Friday, May 19, 2017
Aristophanes on the Family
Here’s a chicken and egg problem: what comes first, the family or the political community? This is one of the questions I have been working on. I presented a paper on the subject in Vancouver and I will present a more elaborate version of the same this fall in San Francisco.
Aristotle supposed that the family is more natural than the polis, for human beings are more a coupling animal than a political animal. An alternative view is presented by Socrates’ greatest critic, Aristophanes. In his best play (by my judgment and his) the Clouds, Strepsiades has gone into debt because of his son’s love of horse racing. The father comes up with a desperate solution: send his son, Pheidippides, to study with Socrates. The philosophers, he hears, can win any argument and someone with that power can defend him in court against his creditors.
He wants his son to go learn this art but Pheidippides refuses. Strepsiades goes himself. Socrates’ curriculum consists of two parts. One is the rejection of the traditional Athenian gods. The second is a rigorously scientific account of language and nature. Strepsiades flunks out because he cannot grasp the second part but he leaves having learned well the first part. More desperate than ever, he forces his son to enter Socrates’ school. Pheidippides is the better learner.
After his son graduates, Strepsiades thinks he has a get out of jail free card. When his creditors show up for their money, he abuses them and sends them packing. The moment of triumph is short lived. When father and son quarrel over an obscene bit of poetry (involving incest between a brother and sister) Pheidippides physically assaults his father. Strepsiades runs out of the house screaming for his kinsmen and neighbors to defend him, but no one comes. His contempt of the gods and of the laws has effectively broken the social contract.
Pheidippides offers to demonstrate to his father than his actions are just. If a father can spank his son it is because the father is wiser, right? So, if the son becomes wiser can he not return the favor? Strepsiades is stopped short by this. As distressing as his situation is, he can see the reason in his son’s words. Then Pheidippides goes too far. He says he can beat his mother too.
At that point, Strepsiades explodes. For the first time, he gets to the point before anyone else. If a son can take liberties with his father because wisdom is the only basis of authority, that is one thing. If he can take liberties with his mother… the horror, the horror. Strepsiades calls the gods to his side and goes to burn down Socrates’ house.
I submit that the Clouds is a profound reflection on both philosophy and the family. Human communities, both the familial and the larger political one, are grounded in cherished opinions about the gods and morality. Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinions about the most important things with knowledge. There is no guarantee that the knowledge that the philosopher seeks will support, rather than undermine, the familial and political bonds. Thus, philosophy is potentially subversive of everything the father and citizen holds dear.
Aristophanes’ genius here was to recognize that the family depended on the polis. The authority of the parent may make sense on the grounds that adults know better than children what is good for the latter; however, the authority of the parent relies heavily on the fact that the parent is larger and stronger than the child. As the son grows bigger and stronger, the father will have to rely on the community to preserve his authority should the son challenge it.
In Aristophanes’ account, the political community is more fundamental than the family. The latter can exist only so long as the community supports and enforces its taboos. I think that this is correct. Human beings are, as Aristotle said, coupling creatures. The natural instinct of the male is to come together with the female. It is not that, however, that makes a family. For the familial community to be sound, the father must have some reason to believe that these children are his children. For that, he must have some exclusive claim on his mate. To understand the family, one must understand the political community that enforces these claims.