not politically ‘serious’ (in the Heath- Henderson sense), is not as deeply concerned with politics as it is widely taken to be, and that its ultimate claim to seriousness lies elsewhere.” 56 Rather than locating Aristophanes’ claim to seriousness in politics, Silk argues that 54 See Henderson (1990). 55 Clouds, 955. 56 Silk (2000), p. 319.

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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11
While Heath sees comic opportunism in Aristophanes’ depiction of Athenian politics, Jeffrey Henderson
finds a serious and consistent political position that favors the conservative, aristocratic elite over more radically
democratic politicians such as Cleon. This political conservatism extends also into the social and cultural realms
where Aristophanes consistently sides with the old forms of education against the innovative teachings of figures
like Socrates and Euripides. For Henderson, the endings of Clouds and Frogs - the former showing Socrates’
‘Thinkery’ being burned down by the comic ‘hero’ Strepsiades and the latter depicting Aeschylus emerging
victorious from a poetic competition with Euripides – clearly illustrate Aristophanes’ conservative preferences.
Aristophanic comedy, in Henderson’s view, is seriously political, then, in the sense that it sought to educate the
demos by systematically satirizing certain groups and individuals while consistently withholding its ridicule from
other groups and individuals. Through comic ridicule Aristophanes sought to provide the dêmos with an annual
review of Athenian politics that would guide their political and social actions in the future.
54
Henderson’s view certainly represents a rather straightforward account of Aristophanic comedy and its
‘serious’ relation to political practice. Yet, it relies upon a somewhat simplistic formulation of Aristophanic
comedy, one that places far too much importance on oppositions and the outcomes of agonal contests. It is a view
that fails to adequately account for Aristophanes’ vitriolic criticisms of both sides of these oppositions, criticisms
that the outcomes of these contests do very little to resolve. Even in Frogs, which perhaps presents the strongest
case for Henderson’s interpretation, Dionysus, who judges the competition between Aeschylus and Euripides, is at
first unable to determine the winner. When Dionysus ultimately does render his verdict, the decision seems
somewhat arbitrary. Dionysus himself gives no explanation as to why he chooses the way he does, and while the
Chorus reinforces this decision by equating Euripides with Socrates’ idle chatter, it is difficult to see how this
approval corresponds with the conclusion of the actual contest. Similarly, one could point to Clouds, where the
Chorus clearly states that the outcome of the agon between the Better and Worse Arguments will be determined by a
roll of dice.
55
In short, there are moments internal to the comedy itself that not only raise suspicions concerning the
validity of such dichotomies, but further shed doubt on any claim that Aristophanes’ serious political ‘point’ is that
we should simply favor socially conservative politicians and intellectuals.
For M.S. Silk, both Heath and Henderson err in assuming a false opposition between seriousness and
humor, one that stems from a common misunderstanding of seriousness. In order to shed light on this problem, Silk
distinguishes between three meanings of the word ‘serious’: ‘sober,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘substantial.’ While Aristophanes
is rarely serious in the sense of being sober, and it is almost impossible to determine whether he is serious in terms
of being honest or sincere, Silk claims that Aristophanes is most certainly serious in the sense of being substantial,
meaning that there is some profundity lurking behind Aristophanic comedy if we are only clever enough to find it.
Yet, Silk is quick to advance the claim that “Aristophanic comedy, whether or not politically ‘serious’ (in the Heath-
Henderson sense), is not as deeply concerned with politics as it is widely taken to be, and that its ultimate claim to
seriousness lies elsewhere.”
56
Rather than locating Aristophanes’ claim to seriousness in politics, Silk argues that
54
See Henderson (1990).
55
Clouds, 955.
56
Silk (2000), p. 319.


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