Plutus, or Wealth, is the last extant comedy of Aristophanes written in 388 BC. On the surface it is a humorous look at blind god of wealth who cannot see to make just and fair distributions of his beneficence. A couple Athenians set out to cure his blindness, much to the consternation of many, including the other gods who fear that men will only worship money and, of course, the goddess Poverty who musters her best counter-argument.
There are plenty of humorous situations and one-liners as one expects in Aristophanes. But there are many things that are quite different from his other plays. Things that undercut the humor and upon reflection leave a rather somber impression. Despite the jokes and satire I found this play to be rather depressing.
The basic premise is that Plutus, being blind, has made poor distributions leaving just and upright people poor and immoral people wealthy. There is nothing particularly new or unusual about this idea. The contrast is striking however when we meet the goddess Penia (poverty). In her argument we see wealth and the wealthy as bloated, gross, fat and indolent. They are represented by the old, overweight, tired, cynical and blind god, Plutus–hardly a picture of health and virtue. Penia, on the other hand is portrayed as lean, intelligent, modest and orderly. The goddess is young, quick-witted and energetic. She is clearly the future and that future includes the values that are traditionally associated with Sparta. The wealthy Athenian Empire has been eclipsed by rival Sparta, defeated in the long decades of the Peloponnesian War, and we are seeing the resulting change of values and priorities.
While the change from arrogant and corrupt imperial greed to more modest values is probably a positive thing for the culture there are others that are less so. Plutus is our only surviving example of Middle Comedy, a transition stage from Old Comedy to New Comedy. Old Comedy is topical, full of current events, political humor and even direct attacks on particular individuals. New Comedy is domestic or situation comedy, set in the context of the household and plays on interactions of family members, servants, neighbors and local merchants. Old Comedy was an integral part of the political discourse and it’s rhetorical politics was part of democratic culture. With the decline of democracy in Athens, comedy turns inward. It no longer deals with politics and larger social issues. People’s attentions is now more focused on their own household. In Plutus, I feel that we are seeing the bold voice of Aristophanes in decline. His range is narrowed, his edge blunted.
Another thing we find is a general disrespect for authority and the gods. Plutus is blind. Zeus is greedy. Hermes is unemployed. The priests are corrupt. The main characters are the clever servant and his bumbling master, a frequent theme of rebellion that we find in the pre-revolutionary era of Mozart and Beaumarchais. The era of Athenian democracy has come to an end and we see it’s aftermath in Plutus, a sad and ironic ending to the career of it’s best comedian.
- Stoicism (severalfourmanytest.wordpress.com)
- Athens Lost To Sparta: A Leadership Lesson, Part 1 (michaellemme.wordpress.com)
- War’s Paradoxes II: From the Peloponnesian War to ‘Leading From Behind’ (pjmedia.com)