Saturday, May 13, 2017

From Plato’s Symposium to Aristophanes’ Birds

Socrates asked Diotima ‘What is Love (Ti oun an eiê ho erôs; Symposium 202d8)?’ She answered: ‘He is a great spirit (Daimôn megas), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal (kai gar pan to daimonion metaxu esti theou te kai thnêtou, 202d13-e1).’ – Socrates: ‘And who was his father and his mother (Patros te tinos esti kai thnêtou;)? – Diotima: ‘The tale will take time (Makroteron men diêgêsasthai); nevertheless (homôs de) I will tell you (soi erô). On the day when Aphrodite was born (hote gar egeneto hê Aphroditê) there was a feast of all the gods (hêstiônto hoi theoi hoi te alloi), among them the god Poros or Plenty, who is the son of Metis or Sagacity (kai ho tês Mêtidos huos Poros). When the feast was over (epeidê de edeipnêsan), Penia or Poverty, as the manner is on such occasions, came about the doors to beg (prosaitêsousa hoion dê euôchias ousês aphiketo hê Penia, kai ên peri tas thuras). Now Plenty (ho oun Poros), who was the worse for nectar (methustheis tou nektaros) – there was no wine in those days (oinos gar oupô ên) – went into the garden of Zeus (eis ton tou Zênos kêpon eiselthôn) and fell into a heavy sleep (bebarêmenos heuden); and Poverty considering that for her there was no plenty, plotted to have a child by him (hê oun Penia epibouleuousa dia tên hautês aporian paidion poiêsasthai ek tou Porou), and accordingly she lay down at his side (kataklinetai te par autô̢) and conceived Love (kai ekuêse ton Erôta), who partly because he is naturally a lover of the beautiful, and because Aphrodite is herself beautiful, and also because he was begotten during her birthday feast, is her follower and attendant (dio dê kai tês Aphroditês akolouthos kai therapôn gegonen ho Erôs, gennêtheis en tois ekeinês genethliois, kai hama phusei erastês ôn peri to kalon kai tês Aphroditês kalês ousês). And as his parentage is (hate oun Porou kai Penias huos ôn), so also are his fortunes (ho Erôs en toiautê̢ tuchê̢ kathestêken). In the first place (prôton men) he is always poor (penês aei esti), and anything but tender and fair (kai pollou dei hapalos te kai kalos), as the many imagine him (hoion hoi polloi oiontai); and he is rough (alla sklêros) and squalid (kai auchmêros), and has no shoes (kai anupodêtos), nor a house to dwell in (kai aoikos); on the bare earth (chamaipetês ôn kai astrôtos) exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets, or at the door of houses, taking his rest (epi thurais kai en hodois hupaitrios koimômenos); and like his mother he is always in distress (tên tês mêtros phusin echôn, aei endeia̢ sunoikos). Like his father too, whom he also partly resembles (kata de au ton patera), he is always plotting against the fair (epiboulos esti tois kalois) and good (kai tois agathois); he is bold (andreios ôn), enterprising (kai itês), strong (kai suntonos), a mighty hunter (thêreutês deinos), always waving some intrigue or other (aei tinas plekôn mêchanas), keen in the pursuit of wisdom (kai phronêseôs epithumêtês), fertile in resources (kai porimos); a philosopher at all times (philosophôn dia pantos tou biou, 203b1-d7, tr. Jowett).’

On the margin of my Oxford text I wrote (some thirty five years ago; a note taken from Bury’s edition of the Symposium?): ‘The properties of Eros are as observed Max. Tyr. diss. XXIV.4. p. 461 atechnôs hoia eis auton Sôkratên eskôpton en Dionysiois hoi kômô̢doi (‘just in what way the writers of comedies scoffed at Socrates at Dionysia’).

