Posts Tagged 'the trial of socrates'

Vulgar envy and spite: Cleon, Socrates, and Aristophanes.

In 425 BC, seven years into the Peloponnesian War – far nearer the beginning than the end of that sprawling contest – Cleon, “a popular leader of the time and very powerful with the multitude”, stood up in the Athenian assembly and damned his city’s generals as a bunch of slackers and cowards.

thucydides complete writings modern library

A small force of Spartan and allied infantry was being blockaded by the Athenians on a tiny island near Pylos, on the far side of the Peloponnese. In an effort to retrieve their men, the Spartans some months before had come to Athens to offer a peace treaty; but the assembly, thanks in part to Cleon’s influence, had sent the envoys packing, hoping by the outright capture of the Spartans to extract more favourable terms.

However, despite being short of food and fresh water, the men on the island had shown no inclination to surrender, and the blockade was proving to be ruinously expensive to maintain. Now, with winter coming on, it appeared that the operation would soon have to be abandoned, the Spartans permitted to escape, the Athenian advantage squandered.

Just as the assembly seemed ready to bow to this necessity, Cleon hopped up, and

pointing at Nicias, son of Niceratus, then general, whom he hated, he tauntingly said that it would be easy, if they had men for generals, to sail with a force and take those in the island, and that if he had himself been in command, he would have done it.

Nicias, despising his accuser in turn, primly replied that Cleon was welcome to step up and lead the expedition himself. Cleon dismissed this as mere rhetoric, until Nicias upped the stakes by publicly resigning his generalship. The assembly, out of faith in Cleon’s competence or delight at the prospect of his humiliation, roared him into accepting the command.

Making the best of it, he blustered that within twenty days he would take the island and bring the Spartans home as prisoners. “The Athenians,” we are told, “could not help laughing at his fatuity.”

Yet after a brief and triumphant campaign – whose success Thucydides attributes to a combination of dumb luck and the talent of Cleon’s co-general Demosthenes – Cleon fulfilled his promise, returning from Pylos with 292 prisoners, among them 120 members of the Spartan elite who could be used as hostages to deter future hostile actions.

It ought to be remembered that Thucydides, the source of the above account, had himself been a general in the war, and was banished from Athens, during the period of Cleon’s greatest influence, for his botched defense of Amphipolis. So perhaps he can be forgiven for the apparent tone of satisfaction with which he recounts Cleon’s death a few years later in the attempt to recapture the very town he’d lost. As he describes it,

Cleon, who from the first had no thought of fighting, at once fled and was overtaken and slain by a Myrcinian targeteer[.]

Yet it’s unclear why, if Cleon “had no thought of fighting”, he kept on volunteering for these extremely high-risk missions, when he could easily have stayed home, talking tough in the assembly.

***

Any attempt to rehabilitate Cleon’s reputation will of necessity focus on his actions at Pylos and Amphipolis – his second and third appearances in Thucydides’ narrative. His first appearance the modern reader will find harder to defend.

This concerns his participation in the debate over the fate of Mytilene, a city which had revolted from Athenian rule, finally surrendering after a long siege. Cleon’s faction, insisting that the Mytileneans must be punished brutally to deter revolts by other subject cities, called for all the adult males to be put to death, and the women and children sold into slavery.

The Athenian assembly at first agreed, and then, having second thoughts, reconvened the following day to reopen the debate. Cleon condemned their soft-heartedness and argued strongly against the reversal of the death sentence.

In light of his reputation, you might expect Cleon’s speech to have been a mere thuggish cry for revenge. Thucydides introduces him into his narrative as “the most violent man at Athens”; Plutarch, writing four centuries later, would dismiss him as “a fellow remarkable for nothing but his loud voice and brazen face”, and deplore his lack of refinement:

Among other things, he destroyed all the decorum of public speaking; he was the first who ever broke out into exclamations, flung open his dress, smote his thigh, and ran up and down whilst he was speaking[.]

It must therefore be admitted, in support of Thucydides’ objectivity, that he put in the hated Cleon’s mouth a clear-headed, even compelling justification of rule by terror. The Mytileneans, he pointed out, had revolted willingly:

Consider therefore! if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and him who does so by his own free choice, which of them, think you, is there that will not rebel upon the slightest pretext; when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty of failure nothing so very terrible?

