Comedy : Dmitri Nikulin

William Lamson / Hydrologies

William Lamson / Hydrologies

Comedy : Dmitri Nikulin

Ὑπόθεσις μὲν οὖν τῆς δημοκρατκῆς πολιτείας ἐλευθερία.
“The main principle of the democratic constitution is freedom.”
–Aristotle, Politics 1317a40.1

“Comoedia est imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, et imago veritatis.”
“Comedy is an imitation of life, a mirror of custom, and an image of truth.”
–Cicero, De re publica IV.11.2

When we are engaged in a commonly shared and recognized activity that follows certain implicit or explicit rules and pursues particular ends, we do not always notice these rules and ends. Yet, reflecting on them might be important, since it would allow us to better understand the legitimacy and presuppositions of our actions, interactions, and strivings, and possibly lead to their improvement. In order to succeed in such a reflection, however, we first need to present and think of ourselves as others. Doing so would allow us to establish a reflective distance from ourselves and our own acts, a distance that can be achieved either through philosophical or artistic means. The dramatic form, of which film is only the most familiar contemporary variant, is particularly effective for representing and thinking about our actions, insofar as dramatization depicts action directly rather than through narrative means.

Among dramatic genres reflective of the human condition, one of the most significant is comedy, which is defined both by its particular structure—that of an intricate and rationally resolved plot—and by its characters, who tend to be dispossessed as the protagonists of the dramatic action. As such, in its very form, comedy is already both descriptive of current political, social, and moral practices, as well as prescriptive of a particular kind of shared activity. All of these practices and activities, as I will argue in what follows, are those of a democratic polity. Comedy thus reflects existing political practices and simultaneously also generates them, setting a pattern for collective deliberative action.


As Aristotle explains in his Politics, the principle of democracy is freedom. This description signifies two things in particular: (1) Freedom presupposes the freedom from domination, from being ruled or governed by anyone.3 Since, however, in a polity this does not seem to be altogether possible, the compromise is to govern—to be the principle and the origin of political rule—and be governed in turn.4 Therefore, freedom requires both that one neither rule nor govern over others, and that one is not ruled or governed by them. Instead, one governs and is governed at once through temporary participation in different institutions. In this way, everyone simultaneously has a share in power, and is both a source of governance and a constituent of the law; thus, everyone is the subject of the law and governance at the same time. This is the principle of justice that brings about equality based on representation (“number”) rather than distinction.5 In other words, the principle of “governing and being governed at the same time” makes everyone an equal and active citizen and politician, irrespective of one’s social standing or origin, which makes the democratic polity inclusive and not exclusive. This system allows for the freedom of equals, and thus for political equality.6

(2) Freedom also means the freedom to live as one likes.7 This is the life of a free citizen, since not to live as one likes is appropriate to a slave.8 This is the purpose and the outcome of power-sharing in democracy, which allows for deliberation and decisions about how one wants to avoid domination and live one’s life. Such a life is a good life in accordance with the common good, insofar as the good is universal and therefore publicly shareable  and participable in democracy. The possibility of such participation is not a given but should be, and can be implemented through proper political, institutional, legal, and moral arrangements. Freedom is thus never guaranteed but should be achievable through a common recognized effort of politically shared (inter)action.

In other words, democracy is the polity in which the dispossessed and the oppressed are liberated, and in which every citizen is equal to any other one both in access to governance and in the establishment and constitution of the laws, as well as in living a fulfilled and desired life.

Comedy: A Genealogy

Comedy is one of the oldest dramatic and literary genres still in existence. Perhaps the most important philosophical reflection on comedy would have been the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, but this is now lost.9 However, comedy seems to have had its origin either in the village songs of mockery or in the tradition of revel that was often accompanied by a phallophoric festival in honor of Dionysus, which also included spontaneous improvisations.10 Although Aristotle cannot already establish the names of those who will have made significant innovations in comedy, he associates the origin of its genre with the iamb, a major form of archaic poetry, which comes out of lampoons or “blameful songs.” On the one hand, iamb celebrates life in all its physically explicit forms,11 yet it does so in a form that is close to live conversational exchange. In other words, at its very inception, comedy is bawdy and comes out of agonistic verbal battles and personal attacks filled with abundant allusions to bodily pleasures.

As a dramatic and literary genre, comedy was significantly influenced by Epicharmus (sixth to fifth century BCE), a prolific writer and a Pythagorean philosopher from Sicily, who invented and used the comic plot.12 Two other later genres, mime and flyax, were equally practiced in Sicily and had influence on comedy. While mime presents short scenes from everyday life in either monological or dialogical form (and later influenced the form of the philosophical dialogue,13 flyax (in the works of another V cent. BCE Sicilian writer Sophron) mostly parodies myths in equally short dramatic pieces.

Both Plato and Aristotle take comedy to be an imitation (μίμησις). For Plato, it imitates passions and depicts base and ridiculous things. Comedy spoils public morals and hence should be left to slaves and foreigners.14 For Aristotle, comedy also imitates the worst in people, which turns out to be funny, ridiculous, and shameful.15 However, Aristotle is more condescending toward comedy, since comedy for him—as opposed to Plato—is not a threat to the foundations of politics and morals, such that its expulsion and prohibition would be required. Rather, comic fun is only a pardonable mistake because it does not cause pain or inflict any moral or political harm.

