Aristophanes attacks Athenian education

Clouds - 'Aristophanes'

I guess on of the great things I loved about this play was how relevant it is to today's society. Okay, the problem with understanding the relevance is that when it is translated in a way that retains all of the Ancient Athenian references it can be difficult for a modern who has little to no knowledge of Athenian culture to have a full appreciation of the of the way that Aristophanes mocks the Athenian education system. Further, even a little knowledge of the system can have an effect in making the reader think that what Aristophanes says about Socrates is true to Socrates, when in fact what Aristophanes is doing is using Socrates, probably the most well known philosopher of the day, to poke fun at the beliefs of many of the philosophers in Athens at the time. It would be like using Bishop Spong to poke fun at fundamentalist Christianity, or using Slajov Zizek to poke fun at the Atheism propounded by Richard Dawkins (though it is unfortunate that at this time I cannot actually think of a modern example that people would understand).

As mentioned, there are a lot of references in the play that unless you understood Athenian culture, it would be difficult to understand the references. For instance, Pheidipidies is a lover of horses, and has racked up a lot of debt in his father's name because of his love of horses. To us we might think that Pheidipidies spends all of his time at the race track gambling, but that is not actually the case. In those days (as it is today) it was very expensive to own a horse, however being a member of the cavalry was a status symbol, which meant one had to own a horse. It is not that Pheidipidies would spend his days down at the race track betting on the horses, but rather he was one that was spending money to live it up being a member of the in crowd. A modern example would be like being a member of the local high school (or college) football team, and having to live it up with all of the other members of the football team, despite the fact that you could not really afford the extravagant parties and the expensive holidays.

However what this play is about is education and the new philosophies that were appearing around Athens of the day. In many cases it is very similar to the debates today between Creation and Evolution. Back in those days Creation was the main belief and anybody who challenged that were considered mad (and to an extent, dangerous) whereas today Evolution is the general popular belief and those that think otherwise are living in the stone age. Mind you, Athens was a very liberal culture, and in many cases most of the inhabitants did not care either way, but did acknowledge, and make offerings to, the many gods that the Greeks believed in. However, if one were to suggest that the sun is not a god, but a rock, they would think that one was really silly. Yet, consider what beliefs have lasted to this day, and as it turns out it was the beliefs of the philosophers of the time.

In the Ancient World scientific inquiry and moral philosophy were one and the same, and would be taught part and parcel in this schools. That did not mean that philosophers did not specialise, as we notice that Socrates was more interested in moral philosophy, while Aristotle seemed to drift more towards scientific inquiry, however Aristotle did still write a lot about moral philosophy as well as law and rhetoric.

What we see in this play is what we would call rhetoric, or pretty much, what is taught in our modern law schools. Whereas today if you want to argue a case in court, you would pay a lawyer, in Athens you had to do it yourself, so you would approach somebody to get them to teach you how to argue, or to even write your speech for you. Once again, the desire of the father to get out of his debts using rhetoric is very much the same today. People get into debt and then look for ways to get out of it without having to pay any money. For instance 'I did not understand the contract' is a common one (though I would be surprised if a judge actually accepts the argument 'I did not know that I had to pay it back'), though this generally only works for people who either have little grasp of the English language, or are dealing with complicated contracts. Most sophisticated investors would be hard pressed to get out of such a contract. I do suspect that a lot of foreign immigrants do fall back on the 'I don't speaka da Inglish' when they discover that they are on the losing side of an argument with a bank or an insurance company, despite the fact that they know exactly what is going on.

Mind you, the way the modern law is structured, process is as important as being able to understand the contract. For something to happen you must follow the process and follow the process exactly, and the more sophisticated you are (ie you work for a corporation) the more you are expected to follow that process. Many people can get out of contracts (or criminal charges) because the process has not been followed to the letter. For instance, if you have a tenant that is not paying their rent, there is a process that you have to use to get rid of that tenant, and that means that you can go for weeks, even months, losing money because of this non-paying tenant, yet the tenant still gets to live in the house with a roof over their head. Moreso, because the process means that there are delays in getting to court (and the landlord is generally considered to be sophisticated, so the system is weighed against them) what in effect happens is that the tenant gets free housing and the landlord loses money. I do understand that not all landlords are good, particularly when you are dealing with corporate agencies, and it is a shame that the bad landlords seem to get away with being pricks, while the good landlords seem to screwed over.