Power and Persuasion in Aristophanes' Birds

Holmes, Daniel Stephen, Department of Classics, University of Virginia
Clay, Jenny, Department of Classics, University of Virginia
Mikalson, Jon, Department of Classics, University of Virginia
Dillery, John, Department of Classics, University of Virginia
Devereux, Daniel, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

In Banqueters and Clouds, Aristophanes defined for himself and his audience an issue that, he believed, had not been taken seriously enough by his Old Comic rivals. The sophists, the new educators of Athens' most prominent youth, were not mere nuisances whose exorbitant charges, sham knowledge and flattery were wasting the youth's time and money (as, for example, in Eupolis' Kolakes and Ameipsias' Konnos), but were a real threat to the well being of Athens. I argue that Birds provides a further and more nuanced approach to this issue.

In Clouds, the comically rendered activity of the sophists is summed up in the image of the final agon: father-beating. Pheidippides proves that it is eikos to beat one's father by undermining the authority of ancestral nomoi and, ultimately, by appealing to the natural and anomian activity of roosters. Physis provides for the clever speaker an undefined and plastic frame of reference, an ethical vacuum that can be filled as the speaker sees fit; and so is open to abuse from a myriad directions.

Moving through Birds in a linear and detailed fashion, my dissertation focuses on the different acts of persuasion that Peisetairus must undertake to achieve cosmic rule. I identify two broad, related and, in Aristophanes' eyes, characteristically sophistic methods which can be traced throughout the play: father-beating and the exploitation of the physis/nomos dichotomy. In each of the three realms (bird, human, divine) Peisetairus, with one hand, wipes away the fathers and the nomoi; with the other he gives the sons all that their natures desire. Having founded his city and gained the upper hand, however, Peisetairus restores the universe to its former lawful order. Peisetairus does not make the same mistake as the inhabitants of the phrontisterion. Nevertheless, Aristophanes does not leave Peisctairus' final triumph without its ambiguity. The political virtues, eunomia and sophrosune, and the laws, as it turns out, may themselves also be sophistically exploited. Thus Aristophanes suggests that the upper class hetaireiae and their appeals to Laconism and eunomia are not so fundamentally different from the more radically destructive individuals he had identified in Clouds: a conclusion that will be borne out in, in particular, in 404.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Aristophanes -- Birds

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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