Surely if liberalism has a single desperate weakness it is an inadequacy of imagination: liberalism is always being surprised. –Lionel Trilling
In the winter of 422 BCE, the Athenian comedic playwright Aristophanes presented Wasps, the play about the most fundamental political problem of his time, and of ours—the problem of persuasion. The play asks how it might be possible to peel supporters away from the city’s chief demagogue, Cleon, who had done more than anyone else to needlessly prolong a war with Sparta that ultimately lasted 27 years and left Athens a shadow of its former self.
As many have already noted, Cleon resembles Trump so much that our current president might well be Cleon’s reincarnation. Key similarities include highly emotional theatrics, a craven focus on his own self-interest, and an unrelenting obsession with striking out against the enemy—a category in which he conflated both the city’s enemies and his own. He was “the most violent man in Athens,” according to the historian Thucydides, and “the man who, with his attacks, corrupted the Athenians more than any other,” according to Aristotle.
The star of Wasps is named “Cleon-Lover,” and his name indicates the sway Cleon held over a certain sort of Athenian citizen. He is an elderly veteran of a prior war where Athens led a NATO-like confederation of Greek city-states to drive out an invasion from the neighboring Persians. This confederation against the Persians eventually mutated into an Athenian empire: it began with other city-states paying for protection, but in time Athens demanded tributes and political control. The war with Sparta, which Cleon did so much to prolong, concerned whether Athens would be able to keep this de facto empire, which Sparta and independent city-states viewed as a metastasizing geopolitical threat. As such, Cleon-Lover is a representative of the generation that initially made Athens an imperial city.
In his old age, Cleon-Lover has developed a strange obsession with participating in juries, which Cleon often manipulated as a plaintiff (representing himself) to prosecute his political enemies. Unlike a jury today, an Athenian jury was enormous, containing hundreds of people who were paid the equivalent of a minimum wage (which Cleon worked to increase). The juries were populated by the unemployed, especially the elderly, who are depicted in the play as a bit like elderly viewers of cable news: quick to anger, severe in their judgments, and generally biased in favor of convictions. They were the perfect audience for Cleon, and Cleon-Lover epitomizes the type.
The play focuses on the struggle of Cleon-Lover’s son, named “Cleon-Hater,” to persuade his father to overcome his addiction to being a juror. The son is a nouveau riche sophisticate, and as the play opens, we have learned that Cleon-Hater has offered his father a life of luxury in exchange for giving up his obsession with juries. Cleon-Hater simply wants his father to live a happy, bougie lifestyle. Yet Cleon-Lover is strangely impervious to luxury, stating that “[my son is] ready to feast me in luxury, but I don’t want to be feasted.” (All quotations from the play are Alan Sommerstein’s translation.)
In the play’s first phrase, the father and son debate whether his father should continue to participate in juries. Adjudicating the dispute is a large chorus of elderly jurors who are also veterans of the war with Persia, and who appear as a swarm of chimerical man-wasps, complete with a prosthetic butt-stinger. They are the image of the swarming democratic mob that Cleon’s enemies sought to persuade.
Defending his jury-obsession, Cleon-Lover claims that a jury’s power is “equal to that of any king”:
What creature is there today more happy and enviable, or more pampered, or more to be feared, than a juror, and that though he’s an old man? … [W]e’re the only people [Cleon] doesn’t take bites out of; he watches over us, holds us in his arms and keeps off the flies.
In response, the son calculates that the payments jurors receives come to less than one-tenth of the imperial tributes Athens received, even though the empire was won by the veterans who made up juries. The father asks where the rest of the money goes, and the son suggests it was stolen by Cleon: “It goes to those ‘I-will-never-betray-the-Athenian-rabble-and-I’ll- always-fight-for-the-masses’ people. You’re bamboozled, father, by these deft phrases, and you choose them to rule over you.”
This response is persuasive to Cleon-Lover, who says he would stop being a juror, except for one thing, which is he cannot stop himself from wanting to sit in judgment. As a compromise, Cleon-Hater proposes that his father stay at home and preside over trials over domestic matters as a sort of magistrate of the house.
Cleon-Lover agrees, leading to the play’s second phase, which is a stay-at-home trial for the father: one of the house’s dogs prosecutes another, “Labes,” for stealing “Sicilian” cheese from the cupboard without giving him a bite. (This was apparently a parody of a real case where Cleon accused an Athenian general, Laches, of taking bribes from the city’s Sicilian allies—bribes that Cleon presumably wanted for himself.)
