- Philosophy, Poetry and Power in Aristophanes' Birds by Daniel Holmes
This fascinating and extremely readable study of the Birds provides a new and exciting view of the play based on a nuanced reading of its protagonist, and possible hero, Peisetaerus. Noting distinctions between Peisetaerus and his initial companion, Euelpides, that have been largely overlooked, Holmes situates the play firmly in its fifth-century context while brilliantly negotiating between the pro- and anti-imperialist readings that so often dominate discussion of the play. In this way, Holmes traces a deeper connection between Aristophanes and Plato through a subtle and in-depth examination of human eros and polypragmosune ("busy-bodiness"), the relation of the political to nature, and the new sophistic trains of thought that entered Athenian culture in the fifth century.
Picking up on a point made earlier by Jeffrey Henderson, Holmes takes seriously the implications of Peisetaerus as "one of the traditional, generic targets of the Old Comic poets: the upper-class, sophist-trained, intellectual." Contrasting him to his companion, Euelpides, Holmes examines Birds as an exploration of what happens when the basic human drive of eros, here for power, is introduced into the natural and unerotic [End Page 610] world of the birds. The result is a polis, and with it the opportunity for a deep exploration of the nature of human society.
In investigating the nature of the polis, however, the Birds, as Holmes reveals, also examines what is other to the polis, in particular, nature and the gods. In the latter case, the "otherness" turns out to be self-referential. As Holmes puts it, the second half of the play makes it clear that "to be a god means to be a god to human beings." Similarly, in regard to nature, Holmes takes seriously nuances in the play such as the turn-around on the acceptability of father-beating. As Holmes shows, for the birds to regain their "natural place" they must become political and, as such, move from nature to nomos.
The benefits of Holmes's close reading also appear in his discussion of the interlopers who take up much of the second half of the play. Rather than simply dismissing these as standard blocking characters, as is often done, Holmes looks closely at the nature of each challenge and at Peisetaerus's responses. He distinguishes, for example, the first group of interlopers from the second and points out the emphasis placed on the two named interlopers, Meton and Cinesias, each in the central position of their respective group, with Meton introducing, essentially, the threat of science, and Cinesias that of "art for art's sake." Similarly, by pointing out, for example, that the would-be father-beater's desire to join Cloudcukooland is unusual, Holmes clarifies the difference in Peisetaerus's several responses.
Holmes's interest in Peisetaerus's sophistic training leads into a very fruitful consideration of the Birds in relation to the Clouds. His comparison of Peisetaerus to Aristophanes' Socrates, who, unlike the protagonist of the Birds, fails to school the human appetitive nature, then brings Holmes to consider as well Socratic thought as it is presented in Plato. In the case of Peisetaerus, however, Holmes sees neither simply the antagonist of the Clouds nor the Platonic model. In contrast to Strepsiades' just, though illegal, vengeance on Socrates (as Holmes sees it), Peisetaerus, through the eros and violence that characterizes him throughout, becomes the new Zeus. Unlike with Dikaiopolis or Trygaeus, however, heroes of the Acharnians and Peace, the audience does not share in the victory, but rather views Peisetaerus, from outside his triumph, as unnatural: "Aristophanes directs us, in this final scene, to laugh along at his cleverness, but also to recognize, as Peisetaerus does not, how hideous he looks to everyone else." In regard to the story of Prometheus, a strain of the play that Holmes brings out quite brilliantly, Peisetaerus has turned out to play not the role of Prometheus, benefactor and bringer of civilization, but rather that of Aeschylus's tyrannical Zeus.