Unjust logos and the crowd

Earlier this year I wrote about attacks on education and Aristophanes’ Clouds. As much as I believe other Aristophanic comedies are funnier and that they are better plays, something about 2016 keeps drawing me back to Clouds, a dark portrait of education, as containing nuggets of wisdom about society.

To recap, the conceit of The Clouds is that Strepsiades is in a bind because he is in debt and has lost court cases. His solution is to send his son, Pheidippides, to school that he may learn all the tricks of sophistry, which will make the weaker argument stronger and get him off the hook for debt. At this point in the play, Strepsiades has gone to Socrates’ school the Thinkery to see for himself what he is going to get with this investment.

“Teach him, he has a capacity for sophistry by nature…However, let him learn those two Arguments, the stronger and the weaker, and that the unjust arguments overturn the stronger. If not both, at any rate, [see that he learns] the unjust one completely.” [ἀμέλει δίδασκε, θυμόσοφός ἐστιν φύσει…ὅπως δ᾽ἐκείνω τὼ λόγω μαθήσεται, τὸν κρείττον᾽ὅστις ἐστὶ καὶ τὸν ἥττονα, ὃς τἄδικα λέγων ἀνατρέπει τὸν κρείττονα. ἐὰν δὲ μή, τὸν γοῦν ἄδικον πάσῃ τέχνῃ]

“He will learn them from the Logoi (Arguments) in person.” [αὐτὸς μαθήσεται παρ᾽αὐτοῖν τοῖν λόγοιν.]

“Remember now, that he must be able to speak against every course case.” [τοῦτό νυν μέμνησ᾽, ὅπως πρὸς πάντα τὰ δίκαι᾽ ἀντιλέγειν δυνήσεται]


After a brief exchange, both characters leave the stage and are replaced by personifications of the two Logoi (Arguments).

Just Logos:
“Make room here, show yourself to the onlookers, although you are bold!” [Χώρει δευρί, δεῖξον σαυτὸν τοῖσι θεαταῖς, καίπερ θρασὺς ὤν.]

Unjust Logos:
“Go wherever you want. I will destroy you far more speaking in front of a crowd!” [ἴθ᾽ ὅποι χρᾐζεις. πολὺ γὰρ μᾶλλὀν ᾽ς ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖσι λέγων ἀπολῶ.]


The debate between Just Logos and Unjust Logos continues. Unjust Logos quickly turns to insults (Just Logos is antiquated [ἀρχαῖος]) and profanity, and then slips into an argument filled with non sequitors and false comparisons that rejects Just Logos at every turn. What struck me was how the argument is framed, with Unjust Logos explicitly declaring that his brand of rhetoric works better the bigger the crowd is because the ability of the individual to judge arguments clearly is obfuscated by the emotion of the collective.

Note that Aristophanes does not restrict the strength of Unjust Logos to this setting as often appears in this critique of democracy from ancient Greece to Men in Black, but rather that large crowds magnify its power.

Will I feed on wisdom like a dog? A parable of sorts

Modern applicability in ancient society is a dicy proposition, in my opinion. This is not to say the ancient should be ignored when it comes to understanding what it means to be human, but taking political, social, or cultural lessons usually results in mangling one or both. The cultures are vastly different, the technology is changed, and so on. This goes doubly when making a relatively superficial reference, such as the Thucydides Trap. With that caveat aside, whenever I see attacks on higher education I think of Aristophanes’ Clouds, produced in 423 BCE.

The play opens with Strepsiades, an average Joe, whose own habits and those of his son, Pheidippides, mean that he has debt that he either doesn’t want to or cannot pay.[1] To make matters worse, he has lost several court cases and now the creditors want to confiscate his property. Strepsiades is in a bind, but has heard about the power of sophistry, which appears in Aristotle as making the weaker argument stronger (Rhetoric 1402a23-5).[2] So Strepsiades says to his son “If one gives them silver, these men teach one how to be victorious with words, whether just or unjust [οὕτοι διδάσκουσ᾽, ἀργύριον ἤν τις διδῷ, λέγοντα νικᾶν καὶ δίκαια κἄδικα. 98-9]. With such power, he believes that he will be able to win the court cases and escape from debt. Pheidippides isn’t so sure, describing the scholars as pale-faced (akin to the Spartan prisoners), country-less wanderers. Nevertheless, Strepsiades makes his way to the school of Socrates, known in the play as the Thinkery:

“Open up the Thinkery! Quickly now! Show me Socrates! I want to learn! Throw open the doors!” [ἄνοιγ᾽ἄνοιγ᾽ἀνύσας τὸ φροντιστήριον, καὶ δεῖξον ὡς τάχιστά μοι τὸν Σωκράτη. μαθητιῶ γάρ, ἀλλ᾽ ἄνοιγε τὴν θύραν. 181-3].

Strepsiades is immediately appalled at the wide range of “studies” that are taking place inside, most of which have no bearing whatsoever on his current predicament. For instance, when they show him Athens on a map, he doesn’t believe them because he can’t see the juries in session.