Old and New Comedy

For a long time, Attic comedy existed as improvised action before becoming written and institutionalized through the festivals associated with the cult of Dionysus. The most celebrated author of Attic comedy is Aristophanes, although we have a great number of surviving fragments from other famous playwrights of what was later called Old Comedy: Magnes, Cratinus, Eupolis, as well as many others.16 Since we have eleven extant plays of Aristophanes, we can fairly well reconstruct his poetics, literary technique, and social and political agenda. Much can be said about Aristophanes and his dramatic technique, but here I only need to make three observations that are relevant to the understanding of the political role of ancient comedy. First, Aristophanes’ plays have a quite complicated structure: constituted by the interaction between the actors and the chorus, they begin with a prologue followed by parodos or the chorus’s entrance song, then by an agōn or formal debate, where the chorus approaches the audience in parabasis,17 and then by the exodus or concluding scene. There can be a number of “episodes” or unclassified scenes in a play, and the agōn and parabasis can be quite complex.18 Yet, despite its structural intricacy, the organization of Old Comedy does not seem to reflect any particular structure of interpersonal or political action. Second, Aristophanes’ plays are famous for a great number of critical lampoons, up to the point of abuse, which eventually became a most recognizable feature of Old Comedy. For instance, Socrates is famously ridiculed by Aristophanes in the Clouds, the tragic poet Agathon in the Thesmophoriazusae and Frogs, and Eupolis—also in the Clouds. However, at the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens passed a law that prohibited personal attacks on stage and the depiction of real people,19 which eventually led to a deep rethinking and reworking of the whole genre of comedy. And third, the comic ridicule, no doubt, was a way of promoting a political agenda. And yet, in the case of Aristophanes, this agenda was conservative, praising the alleged moral integrity and superiority of rustic aristocratic life to the corrupt exuberance and luxury of the city with its turbulent democratic political practices.20

From the fourth to the third centuries BCE, Old Comedy is followed by the Athenian New Comedy of Philemon, Apollodorus and especially Menander, who challenge the old comedic ways and introduce many new elements.21 In a sense, the “quarrel between ancients and moderns” is really that between Aristophanes and Menander. New Comedy arises at the end of classical antiquity and the spread of Greek culture that deeply influenced the expanding and politically dominating Pax Romana. In Rome, New Comedy is appropriated by Plautus and flourishes in Terence in the third and second centuries BCE, shaping much of the dramatic and literary sensibility and practice of the time.22 The “Attic salt” of Greek New Comedy becomes seasoned with “Italian vinegar,”23 even if some of the later philhellenists considered the original Greek comedies superior to their Latin imitations, so that Caesar refers to Terence as “dimidiate Menander.”

Again, I will only mention the major innovations of New Comedy that are relevant to the discussion of its political meaning. First, it considerably simplifies the formal structure of comedy and makes it closer to everyday human concerns. The influence of Euripides in this process is decisive, since he already begins “lowering” the sublimity of Attic tragedy and makes its mythological and heroic scenes closer to everyday life. For instance, his depiction of the dispute between Medea and Jason looks very much like a quarrel between husband and wife.24 Most importantly, Euripides’ plot is deliberately constructed as a developing coherent narrative and not a collection of loosely tied episodes. New Comedy also rejects the parabasis and reduces the role of the chorus, which is now present only between the acts, and uses a type of speech close to the everyday one that discloses its characters and refines the comic plot or the “argument,” which becomes subtle, cerebral, and refined. Since it is difficult to invent a good plot, as it is difficult to discover a good philosophical argument, fine plots are carefully preserved, “recycled,” and reused.

Secondly, New Comedy moves from mythological and heroic stories to the portrayal of everyday life with its personal, familial, social, and political concerns. Its characters become recognizable and humane people, both in their acts and manner of speech. Rather than being heroes and celebrities, they are true-to-life and resemble your neighbors next door, capable of honesty, kindness, and generosity.25 But true to form, such characters are capable of deception, contriving, and the manipulation of others, with whom the spectators thus can identify or from whom they can dissociate themselves. In doing so, instead of Old Comedy’s ribaldry and bawdiness, profanity and vulgarity (αἰσχρολογία), New Comedy uses hint and conjecture (ὑπόνοια),26 as well as decorum, the proper and dignified ways of speaking and behaving.27

New Comedy became particularly influential and saw its revival in the Renaissance and early modernity, which show great interest in comedy, both theoretically and on stage. In the sixteenth century, some thirty commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics were published, including those of Francesco Robortello, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Francesco Patrizi, Antonio Riccoboni, and many others. All of this gave rise to what we might call “Italian Theory,” which draws inspiration from Aristotle but also form the classical texts of Horace’s Ars poetica, Cicero, Quintilian and Donatus.28 While the Italian scholars developed a sophisticated discussion of poetics and the key elements of drama works, their contemporaries all over Europe wrote comedies in the tradition of New Comedy, which was still very much alive and known through the plays of Plautus and Terence, which were preserved, read, and often performed in the original.29 Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Molière, and the Restoration comedy of Wycherley, Etherege and Aphra Behn all show intimate familiarity with, and admiration of, Roman New Comedy.30 Supported by philosophical reflection on poetic theory, modern comedy is capable of defending and preserving its critical edge. The later Romantic portrayal of comedy tried to downplay its political significance, presenting it as the comedy of manners that depicts familial collisions and often borders on immoral and profane. In what follows, I intend to argue that this account is wrong.

Romantic Attitude

From the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Romantics were rewriting the Western cultural canon, they introduced some newly rediscovered names (Nicolas of Cusa, Bach), translated Homer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, and epitomized them as geniuses. At the same time, Schleiermacher translated all of Plato’s works and, in doing so, introduced a whole new method of reading and hermeneutical interpretation, which until this very day remains prevalent.31 The Romantics had to establish themselves as radically new and modern, which they did against the ancients, who were generously assigned the role not of inferiors or forerunners but of the reinvented cultural and historical equals, who nonetheless remained radically different. In the attempt to understand oneself as new, modern, and unique, one had to (re)turn to the ancients as one’s dearest and strangest other. But since the ancients were also meant to be those against whom one had to establish a definitive reflective image of oneself, they needed to be clearly defined chronologically. Only archaic (the original) and Classical (the flourishing) Greek antiquity fit the bill, after which no one in art, drama, or philosophy was considered worth paying attention to, that is, right up until us moderns. This means that all of Hellenism and later antiquity had to be disregarded, discarded, and omitted, especially the Roman tradition, which was deemed to be the downfall and too much of the same.

In terms of the history of comedy, its modern genealogy had to abruptly end with Old Comedy and Aristophanes, ignore the entire Greek and Latin New Comedy, and resume again with the genius of Shakespeare, who apparently was a reincarnation of Sophocles and Aristophanes, despite his drawing on the tragedies of Seneca and the comedies of Terence.