I read Aristophanes’ Clouds not long ago, and so it was easy to find some relevant passages:

Strepsiades points to the house of Socrates: ‘That is the Thoughtery of wise souls (psuchôn sophôn tout’ esti phrontistêrion, 94). – Pheidippides, his son: ‘Bah! the wretches! (aiboi ponêroi g’) I know them (oida); you mean those quacks with pale faces, those barefoot fellows (tous alazonas tous ôchriôntas tous anupodêtous legeis), such as that miserable Socrates and Chaerephon (hôn ho kakodaimôn Sôkrates kai Chairephôn)?

Strepsiades enters Socrates’ Thoughtery calling on Socrates suspended in a basket up above the ground. Socrates: ‘Mortal, what do you want with me (ti me kaleis ôphêmere)?’ – Strepsiades: ‘First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you (prôton men ho ti dra̢s antibolô kateipe moi).’ – Soc. ‘I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun (aerobatô kai periphronô to hêlion, 223-225).’

Soc. ‘Do you really wish to know the truth of celestial matters (boulei ta theia pragmat’ eidenai saphôs hatt’ estin orthôs;) ....and to converse with the clouds, who are our genii (kai xungenesthai tais Nephelaisin es logous, tais hêmeteraisi daimosi; 250-253)?

The Leader of the Chorus, of the Clouds, says to Socrates: ‘But, Socrates, begin the lessons you want to teach this old man (all’ encheirei ton presbutên ho ti per melleis prodidaskein); rouse his mind (kai diakinei ton noun autou), try the strength of his intelligence (kai tês gnômês apopeirô).’ – Socrates to Strepsiades: ‘Come (age dê), tell me (kateipe moi su) the kind of mind you have (ton sautou tropon); it's important that I know this, that I may order my batteries against you in the right fashion (hin’ auton eidôn hostis esti mêchanas êdê ‘pi toutois pros se kainas prospherô, 476-480). (I have used the translation available at the Internet Classics Archive.)

There is one essential characteristic of Socrates, prominent in the depicting of the Eros in Diotima’s tale, the caricature of which is missing in the Clouds: Socrates’ philosophic ignorance. The reason is, I believe, that when Aristophanes wrote the Clouds this characteristic was not prominent. It came to the fore only after Chaerephon went to Delphi and asked the oracle ‘whether there is anybody wiser than I’ (ei tis emou eiê sophôteros, Plato, Apology 21a6) When ‘the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser’ (aneilen oun hê Puthia mêdena sophôteron einai, 216-7), Socrates reacted to it by rigorous self-reflection, which resulted in his ‘I neither know nor think that I know’ (hôsper oun ouk oida, oude oiomai, 21d5). This character comes to the fore in the Birds, as I remembered; I had to re-read it.

The Birds were staged in 314, not long after the commencement of the Sicilian war.

Two Athenians, Pisthetairos and Euelpides, can’t stand any more their living in Athens; they go in search of Tereus, an ancient Thracian king changed into a hoopoe, and with his help and that of the other birds they build a Cuckoo-City-in-the-Clouds (Nephelokokkugia, 819). When the Nephelokokkugia is built, Iris, the messenger of the Gods, manages to get through the gate. Pisthetairos interrogates her: ‘By which gate (kata poias pulas) did you pass through the wall (eisêlthes eis to teichos), wretched female (ô miarôtatê;)?’ – Iris: ‘I don't know (ouk oida), O Zeus (ma Di’), by which gate (kata poias pulas).’ – Pisthetairos: ‘Have you heard how she ironizes (êkousas autês hoion eirôneuetai; 1210-11)?

Pisthetairos: ‘Ah! and so you slipped into this city on the sly (k’apeita dêth’ houtô siôpê̢ diapetei dia tês poleôs) and into these realms of air-land that don't belong to you (tês allotrias kai tou chaous;).’ – Iris: ‘And what other roads (poia̢ gar allê̢) can the gods travel (chrê petesthai tous theous;)? – Pisthetairos: ‘I don’t know, by Zeus (ouk oida ma Di’ egôge), for not this way (tê̢de men gar ou, 1217-20).’

