There are plenty of men who need to be taught virtue; plenty of pompous men who need to have their egos pricked, plenty of know-it-alls who need to be taken down a couple of notches. The best way to do that is through laughter.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Aristophanes: On Laughter

Alright, alright, I know I don’t belong with these great tragedians! I’m just a humble comedian who writes plays that make people laugh. I don’t string out for my audiences endlessly dull patterns of history like Aeschylus, or glorify stubborn, constipated heroes like Sophocles, or torture people with the ravings of unbalanced women like Euripides. No, no, making people laugh is good enough for the likes of me.

I mean, I love Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides. I really do! But they can get awfully gloomy if you let them. And why do they think that the only subjects worth writing about are things that happened a thousand years ago?

There’s plenty of drama right outside your door. Plenty of pompous men who need to have their egos pricked. Plenty of know-it-alls who need to be taken down a couple of notches. Plenty of bores to be mocked, warmongers to be whipped, sophists to be exposed, and idealists to be shaken out of their wrongheaded notions.

And the best way to do that is through laughter. Nothing does a better job of exploding pretensions and cleaning out the cobwebs of the mind. If you want to make a man change his character, don’t parade a bunch of dead heroes before him on the stage: ridicule him. Or at least ridicule the people he emulates.

We are so constituted that we tend to take ourselves very seriously. The stuck-up poets, the holier-than-thou politicians, and the let-my-men-die-while-I-sit-in-my-armchair generals are the worst on that score. They find nothing whatsoever amusing about themselves or their accomplishments. If they could, if they could really learn to laugh at themselves, they might be able to grow into men of virtue.

I hope you don’t think that because my plays are bawdy and licentious that I don’t care about virtue. Quite to the contrary! I use laughter in my plays to strip away all the rot that has corrupted the noble Athenian character. What I long for is the return of that great generation of citizens who saved the western world from Persian totalitarianism. Oh, how we’ve fallen from that high ideal.

Today we either fight foolish ideological wars that no one understands against our former allies, or we live lives of idleness and self-indulgence. We’ve thrown off all of our traditional values and adopted a cynical stance that replaces goodness, truth, and beauty with whatever new-fangled philosophy happens to be popular at the moment.

How does one fight such cultural decay? Let me show you how I do it.

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Spartans and Athenians have been engaged in a useless war for two decades. They’ve even extended their war into distant lands. How does one stop such insanity? The politicians, the courts, and even the temples seem impotent to end the conflict. Well, when all else fails, turn to the women. They, after all, are the ones who are being left without husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. And it doesn’t matter if they’re Spartan or Athenian. The loss is still the same.

I got the fed-up soldiers’ wives on both sides of the fence to create their own council and come up with a solution. And they came up with a doozy. No more sex, they told their dumbfounded husbands, until you end the war for good. When all else fails, try a little sexual blackmail. The soldier boys tried to keep up their war for a while, but they found they couldn’t live with their wives’ harsh terms. So they made a truce and traded in their medals and their glory for a roll in the hay. The end.

That’s the kind of laughter that explodes the pretensions of generals who won’t let go of their private little wars.

But it’s not just useless wars led by boys in crew cuts that kill the virtue of the city. The longhairs are just as damaging. Wanting to make everyone equal, a group of women sorely lacking in the sense of humor of the soldiers’ wives, called a council and turned their city into a pure democracy where everyone by law had to be the same.

In their passion for no-holds-barred egalitarianism they even passed a law that if a man wanted to date and bed a pretty young girl, he would have to follow his nocturnal escapade by doing the same on the following evening with an old, fat, ugly woman.

I defy Euripides, with all his melodrama, to find a better way to lay bare the dark side of the utopian dream of equality!

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But perhaps the greatest danger to maintaining a truly virtuous democracy comes from a group of people that we called sophists in my day. Oh, they still exist in your age, probably in greater numbers, with all sorts of fancy new titles. They are those who make the weaker argument the stronger and who use rhetoric and bad logic to tear down all fixed standards of truth, justice, and morality.

How best to defuse their arguments and expose their faulty logic? By creating an older man riddled with debt who is desperate to find a way to swindle his creditors. Unable to come up with an effective means to do so on his own, he goes to the school of the sophist in hopes that they will train him how to make the weaker argument the stronger. Sadly for our would-be spin doctor, he is too old to learn such illogical logic.

Undaunted by this set back, he sends his son in his place. Normally a lazy good-for-nothing, the son takes quickly to the sophistry and graduates top of his class. He then uses his marketable skills to extricate his father from debt.

Had I ended the play there, I would have entertained my audience, but I would not have instructed them. My laughter always has a purpose, and so I added one last scene to the play. Shortly after the creditors have left empty-handed, the son and his father get into an argument. Frustrated and brimming with self-righteousness, the son ends the quarrel by reaching up and smacking his father across the face.

When his father balks at such treatment, the son uses his newly-minted sophistry to “prove” to his father that he has acted in accordance with justice and fair play.

Now that’s what I call comedy, laughter with a point. I suggest you learn to use it yourselves.

—Aristophanes

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “A Laughing Violinist” by Gerard van Hanthorst (1592-1656), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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