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The Failure of Utopia in Aristophanes’ Assembly of Women
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
The Failure of Utopia in Aristophanes’
Assembly of Women

Catherine Rodriguez

Women took over Athens in Aristophanes’ Assembly of Women to set up a society that would make everyone happy and solve all social problems. The result was a disaster. The reason why is relevant today because it tells us important things about human nature and the limits of the government and any set of laws produce a perfect society.

The society created in the play is communal. Its principles include the sharing of all land, worldly goods, wealth, and sexual access to all men and women. A major problem with the plan, however, as Aristophanes shows, is that humans have a wide variety of needs while the utopia of this play only addresses the physical needs of the people. As a result the society fails.

Aristophanes, in Assembly of Women, makes three criticisms of the utopia. First, he says the concept of communism is flawed because it does not consider the individuality of people. People are individuals, each with his or her own ideas, lifestyle, and taste. To share equally in everything destroys this individuality. People require incentives and goals to work towards. When everything is shared equally, there is no desire to work because you will get your share whether you participate or not. Secondly, the concept that everyone will share everything is based on some people giving up everything while others receive everything. Humans are generous to a point, but when the generosity is totally one-way, problems develop. A person would never give up all his life’s work for society without getting something better in return. Thirdly, the concept that people can be sexually shared by legal requirement is flawed because people are not property. The sexual sharing of men and women is intrinsically immoral. In real life the overwhelming majority of people want, sexual relations that are intimate, private, mutually agreeable acts shared by two people with some feeling for each other. Sexual relations are not typically random acts taken with little or no concern for anyone involved. Forced sex is rape; this should never be present in a utopian society. The proposed communal sharing of children, in Assembly of Women is also flawed because children are the products of two individuals’ love for each other. To have children raised by society instead of parents is to destroy the family unit. With no one personally responsible for raising the children many problems develop.

To fully understand this play, however, some background is needed. Aristophanes is well known for comedies that use preposterous ideas to reflect his views on how the government is being mismanaged.

This play reflects the problems in the Athens of Aristophanes. The desire to create a utopia is prevalent because of the problems the Athenian people faced since the Peloponnesian War ended. The changes that occurred in Athens during this time period were great: the Peloponnesian War lost, the city under terror, democracy in serious trouble, and the wealth of the city gone. To watch the city you love being destroyed is heartbreaking. These crises contribute to the subject and style of writing we find in Assembly of Women.

At the time the play is produced, the Athenian people have taken control of their city again, but there are many problems. The apathy and poverty of the people is evident when “Agyrrhios [institutes] payment for attendance at Athens’ popular assembly, the ecclesia” (Parker 1). The payment of a living wage to participate in what should be a civic obligation marks what Aristophanes considers the end of democracy. As Spatz writes, “Agyrrhios [is] clearly [purchasing] the votes of the citizens who depend on [the] fee for their livelihood . . . The salary [increases] the gulf between the rich, who can remain unbought and the compromised poor” (136). The desire to change from a democracy to a communist approach is evident when Parker writes, “Why not loot some current utopian thinking and produce, full blown, a totalitarian communistic welfare state?” (1).

Assembly of Women is criticized by many as being written by “an ebullient spirit grown weary” (Hadas 108). However, as Moses Hadas adds, the play really reflects the changes that have occurred in Athens (108). Indeed, Assembly of Women is cited as being written between 393-391 B. C. and is classified as a middle comedy work. David Barrett writes, “it is clear that in an impoverished city the lavishly costumed and expensively trained choruses of earlier days [have] ceased to be a practical proposition” (219).

In Assembly of Women the power is taken away from the current government officials and is given to the people least likely to have any power, the women. The play includes many of the same ideas as in previous works by Aristophanes. Spatz recognizes that “comedies pit the rich against the poor [and] the powerful against the oppressed. In the comic world the underdog realizes his wildest fantasies, often by establishing a utopian society where he can satisfy his desires with impunity” (17). “[T]he gentle tone, with the resulting universality of character . . . makes one feel [that Assembly of Women] could take place almost anywhere, not just in fifth century Athens” (140).

This technique of using everyday problems is why Aristophanes is still popular in the twentieth century. But technique is not the only reason why Aristophanes speaks to us today, especially in Assembly of Women. For although it will probably come as a surprise to most people the concept of a communist society did not originate with Karl Marx, but with the Classical Greece of Aristophanes. Communism was present in Aristophanes lifetime (Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia 213). The ideals of a communistic society are outlined in Plato’s Republic. This play, however, appears at least five years after Assembly of Women is written; however most critics believe the ideas from the book were discussed for years before its actual printing (Barrett 217-218). The change is great from a democratic society where everyone has some say in what happens to a communistic society where everything is shared equally but decisions are made by a select few. Athens is having great difficulty getting the citizens to agree on what is best for the government. Each individual is only concerned with what is best for him. The play’s female protagonist Praxagora discusses the problems of the current government:

The concerns of this land are the same for me as they are for you and I grieve and endure the gravity of all the affairs of the city. For I see the city forever using statesmen who are worthless. And if someone is worthy for a single day, he is worthless for ten. . . . You fear those who want to love you, and always supplicate those who do not. . . . You were annoyed with the Corinthians, and they with you; now they are useful, you make yourselves useful too. . . . You, people, are cause of this. For receiving your wages from the public fund, each of you individually seeks to gain something (56-58).