Perhaps with a bit more thigh-smiting and running up and down, Cleon might have won his point; but despite his efforts, Athens voted to execute only a thousand or so of the “prime movers in the rebellion”.

As the war dragged on, hearts grew harder. Six years after Cleon’s death, when the Athenians captured Melos – a town heretofore neutral – they did to its defenders what they had recoiled from doing at Mytilene.

***

The Peloponnesian War is perhaps the greatest refutation of the cliché that history is written by the victors. With characteristically Laconic disdain for fine words and braggartry, the Spartans left no account of their triumph. Our knowledge of the war comes almost exclusively from Thucydides and Xenophon, both men of Athens, although not overly partisan ones: Thucydides is archetypally even-handed, while Xenophon, if anything, had pro-Spartan sympathies.

In his introduction to the 1951 edition of The Complete Writings of Thucydides, John H. Finley mentions that,

It is on first glance astonishing that the Athenians, who invented democracy, on the whole speak so badly of it.

Xenophon and Plato openly preferred Sparta’s militarized aristocracy. Aristotle’s view was more nuanced, but hardly an endorsement of letting the yokels have their way. The three great tragedians, fixated on the legendary deeds of kings and heroes, addressed the dramas of modern Athenian statecraft allegorically, if at all; while Aristophanes, in The Knights, portrayed the demos as an easily duped old gentleman:

Proud, O Demus, thy sway.
Thee, as Tyrant and King,
All men fear and obey,
Yet, O yet, ’tis a thing
Easy, to lead thee astray.
Empty fawning and praise
Pleased thou art to receive ;
All each orator says
Sure at once to believe ;
Wit thou hast, but ’tis roaming ;
Ne’er we find it its home in.

Among the major Athenian writers, says Finley, the one who wrote most sympathetically of democracy was Thucydides. But his idea of democracy was the forty-year supremacy of the “Olympian” Pericles, who by his personal charisma restrained and guided the Athenian mob. After his death, vain adventurers like Alcibiades and social climbers like Cleon arose and led the city to catastrophe.

donald kagan thucydides the reinvention of history

In his 2009 book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, Donald Kagan makes the case that Pericles’ hypercautious strategy could only have led to bankruptcy and defeat in a war lasting more than a couple years, and that populist leaders like Cleon were probably correct to push for a more aggressive posture after his death. Right or wrong, Kagan says,

we must understand that in each case Cleon won the support of the Athenians, and that he spoke to them honestly and directly, without deception or deviousness. Though he is often referred to as the first of the Athenian demagogues, he did not flatter the masses but addressed them in the severe, challenging, realistic language sometimes used by Pericles himself. Moreover, he put his own life on the line, serving on the expeditions he recommended and dying on the last one. [1]

Cleon’s sleazy reputation was cemented thanks to Thucydides and, especially, Aristophanes, who in The Knights portrayed him as a slave, “the greatest rogue and liar in the world”, who rules his master Demus through promises and flattery. Cleon’s fellow slaves Nicias and Demosthenes, tired of his antics, enlist a passing sausage-seller, even more coarse, stupid, and unscrupulous, to win over Demus and put an end to their rival’s tyranny.

It wasn’t for his ruthlessness that Cleon was despised: Mytilene is mentioned just once in The Knights, in reference to a bribe he supposedly elicited from the citizens of that city. Why they were bribing the man who’d been advocating their mass slaughter a couple of years before is unknown.

Pylos, however, is alluded to more than a half-dozen times. Aristophanes’ main complaint against Cleon, apart from his being an uncouth arriviste who came up through the leather trade, is that he dishonourably claimed credit for another man’s victory: Demosthenes complains that when he “baked a rich Laconian cake at Pylos”, Cleon snuck in and stole it, presenting it to their master as his own.

To his contemporaries, Cleon’s offenses were ill breeding, rapacity, and self-aggrandizement. His “kill all the Mytileneans” policy, though a tad audacious, was well within the Overton window.

At any rate, Aristophanes’ dung-flinging did nothing to diminish the popularity of Cleon and other so-called demagogues. As John Williams White concedes in his introduction to the Loeb edition of Aristophanes’ plays,

he drove no one of them from power; there is little evidence, indeed, that he damaged their influence or even disturbed their brazen self-confidence.

Perhaps that’s because Athenian playgoers knew not to take his attacks quite seriously.

