Business and Amusements

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Athenians, just before their great city-state’s decline, split their time between business and amusements:

Their business consisted in listening to the adulation of their orators; their amusements, in listening to the adulation of their poets: for Socrates proved, in the same Dialogue in which he showed so fully the destructive influence of orators, that even of that grave and magnificent art, Tragic Poetry, the aim was simply to gratify the spectators; since, while it does not avoid things which are pleasant but bad, it does avoid things disagreeable but useful. Poetry on the stage is then a kind of adulatory rhetoric addressed to a popular assembly composed of men, women, and children.

It is related that Solon, after hearing Thespis in one of his own compositions, asked him if he was not ashamed to utter such falsehoods before so large an audience? And when Thespis replied that there was no harm in saying and doing such things merely for amusement, Solon indignantly exclaimed, striking the ground with his stick: “If once we come to praise and esteem such amusement as this, we shall quickly find the effects of it in our daily transactions!” This applies still more strongly to the subsequent comic writers. The event seemed to confirm the truth of the great Athenian legislator’s opinion.

Listening to their own clever hipsters, the Athenians had little idea where they were headed:

On a certain day in the year 424 before Christ, the comedy called “The Clouds,” which Aristophanes had written against Socrates, was performed at Athens. If a stranger at Athens on that day, after visiting the fortifications, the arsenal, the port, and the docks of the Athenians, and hearing the enumeration of their present revenues and of the projects for their future increase by the conquest of Sicily and other countries, had then gone to the theatre and listened to the witty but false and scurrilous representation given by the satirist of the philosopher — in which the only man of that time who had the courage and the wisdom to tell the Athenians the truth as to their political condition, is held up to public ridicule and obloquy, as the representative of those Sophists whom he lived only to refute — the stranger would hardly have thought that the fabric which was so fair to look upon, combining so much material splendour and so much intellectual activity, was already sapped to its foundations, and in a single century from that time would be nothing but a ruin.

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