To what height would you not ascend, over what impediment would you not leap, to what distance would you not travel, if only to acquire—by the consequence of your own ingenious exertion and the heat of your own strain—the sweet and restful assurance of perpetual peace? This rather unfamiliar state of which I speak (a state of which, I’ll readily admit, we fistic moderns have but only the faintest conception) is, irrespective of the enticing novelty by which it fascinates the poet and tempts the pacifist, the most desirable of human achievements. It’s also the one, throughout the course of our long history, without which we’ve lived.
In numbering those human achievements, a resume of whose length we’re so rightly proud and to whose crammed and illegible margins we’re continually hoping to add, we exhaust ourselves in the endeavor from the start. No person, hardly a generation, has the capacity of intellect, the endurance of spirit, nor the endowment of time to compile so daunting and celebratory a list. It would have to be a list, plenary in its construction and untarnished by an omission of even the smallest kind, on whose every line those achievements by which our species has distinguished itself might be read, extolled, and felt.
That said, no other achievement, outside that of peace, should be placed in a superior position. It is, if nothing else, the greatest and happiest end toward which all of our endless diplomacy aims. It’s the apotheosis, so gently suspended above our heads, toward which all of our secular, humanistic prayers aspire. It is the goal, at once blissful and hopefully bloodless, of whose sweet celebration all of our political maneuverings hope to partake. As a single and undifferentiated species, a bipedal race between whose constituent members only the minutest and most peculiar of genetic variations exist, mutual affinity and sentiments of peace should be the legs—at once stable, pliant, balanced, and strong—upon which we collectively stand (and, without which, we irreparably fall).
It’s from these legs, now crouched and waiting the subtle conversion of potential to kinetic energy, of planned endeavor to executed decree, we leap in hopes of reaching greater heights. Such was the aim of Trygaeus, humorist, protagonist, and—above all—committed pacifist in Aristophanes’ brilliant play entitled, simply, Peace. “‘Tis”, said Trygaeus at the play’s outset, “for the weal of all the Greeks I am attempting a daring and novel feat”. Novel, yes; comical, indubitably so. That which he was attempting to do—that for which, certainly, there was no precedence in the literary memory of man—was to overcome the gravitational pull by which he was bound to Earth, traverse the heavens above to whose Cimmerian depth there was no imaginable end, and, in so doing, arrive at the doorstep of the gods.
Only this time, distrustful of more graceful modes of transportation and uninterested in the loftiness of their use, Trygaeus opted to fly to Mt. Olympus on the back of an insect. More specifically, and, for that reason, more repugnantly (I do apologize in advance), he chose to travel on the back of a massive dung beetle. Pegasus, though fleeter of wing and more agile of hoof, wasn’t, it seems, sufficiently malodorous or economical for this heavenly midnight ride—for this breathless pursuit of peace in the house of god. The hilarity, not to mention the olfactory and gustatory offense, of the giant, horse-sized dung beetle (to whom, for nourishment, the rider’s own excrement would be fed!) is an arresting image of which the dignified, professedly urbane mind simply can’t be cleansed. It is, in every way, filth appropriate for the low brow taste of a philistine or the hoi polloi, yet—that said—we pompous and sterile readers cringe not at being made a little dirty as we roll about in the Aristophanic mud.
This gargantuan dung beetle, a newly-created monster of mythology upon whose back and by whose winged-locomotion our protagonist hoped to reach the god of all gods, Zeus, did his job with laudable determination and celerity of wing. A moratorium, for the gut-churning allotment of three whole days, was placed on the defecation of the citizens below. This was done so that the beetle could focus on his task; the wafting and rising of the fetid stench of which those Athenians below were wont to relieve themselves would not, if Trygaeus could help it, interrupt his upward course. Though dismayed by their inability readily to dispense themselves of their bowels, the Athenians agreed to restrain themselves for the greater good and for Trygaeus’ ascent.
Thus, Trygaeus’ journey was destined to continue as the Athenians adjusted their diets and their stench. But, upon our hero’s arrival at Mt. Olympus, the lord of the gods and the master of the skies to whom he planned to offer his supplications was not there. Along with those lesser deities over whom, for better or for worse, that thunder-wielding Zeus had so long presided, the Pantheon packed up its belongings and moved itself out. They simply had had enough of their old abode and its intolerable proximity to the ungrateful and moribund tendencies of man. Hermes, god of commerce and boundaries, travelling and trickery, winged of foot and staff-wielding of hand, was the only one of those twelve gods by whose presence this previously overwhelmingly divine mountain was to be identified.
Never hesitant to engage a traveler in pleasant conversation and, perhaps, lend to him his ethereal empathy of which he might be availed, Hermes spoke with the new arrival at some length. He revealed to Trygaeus that, because of the Greeks’ inveterate hostility toward one another and the intractability of their commitment to war, the gods had given up on them. Just like that! They’d thrown up their heavenly hands and looked down in absolute disgust upon the fighting Greeks and their internecine ways. Exhausted by their mortal squabbles, tired of their incorrigible cruelties, and quite done with their insatiable bloodlust for which there was no satisfaction, the gods left both Athenians and Peloponnesians alike to the oversight of the deified personas of “War” and his unfriendly slave called “Tumult”. These two baleful deities, so far as Zeus and the other more benevolent gods were concerned, were the only ones of which the Greeks could now be considered deserving.
Together, this ungentle duo of Tumult and War buried in the ground the goddess for whose intervention Trygaeus was so desperate—the goddess named Peace.
Covered in rubble and smothered in stone, Peace was imprisoned in so thorough a way, that her liberation—and, by extension, the pacification of Greece—appeared to be nothing short of an impossible task. In a desperate attempt to free Peace from the pit in which she was so dreadfully lodged, Trygaeus recruited all of Greece’s sons to his aid. His choice of associates by whom he wished to be helped was surprisingly indiscriminate, so long as they would be willing and able to carry a spade. His Panhellenic team of excavators, by whose concerted efforts Peace might be exhumed, comprised all the people between whom, just hours earlier, nothing but enmity was seen or felt. It was a delightful assortment, a formerly internecine hodge-podge of every Grecian type: feigning Boeotians, tactless Thracians, terse Laconians, laughing Argives, hungering Megarians, and, of course, clever Athenians—at once philosophizing and satirizing in the comfort of their intellectual repose. Some, ignorant or uncaring of the efforts of the men by whom they were flanked, were pulling dirt in one way, while others pushed it in another. It seemed, at least for an exasperatingly long while, that for each step taken forward, two were retraced. Progress was very minimally achieved, and Peace was no closer to their possession.
You see, it was, at first, a laughably unharmonious effort—certainly, at the very least, a discordant venture wholly inauspicious of success. It appeared, by evidence of their inability to synchronize their toils and work as a phalanx of one, that Peace would remain forever buried in her inaccessible depths, to which—much to the frustration of all involved—there seemed to be no bottom. So long as each fellow Greek maintained his prior position of disdain for his neighbor, and showed no intention to bury, not amity, but his blood-drenched sword, no good, certainly no Peace, would ever come about as a result of his labors.
Finally, however, at long last, the radiance of Peace’s light was seen. Contact with her was made. A glimmer of hope returned as the Grecian sun vaulted and shone forth once again. Peace was the acquisition of these tireless labors, and War and Tumult were never again to be seen in the world that Aristophanes drew.
The Greeks, now witnessing with a tentative glimpse the fruits of their joined labors, were able to coordinate their efforts and streamline their resolve. They did so under the rugged and simple direction of the farmers, by whose indefatigable devotion the goddess Peace was ultimately won. The husbandmen, regardless of the province or territory whence they came, were the men to whom this work was definitively most conducive. These were the workers, the backbone of a fundamentally pastoral Greece—a country by whose production of the olive and its sister grape international fame was acquired—upon whom the state would always rely. Those born and reared in the country, unlike those to whom the dank and squalid city was called home, were able to spring forth Peace—and, thus, were able to save their state and to restore to the path of civility that greatest of civilizations.