An example of such an attitude comes in August Wilhelm Schlegel, who in his 1808 lectures on dramatic art and literature judiciously argues that in ancient literature and drama, tragedy is unquestionably superior to comedy, Old Comedy to New Comedy, and Greek comedy to Latin comedy. Apparently, Latin comedies desperately lack in invention and are nothing more than “imitations,” “borrowings,” or “recasts” (a euphemism for “plagiarism”) of their Greek counterparts and as such possess “but little of the true poetic spirit.”32 The three oppositions exemplify the set of Romantic attitudes and prejudices toward later antiquity, especially the Roman one, which, being all too familiar, does not have the appeal of the exotically reconstructed, newly rediscovered and (in Schlegel’s words) freshly “retranslated” imaginary modernity.

We find a very similar attitude in Hegel’s discussion of comedy in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and the Lectures on Aesthetics (1820–1828). Discussing Greek art in the Phenomenology, Hegel takes its philosophically most significant (“spiritual”) department to be comprised of epic, tragedy, and comedy, in which the entirety of Greek art finds its end and completion.33 However, by ancient comedy he understands only the Old Comedy of Aristophanes, who is “the comic author par excellence”34 and after whom apparently there is no one significant left in antiquity worth of our attention, so that all of the later comic tradition is flatly dismissed as philosophically insignificant and politically negligible. At the very end of his Aesthetics, Hegel complains that, standing at the very peak of the development of art, comedy leads to art’s complete disintegration. He never discusses Menander, Plautus, or Terence at length—only in passing. He makes reference to them only as the imitators of the Greeks,35 who are too familiar and too much of the same to us moderns, and thus cannot be inscribed into his system of the inevitable progression from “ancients” to “moderns.” And for Nietzsche as well, tragedy represents the highest dramatic genre of the sublime and excessive, which unfortunately for him is dead, ceding to the cheerful and rational, which is clearly that of comedy.36
Tragedy vs. Comedy

Comedy thus remains largely not understood and “unwritten” by modern philosophers, a topic that they hope to elaborate but never properly do. There is something irritating in comedy that escapes philosophical grasp. The pejorative attitude toward comedy is evident in the Romantics and is clearly expressed by Hegel, for whom “the comic must be restricted to showing that what destroys itself as something inherently null, a false and contradictory appearance, a whim, e.g., an oddity, a particular caprice in comparison with a mighty passion, or even a supposedly tenable principle and firm maxim.”37

The opposition of tragedy to comedy is already stressed by Aristotle, who takes tragedy to be the imitation of the best people, the famous and the glorious—while comedy is the imitation of the worst, the vulgar and the ordinary. Yet in modernity tragedy becomes a dominant and almost an obsessive philosophical theme, because it corresponds to the construction of modern subjectivity. Indeed, the modern subject (Cartesian in its theoretical cognition and Kantian in practical action) is autonomous, lonely, and isolated, and hence inevitably suffers. The subject itself takes this lonely suffering as a sign of its being heroic, noble and sublime. In its self-inflicted solitude, the modern subject always faces its finitude, historicity, and mortality as being toward death, Sein zum Tode. The modern subject is dead serious about itself, insofar as it takes itself to be the origin and the maker of meanings, and is thus locked within itself, incapable of reaching out for the other, who or “that” becomes only a task to be achieved. And this is precisely what tragedy is about: the inevitability of the suffering, evil, and death as the ultimate end of human strivings. The modern subject practices and enjoys its suffering, when it is being torn between its freedom and fate (as in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King”) or between different normative value systems (as in the “Antigone”). As Schopenhauer puts it, tragedy is the way of showing “the guilt of existence itself,” which is apparently the depiction of the human condition, where “characters as they usually are in a moral regard in circumstances that frequently occur, so situated with regard to one another that their position forces them, knowingly and with their eyes open, to do one another the greatest injury.”38 Modern philosophy keeps talking about tragedy, and only very recently, after a long and obstinate critique of subjectivity by the subject itself, the situation has started to change, with a number of significant philosophical works written on comedy, including those of Agnes Heller, Veronique Sternberg, and Anja Gerigk.39

Subjectivity and Autonomy

The question of subjectivity becomes central for the understanding of comedy and its modern misappropriation. It is directly related to the modern explicit or (more often) implicit understanding of the political subject, which, in turn, determines the understanding of politics. As Rancière puts it: “Politics is not the exercise of power. Politics ought to be defined on its own terms, as a mode of acting put into practice by a specific kind of subject and deriving from a particular form of reason. It is the political relationship that allows one to think the possibility of a political subject(ivity) (le sujet politique), not the other way around.”40 Modern subjectivity is primarily defined by its autonomy, which arises in ethics and is extended into politics, where political action and indeed the very political formation appropriate for such a subject—modern state—follows the same pattern of autonomy.

Moral and political autonomy is inevitably tragic, since it is the expression of a lonely, solitary, and isolated subject who wants to be the absolute autocrat of the (moral) kingdom of ends yet realizes its finitude and limitations.41 Finitude, then, is translated into the realization of mortality, although not qua subject (who is atemporal) but qua individual (who results from the autonomy of the subject). But this is precisely the tragic condition, insofar as tragedy is the celebration of finitude and mortality, where moral individuals have to accept the finitude of their existence and the inevitability of harming the other and of death. The contemporary moral autonomous subject is therefore unavoidably and “fatally” (since it is its own fatum) attracted to tragedy, which allows for the narcissistic enjoyment both of the subject’s constructed moral uprightness and of its sublime suffering in the seclusion of solitude.

As tragic, the modern subject is both the author and the director of its own tragic drama, in which it is both the protagonist and the sole actor. As such, the modern subject neither understands nor tolerates comedy with its moral and political implications, which are unapologetically non-autonomous. Comic reason is not autonomous because it always thinks with and against others and reflects life shared with others. Directed by such reason, comic action depends on a plurality of actors, each one being not an imaginary projection of myself (my self) but a real robust rigid other who can disagree with me and stand up and against me, yet on whom one eventually depends. Together, comic actors advance the plot toward the achievement of the resolution of a current conflict. As such, comedy celebrates (1) not death but life, which can be enjoyed, renewed, and reproduced; (2) love, which can be mutually shared and in which the desired becomes possible; and (3) freedom, which is neither a given nor a right, is not guaranteed but should and can be achieved and which comes with the liberation from injustice and oppression.

From this perspective, the modern subject is inevitably tragic and looks down at the comic subject as supposedly un-political and even not public, but rather as familial or private. And yet, the comic subject, unlike the tragic one, is neither isolated nor lonely, nor is it autonomous, which is why comedy allows and presupposes a very different type of moral and political action.

The autonomy of the modern subject appears as both theoretical and practical. The theoretical autonomy of the subject is based on its self-exclusion from, and opposition to, nature. The modern subject does not tolerate the other except for itself, which it wants to consider as its own other, who is never a given but is produced by and from within the subject that insists on its eventual fully rational self-transparency, achieved through itself. As such, the subject is epitomized in the Cartesian cogito, which is the construction of the other (thought) as its own self (thinking). The theoretical subject excludes the world to the extent that thought excludes extension.42 Because there is nothing in between the I/ego and the world, the subject becomes worldless or “global,” which means that the world remains irrational until, as Kant suggests in the Critique of Pure Reason, the subject gets its hold on nature and constructs it as regular and following laws according to the subject’s own precepts of sensibility and understanding. Nothing can cognitively mediate between the subject and the world, which thus becomes its world, spun out of, enlivened, and made meaningful by the subject. The modern subject is equipped primarily with discursive reason or understanding: it wants to think of itself as reason, and thus strongly discriminates against all actions and thoughts that are not either immediately transparent or fit within a rational set of (moral, legal, political) norms of reasoning.

The problem with the modern subject is that in order to act morally it does not need others, even if it might want to have them. This deep unfulfilled desire of the lonely monological subject to reach out for others and even to get rid of itself in favor of some kind of intersubjectivity is a powerful motive and driving force behind the Diskursethik of Apel and Habermas. The utter loneliness and solitude of the modern practical subject transpires in the construction of moral autonomy, which is then translated into political autonomy. It also obliterates imagination and the collective imaginary from action that is not collective, but one that the lonely autonomous subject exercises vis-à-vis itself as its own other.43

Moral autonomy, as the pattern for political autonomous subjectivity, can be described by the following three features that come up in the works of Kant: (1) as the capacity (Vermögen) of practical reason to will and establish moral norms and the moral law itself according to (supersensible) purposes.44 This is the expression of the subject’s legislative authority, insofar as moral law is established freely and autonomously by the subject, in an act of self-legislation by its rational free will. The subject establishes the law that it itself must follow, since such a law is of its own making. According to Korsgaard, “the source of the normativity of moral claims must be found in the agent’s own will, in particular in the fact that the laws of morality are the laws of the agent’s own will and that its claims are ones she is prepared to make on herself. The capacity for self-conscious reflection about our own actions confers on us a kind of authority over ourselves, and it is this authority which gives normativity to moral claims.”45 Furthermore, (2) moral autonomy comes with an incentive or motive to follow what the subject has established, for otherwise the subject would lose self-respect and the respect for what it has produced. In this capacity, the subject exercises the executive authority over itself. And finally, (3) moral autonomy requires an act of judgement that understands the established law as moral, which is then translated into right and just political law, and thus follows self-prescribed norms, in which capacity the subject exercises the judicial authority.

Autonomy is thus the expression of the freedom of will and reason against nature and becomes the ground for the dignity of rational being.46 The proud pure reason is not at all democratic, because there is no dēmos as a plurality of equals. The autonomous modern subject is autocratic47 and self-ruling, being in full self-possession and self-control, where the ruler and the ruled, the police and the policed, the oppressor and the oppressed, the liberator and the liberated, the playwright and the actor, are—or is—one and the same. Autonomous moral reason hence both separates and unites the legislative, the executive, and the judicial moral powers.

Yet, autonomy brings about loneliness, being-without-the other: the other is longed for but is never found, remaining a task to be achieved, which, however, can never be completed. Any action that follows from autonomy treats the community only as an abstraction, as oneself (one self, one’s self) abstracted, multiplied and extended into the many. Since the autonomous subject acts entirely on its own, that is to say, is its own foundation and moral law that it universalizes, the subject persuades itself to be its other, which makes a collective democratic action tragic and meaningless and publicly shared reasoning redundant.

Contrary to the tragic autonomous understanding of the modern moral and political subject, comedy—New Comedy—establishes commonly accepted patterns for public political interaction, for the structuring and transmitting of social practices, for the constitution of a different subject of morality and politics. This is the subject who is not a function of a shared pattern of interaction but is a real person establishing moral and political norms, not autonomously but in concert with real and equal others on the chaotic public stage of democratic political action. Comedy does not recognize the ultimate autonomy of the subject. The comic moral and political subject always comes in the plural—pluralia tantum—and is initially oriented toward others. The comic subject is neither autonomous nor autocratic and does not unite or usurp the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. Instead, it shares them with others. Unlike the tragic subject who is monological and isolated, for whom the other is always a task to achieve, the comic subject is dialogical and is already bound with the other who is inseparable from the comic self in commonly distributed action. Every comic political actor is collectively integrated with others and always has to act with and against others toward the solution of the current (moral or political) problem, which is not guaranteed but is possible through shared action and collective deliberation.
Comic Plot and Comic Rationality

The importance of comedy as both describing and prescribing moral and political norms is determined primarily by its structure. New Comedy is defined not by the presence of joke or laughter, which have their place outside comedy, but rather by its plot.48 Comic plot displays a striking similarity and is structurally analogous to a philosophical argument. Historically, this parallelism is not accidental, since Menander was trained in a well-established philosophical tradition, having attended lectures of Theophrastus and being a friend of Epicurus’ from the time of his youth. Comic plot moves through the initial complication that starts with a wrongdoing and trespassing to a seemingly daunting, unpredictable and irresolvable complication, and achieves the resolution or “good ending” in a number of steps, by means of shared agonistic action and debate. The resolution of conflict at the end of a comedy, which appears irresolvable in the beginning, requires great dramatic and philosophical skill in reasoning and plot construction. Similarly, a sound philosophical argument starts with premises, moves through a number of (often difficult) deductive steps, and arrives at the conclusion. The ways of achieving the desired conclusion may differ widely in comedy, philosophical reasoning, and political action: one can arrive at the same end through many different methods, various plots, and forms of action. Both comic plot and philosophical argument are understandable at every step of their development, yet both are intricate and hence difficult to trace in their entirety, due to their complexity and abundance of subtle yet important details.