To change this way of thinking is the goal of the utopian society described in Assembly of Women; however as we will see, the proposed new society fails.

The utopian society fails because communism is a fatally erroneous concept. For one, it does not consider the individuality of people. For example, Praxagora’s idea for the new society is to “make one way of life common to all” (Aristophanes 80). This idea is flawed because what one person may considers heaven, a second person may consider hell. When there is only one way of life, people become bored and unhappy. This concept eliminates the individuality of the person. To have everyone share the same life is to make everyone think the same, work the same, play the same, and even eat the same.

As Suzanne Said writes, Praxagora’s communism is “a community regime that would be a remedy for the individualism which threatens the civil spirit and the very existence of the city” (301). This may be the aim of the communist approach, but a society where individualism is ignored fails. A society must take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the people in order to succeed. Working together, one person complementing another, is what makes a great society. In this new society all the farming of the land will be done by slaves. The women will run the government as well as continue with their previous obligations of taking care of the household. This policy ignores the men, giving them no responsibilities and nothing to do but enjoy life (Strauss 271). Spatz also recognizes this commenting “Praxagora persuades her listeners by appealing not to the needs of their souls, but to the needs of their bodies for idleness, luxury, and sex, sex, sex” (132). Although this may sound like heaven to the men at first, eventually they will grow tired of doing nothing. The new society addresses the physical needs of men, but the psychological needs are forgotten.

The ability to think, dream, and set goals is what makes a person want to improve his life. People need incentives and goals to work towards. Taking this away leaves the person stagnant. A society that is based on communist utopia considers itself to have reached the end of history and so never changes or progresses. Ancient Greece is the basis for current western civilizations. Philosophy developed and flourished in this country. By showing only physical needs addressed Aristophanes is attempting to tell the Athenian people how silly communism really is. For while thinking may not be particularly important in Praxagora’s governmental scheme, as Mayhew notes Aristophanes wants “his audience (or parts of it, anyway) to think” (16).

Many might argue of course that a communistic approach to government is good. Having everything in common, they contend, means there are no rich or poor, no jealousy, and no hunger. This may be true in a small setting where the citizens have common beliefs and common goals, but on a large scale it fails. Everywhere in the twentieth century where communism has come to power, it has failed—China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba and the Eastern European countries where the Soviet Union imposed communist governments. The lack of incentives and goals for the people were part of the reason for the failure of communism. When you get the same share whether you work hard or not, the desire to do a good job is gone. The lack of freedom to speak out against the government added to the problems. The Soviets did tap the strengths of the greatest minds and talents in the country; but they ignored the average citizens never developing their talents to the highest potential. These issues all played a role in the downfall of communism. The concept of communism clearly fails when the needs of the individual are ignored.

Secondly, the concept that everyone will share everything is based on some people giving up everything while others receive everything. For example, Praxagora’s proposal for the new society states:

That it is necessary for everyone to share and have everything in common and to live the same, and not for one to be rich while another is miserable, nor one to farm much land while to another there isn’t enough to bury himself, nor to possess many slaves while another doesn’t even possess an attendant. . . [making] the land common to all and the silver and anything else that is held individually. Then, from these common things [the women] will maintain you, dispensing and saving and attending you (80-81).

This indicates that everyone will have an equal share of everything. The women are basing their idea of sharing on the family structure they are familiar with (Spatz 134). The sharing of all the property and wealth of the individual with the family works because the family is considered one. There is a bond of loyalty, love, and respect that exists between the members of the family. However, even in a family the sharing is not totally equal; some get more, some less. The bond that exists between a city and its people is based on loyalty and love for the city and its ideals and not for every individual member of it. A person will go to war to defend the ideals of his city, but he will not help every individual who lives there who has problems.

It is also important to remember that loyalty and love of the city do not stop an individual from disagreeing with the way the government is run. The utopia of Praxagora assumes that all legislation will be infallible. Even more serious a flaw, however, is that the utopia also assumes everyone will obey the laws and those who do not can be easily controlled.

This problem is apparent in the scene between Chremes and the man. When Chremes hears about the new society he immediately prepares to turn all his goods over to the government. As Spatz writes, Chremes “will obey authority automatically, without reflection. The success of the new system depends on men with such strong loyalty and trust” (138). Now before we condemn Chremes as a fool, we must consider that Chremes “believes that it is a citizen’s duty to carry out the policies on which the assembly [decides]” (Webster 12). This loyalty is a must for any government to survive. The people must support the laws. The character in the play referred to as The Man, however, is not as loyal. He is suspicious of the government. His experiences with previous laws makes him move cautiously. He states, “I know these men vote quickly, but what they resolve to do they disavow in turn” (Aristophanes 96). The man’s reaction is the more realistic reaction to this new law. How many people will blindly turn over what they have worked to get? There must be some guarantee that the new society will improve the lifestyles of the people before they turn over their goods. There also needs to be some control over who gets what. Are all the people worthy of getting the common share?