Quoting some slanderous wisecracks made against Pericles by the comic writers of his time, Plutarch observes,

And how can one wonder at any number of strange assertions from men whose whole lives were devoted to mockery, and who were ready at any time to sacrifice the reputation of their superiors to vulgar envy and spite […] ? So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history, when, on the one hand, those who afterwards write it find long periods of time intercepting their view, and, on the other hand, the contemporary records of any actions and lives, partly through envy and ill-will, partly through favour and flattery, pervert and distort truth.

In fact, there is reason to believe that Plutarch, in his Life of Pericles, mistook the plot of a lost farce by Hermippus for an account of a real-life court case involving Pericles and his lover Aspasia – a mistake which has ever since distorted our understanding of the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War. [2]

If Plutarch could make such a boner after the passage of a mere four centuries, are we likely to have more luck digging out the truth after the passage of an additional twenty, when many of the writers to whom the ancient historians refer are now lost to us, except through the snippets said ancients chose to preserve? At best, we can reassess the limited and contradictory facts available to us in light of our own assumptions about what constitutes vulgarity and respectability, cravenness and courage, virtue and wickedness.

***

It’s curious that so many readers have been prepared to accept as basically truthful Aristophanes’ caricature of Cleon in The Knights, while balking at accepting his caricature of Socrates in The Clouds.

The difference is that in the latter case we have, to place alongside Aristophanes’ satire, Plato and Xenophon’s worshipful depictions, whereas our opinion of Cleon has been shaped exclusively by the writings of those who detested him. A volume of Cleon’s Table Talk, if any of his partisans had taken the trouble to produce one, would no doubt prove edifying – maybe even entertaining: Plutarch, no sympathizer, alludes to the demagogue’s “nimble wit” and “bold jests”, contrasting them with Nicias’ more plodding style. [3]

i.f. stone the trial of socrates

Says I.F. Stone in his 1988 book The Trial of Socrates,

[T]he bits and pieces that survive from the Old Comedy, as it is called, of fifth-century Athens indicate that to his fellow citizens [Socrates] was long regarded as an odd — even lovable — eccentric, a town “character”. This is how his contemporaries saw him, and not as we see him in the golden haze of the Platonic dialogues.

In The Clouds, a father harassed by creditors determines to take his son to Socrates to be taught “the unjust Logic / That can shirk debts”.

Arriving at the school, we discover the students with their faces pressed to the earth to “seek things underground” while their assholes, turned to the heavens, simultaneously study astronomy. Socrates descends in a basket from above, where he has been walking on air, he says, and contemplating the sun. He informs the father that there is no Zeus, and that in his school only three gods are acknowledged: Chaos, the Clouds, and the Tongue. [4]

After a great many fart jokes and yet more abuse of Cleon, the son completes a course in Socratic “humbug and circumlocution”. The father, confident now in his son’s ability to win any lawsuit that might arise, insults and chases away his creditors.

Alas, he soon discovers that the verbal tricks of Socrates can be turned just as easily against him – the son assaults the father, and then blandly justifies his violence, declaring:

How sweet it is these novel arts, these clever words to know,
And have the power established rules and laws to overthrow.

Plutarch tells us that Socrates took this raillery in good humour, comparing it to being roasted at a dinner party. [5] Plato, too, depicted Socrates and Aristophanes as pals sharing a boozy all-night bull session in The Symposium.

And yet in the Apology, which depicts Socrates’ defense at his trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the young, Plato has his hero complain that his most formidable opponents are not the accusers who have brought the charges against him, but his “first accusers” – those who years earlier taught the public to sneer at him:

You have seen this yourself in the comedy of Aristophanes, a Socrates swinging about there, saying he was walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing at all.

I.F. Stone doubts that the Athenians were so simple as to take Aristophanes’ absurdities literally:

But only a humorless pedant can believe that the joshing of the comic poets led to the trial of Socrates. … To blame Socrates’ fate on the comic poets is like blaming a politicians’ defeat today on the way he has been “misrepresented” by newspaper cartoonists.

Stone’s argument is not that Socrates’ prosecution was deserved – Stone was a leftist of the old school who believed in protection even for subversive or dangerous speech – but that in their fictionalized accounts of his trial, Plato and Xenophon deliberately obscured the real and justified reasons the Athenians had for fearing his influence on the youth. The Trial of Socrates was written, Stone says,

to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens.

