Perhaps we need to become a little atavistic now and turn Australia, if not the whole world into a 5th Century BCE Athens, into a place where our soul goes to a theatre to be cured of all its traumas, of all its infirmities.
Athens of that era did that once a year. She went to the theatre to heal herself. Religiously, on the week of the festival of its youngest and most important god, Dionysius, the god of, among many other things, fertility.
Once the two Persian attacks were done, once the last barbarian soldier left Plataea and Mycale, once the last Persian ships were driven out of the waters of Salamis, once Greece had rid herself of all attacks from the East, a burgeoning epidemic of arrogance, of hubris, overtook Athens.
COVID-19 wrecks the flesh but hubris wrecks the soul.
The Athenians had established the Delian League, an alliance which incorporated some 300-odd cities, all paying tributes of either money or men or ships as a means of boosting Greece’s military and to build an adequate protection against possible further revenge-attacks from Persia.
That League became, in fifth century terms, quite considerable in size. With Athens its unquestionable ruler, the once-small Attican city became the engine of a powerful empire – initially benign, but soon an oppressive, colonial power much like the one they had just repelled. It happens often, doesn’t it: he who defeats the oppressor becomes the oppressor himself. Power corrupts. Power corrupts the powerful.
Initially too, the treasury was placed on the uninhabited island of Delos, Apollo’s sanctuary island, but it took little time before it was moved to the temple of the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, in Athens’ Acropolis and not long after that, the city began to raid it, spending the money on glittering and begemming herself and on other self-serving interests. The allied parties of the Delian League, who were dutifully paying their taxes, saw this blatant plunder of their wealth and it made them angry and unruly.
In response, Athens became increasingly more brutal, more arrogant and more corrupt, increasingly more afflicted by its burgeoning hubris, in other words, quite sick. Athens, it was obvious to one and all, had to be urgently cleansed of that sickness – purged of those symptoms that brought her to that state. This is where theater came in. (Classic Wisdom, The Healing of Athens).
The first play we have in which this epidemic is identified is Aeschylus’ Persians, a tragedy which he wrote in 471 BCE. In this play, Aeschylus shows the horrendous consequences of this disease. He staged it as a warning to the Greeks, who, by then showed the same temperament and proclivity for war-mongering and conquest as did the Persians. Arrogance, to paraphrase in shameful oversimplification, two of the greatest philosophers of all time, Aristotle who said “man is a political being” and his teacher, Plato, who had put his view in his Republic and elsewhere, “arrogance overwhelms all human values, and replaces them with forces destructive to the soul; and, after all, is not the soul of the man the soul of his city?”
Athens became strong militarily but feeble and infirm mentally, morally and spiritually. Her moral compass, as Thucydides remarked later in his History of The Peloponnesian War, was abandoned and replaced by the rules of savagery.
Sparta began to see the new belligerent Athens as a military threat, (see “The Thucydides Trap“) sweeping away her own allies and, in 431 BCE mounted a challenge: a proxy war on the island of Corcyra (today’s Corfu). This war broadened to encompass almost every Greek city and became known as the Peloponnesian War. It lasted, on and off, almost thirty years, ending in 404 BCE with the destruction of Athens and the establishment of a new anti-democratic government, ruled by Thirty Tyrants, puppets of Sparta.
In the interim, on the Dionysian stage, Athens’ illness was examined as meticulously as a surgeon examines bodies in the operating theatre, exposing the affected parts under painfully glaring lights. This work of diagnosis was done by the tragedians of whom we, alas, have only some of the works of three of many, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Some 15,000 Greeks would go there to observe the work of their doctors. The question about whether women were also observing, is all but concluded and the answer is in the affirmative.
The stage exhibited the sickly Athens as well as the cured Athens, the Athens of the Erinyes, the avenging furies, as well as the Athens of the Eumenides, the benevolent protectors of the city. They would see the Athens of the brutal men like Cleon and Cleophon, as well as that of the strong women who stood up to them: Iphigeneia, Antigone, Medea, Klytaemestra, Helen, Hecabe, Lysistrata, Praxagora.
So, when Pericles enacted a law declaring that henceforth only children whose parents are both citizens of Athens may be granted Athenian citizenship, Euripides showed how poisonous that law was for the people and for the country. He did so by making a slight change to an old myth. In his eponymous tragedy, he has Medea, effectively a refugee, kill her children instead of leaving them behind when she left for Athens, as the original myth had it. Her husband Jason is no more than an extra, a secondary character in that play. Medea’s words – the words Euripides had put into her mouth – showed which of the two sexes was the stronger, which was the more courageous, the more worthy of kleos (eternal fame) and which was the weaker, the coward.
To the Corinthian women Medea says,
“Then people also say that while we live quietly and without any danger at home, the men go off to war. Wrong! One birth alone is worse than three times in the battlefield behind a shield.”
In Euripides’ mind, the female wins the war on bravery and endurance of pain. In fact, the absence of women in Athens’ daily life is one of the reasons why the city’s spiritual health is so feeble. This point, this diagnosis, is made very blatantly by all the playwrights of 5th century BCE Athens.
Thus, it is no accident that women appear so often in both the tragedies and the comedies as far stronger than the men. This is why so many Greek plays feature such strong women uttering such powerful speeches. Iphigeneia’s speech (in Iphigeneia in Aulis) must have had the whole of Athens shedding tears for days.
In 416 BCE, the Athenians slaughtered all the men of Melos and enslaved all the women because the Melians (allies of Sparta) would not pay their taxes. Athens gave them no option at all: “pay or die.” Thucydides has the full account of the dialogue between the two sides, a dialogue that brings the political pragmatics of war to a full display. War pollutes the soul. Corrupts it. Empties it of virtue.
A year later, Euripides, enraged, produces his Trojan Women, where the victorious Greek men behave in exactly the same savage way as they were doing in his time. Yes, that stage enacted myths, but these myths were parables of real life, these myths were the modern microscopes that peered into the man’s body and soul.
After three days of Tragedies, where Athens’ afflictions were glaringly displayed and diagnosed, Athens was visited by the comedy writers, of whom, again unfortunately, we have the works of only one: a satirist, and perhaps the indubitable master in this field. Aristophanes knew the Athenians very well, as he also knew the stage. He knew the Athenian of the agora, the market place, as well as the member of the council and of the Ekklesia, the Parliament.
Aristophanes, then, was the one to prescribe the remedy for sickly Athens:
“Have a sex strike,” said, in as many words his Lysistrata, in his eponymous play, Lysistrata) and “Give all the legislative powers to the women,” or words to that effect, would be heard from Praxagora’s lips. (Women In Parliament) “Get rid of the jury men who sting Athens like wasps sting people!” (Wasps). “Send away the sausage sellers,” (Knights) and “learn how to use Clever Logic rather than Wise Logic, if you want to avoid the clutches of your creditors” and, “don’t listen to the cloud-inhabiting sophists, like Socrates!” (Clouds) are the messages that would be taken home from Aristophanes’ many satires.
The satirist has the most powerful tool in his hand, because satire is a flame thrower. Aristophanes aimed that pointy flame at the belly of Athens’ corrupt politicians. He cauterized the wounds, prescribed the cathartics, delivered the purgatives.
Dionysus, tyrant of Sicily, once asked Plato what his fellow Athenians were like. Plato’s response was to give Dionysus the books of Aristophanes’ plays.
Aristophanes not only knew the Athenians, he also knew what they were made of, he knew the full contents of their character, as Martin Luther King Jr put it.
Scholars also called the Athenian stage a school, “The school of Athens,” with the intimation that it was also the school of the world.
This appellation is also quite valid. After all, is not a teacher also a doctor and is not a doctor also a teacher? Don’t they both try to purge the man (and thus the city) of all his ills, his undisciplined pride, his ignorance, his injustice, his brutality and his corruption?
The practical details may differ, but both aim for the same thing: healing.
In both cases – school and clinic – Aristotle’s Catharsis takes place. It takes place not only at the end of every tragedy, purging all the painful emotions that the trilogy had brought to the surface, but also, and far more importantly, at the end of the entire festival, all the symptoms have been examined, displayed and all the necessary remedies prescribed.
Fifth century BCE Athens went to the theatre to be healed, and the theatre did its very best to provide that healing.
Unfortunately, Athens continued to be ill. Her arrogance was not removed, her war mongering and her brutality were not tempered and the inequality between the sexes continued. Women were still kept away from the more significant positions and slavery continued unabated. All of the plays -tragedies as well as comedies, in one way or another, point out that the women are punished for the wrongs committed by men. The young, Juliet-like Iphigeneia of Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis is a victim of her father’s sin against Artemis and of his wanting to go to war through no fault of hers. Antigone, in Sophocles’ tragedy by the same name, suffers the death sentence because of her uncle Creon’s extreme, autocratic views. Helen, the most complex character of the mythological cosmos, suffers abduction and endless insults because of what Paris has done. Hecabe, Cassandra, Andromche, Medea, are just a few more examples of women suffering the consequences of men’s arrogance and disrespect, their need to enforce and exhibit their deluded view that they are powerful, more powerful than something, anything, someone, anyone, slave or woman.
The death of Aristophanes marked the end of a golden age of culture and thought and the beginning of Athens’ steep decline.
Then came the era of the Macedonians, of Phillip and of Alexander which was, in turn, followed by the era of the Romans. Homer of the 48 rhapsodies which decried war, was replaced by Virgil of the 12 which praised a Caesar, much like the soviet painters and writers praised the post Czar regimes.
Yet it was during that era – the fifth century BCE – that the Greeks had given to the world a new word to ponder over: paradox (at odds with the common view). For it was during her most turbulent era, the era of war and inequality, that she gave birth to the most magnificent, intelligent and effective remedies for society to heal itself.
Any student today – and I daresay for many eras to come – can walk in any direction he or she chooses, enter any theatre in any University in the world, and he or she will hear references made to the fifth-century Greek theatre, when the first healers made their appearance.
Time to be atavistic. Time to learn from History. Time to abandon weapons of every kind, especially those that bring the worst of the diseases of the soul, hubris, the most treacherous of diseases. Time to abandon the nuclear weapons, the weapons of mass destruction – of the soul.
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