When I was a kid , I read about Socrates being executed by the city of Athens by drinking a cup of hemlock. Over the years , the reasons came out , or more precisely , the reason ; the sole reason for this travesty was that he was corrupting the youth of Athens . I also knew that the wealthy Plato was one of his proteges who was so turned off by the city’s decision to kill the noted philosopher that he became a philosopher himself . Though I have never read Plato except for bits and pieces , I was convinced that the people of Athens had no business killing Socrates for being a harbinger of change whose sole purpose was to oust corruption from the city.
When I was looking for various ideas for the order of reading the Greek Classics , I found it ironical that many of them suggest reading Plato before reading Aristophanes.That reason was evident after I read Clouds . Clouds is about Socrates and the philosophical sophistry that he is espousing . The whole play starts with the main character(STREPSIADES) in debt and his belief that his debts could be written off if he argues well and convinces his debtors to forgive his debts . After approaching Socrates in his Thinkery (who deftly deprives him of his cloak which then is secretly sold by his disciples for their meals) , he realizes that he is too old and ignorant and his wastrel son must be the one to learn and redeem his debts. After suitable indoctrination , the son has become a sophist and does indeed scare the debtors away with highfalutin speech and threats , eventually the son does the same for his father and the father is seen running away from his son after having been beaten by him .I imagine that this play is probably the source of the insult “head in the clouds” before the modern day deplorable change to “head up their ass”.
The works of Homer , Sophocles , Aeschylus are rich with mythology and with characters who lived in the past . Aristophanes deals with what he considers to be a problem with a contemporary, Socrates . This genre is a quantum leap in writing , one is not merely writing about something that happened in the past but creating a new imaginary world , also passing commentary on social issues and a past master at putting words in people’s mouth. I would have no trouble calling Aristophanes the father of Blogging , dramatists, debaters and caricaturists.
Whether Socrates is guilty of the accusations and whether Aristophanes has passed a valid judgement is something each one of us has to decide but the play is an exceptional original. The play was so powerful that after it screened ,the city fathers of Athens decided that Socrates was a real threat to the city and had him condemned to death. Socrates , a wise man , for his part , actually attended the play and stood up at the end so that audiences could make a comparison between the man and his caricature.
Until I read the clouds , I often imagined that most of the Greek plays could be easily portrayed in modern day plays and theaters . But I realized after reading , that Aristophanes more than anybody else could easily be translated into modern day plays and his ideas and sense of humor are remarkably modern and relevant today . There are certain comical interludes where Socrates declares that Zeus is dead and the convection principle (whatever that is) is the order of the day . I see such nonsense in Stock broker lingo even today . Years ago , I had met a young Indian student at an small airport in the Midwest and we started chatting and I found that he was studying Financial Engineering (Why does one need to engineer Finances?) and more grilling got me past the financial jargon and into the world of Molecular physics , he informed me that one of the models that they used for predicting growth was Brownian motion . Brownian motion is the motion of the molecules in a fluid. I was suitably baffled and dumbfounded . The world of finance , dark and mysterious got more random and mysterious . As I lived through crashes and recessions , I have come to the conclusion that Wall Street (and every one of its equivalents around the world) is full of charlatans who are experts are peddling the latest confusing jargon (Momentum investing (borrowing from physics), Derivatives(Calculus) etc etc) and rip people off their hard earned money .
Reading Aristophanes is a true delight for all adults . Where as most other playwrights could be easily depicted for children , Aristophanes has no doubts about who his true audience is and I cannot recommend it enough for one and all .