***

Anytus, the most prominent among the three accusers who brought Socrates to trial, had like Cleon derived his modest fortune from the leather business. No doubt like Cleon he had rankled at snobbish comments about his being tainted with the stench of the tannery.

mary renault the last of the wine

In her 1956 historical novel The Last of the Wine, Mary Renault imagines her protagonist, a young man of Socrates’ circle, being buttonholed by Anytus and scolded for his association with the philosopher:

“That man,” said Anytos, “ever since I remember, has been seen about with rich young idlers, flaunting their privilege of leisure, and frittering away their best years when they might have been mastering an honest trade. Can you deny that Kritias was his pupil? Or perhaps you would rather say his friend? What is more, ever since the democracy was restored, he has mocked at it, and undermined it.”

Critias was the former follower of Socrates who, after the fall of Athens at the the close of the war, headed the short-lived oligarchical dictatorship known as the Thirty. In I.F. Stone’s view, it was Socrates’ association with Critias and his followers – who, even after Critias’ death and the restoration of democracy, were still regarded as a threat – that led to his prosecution.

This was what was meant by the indictment in which Socrates was accused of “corrupting the young”: not that he had turned idle upper-class Athenians against their fathers or the gods, but that he had turned them into dangerous anti-government radicals. Stone has no trouble digging out quotes from Plato and Xenophon to illustrate that Socrates’ acolytes, or at least some of them, were contemptuous of Athenian democracy. [6]

Whether Socrates shared his acolytes’ views is less clear. In Xenophon’s (and Mary Renault’s) telling, it wasn’t political differences that had caused Critias and Socrates to fall out, but Critias’ habit of groping attractive boys: Socrates had publicly scolded him once for rubbing himself up against a certain youth like a pig against a stone.

In revenge, Critias when in power passed a law making it illegal “to teach the art of words”; which in practice meant, he oilily informed his former mentor, that it was forbidden for Socrates to “hold any converse whatever with the young”.

The prosecution of Socrates may likewise have had its roots in a personal grudge. Here Renault’s fictional Anytus, while barking down an attempt to explain how he has misunderstood the philosopher’s teachings, lets slip the real cause of his animus:

“Quibbles!” he said. “Everlasting quibbling, eating away the decent principles every man’s instinct should tell him are true. How does he get this hold over young men? By flattering them, of course; making them think they have a mission in life to be something out of the way, like that head-in-the-air young fellow [Plato] who was sneering at the Demos just now: teaching them that to work at a good trade, where they could learn the meaning of true democracy in give-and-take with their mates, is a waste of their precious souls; that unless they can dawdle about with him all day in the colonnades, talking away everything sacred, they will turn to clods—just like their poor fathers, who have only sweated blood that they might live as citizens and not as slaves.”

It seems that Socrates had at one time been acquainted with Anytus’ son – a boy “not lacking in firmness of spirit”, and therefore worthy in the philosopher’s eyes of elevation above the “servile occupation” that was the source of his father’s wealth.

Ever after, Anytus resented Socrates for commenting that he “ought not to confine his son’s education to hides.”

***

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates tells the jury that he believes it to be his duty to fulfill his “philosopher’s mission” and go on making a public nuisance of himself, even at the risk of his own life – just as it was his duty to remain where his generals placed him during the battles of Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium.

There are well-known anecdotes concerning Socrates’ heroics at Potidaea and Delium, but nothing is known about his involvement at Amphipolis – where, if you’ll recall, he would have served under the doomed generalship of Cleon.

Judging by the percentage of the comedians’ barbs that were directed at them, Socrates and Cleon must have been two of the most famous men in Athens. The Clouds had been produced the year before Amphipolis, The Knights the year before that. In their off hours, did these two soldiers ever get together to compare Aristophanic arrow wounds?

We don’t know anything about Cleon’s leadership style – Thucydides doesn’t give him a pre-battle speech, as he does the opposing Spartan general – but we can speculate that, as a radical democrat, he would have striven for an easy camaraderie with his troops. If so, it’s far from clear that the hoplites – many of them aristocrats who would have looked down on their “new money” commander – would have responded with warmth to his egalitarian outreach.

As for Socrates, I’m sure he would have made a show of friendliness. How could he have resisted the opportunity to poke a few finger-holes in Cleon’s sense of self-satisfaction? He might easily have driven his thin-skinned general into a rage, if not by philosophizing rings around him then by dropping some jerky comment about his background in the trades. But it’s just possible that Cleon with his “nimble wit” would have held his own.

