Breaking down traditions:
The “Clouds” and the “History of Peloponnesian War”
Undeniably, the ancient Greek society places a heavy emphasis on values and traditions. The two texts of the “Clouds” by Aristophanes and “History of the Peloponnesian war” by Thucydides, although contextually divergent, are actually conceptually convergent. Both texts are built around the central theme of the collapse of conventional values. While the breakdown of traditional values in the “History of the Peloponnesian war” is presented in a more metaphorical and symbolical manner, the downfall of conventional values in the “Clouds” is on a more direct basis. Although both texts essentially convey across the same solemn message that the relinquishment of traditional values leads to dire consequences, Aristophanes also implicitly challenges the authority of old values, and hopes to improve upon these traditions.
The “Clouds” by Aristophanes is a satirical play primarily concerned with the idea of new and old education. A satire is a composition or prose used to lampoon individuals or society. They usually make use of ridicules and irony for the ostensible purpose of exposing and discouraging vice or folly. In the “Clouds”, viewers are presented with a breakdown of traditionally accepted moral and ethical values, especially those that are related to education. Aristophanes is a staunch defender of old values. Through the comedy, he wishes to show his support for logical reasoning that is well rounded and grounded in practical experience. Simultaneously, Aristophanes also wants to deliver a message to the theater audiences of fifth century that certain philosophers, particularly the sophists, undermine traditional values and thus pose as a threat to Greek society. However, by deliberately satirizing the traditional model of education with the new model throughout the comedy, Aristophanes subtly suggests his belief that if a traditional system were to be left unexamined, it might lose sight of the convictions and values upon which it was founded. This also shows that Aristophanes believes the importance of criticism in the Athenian society, and that with criticism, a society can be improved upon.
In comparison to “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” there are distinctions between the ways in which traditional values are broken down. In the latter, the Mytilenian debate and the Melian dialogues are based on the war between Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. It is more concerned with the ethics of war and punishments rather than education in “The Clouds”. Warring sparks are ignited in the light of self-interest, as the Spartans fear the growth of the Athenian power. Many moral judgments, as dire consequences of the wars, are debated upon. There are increasing political and ethical confusions in Athens as a result of the revolt of the Mytilenians and the neutral position take up by the Melians. In the 2nd Mytilenian debate, the Athenians argue over the unprecedented brutality of their actions and some become hesitant about the hurried decision to kill and enslave the citizens of Mytileans. Democracy is an important concept for the Greeks. In Cleon’s speech, however, he begins by questioning the worth of democracy and this instigates a breakdown in the traditional values. “Personally I have had occasions often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others, and I am all the more convinced of this when I see how you are now changing your minds about the Mytilenians.” (Thuy 3. 37) Cleon believes that it is part of human nature to revere the strong and take advantage of the weak, and hence he pushes for the punishment of the Mytilenians. In his speech, Cleon also employs the art of rhetoric. He stresses that the Mytilenian are more than guilty and consequently deserve the punishment since they are “calculated aggressors” (Thuy 36.13). Hence, Cleon suggests that the Mytilenians...
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