Thus, thanks in large part to these vigorous and burly farmers, but really, to every son of Greece, Peace was restored. A goddess for whose kindness a simple acknowledgement of gratitude and thanks, rather than a blood-soaked ovine sacrifice, was deemed most appropriate, she was elevated once again to her rightful and towering place atop the world—a pedestal from which she’d only recently fallen. Mind you, that fall—so injurious and consequential to the lives of these men and the women and children (doubtless not the politicians) for whom they fought—was the cause of so much discord and strife, of so much animosity and death. No longer would this be the case, as she once again stood supreme.
That said, not everyone joined in celebrating her restoration, as one might hope. Those in the employ of the military-industrial complex, then as now, took the opportunity to mourn Peace’s accession and the waxing popularity of her spirit. They pined for the days, those by whose hours battles were counted and by whose seconds salvos were measured, when their services were deemed the most profitable to the state. Those merchants of wartime armaments, those entrepreneurs by whose blunt or trenchant instruments armies were alternately defended or destroyed, complained of the profits of which, thanks to Peace’s recent liberation, they’d so suddenly been dispossessed. A most unpitiable class of profiteers, we, the audience, lend to them no sympathy, and extend to them no grace.
Certainly, Aristophanes cares for them not; his words are an encouragement toward the same callousness by which he himself was animated—when he considered, with unmasked contempt, these profiteers and the post-bellum woes by which they were afflicted. Peace, one re-established, precludes any notion that they might again be, in the calm of this tranquil and beautiful moment, the chief operators of the state.
Alas, the moment—as if compelled by the force of its very definition—was as transitory as it was tranquil. Aristophanes wrote this play, a play at whose conclusion the ideal of Peace was to reign in the ascendant forevermore, in the year 421 BC. Any devout student of history, especially one to whom the adjective “fluent” isn’t too leniently applied, will remember with fondness this date as being the start of the Peace of Nicias—a seven-year breathing spell of which the country was in so grave a need. After what had already been a decade of the Peloponnesian War, this tremulous cease-fire (negotiated, from the Athenian side, by the man after whom the peace is named—the ill-fated statesman, Nicias), sought to restore a sense of harmony to that very nation by whom the West was born.
It’s not hard to imagine, then, the weightless exuberance for the present, nor the hopeful anticipation for the future, that a pacifist like Aristophanes would enjoy—a man to whose gentle sensitivities a war-monger like Alcibiades and a pugilistic demagogue like Cleon were totally repulsive. Perhaps with insufficient foresight, or overconfidence in the intentions of his own state, Aristophanes ardently believed, not only in the restoration, but in the continuation of his beloved Peace. He believed, as he hoped his auditors might, in the feasibility of its preservation. (As an aside, his first play, The Acharnians, is also a work exhorting Greece to lay down its arms and embrace the sweet caress of peace. Less overtly hopeful than this work, Peace, in which Trygaeus is the hero, The Acharnians was written four years prior to the efforts of Nicias but is thematically the same—just as Lysistrata would be a decade later).
But, in the end, the political will power by which the Grecian peace was sustained simply wasn’t there. The war continued and Nicias was killed. Alcibiades, Socrates’ formerly beloved youth, was now a war-enthused statesman to whom philosophy held little appeal. He subverted his country in favor of those Spartans against whom it fought. Sicily, a distant conquest by which the Greeks were tantalized, was maladroitly sieged and inevitably lost.
Domestic matters fared no better: crops were razed, farmsteads were deserted, and the Athenian people were brought finally to heel. But in an hour at the Theatre of Dionysius, in the first, albeit fugacious year of the peace of 421, War and Tumult were just as quickly acknowledged and discarded. Trygaeus soared on the back of a dung beetle through whose fetid wings the breath of heaven did flow. A cohort of Greeks gathered, not for hostile activities of war, but for a singular and concerted effort toward peace. As such, Peace was resorted and, in the absence of the other angry gods, she ruled supreme. But she ruled not in perpetuity, and we seek her revival still.