***

If it’s not quite true that history is written by the victors, it’s obviously true that history is written by those who write the histories. They tend not to be pragmatic middle-class men like Cleon and Anytus, who are busy tending to their affairs, but the kind of dreamers condemned by Anytus as “rich young idlers, flaunting their privilege of leisure”.

We see ancient Athens through the eyes of the men who had the time and inclination to fritter away their days yakking about the nature of justice and virtue. They weren’t all rich, by any means, and they weren’t all idle, at least as far as their intellects were concerned. Nevertheless, their writings tended to reflect the preoccupations and prejudices of their social class: they had a high regard for their own intelligence, they scoffed at the commonplace, and they resented the system that subordinated their preferences to those of the working stiffs who kept their city running.

The commonplace men who elevated Cleon and Anytus to positions of influence would be startled, no doubt, at the topsy-turvy picture of their society communicated to the future by men they dismissed as zanies. No doubt our own zanies are busily compiling a history of our own times which would startle us, too, if we lived long enough to see it accepted as truth.

M.

1. Kagan mentions that Cleon’s great rival Nicias, after his death in the misbegotten Sicilian expedition of 415-413, was omitted from the stone commemorating the war dead because, Pausanias tells us, he had surrendered in what the Athenians deemed an ignominious manner. Cleon’s name, however, his countrymen continued to honour, placing it “at the head of those who fought at Amphipolis”. (So says Kagan. As far as I can tell, Pausanias only specifies that that “those who marched with Cleon” were thus honoured. The Greek version can be consulted here.)

2. The likelihood that Plutarch mistook the plot of a lost satire on Pericles for actual history is mentioned by I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates. He refers us to this note in the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History.

3. Unfortunately, Plutarch provides just one example of Cleon’s humour: showing up late to a sitting of the Athenian assembly, a garland perched ostentatiously on his head, Cleon mock-piously informed the crowd that he’d been kept busy with his sacrifices and was now late for a dinner date, so would they mind adjourning till tomorrow? – “Whereupon the Athenians, laughing, rose up, and dissolved the assembly.” That the gag isn’t all that funny bespeaks the fondness the people must have held for him.

4. I find it helpful, reading Aristophanes, to have multiple translations of the play open: one in verse, for euphony; one in modern prose, for comprehension; and one with detailed notes. Which is why I’ve quoted from three different versions of The Clouds.

5. Regarding Socrates’ broad-minded reaction to Aristophanes’ abuse, Todd M. Compton writes in Victim of the Muses:

[Plutarch’s anecdote] does portray a Socrates unruffled by Aristophanes’ play. But it also portrays a friend of Socrates who is clearly shocked at the extent of the abuse (“all manner of abuse … in every possible way”) directed at his friend. In addition, this fits into the familiar genre of Socratic stories in which he is seen as an extraordinarily wise man (it is prefaced by an explanation that wise men can control their anger). The point of the story is that one would expect Socrates to be upset, but he reacts with wisdom, self-control, and urbanity.

6. I.F. Stone knows enough not to take Aristophanes’ lampoons too seriously, yet he elects to interpret Plato’s thought experiments as literal blueprints for the design of a functioning state. He dismisses in an incredulous aside the view held by, among others, Allan Bloom, that the regimented, thought-controlled, eugenic state described in The Republic is, as Stone puts it, “a satire by Plato on his own utopianism!”

Here’s Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind expressing the viewpoint that Stone finds so risible:

What is so intolerable about The Republic, as Plato shows, is the demand that men give up their land, their money, their wives, their children, for the sake of the public good, their concern for which had previously been buttressed by these lower attachments. The hope is to have a happy city made up entirely of unhappy men. Similar demands are made today in an age of slack morality and self-indulgence. Plato taught that, however laudable justice may be, one cannot expect prodigies of virtue from ordinary people. Better a real city tainted by selfish motives than one that cannot exist, except in speech, and that promotes real tyranny.

As I mentioned in my essay on literary eunuchs, Mary Renault in The Last of the Wine makes Socrates’ real-life disciple Phaedo a survivor of the Athenian massacre at Melos. I’ve never written about Aristophanes before, but I did drop a reference to Lysistrata into this exploration of accents, clothing, and class in the movies. And, oh yeah – Cleon, meet William Jennings Bryan: “He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits.”


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker