Of Aristophanes’ eleven extant plays, Plutus—a utopian fantasy of prosperity and wealth—is perhaps his least highly-regarded. Arriving on stage at the Athenian theater toward the end of his illustrious career, Plutus is best known, if known at all, as being the only Aristophanic work in which no trace of the styling of the “Old Comedy” is to be found. That style of comedy, of which, as though a fourth-century chef d’école, Aristophanes was the supreme and unquestioned master and, for which, at least in the minds of a millennium of academics and imitators, he’s still remembered today, was distinctive for its use of the chorus.
The Greek chorus, with its omission or inclusion, was the single, defining component by which the comedies of the Old and New type are to be differentiated. In the Old Comedy, the genre by which Aristophanes originally made his bones and out of which his immortal reputation grew, the chorus was not only present, but, depending on the performance and the height of the author’s ire, rather personal and confrontational as well. It was a chorus by whom, with a frenetic chant of the playwright’s sharp-tongued parabasis, the audience member—thinking himself comfortably distant from the stage’s action and, thus, immune to its assaults—would be directly admonished, scolded, and addressed. It’s unclear if ever the conversation, much less the injury, was freely and mutually communicated between the two, but one must assume that, when the dust cleared from so acerbic a contest of the tongues, the playwright more often than not enjoyed the final advantage and say.
The absence of the chorus and the exclusion of the parabasis aren’t, in themselves, fully responsible for the low reputation with which Plutus has been treated. As most plays do, it has its other faults, including a lack of the blatant ribaldry, the cringe-inducing scatology, the clever turns of phrase, the convoluted plot twists, and the fantastic theatricality to which a fan of Aristophanes gaily becomes accustomed. But there is a point in the play, located approximately midway through, on which a glimmer of the brilliance of the conversation—if not the entirety of the action (of which, admittedly, when compared with the other Aristophanic productions by which our comedic tastes have been shaped, there’s quite little) hinges. The point is marked by the arrival—much to the horror and intense revulsion of the protagonist, Chremylus and his doting partner, Blepsidemus—of the personified deity of Poverty.
To the Greeks, by another name, she was known as the goddess, Penia—a most horrible and unwelcome deity for whose demise or absence most everyone prayed. Perhaps with the exception of the Spartans, an admittedly peculiar people to whom austerity and privation were considered not unhappy circumstances from which to escape, but—quite to the contrary—teachable trials to be endured, all of the Greek world joined in reviling her. This was the opinion of almost everyone—be they the luxury-loving Sybarites or the overly-refined Athenians. As an aside, for those endowed with a keen etymological sense, perhaps with a Grecian disposition to the language out of whose ancient elements our own modern tongue, like some ineffable atomic reaction, was combined and formed, the name Penia will look somewhat familiar; it prefixes the word “penurious” and “penury”—rather learned terms meaning, what else, “poor”.
Though, indisputably, a lesser goddess among a mighty Pantheon of twelve, Poverty was not a deity of whom any careful and pious man, anxious not only for his own economic preservation, but for that of his family as well, ought to have been scornful. If, in the present, it was his wish to continue in the state of comfort and sufficiency to which he’d become adjusted or, in the future, to ensure the prosperity and gain of which he felt himself so irreproachably deserving, Poverty was not the goddess that he might choose to disrespect.
Though little-known and disregarded by us, she was not the goddess of whom the Greek man should’ve been neglectful. Unfailingly, she’d be the one by whom he’d be financially and, thus, most painfully punished. Both the mendicant beggar and the wealthy capitalist, so seldom aligned in action or in thought, took heed of her power and paid her their donations of time and respect. The former saw her as a goddess (though probably, more a menace) from whom he continually sought deliverance; the latter conceived of her as a deity, known but yet unseen, of whose continued absence he was desirous above all other profits and gains.
Exhibiting, seemingly with neither hesitation nor shame, the meanness of her station and the squalidness of her look, Poverty arrives, in an accusatory state of rage, before Chremylus and Blepsidemus to confront the two men by whom she’s been so callously forgotten. What follows is the most provocative and intelligent part of the otherwise mundane comedy—one by whose clever dialogue and rare philosophical profundity the reader is stopped in her tracks. It’s at this moment she’s made deeply to think and fully to consider the consequences of the position of which the goddess Poverty, and the goddess Poverty alone, is so forceful an advocate.