Comedy is thus the dramatization of philosophical reasoning on stage carried out by the interaction of a number of—comic and political—actors, and not just one isolated tragic subject. Therefore, comedy is a rational political enterprise meant to promote human well-being that also comes with an account of ways for achieving it through interacting together and in solidarity with others.49 What comedy accomplishes through dramatic action, philosophy does through arguments.50 If democratic political activity presupposes a weighed solution, which is not given but can be achieved through a number of (oftentimes mistaken) steps of publicly staged, participatory dramatic action that aspires at freedom, equality, and the common good, then comedy both prescribes and describes the pattern of such action. In this sense, comedy is philosophical and political, and politics and philosophy are comic. We might even say that comedy is born out of the spirit of philosophically mediated political action and that it bears certain features that are understandable and explicable only through its initial proximity to philosophy and public democratic politics. In opposition to the “goat’s song” or tragedy, comedy is the philosopher’s political song.

Comic Character

Contrary to fate-driven and death-saturated tragedy, which is an expression of the modern autonomous narcissistic subject, comedy advances by the mutually responsive action of all of its participants. However, among all the actors one particular figure becomes (often, unwillingly) the center of action and the mastermind behind the development of the comic political plot, the one who directs the performance, takes responsibility for tying together loose ends, and advances the common action toward its end. In New Comedy, this is the figure of a slave, servant, or maid, of the poor and dispossessed, the wretched of the earth who is in a socially disadvantaged position yet allows everyone, including herself, to achieve liberation from oppression and the freedom of the good life.

Already in the times of New Comedy, and especially in the Roman cosmopolitan and multicultural world, there is an understanding of the contingency of class distinctions. For, as Menander says, people do not differ by birth, and it would be only just that the honest be free, and that the morally base be recognized as slaves.51 In and through comedy, the deprived receive recognition and freedom. Not only are they recognized as equal to others but they become the embodiment of practical reason through which the poor can solve apparently unsolvable political problems, doing so by reasoning translated into action. In comedy, it is the slave, the poor, the oppressed who is the thinker and the main actor. Only the dispossessed can transgress social differences and demonstrate through action that these conditions are only a matter of convention and have nothing to do with the human condition, which is both rational and comic, insofar as it always allows for a good ending of one’s life as achieved in interaction and deliberation with others.

The slave, the poor, the dispossessed is thus the master of the comedy of life—its master dialectician, mastermind, and architect of its plot. And, on the contrary, the master is the slave of comedy, since he is made to follow the dialectical development of the action, which often drags him along. Comedy and public thinking on the stage of public politics are thus capable of restoring social justice. The central comic figure is isomorphic with that of a philosopher in the polis. As a comic figure, the (political) philosopher as a public practical thinker is often an object of ridicule: in the words of Plato, he is “the jest not only of Thracian handmaids but of the general herd, tumbling into wells and every sort of disaster through his inexperience.”52 Yet the comic thinker is capable not only of propelling the action but also of ironically reflecting on himself and on the very limits of reflection, mockingly anticipating the Cartesian thinking of the lonely and tragic ego incapable of comic refinement.53 Both the (comedic) poor and the (political) thinker come under an ironic guise behind which we quickly discover a powerful and sophisticated mind. Both are thus master thinkers: the slave is a practical thinker, the one who leads us through the labyrinth of a plot toward a solution of the problem; and the (political) philosopher guides us through the maze of an argument toward a conclusion.

This comic philosophical figure is best represented by Diogenes the Cynic, who deliberately and ironically appears simplistic, a zanni, fooling around, provoking his fellow citizens of the world and questioning (oppressive) everyday practices and commonly accepted thoughts, and eventually leading out of the impasse of the unresolved problem by pointing toward a solution.54 Many of the same features can be also seen in Aesop (a slave who composes fables that can be taken as abbreviated comic plots and who outsmarts, and thus rules, his master) and Socrates (who speaks to the common people and fools around, ironically asserting his not knowing yet directing his interlocutor slave boy to a solution of a mathematical problem).55 Both the comic poor who is the philosopher on scene and the philosopher who is the comic figure in life selflessly promote the wellbeing of others. Freedom, justice and equality, then, are not given or established by an act of a single autonomous subject but can and must become possible in and through comic common action supported by shared thinking and deliberation with others, in which everyone is involved yet in which the dispossessed—the public thinker on the political stage—helps everyone in reaching the good ending. Comedy and (political) philosophy thus respectively establish plot or argument through a reflective, argumentative procedure that requires an actor as a thinker who advances the resolution of a conflict, the conclusion of an argument, and the solution of a political debate.
Liberty and Freedom

The political significance of comedy is also evident in its promotion of freedom, which is the defining moment of democracy: both as the freedom from domination and the freedom to live as one likes. Following Hannah Arendt’s distinction, one might understand these two aspects of democracy as liberty and freedom.56 Liberty is the liberation from oppression and domination (in democracy, by sharing and distributing power, and by governing with others), and freedom means achieving the life not of a private citizen who lives the life of a political withdrawal or ἀπραγμοσύνη,57 but the life one wants to live while being engaged with the others as equals in a polity. But liberation, freedom, and equality are precisely the condition, the work, and the result of comedy. If human is indeed a πολιτικὸν ζῷον, a political being who realizes her being in a political community and communication (κοινωνία) with others,58 then comedy depicts and analyzes the human condition by dramatic means. This is why comedy matters, since it both describes the democratic practices since antiquity—and prescribes the modes of action that would be liberating, free, and capable of promoting equality.

Unlike tragedy, which asserts the domination of fate and death, comedy allows the dispossessed to liberate themselves from various forms of domination based on social and political inequality and oppression. There is no ultimacy of death in and as the end of comic action but rather the renewability of life and freedom. She who was nothing can become everything, which, again, is not a given or guaranteed but is possible through thinking put in action on the stage of public politics. And second, comedy allows for the freedom of being and acting together with others as equals, which can be achieved through the common action often lead by the comic subversive thinkers. If politics depends on the implicit or explicit understanding of the subject of politics, then comedy offers an entirely different subject for political action: not an isolated autonomous being toward death but a being always interacting—often agonistically—with others toward the gaining of the common end, that of good life: freedom. In this way, the political communication, commonality, and community with others as equals in the political comic action is and needs to be constantly renewed. Equality, then, is not a given either, as the equality of the monological autonomous suffering subject to itself, but follows from the comic action as its end achievable by comic means.

Liberation, freedom, and equality, then, are never secured in advance but are always possible through common action directed by the thinkers on the stage of the political—by the poor and dispossessed—who not only liberate themselves but also help others achieve the shared common good. Comedy, then, is the justification of the oppressed, insofar as it allows for the liberation and freedom not of one or few but of all.

Vulgarity of Comedy

For Aristotle, two major forms of political constitution are oligarchy and democracy, which are opposed in terms of social and economic status of their citizens. While oligarchy is characterized by birth, wealth and education, democracy, on the contrary, is defined by low birth, poverty, and vulgarity.59 This description fits well with the opposition between tragedy and comedy: if tragedy presents the sublime and, as Hölderlin calls it, the “enormous” (das Ungeheure),60 and portrays outstanding people, heroes, aristocracy, and celebrities, then comedy is about the unremarkable and “low,” about ordinary and common people, like us.61 Democracy, then, is the rule of commoners, of the poor and the seemingly unremarkable and vulgar, which all become comedy’s protagonists and the subject of ironic and sympathetic comedic depiction. Very soon after Aristotle, poverty and vulgarity become signs of authenticity and moral distinction among the Cynics, long before they finds their way into monastic moral code and practices. Thus, for Diogenes poverty is an aid and remedy (ἐπικούρημα) that paves the way to philosophy.62 The vulgarity of the comic protagonist is especially important. Βαναυσία means “craftsmanship,” and βάναυσος originally refers to that which belongs to handicraft, and its derivative meaning is “vulgar” or “of bad taste.”63 Yet “vulgar” comes from Latin vulgus, “people,” which is further associated with vulgare, “to announce,” “to make common, accessible to everyone.” Thus, “vulgarity” suggests an equal access to, and use of, public goods among the members of a democratic community, which allows for personal freedom and political equality, achieved not at the expense of others but as a result of equal distribution of power. Vulgarity is the quality of the ordinary and working people who do not get the refined education of the rich and the noble. But βαναυσία is also close to δημιουργία in that both stand for handicraft and craftsmanship. Therefore, the “vulgar” are the demiurges, skilled craftsmen of the people who work for people, the creators of the polity’s well-being and the primary street interlocutors of Socrates. These people are literally the producers and public supporters of the social and political world. They order democracy, similarly to the eternal demiurg being the maker of the eternal order of the cosmos.64

The main comic characters are not only poor but also vulgar: they are literally “of people.” As Minturno notes, comic characters, are “not heroic, not illustrious or great; but low, humble, sometimes mediocre.”65 Yet, being vulgar, they are not banal, because they can think straight and act properly for the common good. Comedy thus depicts common—vulgar—people acting in situations that are resolved by their own deliberate acting together toward the shared wellbeing. Such an action and decision-making at times might be chaotic, but eventually it is straightened by the effort of acting and thinking with others and for others, which is democratic in that it can work toward liberation, freedom, and equality.

Modern Comedy: A Case Study

Finally, in order to illustrate the point that comedy is still well and alive and plays the role of an important descriptive and prescriptive device for human action, I want to turn to Woody Allen. Many of his comedies display the same structure of the plot as in classical New Comedy. Most importantly, many of his characters, often played by himself, are contemporary embodiments of the smart, poor, and vulgar political thinker on stage. In particular, the central figure of the comic thinker is well represented in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (2009) by the former physics professor Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David), a seemingly cynical and begrudged genius, self-described as “not a likeable guy” who lives by himself in a shabby apartment in Greenwich Village, plays chess and is in a musical trio with his friends. Boris finds a homeless girl from Mississippi who admires his wit, whom he eventually marries and who then leaves him for a young man. One after another, her conservatively religious, divorced parents turn up at his doorstep with a seeming inevitability of the tragic fate (illustrated by the opening of the Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) but soon undergo a radical comic transformation. The girl’s mother becomes a photographer and finds herself in a happy ménage à trois, and the father comes out of the closet and falls in love with a man. Boris unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide twice by jumping out of a window, which matches his attempt to break with social norms and escape by the window of emancipative asocial acts that target the conventional, since the social is monolithically closed and does not have a door. As an asocial critic of social norms, Boris is similar to such smart comic thinkers as Socrates (both constantly question themselves and others in the public space), Diogenes (both hate conventions), and Aesop (both are lame). Yet each time Boris miraculously survives, unable to escape from the conventional, which he therefore has to accept while still trying to surpass it. The second time he lands on a woman who happens to be a psychic foreseeing the mishap and then becomes Boris’s next wife. Thus, everyone in the end finds happiness with the person(s) they love. However, it seems that the wellbeing of all is achieved by sheer accident, as Boris himself seems to stress: “whatever works” is his motto, and everything in the world and life is subject to meaningless blind chance, as he keeps repeating throughout the film.

At the same time, Boris understands that he is the only one who understands more than others: “I am the only one who sees the whole picture. That’s what they mean by geniuses.” Seeing “the whole picture” means breaking the fourth wall: Boris keeps addressing the audience directly, whom only he seems to see, while others take him to be delusional and only imagining the spectators, which paradoxically is both right (qua film) and wrong (in the context of the filmic narrative). But even Boris is mistaken that everything is left to chance, because he fails to see that it is he who transforms his own life and the lives of others. In the end, everyone is happy because Boris is not afraid of being the Cynic truth-teller,66 of telling the uncomfortable truth, which others either do not like or do not understand but which, being vexing and irritating, allows everyone to question the conventional (here, identical with the appearance of the morally autonomous) and liberate themselves. The tragic fate is thus not simply substituted by comic chance, but chance itself is complemented by reasoning, which might not always work for Woody Allen but has an undeniable effect on others by showing the (uncomfortable) truth about themselves through the eyes and acts of others, primarily by the “comic thinker” Boris. Despite his own professed skepticism, he is capable of achieving the comic good ending not only in chess (as the checkmate) but also in life, finding freedom, happiness, and wellbeing with others by questioning and rejecting the socially tabooed and the conventional.
Thus, both in its whole make-up and in its major characters, comedy is a dramatic locus for the realization of equality, liberation from oppression, and freedom of thinking and wellbeing in the ongoing interaction with others.


