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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  9 was “a vigorous civic practice closely identified with the exercise of democratic citizenship.” 45 As such, these dramatic festivals were part of the institutional landscape of Athenian democracy, as well as forums for democratic thought and reflection. Of course, there was no direct relationship between the poetic speech of the dramatic festivals and the outcomes of the processes of democratic decision-making, as there was between the speeches given in the Assembly and the law-courts and the final outcomes of those procedures. Yet, this does not diminish the importance of the theater as a realm of political thought, one that was perhaps just as necessary for the functioning of Athenian democracy as the more overtly political forums such as the Assembly and law-courts. In the words of Christian Meier, writing on Greek tragedy, “it seems possible that we have here a rather special example of a social body carrying out quite publicly the maintenance and development of its mental infrastructure.” 46 In other words, the Greek theater, while not a forum for making political decisions, was a forum for engaging in political thinking, a particular form of communal self-reflection, the need for which was made particularly pressing by the political, social, and cultural transformations wrought within the Athenian polis by the advent of democracy. From this perspective, the Greek theater was nothing less than a reflective form of communal education, one that “honed intellectual skills and enacted a celebration of citizens’ capacities for reflection, but…did so in intimate partnership with an enactment of the connectedness of precisely this work to practical concerns.” 47 Much has been written, both by classicists and political theorists, about how Greek tragedy functioned as such a form of civic education. Yet, the political seriousness of the genre of Attic Old Comedy has often been questioned, despite the overt political content of most of its representative works. Malcolm Heath has offered what is perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of the view that Aristophanes’ ‘political comedy’ conveys any serious political intent. Heath has asserted that even the moments where Aristophanes seemingly addresses his audience in a ‘serious’ fashion are undermined by the particular comic contexts in which these utterances are spoken. Though Heath’s analysis is not entirely convincing, it deserves close consideration insofar as it forces a clearer understanding of the precise ways in which Aristophanes should be considered a serious political writer. 48 While the general overview of Heath’s view appears genuinely plausible, the evidence that he bases his conclusions on rely on rather weak arguments. A few illustrations of these arguments will clearly illustrate my point. First, Heath argues that since Plato’s Symposium portrays a banquet where Aristophanes and Socrates were both in attendance, this demonstrates that Aristophanes’ satirical abuse of Socrates in the Clouds could not have been made with hostile intent. Second, since although Knights – which centered around a highly abusive attack on Cleon - won first prize at the Lenaea of 424, the fact that Cleon was elected general shortly after the play was performed demonstrates that the audience’s enjoyment of Aristophanes’ comic abuse in no way altered their view of 45 Monoson (2000), p. 88. 46 Meier (1993), p. 4. 47 Monoson (2000), p. 109. 48 The analysis that follows draws on a similar analysis by M.S. Silk in that Silk also uses Heath and Henderson as representative of the different views of Aristophanic seriousness. I have chosen to argue against these same scholars since my criticisms of their views differ significantly from those made by Silk in ways that will ultimately be important in formulating my own thoughts on Aristophanic seriousness. While Silk critiques Heath and Henderson for conflating three different meanings of ‘serious,’ my ultimate criticism draws attention to a commonly myopic vision of politics, a criticism that I eventually extend to Silk as well.

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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9
was “a vigorous civic practice closely identified with the exercise of democratic citizenship.”
45
As such, these
dramatic festivals were part of the institutional landscape of Athenian democracy, as well as forums for democratic
thought and reflection.
Of course, there was no direct relationship between the poetic speech of the dramatic festivals and the
outcomes of the processes of democratic decision-making, as there was between the speeches given in the Assembly
and the law-courts and the final outcomes of those procedures. Yet, this does not diminish the importance of the
theater as a realm of political thought, one that was perhaps just as necessary for the functioning of Athenian
democracy as the more overtly political forums such as the Assembly and law-courts. In the words of Christian
Meier, writing on Greek tragedy, “it seems possible that we have here a rather special example of a social body
carrying out quite publicly the maintenance and development of its mental infrastructure.”
46
In other words, the
Greek theater, while not a forum for making political decisions, was a forum for engaging in political thinking, a
particular form of communal self-reflection, the need for which was made particularly pressing by the political,
social, and cultural transformations wrought within the Athenian polis by the advent of democracy. From this
perspective, the Greek theater was nothing less than a reflective form of communal education, one that “honed
intellectual skills and enacted a celebration of citizens’ capacities for reflection, but…did so in intimate partnership
with an enactment of the connectedness of precisely this work to practical concerns.”
47
Much has been written, both by classicists and political theorists, about how Greek tragedy functioned as
such a form of civic education. Yet, the political seriousness of the genre of Attic Old Comedy has often been
questioned, despite the overt political content of most of its representative works. Malcolm Heath has offered what
is perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of the view that Aristophanes’ ‘political comedy’ conveys any serious
political intent. Heath has asserted that even the moments where Aristophanes seemingly addresses his audience in
a ‘serious’ fashion are undermined by the particular comic contexts in which these utterances are spoken. Though
Heath’s analysis is not entirely convincing, it deserves close consideration insofar as it forces a clearer
understanding of the precise ways in which Aristophanes should be considered a serious political writer.
48
While the general overview of Heath’s view appears genuinely plausible, the evidence that he bases his
conclusions on rely on rather weak arguments. A few illustrations of these arguments will clearly illustrate my
point. First, Heath argues that since Plato’s Symposium portrays a banquet where Aristophanes and Socrates were
both in attendance, this demonstrates that Aristophanes’ satirical abuse of Socrates in the Clouds could not have
been made with hostile intent. Second, since although Knights – which centered around a highly abusive attack on
Cleon - won first prize at the Lenaea of 424, the fact that Cleon was elected general shortly after the play was
performed demonstrates that the audience’s enjoyment of Aristophanes’ comic abuse in no way altered their view of
45
Monoson (2000), p. 88.
46
Meier (1993), p. 4.
47
Monoson (2000), p. 109.
48
The analysis that follows draws on a similar analysis by M.S. Silk in that Silk also uses Heath and Henderson as
representative of the different views of Aristophanic seriousness. I have chosen to argue against these same scholars
since my criticisms of their views differ significantly from those made by Silk in ways that will ultimately be
important in formulating my own thoughts on Aristophanic seriousness. While Silk critiques Heath and Henderson
for conflating three different meanings of ‘serious,’ my ultimate criticism draws attention to a commonly myopic
vision of politics, a criticism that I eventually extend to Silk as well.


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