In recognizing Chremylus and Blepsidemus’ brazen attempt to restore to the blind Plutus (god of wealth) his ability of sight, Poverty commands them to stop. “Such an attempt”, says she, “is not to be borne!”. Neither god nor man, she explains in a huff, has ever shown so much impertinence and so much profane derring-do as to try so incredible and subversive a maneuver. None has been so bold as to dare what might be called, in imitation of that most humane of Titans, an out and out Promethean grab—not for fire, as was the case for him whose punishment was the daily vivisection at the beak of a bird, but for the riches of which she’s so disparaging and of which they’re so indefatigably desirous.
Initially, the men—overtaken by the ghastliness of her pallor and the ugly raiment in which she’s clad—fail to recognize just who Poverty is. This failure of familiarity, however, should be no source of embarrassment for the peremptory, irascible, and surprisingly egotistical goddess of empty pockets and want; the two fail also to recognize Plutus when he appears before them attired in the unprepossessing habit of a beggar. Quickly, though, she removes them from their state of inquiry and fear by telling them that she is none other than Poverty, a goddess who has “lived with you for so many years”. This duration of time, of course, relates not to the length of a single human life (be it that of Chremylus, or Blepsidemus, or anyone else enlisted in the dramatis personae) but of the life of humankind itself, of the long existence of the entire species of which we number ourselves a continuing part, as it’s persisted so many centuries here on Earth.
On this point, the goddess, however unattractively appareled, is absolutely correct; poverty is the original and, excepting the gains to which the world’s community of nations has been treated in the past half-century or so, the abiding condition of life. Hitherto, poverty was all that we as a species had known—and its opposite wasn’t even so much as an image, distant on the horizon of our developing minds, of which we could dream. Contrast this, if you will, with the reality by which we’re surfeited today. A humble acquisition of money, let alone an enviable accumulation of exorbitant wealth, is much more than an ideal, but rather an actualization to which, within the short time-span of a few decades, most citizens of the world can now aspire. Though, of course, it won’t be in all cases an equally lofty position at which we’ll similarly all arrive, it’s one that can be, at the very least, conceived and pursued. This, I have no reluctance in stating, is the happy consequence for which that profitable trinity of capitalism, technological increase, and republican governance can, and indeed should be thanked.
Wealth, represented by Plutus, is a condition to which we’ve become blithely accustomed, and, if we’re to be historically honest, only recently so. It’s a state of being, an ease of living, whose felicity, gentleness, and relative newness we’ve quite taken for granted in recent years. Poverty pounces on this fact and makes of it, not a specious contention through which, without the impeding bulk of any substance, we can transparently see, but a deeply insightful point. Desperate to salvage her falling position as an eminent god and to elevate her importance in the eyes not only of the now-seeing Plutus, but, more importantly, in those of man as well, Poverty makes the argument that her presence, far from being injurious to man’s state, actually produces for it a salutary effect.
When told that she’ll be driven out of Greece and then, if all goes according to plan, from every city and avenue of the world, Poverty responds by asking whether or not, deliberately, you could do mankind a “greater harm” than to rid the world of her? She’s absolutely incredulous at the prospect of being banished from the country, though not, we’re led to believe, for purely selfish motivations; she fears for the health not of her own person, but of the species for whom, in her singular opinion, she’s been so indispensable a benefactor.
That’s right: a benefactor. It’sPoverty’s argument that, contrary to the reasonableness of all opinion, she’s rather been an aid than a pest to the life of man.
In a strained effort to sway the opinions of Chremylus and Blepsidemus and, having achieved that task, eventually to recruit them to her side, Poverty says that “I am the sole cause of all your blessings, and that your safety depends on me alone”. Naturally, Chremylus and Blepsidemus—who are, mind you, partisans, if not yet possessors of wealth—are suspicious of the claim. Yet Poverty, never impoverished of wit nor destitute of thought, is undeterred. She expounds upon her position, to whose legitimacy and persuasiveness her interlocutors continue to be blind. “Let Plutus recover his sight and divide his favors out equally to all”, says she, “and none will ply either trade or art any longer; all toil would be done away with”. One’s reminded, at this point, of the potential peril and the vitiating effect of something like a universal basic income (a concept with which, as we’ve seen of late, some of our leading politicians are absolutely smitten). Who, she asks—after painting this idyllic, languid, and hypothetical state—would “wish to hammer iron, build ships, or break up the soil of the earth with the plough and garner the gifts of Demeter” if he could, instead, live in an atmosphere of idleness and lassitude—in a boring, emasculating state free from the noble exigencies of work?