Dmitri Nikulin is Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.


Published on August 14,2016

1. Aristotle, Politics, 1317a40 (author’s translation).

2. Aelius Donatos, Aelii Donati quod fertur commentum Terenti. Accedunt Evgraphi commentum et scholia Bembina, Vol. I-III, rec. Paulus Wessner (Leipzig, 1902–1908, repr. 1962–1963), Vol. I, 22 (author’s translation).

3. Aristotle, Politics, 1317b15 (τὸ μὴ ἄρχεσθαι).

4. Aristotle, Politics, 1317b2-3, 16 (ἐν μέρει ἄρχεσθαι καὶ ἄρχειν).

5. Aristotle, Politics, 1317b3-4 (τὸ δίκαιον τὸ δήμοτικὸν τὸ ἴσον ἔχειν ἐστὶ κατ᾽ ἄριθμον ἀλλὰ μὴ κατ᾽ ἀξίαν).

6. Aristotle, Politics, 1317b17 (κατὰ τὸ ἴσον).

7. Aristotle, Politics, 1317b11-12 (τὸ ζῆν ὡς βούλεταί τις).

8. Aristotle, Politics, 1317b13. Aristotle himself, however, does not share this view, since for him slavery is a natural phenomenon (see Politics, 1253b14), and the best constitution is a mixed one that takes on elements of democracy and oligarchy.

9. Richard Janko, Aristotle on Comedy. Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984). See also: Walter Watson, The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

10. Aristotle, Poetics, 1448a20-1449b9. See also: Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, Moralia, 355E.

11. Archilochus, fr. 41-46 West.

12. See Plato, Theaet. 152e; Gorg. 505e.

13. Anon., Proleg, 3.14-16.

14. Plato, Republic. 606c. See also: Legg. 816e.

15. Aristotle, Poetics, 1448a16-18, 1449a32-34.

16. See: Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum, ed. August Meineke, vol. I-V (Berlin: Reimer, 1857); Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta, ed. Theodorus Kock, vol. I–III (Leipzig: Teubner, 1880, 1884, 1887); Ian C. Storey, Eupolis: Poet of Old Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Emmanuela Bakola, Cratinus and the Art of Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

17. e.g. Thesmoph. 785-845.

18. M.S. Silk, Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9; see also the Tractatus Coislinianus, XVII.

19. cf. Cicero, De re pub., IV.11; Horace, Ars poetica, 281-284.

20. cf. Cicero, De off., 1.42.151. Robert Willoughby Corrigan, “Aristophanic Comedy: The Conscience of a Conservative,” Comedy, Meaning and Form, ed, R. W. Corrigan (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965), 353-362.

21. From more than a hundred of Menander’s comedies, only one is more or less fully preserved, the Dyskolos, and a dozen can be read and reconstructed. Menander, vols. I–III. ed. and trans. W. G. Arnott (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1997-2001); Menander, The Plays and Fragments, trans. Maurice Balme,(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

22. Richard L. Hunter, New Comedy of Greece and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Both Plautus and Terence were highly praised by their contemporaries. No wonder that of Plautus’ approximately 130 plays 21 survive, and of Terence all six plays have been preserved.

23. Plutarch, Comp. Aristoph. et Men.

24. Medea, 539–757

25. e.g., Terence, Ad. 860-861.

26. Aristotle, NE 1128a22-24.

27. cf. Cicero, De off. 3.33.116.

28. Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961); Marvin T. Herrick, Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964, 1950).

29. See: Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965); Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 22, ed. Robert D. Denham (Toronto-Buffalo-London: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Elder Olson, The Theory of Comedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968); Morton Gurewitch, Comedy: The Irrational Vision (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975); Peter Holland, The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); T. G. A. Nelson, Comedy: An Introduction to Comedy in Literature, Drama, and Cinema (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); David Konstan, Greek Comedy and Ideology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Erich Segal, The Death of Comedy (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

30. Thus, Shakespeare’s two characters of The Taming of the Shrew (Grumio and Tranio) come out of Plautus’ Mostellaria; Plautus’ Menaechm and Amphitruo transpire in his The Comedy of Errors; and Harpagon in Molière’s The Miser is a reincarnation of Menander’s Knemon from the Dyskolos, who then reappears in Plautus. Ben Jonson in Every Man Out of His Humour gives a sympathetic and concise account of the development of comedy from its inception in Epicharmus, through Old Comedy, to New Comedy. For a discussion of Schleiermacher’s encounter with Plato and its influence on the hermeneutical tradition, see Marie-Dominique Richard, “Plato and the German Romantic Thinkers: Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 36 (2015), 91-124.

31. For a discussion of Schleiermacher’s encounter with Plato and its influence on the hermeneutical tradition, see Marie-Dominique Richard, “Plato and the German Romantic Thinkers: Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 36 (2015), 91-124.

32. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Sämtliche Werke . ed. Eduard Böcking; Bd. V, Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur, ed. Erster Theil; Bd. VI, Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur, ed. Zweiter Theil (Leipzig: Weidmann’sche Buchhandlung, 1846; repr. Hildesheim-New York: Georg Olms, 1971); Augustus William Schlegel, Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature , trans. John Black, rev. A.J.W. Morrison (New York: AMS Press, 1973, second printing; first printing 1965, repr. from the original edition, London, 1846), 189.

33. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); Phänomenologie des Geistes, Werke , Bd. 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986); Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art , Vol. I–II, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 192; Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, Werke , Bd. 13–15 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986).

34. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1233.

