Athens: Where They Laughed at Socrates

Today I visited the Theatre of Dionysus, the place where Athenians once gathered to laugh at Socrates.  Aristophanes first presented his satirical play The Clouds at the City Dionysia festival of 423 BC, and it was most likely performed on this very stage.  (Here is a photo I took of the theatre and a close-up the crouching Silenus, also a later Roman Silenus mask, which obviously resembles Socrates.)

The stage was later restored by the Romans who added the reliefs that now stand at the back of the stage, depicting scenes from the myth of Dionysus, including a crouching Silenus, his drunken tutor.  Plato’s Symposium depicts Alcibiades comparing Socrates to Silenus.  There is indeed a striking similarity between most depictions of Socrates and of Silenus.  This association was well-known so generations of theatre-goers looking at this crouching bearded figure must have been reminded, to some extent, of Socrates, especially if the satires Aristophanes and others, mocking him, were performed here.   As we’ll see, though, Socrates was ultimately depicted as exhibiting complete philosophical indifference to being ridiculed in public, like a true forerunner of Stoicism.

Socrates is one of the central characters of The Clouds where he’d depicted as a pompous buffoon, apparently a cross between a natural philosopher like Anaxagoras and a Sophist like Prodicus.  He’s depicted running a philosophical school called The Thinkery where he charges high fees to reveal his wisdom.  Pallid long-haired young men dressed in dirty rags like beggars, and bearing staffs, hang on his every word, as if they’re members of a cult.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is depicted defending himself during his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens.  He mentions that these charges aren’t the real reason he’s being brought to trial.  Among other things, he’s unjustly acquired a bad reputation among the Athenian public because slanderous rumours have spread about him fuelled by the plays of Aristophanes.

Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them I appeal. […] As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; this accusation has no more truth in it than the other.

Aristophanes also mentions Socrates in two of his later satires: The Birds and The Frogs.  Three satires competed for the prize at the annual City Dionysia festival.  Remarkably, in the year The Clouds was performed one of the other two plays was also about Socrates,  the Connus of Ameipsias.  Socrates was clearly a popular target for satire in 423 BC.

A: Socrates – shining in a small gathering, eclipsed in a large – have you come to join us as well? Tough, eh? Where did you get that coat? No shoes on your feet. You’re bankrupting the cobblers with your insults!
B: Still he’d rather starve than flatter!

It’s striking that Ameipsias portrays Socrates as strangely dressed, shoeless, and starving – in a manner that seems very consistent with Aristophanes’ depiction of him.  Likewise, another poet called Eupolis, of uncertain date, was clearly more acerbic in his criticisms: “Yes and I loathe that poverty-stricken windbag Socrates who contemplates everything in the world but does not know where his next meal is coming from.”  Socrates arguably sounds more like a forerunner of the Cynics in these plays: he’s consistently portrayed as someone who voluntarily dresses like a beggar, embraces poverty, and eats sparingly.

However, according to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates said “We ought not to object, he used to say, to be subjects for the Comic poets, for if they satirize our faults they will do us good, and if not they do not touch us.  There’s also a story that during one performance of The Clouds foreign visitors to the Athenian festival could be heard whispering “Who is this Socrates?”  Socrates silently rose from his seat making himself visible to the rest of the audience.  Although they didn’t know him, the foreigners would probably have been able to recognize his features from those caricatured on stage by the actor’s comic mask.  In other words, he wasn’t ashamed of being ridiculed as a pompous buffoon on stage but took it with good grace.

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