Cleon-Hater speaks in Labes’s defense, hoping to persuade his father to stop being so “harsh and ill tempered.” Omitting any defense on the merits, the son instead responds by pleading for mercy. Yet the father remains stubborn, and he decides to vote for a conviction. Jury votes were taken by dropping a pebble into two urns, with one urn collecting “guilty” votes, and the other collecting “innocent” votes. Accordingly, the son leads the father to the voting urns, but does so in a roundabout manner, tricking his father into dropping his pebble into the “innocent” urn.
The son then announces the outcome, and the father is shocked and horrified to learn that he irrevocably voted in favor of finding Labes innocent—an involuntary act of mercy. The son brushes off his father’s concerns and leads him away, promising to take him “to dinner, to parties, to shows.” Still dazed, Cleon-Lover follows.
Thus begins the third and final phase of the play, where the son takes Cleon-Lover to the age’s equivalent of a cocktail party. We see the son dress up the father in fancy cosmopolitan clothes—a sumptuous Persian cloak and stylish Spartan shoes—and give his father a quick lesson in social graces. His father slowly takes to the role, finally getting over his obsession with juries.
After a choral interlude, we see the disastrous results of cocktail party. One of the slaves puts it like this: “Why, if the old man didn’t turn out to be a most pestilent nuisance, and much the most drunk and disorderly of the company.” The father is reported to have said the following to one of the guests: “Tell me, why do you give yourself airs and pretend to be smart, when you’re a buffoon sucking up to whoever is currently doing well?”
We then see the father come home drunk with a naked flute girl. The pair is trailed by a group of men who the father assaulted and who are now threatening legal action. Seeing the commotion, the son is aghast: “Now we’ll have more trouble, and lawsuits,” he says, “because of you and your wine.” The father then starts beating up one of his accusers, until his son carries him off. The chorus comments, “it is hard to depart from the natural character one has always had.”
The play ends with Cleon-Lover speaking directly to the audience to propose a dance-off: the old style of tragic dancing from his youth versus the newfangled modern style. Taking up the challenge are three children of a modern tragedian, all dressed as crabs, who get onstage and do a crab-dance (the name of their father, a real tragedian, evidently sounded like the Greek word for “crab”). Dancing in competition, the father and these crab-kids lead the chorus off of the stage in a grand yet unresolved finale.
Persuasion lies at the core of democratic life. The broad freedom of expression found in our Constitution’s First Amendment, as interpreted by modern caselaw, is fundamentally designed to safeguard and give a wide berth to the practice of persuasion. Our endless political debates, commentary, protests, posts, and tweets are premised on the idea that persuasion is possible and valuable. It may plausibly be asked whether much of this ceaseless debate is principally motivated by a covert desire to symbolically punish or signal tribal identity. But tellingly, such arguments are typically still phrased as attempts at persuasion. Whatever hope we have for democracy as an instrument for broad and deep improvement—beyond serving an arbitrary mechanism for resolving social disputes, like a coin toss writ large—ultimately lies in persuasion.
What did Aristophanes want to persuade Athens to do? Based on contemporaneous plays like Knights, Acharnians, and Peace, he seems to have been most interested in convincing the city to abandon Cleon’s program of endless war, find the first opportunity to make a decent settlement with Sparta, and instead focus on the (somewhat contradictory) goals of civic virtue and personal pleasure. In short: Chill, bro, focus on the fundamentals, and let’s party. This message was a hard sell, though, because Athens was anything but chill. Thucydides’s history of the war repeatedly shows Athens as having an insatiable desire for glory that compelled the city to expose itself to ever-greater dangers.
Wasps does not outright deny the possibility for persuasion, but does raise questions about how far and deep it can go. One genuine moment of persuasion is Cleon-Hater’s argument that the imperial tributes should go to the jurymen, who after all were the people who won the empire. Yet this argument is absurd: it makes no sense to distribute imperial tributes through jury pay, since a jury’s function is to deliver justice to litigants, not spoils to the victors. The argument is effective only because it takes for granted Cleon-Lover’s bizarre premise that imperial tributes should be routed to him and his friends via jury pay. The lesson is clear: one who persuades by rational argument must make do with the interlocutor’s own beliefs as premises, even if they are not the premises one prefers.