To see the Socratic link, it is important to realize that Socrates’ ‘I don’t know’ was perceived as irony, and that Socrates identified Iris (the rainbow, linking the human and the divine sphere) with philosophy (see Plato, Theaet. 155d).

A Herald returns from the earth and reports to Pisthetairos: ‘Oh you, who have founded so illustrious a city in the air (ô kleinotatên aitherion oikisas polin), you know not (ouk oisth’) in what esteem men hold you (hosên timên par’ anthrôpois pherei) and how many lovers of this place you have (hosous t’ erastas têsde tês chôras echeis). For before you built this city (prin men gar oikisai se tênde tên polin), all men had a mania for Sparta (elakônomanoun hapantes anthrôpoi tote); they used to wear long hair (ekomôn), were fasting (epeinôn), went dirty (errupôn), they Socratized (esôkratoun).’ (1277-1282)

Note the similarity between the concept of the ‘lover’ that Aristophanes uses here and the concept of the ‘lover’ developed by Socrates in the Symposium. Men on the earth love Pisthetairos’ City in the Clouds as something higher than what Socrates offered them. In the Clouds Aristophanes presents Socrates with his thoughts high in the air; in the Birds Pisthetairos trumps him; he builds the city in the air.

The symposium in celebration of Agathon’s victory with his first tragedy took place in 416, two years prior to the staging or the Birds. If we compare Aristophanes’ Birds with Plato’s Symposium, we have reason to believe that both Socrates and Aristophanes attended it, and that the symposiasts did amuse themselves by their stories about Eros. In the Birds Eros plays an important role. The chorus, composed of the birds, becomes convinced of their great destiny thanks to Eros: ‘The Immortals did not exist until Eros had brought together all the ingredients of the world (proteron d’ ouk ên genos athanatôn, prin Erôs xunemeixen hapanta) … Thus our origin is very much older than that of the dwellers in Olympus (hôde men esmen polu presbutatoi pantôn makarôn). That we are the offspring of Eros (hêmeis d’ hôs esmen Erôtos), this is clear by many proofs (pollois dêlon, 700-704).

When Plato wrote the Symposium, he must have thought that his readers could hardly help thinking of Aristophanes’ comedy. When the drunken Alcibiades joins the symposiasts, in his speech in praise of Socrates he gives a dignified expression to Aristophanes’ ‘they all Socratized’: ‘And you whom I see around me, Phaedrus (kai horôn au Phaidrous) and Agathon (Agathonas) and Eryximachus (Eruximachous) and Pausanias (Pausanias) and Aristodemus (Aristodemous) and Aristophanes (te kai Aristophanas), all of you, and I need not say Socrates himself (Sôkratê de auton ti dei legein), and multitudes of others (kai hosoi alloi), have had experience of the same dionysiac madness and passion of philosophy (pantes gar kekoinôkate tês philosophou manias te kai bakcheias, 218a7-b4, tr. Jowett).’ – It is worth noting that in the original all those named are in the plural, only Socrates is in the singular.


In the Meno Plato gives another response to Aristophanes’s ‘they all Socratized’. Meno asked Socrates whether virtue can be taught, and Socrates said in his reply: ‘I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired (ei goun tina etheleis houtôs eresthai tôn enthade), he would laugh in your face (oudeis hostis ou gelasetai), and say (kai erei): “Stranger (Ô xene), you have far too good an opinion of me (kinduneuô soi dokein makarios tis einai), if you think that I can answer your question (aretên goun eite didakton eith’ hosô̢ tropô̢ paragignetai eidenai). For I literally do not know what virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not (egô de tosouton deô eite didakton eite mê didakton eidenai, hôs oude auto hoti pot’ esti to parapan aretê tunchanô eidôs).” And myself (Egô oun kai autos), Meno (ô Menôn, houtôs echô), living as I do in this region of poverty, am as poor as the rest of the world (sumpenomai tois politais toutou tou pragmatos); and I confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue (kai emauton katamemphomai hôs ouk eidôs peri tês aretês to parapan, 71a1-b3, tr. Jowett).’

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