The play goes on and includes a debate between “Unjust Argument” and “Just Argument” about who rules Athens [Unjust Argument does] and what is proper education, and Pheidippides undergoes a radical transformation, which, in turn, challenges the family structure. The vision of society in Clouds is conservative and modest, despite an exchange about whether there is any virtue in modesty or chastity with a dig at the sexual prowess of Achilles’ father Peleus. Debt remains an issue throughout the play, but it turns out that this newfangled education only resolves the issue to a point, while offering new complications.

I should note that this is very much caricature. The historical Socrates actually had a good reputation as a soldier and could hardly be counted among the pale-faced vagrants corrupting the young people, at least at this juncture, though the play shows that the reputation that would eventually cost him his life had already begun to develop.

As is frequently mentioned with reference to Aristophanes, his entire purpose is to win first prize in a theatrical competition, so the play is naturally layered with jokes ranging from the vulgar to the esoteric. Aristophanes’ plays tend to be conservative and, the war plays particularly, follow a somewhat predictable pattern: appearance of a problem (frequently: the war and its consequences), emergence of a comic hero or heroine who can resolve the problem, hijinks, party to celebrate the return to the peaceful days and old social order. Along the way there are layers of jokes, and, possibly, crowd interaction.

However, Clouds is peculiar in a couple of ways, showing a bitter, sour meanness that run contrary to most of his other plays. First, there is a famous choral scene in which the leader–often thought to be Aristophanes himself–breaks the fourth wall and directly berates the crowd for their support of Cleon and for having censured Aristophanes for mocking him in an earlier, now lost, play. Cleon, sometimes characterized as the bloodiest man in Athens, is a frequent target of Aristophanes, but not directly in Clouds, so the passage stands out.[3] The second difference is in the resolution to the play. Instead of the traditional euphoric conclusion, the disillusioned learners swarm the Thinkery with torches, determined to burn it to the ground. The conclusion, in particular, has a bitter edge to it, so it is perhaps not a surprise that the play did not win.

The core problem of Clouds is the intersection of debt and education. Aristophanes implies that a traditional education would keep one from falling into debt in the first place and is derisive of these new, weird forms of learning. Strepsiades isn’t interested in those, but is clearly willing to spend money on education, provided that there is a material gain for himself.[4] When the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t offer a monetary reward or seems to be potentially “subversive,” it is condemned as at best frivolous, at worst dangerous.[5]

[As Strepsiades sets fire to the Thinkery]
Student A: What are you doing, mister? [ἄνθρωπε, τί ποιεῖς;]

Strepsiades: What am I doing?! What else than subtly-discoursing the support beams of this house? [ὅ τι ποιῶ; τί δ᾽ ἄλλο γ᾽ἤ διαλεπτολογοῦμαι ταῖς δοκοῖς τῆς οἰκίας;]

[1] Strepsiades’ name means, roughly, Debtdodger.
[2] Technically, Aristotle is preserving the advertising slogan of an early teacher, Protagoras.
[3] What we have is actually a revised version, so it is possible that something like this passage was added later.
[4] There is a conflation of types of education in Aristophanes’ depictions, with Strepsiades thinking that he is going to get an education from Zeno, Gorgias or Isocrates, but instead stumbles into natural scientists like Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. All forms of new learning are linked under the banner of Socrates.
[5] The cost of college makes the monetary reward ever more of a pressing concern, if only for practical reasons, but that is a topic for another post.

Goodbye, Lincoln Chafee

I was not going to vote for Lincoln Chafee in the Democratic primary. In fact, at this point, there is little any of the candidates could do to actually change my mind as to who to vote for. To be honest, the only major change in my opinions since campaigning began way back before the Canadian election kicked off is that Martin O’Malley, the candidate I knew least about, moved up in my opinion, rather than not even being on the radar.

These campaigns are long, loud, and serious and, while mocking things said by Republican candidates trivializes the seriousness of governance and the traction they have among voters, humor is a nice break from the grind of American campaigns. But I don’t want to talk about them. Instead, I want to share some appreciation for Lincoln Chafee, who just withdrew from the Democratic primary race.

To date, Chafee had my favorite campaign plank: convert the United States to the metric system. His reasoning made sense, namely that the changes will not be too painful and that there are economic benefits, but it was this sort of non-traditional statements that made me like him and his withdrawal speech lived up to expectations.

Chafee linked Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Middle East, and Feminist International Relations theory in his speech before the Women’s Leadership Forum (without directly saying that Hilary Clinton should be president). As a historian of Ancient Greece I always appreciate a good reference to Greek theater, the other great example of which being Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu invocation of Aeschylus the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chafee mentions the basic plot of Aristophanes’ play, albeit not its conservatism, and encourages women to get involved in ending wars around the world. But his message is also reminiscent of another feature of Aristophanes’ play–that it is women from around Greece who make a joint cause to stop wars. Chafee’s message was one of understanding an unification and said, “from what I’ve heard none of the Republicans running for president want to understand anything about the Middle East and North Africa.”

I wasn’t going to vote for Chafee, but, at least on the day he withdrew, he preached a humanistic message of understanding and obliquely endorsed the value in a classical education.