Cleon-Hater engages in an even more troubling form of persuasion when tricking his father into voting for acquittal during the dog trial. The son wanted to prove to Cleon-Lover that he could show a little mercy and still be able to live with himself afterwards—a laudable goal that nevertheless required making Cleon-Hater act against his will. In doing so, Cleon-Hater flouts the basic democratic imperative of treating Cleon-Lover as a rational agent who can make decisions for himself.
The only plausible defense of Cleon-Hater’s trickery is that—even from the characters’ perspective—the dog trial was not real, but rather a sort of make-believe for the father to satisfy his passion for judging. In that light, Cleon-Hater can more forgivably be viewed as merely mixing in a bit of medicine with his father’s entertainment. The son’s trick effectively cures Cleon-Lover of his jury-obsession, a result the father ultimately appreciates. Viewing this trick more symbolically, we might even say that it is an image of the sort of persuasion that can happen through theater and other emotional appeals: you do not expect it to make you feel differently, until it does.
These efforts at persuasion go off the rails when Cleon-Hater finally takes the last step and tries to convince his father to live a life of luxury. The son’s method could be called persuasion through habitation, as Cleon-Hater apparently thinks that having his father act and dress like a gentleman will actually make him become a gentleman—which might not be so crazy (just think of My Fair Lady). The plan fails, though, because the urbane life the son offers provides no outlet for the passions that initially drove him to jury-addition—a desire for glory that finds no satisfaction in the polite refined pleasures. Cleon-Lover’s inborn temperament, the part of him that will not change, is incompatible with the life his son wants him to adopt. Like an Athenian Kanye, making him one of the “betters” only makes him worse. Without the outlet of judging, this passion is just malice, a bare desire to sting.
The play itself identifies Cleon-Lover’s waspish nature with Athens’s own character, not only because Athens had so many democratic swarms—in the Assembly, in the juries, in the theaters—but also because “[i]n making a living we are most resourceful: we sting all and sundry and so procure a livelihood.” From this perspective, Cleon-Lover is a synecdoche for Athens, or at least that aspect of the Athenian character that continually struck out in ever-more-perilous imperial exploits.
Viewing Cleon-Lover as a representation of Athens’s drive for glory, the closing dance-off looks far more ominous. Simon Goldhill, a Cambridge classics professor, has said that, in Athens, tragedy was “a passionate reflection on the limitations and potential of the democratic polity, and a searing exploration of human capacity for self-destruction and transcendence, especially with regard to individual agents striving for control—self-control and control over others—within a community and a family history.” In an odd way, this description fits the last phase of Wasps: the father cannot help but express his drive for glory, and neither, we suppose, can the city. Both are trapped in their character, and in tragedy, character is fate. With hindsight, and perhaps even at the time, Cleon-Lover’s closing dance looks like a premonition of Athens’s fall—not just a sight gag, but charged with genuine tragedy.
Worst of all, Cleon-Lover is the best character in the play, the one who is most genuinely alive. Even though the wet blanket Cleon-Hater is technically the play’s protagonist, his antagonist, Cleon-Lover, is the star: he gets all the best jokes, he spends the play running from one side of the stage to the other, and his language is shot through with fantastical, and fantastically lewd, imagery. At his core is a wild vitality that no doubt is invaluable to a city facing invading hordes. He is, in a way, even admirable: it is easy to imagine Cleon-Lover as a young man in a rag-tag fleet going up against the Persian navy. Throughout his work, Aristophanes suggests he wanted Athens to regain the virtues that created the heroes of the Persian War, yet those same virtues ultimately created Cleon-Lover, the demagogue lover—the exact thing that Wasps sets out as a problem. Aristophanes suggests no way out of this paradox.
Liberalism will always have difficulty with the sort of passions that Cleon-Lover exhibits—a love of victory or thirst for glory or just plain reckless spite. The more natural home for these passions is, and will remain, something more illiberal: something with a little more salt to it, a taste that cannot be matched by our blander ordered liberty, an itch to push the needle past the limits of our plodding pursuit of happiness. This drive cannot simply be reduced to discriminatory animus, resentment against the elite, or the other plausible motives cited by the left and right as an explanation for the resurgence of demagoguery—it is, Aristophanes suggests, something more far basic, a drive toward the freedom of disorder that only grows greater as the world becomes more orderly (for better or worse).
With remarkable honesty, Wasps acknowledges that much can be done to channel these illiberal passions, but ultimately questions the hope for eliminating them. In the end, it is perhaps just as likely that these passions will overwhelm us.