All this historical comparison to 5th century Athens has made me jealous. But instead of looking at the military and political similarities, I think I’ll compare the cultural revolutions that occurred in Athens and the United States. And the primary evidence for the nature of the Athenian cultural change will come from Aristophanes comedy, “The Clouds.”
Rather than going back to the Greek original (for which my extremely rusty knowledge of the Attic comic dialect would be insufficient) I will use the text of Arrowsmith’s mid-twentieth century American English. And this is fitting because I am also mid-twentieth century American in my origin.
The Clouds is the story of a wealthy but culturally traditional Athenian farmer, Strepsiades, who marries an aristocratic wife and subsequently ends up with a son whose patrician tastes are bankrupting Strepsiades. In desperation to escape from his debts, he goes to Socrates’ School of Sophistry to learn how to flim-flam his creditors. But it turns out Strepsiades is too old and adle-pated to learn the sophistic methods. In desperation he forces his son, Pheidippides, to become a pupil at the school and learn the art of sophistic logic. Or as it is described, “the art of making the worse argument appear the better.” But once the boy is trained in the sophistic art, he turns his skill against Strepsiades and beats him when he dares to question the “genius” of some of Pheidippides’ literary favorites like the progressive poet Euripides. And when Strepsiades complains of the impiety of dishonoring his own father Pheidippides uses his “logic” to prove to Strepsiades that beating his father is logical. After Strepsiades admits the logic of his argument Pheidippides offers to prove that horsewhipping his own mother is also a reasonable practice. But that is a bridge too far. Strepsiades realizes that using the sophistic methods is a deal with the devil and he rushes to Socrates’ school and sets fire to it, to put an end to all the corruption.
During Pheidippides education we are witness to a debate between sophistic logic and normal logic personified as two fighting cocks. During their exchange we learn that sophistry is completely immune to shame. When accused of buggery, pederasty and perversion Sophistry laughs saying he’s being pelted with roses. All such things are complements to the new way of thinking. Sophistry finally defeats Normal Logic by proving to him that all the successful lawyers, politicians and poets are all perverted buggers. Therefore, buggery is the successful lifestyle, QED.
Arrowsmith succeeds in putting the Greek into modern idiom but the ideas are all there in the original. The traditional culture of the Athenians, which included filial and religious piety and a warrior tradition had been replaced among the young with an atheistic, materialistic philosophy wherein respect for tradition, the desire to compete for honor among fellow citizens or even the desire to just raise a family had all been replaced with a hedonistic imperative to eat drink and be merry with whatever money their parents may have accumulated.
The parallels between Aristophanes’ description and what we have in modern America are too striking to miss. Besides the disrespect for all traditional virtues and heroes we also have the very pointed championing of sexual deviancy. If this play was being written today, we could name the sophistry character LGBTQ and it would fit right in with Aristophanes’ dialog. Look at this exchange:
And suppose your pupil, by taking your advice, is promptly convicted of adultery and sentenced to be publicly reamed up the rectum with a radish? How, Sir, would you save him from that?
Why, what’s the disgrace in being reamed with a radish?
Sir, I can conceive of nothing fouler than being buggered by a radish.
I could just hear this kind of argument being put forth in National Review under the title, “The Conservative Case for Buggery.”
What all this tells me is that the path taken whenever traditional culture is subverted by an effete, materialistic, hedonistic and sexually deviant culture is essentially the same regardless of whether it is 21st century A.D. America, 1st century A.D. Rome, 5th century B.C. Athens or antediluvian Ur. They go after the children and teach them that their parents are stupid and that the traditional rules are outdated. And they tell them that raising a family is unnecessary and expensive so the better course is to feed their vices and live as a parasite on society leaving nothing after they die. We seem to be in the midst of western culture succumbing to this impulse. Like the Greeks and Romans before us we’ve lost the aspects of our culture that preserved and strengthened it. I don’t know whether we’ll end up like Rome but at the rate we’re going it shouldn’t take too much longer to find out. We’re rapidly reaching a crisis point.
And as for escaping this trap, Aristophanes had the right solution too. Go to the school and burn it down. Hopefully one day Harvard and Yale will join Socrates’ “Thinkery” in the actual ash heap of history.