Rhetoric, Comedy, and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds

By Daphne Elizabeth O'Regan | Go to book overview

1
The Changing Role of Logos: Background

While the Clouds' focus on logos, human communication, and the power of rhetoric might seem odd to a modern audience, such a choice would hardly have surprised contemporary Athenians -- late fifth-century Athens was experiencing a period of political and speculative turmoil centering in many respects on speech. 1 This chapter outlines some of the major features of this controversy as they can be reconstructed from the limited sources which have survived. Its purpose is to help situate logos in the practical and conceptual framework of the time, and thus aid in the recovery of the full resonance of Aristophanes' comedy. The orientation is one which will facilitate analysis in subsequent chapters, where frequent reference will be made to the issues and the images to be discussed here.

Athenian political and social institutions are generally agreed to have fostered what Goldhill calls an "extraordinary prevalence of the spoken word." 2 Kennedy puts aptly a truth that must have been vivid to many Athenians: "In a democratic state, words could change history. They performed the functions of gold, of divine intervention, of massed armies of men. Surely the word was a remarkable thing." 3 Words were also increasingly the medium of political power. The last quarter of the fifth century witnessed the emergence of a new style of politics, which, based on a democratic right to speak afforded all citizens equally (isegoria), permitted the rise of a new kind of leader, one who appealed directly to the demos, speaking before, and persuading, the sovereign people. 4

The premium this placed on speech and skill at speaking was mirrored in changing political terminology. Rhetor, or speaker, the increasingly frequent term for politician, was "expressive and exact. The politicians of this period were naturally thought of as rhetores for they led by their eloquence." 5 The ascendency of Pericles, widely believed to be owed, among other things, to a tongue sharpened by close association with sophists, 6 had forced upon public attention the importance of the ability to speak and the power that such ability bestowed. The death of Pericles and the subsequent rise of Cleon focused the issue even more clearly. Pericles had been preeminent not only in rhetoric, but in family, intelligence, and character; 7 those who succeeded him did not share his gifts. To his opponents, Cleon seemed equally lacking in personal, social, and political qualifications: integrity, noble birth, military skill, and political insight. 8 These deficiencies made it clear that Cleon -- "the master of a new technology of political power," 9 -- in fact, possessed an influence derived in large part from his tongue. 10 He, and the primarily young men who followed his example, were following a

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