Such a Utopia, she argues and we must agree, would be demoralizing for man. To this, and to this fact alone, we offer no rebuttal as Poverty rests her solemn case. Poverty, in Poverty’s opinion, is a needed impetus to work, a requisite incitement to do that for which man was made—namely, to labor by the sweat of his brow (as did our first father upon his descent into sin). Without that inducement, without that pinch of hunger by which the inventor is harried or that pain of need from which the creator finds no escape, nothing great, certainly nothing noble, would ever be achieved. “To the artisan”, she proclaims, “I am like a severe mistress, who forces him by need and poverty to seek the means of earning his livelihood”. For this claim, there is an ounce, perhaps even a pound, of validity: was not Charles Dickens, greatest of all English novelists, brought to the heights of literary achievement on the wings of financial distress? Was not also Herman Melville, leviathan of American prose, also compelled to greatness by his initial, impecunious state? Neither, I think, would’ve ascended to the heights from whose snow-capped summits they now look down upon us had it not been for their meager finances and their monetary states by which, from the outset of their lives, they were severely disadvantaged.
Indeed, aside from being a ubiquitous inducement to work, poverty has its other salubrious effects. Because of her presence, “the poor man lives thriftily and attentive to his work”. He’s neither undisciplined in conduct, profligate in expenditure, nor wasteful of his one and only life. He is simple, frugal, grateful, content, and strong. “He has not got too much, but he does not lack what he really needs”. The essentials without which man can’t live—among which we might name family, faith, occupation, and health—are those of which he’s in the most secure state of possession when unfettered by the burdens of his wealth. Men, when guided by the unerring hand of poverty, are “worth more, both in mind and in body” than when massaged in the sybaritic lap of Plutus. With him, “they are gouty, big-bellied, heavy of limb, and scandalously stout”. They are gluttonous fiends and intemperate brutes, quite undeserving of the virile, rippled, muscular title of man. With Poverty, on the other hand, “they are thin, wasp-waisted, and terrible to the foe”. They are nimble, undeterred, and atavistic in the most commendable of ways.
It’s here that, as readers formerly resolute in the defense of our treasure and the luxuriance of our wealth, we’re made to stop and think. We’re made to re-consider, in what must be for all of us a moment of unusual and discomforting thought, our ancient greed, our newfangled disinclination to work, our love of money, and the avarice by which we’re animated every day. There simply is no way of denying it: Poverty’s argument—at first ridiculously and then compellingly expressed—is one given to us with unexpected force. Its persuasiveness has, I think, caught us on our heels and unprepared. Indeed, it’s one against whose strength we must stand and over which we must deliberate—with a cautious and penetrating mind. And though it’s dismissed, quite without reflection, by both Chremylus and Blepsidemus (who appear, like ossified ideologues, to be completely unmoved), it’s one with which we, an audience of whose decadence and luxury Aristophanes might’ve had only the faintest conception, must contend.
To whom, then, will we pledge our allegiance, fan our incense, and offer our libations when the moment to choose has come: will we go to the altar of Poverty or to that of Plutus, to the proselytes of destitution or to those of wealth? Can we not, I wonder, combine the virtuous qualities by which the two are known? Might we not enjoy the effervescent capital of the latter, springing us to the summits of innovation and the compounding interests of growth, while also being motivated and sustained by the risk of falling into the capacious depths of the former? Might we not be temperate in our desires, humble in our affect, and dismissive of the self-aggrandizement by which our species, and our species alone, is identified, while also seeking the type of financial gain and laboriously-earned remuneration of which, objectively, we can all be proud? I think, in ancient Athens as in modern America, there is in fact room for both: the philosophy of Poverty and the reality of wealth. Though perhaps it wasn’t the intention of Aristophanes, at the end of his literary career, to promote the causes of both, we can, in our own minds and in our own ways, profit from his final conception.