By Martijn Icks
The line between good-hearted humour and debasing ridicule is notoriously hard to draw. A few weeks ago, Sergei Samoilenko blogged about the growing influence of TV comedians in shaping public perceptions of politicians and celebrities. While some of their jokes and sketches may just be gently poking fun at public figures, comedians like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Arjen Lubach can also wield humour as a powerful weapon to expose perceived wrongdoings and attack reputations. In an age of diminishing trust in politics and traditional media, political comedy is a force to be reckoned with.
The roots of this tradition go deep – much deeper than most people may expect. Comedians were already lampooning public figures long before YouTube or even television existed. As so often, the ancient Greeks did it first. In Classical Athens (fifth and fourth centuries BCE), comic plays were staged during the annual festival in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy and theatre. Aristophanes was among the most celebrated comic playwrights. Although his comedies mostly featured fictional plots and characters, they also put famous Athenians on stage and mocked them mercilessly – not unlike the way modern politicians and Hollywood actors may appear in episodes of The Simpsons or South Park.
A good example is Aristophanes’s 423 BCE play The Clouds, targeting Athens’s leading intellectual of the day: the philosopher Socrates. The latter had long been considered a nuisance by many Athenians, who resented the poking questions he pestered people with at the marketplace, challenging the very foundations of their convictions regarding truth, beauty and the gods. In The Clouds, the rather dim-witted protagonist Strepsiades visits Socrates’s “Think Tank” to learn how to win arguments, since he’s heard that the philosopher has such a glib tongue that he can convince anyone of anything. By learning this trick, he figures he will be able to avoid paying the debts he has accumulated.
When Strepsiades first encounters Socrates, the famous thinker is lowered from above in a basket, where he had been examining the sun and the ether. It soon emerges that the philosopher is living with his head in the clouds, wasting most of his time on such trivialities as measuring how far a flea can jump in flea-feet and why a gnat produces a buzzing sound. More serious, however, is that he denies the existence of the gods and undermines traditional values with his faulty rhetoric.
Strepsiades proves to be too stupid to be taught, so he sends his son Pheidippides in his stead. The latter, it turns out, can be taught all too well. The unwholesome effects of Socrates’s education become clear at the end of the play, when Pheidippides turns on his own parents, using twisted logic to argue that he has every right to beat them. When the lad proceeds to insult Zeus, King of the Gods, Strepsiades is prompted to such anger that he rushes off and sets fire to the Think Tank, giving Socrates his just deserts.
We may be inclined to regard The Clouds as a case of harmless caricature. Evidently, the sly, unhinged philosopher presented to us in the play was very different from his real-life counterpart. Tradition has it that Socrates, who was present at the play’s performance, stood up and made a bow to the audience, apparently not taking its criticism very seriously. We should also note that the script that has been preserved is a revised version, so that we cannot be sure in what form The Clouds was originally put on stage. It may have been more or less offensive than the version we have now.
Nevertheless, Socrates’s execution in 399 BCE casts an eerie light on the play. A court jury condemned the philosopher to death on accusations of atheism and spoiling the Athenian youth – two hallmarks of his depiction in The Clouds. This condemnation may have had less to do with a decades-old comedy than with the sour political mood in Athens at the time; the city had suffered a crushing defeat against its arch enemy Sparta and a brief reign of terror in recent years.
But Plato, Socrates’s most famous student, had his suspicions. In his Apology of Socrates, mention is made of “some comic playwright” who was among those who set the people of Athens up against the philosopher.
There’s little doubt Plato is referring to Aristophanes. If there is truth to his allegation, The Clouds may have provided a more poisonous sting than we tend to realize. In that case, Aristophanes’s comedy was anything but a laughing matter.