35. G.W.F. Hegel, Werke, Bd. 14, 124; Bd. 15, 569; Bd. 18, 34.

36. Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, Sämtliche Werke; Kritische Studienausgabe, 15 Einzelbänden, hrsg. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin-New York: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag/De Gruyter, 1988), Bd. 1; The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).

37. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 67.

38. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, trans E.F. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), 254. Iris Murdoch praises Schopenhauer for showing that the world and our being in it are tragic “to a point where evil seems inevitable, necessary, even a kind of duty.” See: Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 101.

39. Agnes Heller, Immortal Comedy. The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life (Lanham: Lexington, 2005); Véronique Sternberg, La poétique de la comédie (Paris: Sedes, 1999); Anja Gerigk, Literarische Hochkomik in der Moderne: Theorie und Interpretationen (Tübingen: Francke, 2008).

40. Jacque Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” Theory & Event 5 (2001), Thesis 1.

41. cf. Arendt’s critique of the autonomy of the sovereign, self-sufficient subject: “If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality.” See: Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 234.

42. René Descartes, Disc. IV, AT VI 32; Med. III, AT VII 35; Princ. I 7, I 10, AT VIII 7-8.

43. cf. Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 3-12; Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 23-30. Social imaginary for Taylor is “what enables, through making sense of, the practices of society,” 2.

44. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, XI 239; Metaphysics of Morals, VIII 620. All references are to the volume and page number in the edition: Werkausgabe, Bd. I-XII, hrsg. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977).

45. Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 19-20.

46. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, VII 66, 81; Critique of Practical Reason, VII 144; Metaphysics of Morals, VIII 620; Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, VII 69: “Autonomie ist… der Grund der Würde der menschlichen und jeder vernünftigen Natur.”

47. Immanuel Kant, Über die von der Königl. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin für das Jahr 1791 ausgesetzet Preisfrage: Welches sind die wirklichen Fortschritte, die die Metaphysik seit Leibnizens und Wolf’s Zeiten in Deutschland gemacht hat? See: Werke VI, 632.

48. Dmitri Nikulin, Comedy, Seriously (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 60-65.

49. cf. Carol Gould, Interactive Democracy: The Social Roots of Global Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

50. In comedy, we find not only a structural analogy between plot and argument but also a comic parody of dialectical argument and argumentation, for instance, in Aristophanes’ mocking the Sophists in the Clouds or in Menander’s debate between Daos and Syros portrayed as a dialectical legal argument (Epitr. 305 sqq.).

51. Menander, Samia 140-143.

52. Plato, Theaet., 174a.

53. A brilliant example of such an intentionally over-reflective and playfully self-suspending reflection that allows stirring the action by causing thought to pause and stumble in an attempt to disentangle itself is found in Orlando di Lasso, the great composer and comic thinker, in his musical moresche. Addressing himself in a letter to a prince, he puts himself in a position of a wise fool—a philosopher—by playing with words and thoughts: “How much of a fool, Orlando, you would be if you thought to think of the thought that your master and lord the Prince William thinks. If you thought such a thought, it would be well recompensed to you: but where did my thought of thinking about what I think go? Thinking is not worth the expense, shame to him who thinks evil of it.” (“Con bien fou tu serois Orlando si tu pensois de penser au pensement que ton maistre et seigneur le prince Guillaume pense: si tu pensois telle pensée, elle te seroit bien récompensée: mais où est allée ma pensée de penser à ce que je pense? Le penser ne vaut la dépense, honni soit-il qui mal i pense.”) Letter from Lassus to “the most illustrious and most excellent Prince William of the two Bavarias,” 18 May 1575. Roland de Lassus. “Con bien fou tu serais Orlando”: Lettres de Roland de Lassus, ed. Frank Langlois (Arles: Editions Bernard Coutaz, 1988).

54. See: Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae, ed. Gabriele Giannantoni. Vol. I-IV.(Naples: Bibliopolis, 1990), vol. II, 227-509; Diogenes the Cynic, Sayings and Anecdotes, with other Popular Moralists, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); William Desmond, Cynics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

55. Plato, Meno, 81b-86e.

56. Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1963), 120-121. In Richard Bernstein’s interpretation, “Liberty is always liberation from something… Freedom is a positive political achievement of individuals acting together.” Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11 (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), 74.

57. cf. Aristophanes, Nubes, 1007, where ἀπραγμοσύνη is characteristic of the serene life in the Academy outside of the turbulence of politics.

58. Aristotle, Pol., 1252a1, 1253a2-10; cf. Cicero, Rep., I.25.39.

59. ἀγένεια πενία βαναυσία; Aristotle, Polit., 1317b40-41.

60. Friedrich Hölderlin, Werke und Briefe, 3 vols., eds. Friedrich Beissner and Jochen Schmidt (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1969), vol. 2, 735-736.

61. cf. Aristotle, Poet., 1448a1-9.

62. ap. Stobaeus, 95.11.

63. cf. Plato, Ep. 7, 334b5 (opposed to liberal education, παιδεία); Aristotle, NE 1123a19-20, where βάναυσος is associated with ὑπερβάλλον, “one who oversteps measure” and is opposite to the proper or right, τὸ δέον.

64. In Homer, demiurgs are physicians, diviners, architects, i.e., those who work for people: Od., 17.383, 19.135. In Plato, δημιουργός is a skilled workman or handicraftsman: Ion, 531c; Rep., 529e, cf. 401a; Polit., 298c. But the eternal δημιουργός is the creator, producer of the world (οὐρανοῦ): Plato, Rep., 530a, cf. Tim., 40c-41c. However, δημιουργός does not have the pejorative connotation of βάναυσος, insofar as δημιουργός is also the “producer of virtue” (τῆς ἀρετῆς, Plato, Rep. 500d, cf. Protag., 327c, Symp., 186d, 188d), which is explicitly denied by Aristotle to craftsmen as βάναυσος, who, being poor and “vulgar,” thus cannot be recognized as citizens of the best polity (Aristotle, Polit., 1329a21).

65. Antonio Sebastiano Minturno, “The Art of Poetry (1563),” Theories of Comedy, ed. P. Lauter (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1964), 4–86, 77. See: Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), 91-150.

66. See: Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), 91-150.