Aristophanes indicates no when he writes that the women will “provide everything, ungrudgingly, to everyone” (89). To provide ungrudgingly indicates that Aristophanes believes that some people do not deserve the common share of things. The community meal, the first benefit of the new society, is announced while Chremes and The Man are speaking. The Man departs “hinting that he [knows] a way of circumventing the rules. He is determined to enjoy the public banquet without surrendering his property” (Barrett 218). This scene also “dramatizes the selfish and assertive side of human nature . . . [the man] abuses his opponents, rejects restraints, holds on to what is his, and like most of us tries to get something for nothing” (Spatz 138). Chremes is giving up all his possessions, while the man is retaining all of his; yet both are enjoying the common dinner.

Aristophanes does not suggest how this problem will be handled in the new society. This deception, at the beginning of the new society without any plan of how to handle it, suggests that the society will fail. One may argue that helping the poor is a worthy cause and that taking from the rich to give to the poor is necessary to maintain a society. Our current welfare system is an example of this theory. The system is meant to help the poor till they are able to help themselves. The system is paid for by tax dollars. However, there is fraud within the welfare system and it causes resentment of the system among the employed class.

Indeed, an even greater vindication of Aristophanes’ rejection of Communism in Assembly of Women is the recent national legislation to place limits on welfare benefits. The system was originally planned to be a temporary supplement for people; however, it has become a way of life for many. The government never developed a plan to get people off welfare. This lack of insight is the cause of the problems we are experiencing today. The same is true for the new society in Assembly of Women. The point here is that the concept of sharing everything among everyone brings out the selfishness of humans. The desire to get something for nothing will cause the society to fail.

Thirdly, the concept that people can be shared in sexual situations is flawed because people are not property. The sexual sharing of men and women is morally wrong. In Ancient Greece the women held the position of handmaiden to the men. This new proposal will make both men and women property. They will be obligated to obey the law regarding sex without consideration for the emotional aspect of the sexual experience. The idea of common sharing of men and women will bring some freedom to the women. They will now be able to have sex with men other than their husbands. However, the young women will be forced to have sex with the old and ugly men before they are allowed to have sex with the young and beautiful. This system rewards only the old and ugly.

The reward for the older women is obvious in the scene between the three hags and the young man. The three hags are free to seduce and be sexually pleased by the young man. However, the young man is the loser, for the “seduction . . . ends in a gang rape” (Spatz 139). Aristophanes utilizes a male as the victim of rape as part of the comedy in the play. It reflects one of the serious problems with the sexual sharing of people. To portray this scene in reverse, three old men attacking a young girl, would drastically change the comic tone of the play; instead of comedy we would have a tragedy. But the point still stands; no one should be forced to have sex with anyone. Once you mandate sex, you eliminate the emotional as well as some of the physical joys of sex. According to Said the proposal “turns a source of pleasure into a source of misery” (313). There is no justification for this proposal. A utopia must never regulate the feeling of the people. Sex must remain an intimate, private, mutually agreeable act shared by two people with some feeling for each other. To do otherwise reduces the people to property. In this play, the young and beautiful become the property of the old and ugly.

The proposal for sharing of people includes the children of Athens. All people will live in a common household. The family unit is dissolved. There will be no fathers or mothers; all the children will consider all the older people their parents. One of the problems with this is stated by Strauss, “since in the new order children and parents . . . are compelled by law to cohabit . . . incest between parents and children becomes undetectable and lawful” (271). This is morally wrong and would never exist in a utopia. The proposal of having children raised by the society does not consider the differences among children. All children are not pretty or well behaved. Who will be responsible for the undesirable children? What about the sickly or physically deformed? A child should be the product of the love between two people not the result of forced sex between the old and young. The new society eliminates the love between a man and a woman. There is no consideration of people’s feelings. The only important thing is that everything be equal. The love that a parent has for his or her child is also eliminated. Part of that love is the responsibility to discipline the child as needed so that the child grows, develops, and remains safe. Without discipline, a child will attempt things that will cause harm. The child will never learn proper behavior. However, discipline without love is cruelty. Cruelty would never exist in a utopia. Children are the future of all societies. To leave the upbringing and care of the children up in the air, with no one taking responsibility for them is to assure that the Society will fail.

Works Cited

  • Aristophanes. Assembly of Women. Trans. Robert Mayhew. New York: Prometheus Books, 1997.
  • “Aristophanes” Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol 2. London: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 1970. 23 vols. 388-390.
  • Arrowsmith, William., et al. Introduction. Four plays by Aristophanes. New York: Meridian Book, 1994.
  • “Communism.” Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia. Ed. William Bridgwater. New York: Viking Press, 1953. 213.
  • “Democracy.” Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia. Ed. William Bridgwater. New York: Viking Press, 1953. 257.
  • Hadas, Moses. A History of Greek Literature. New York: Columbia Press. 1950.
  • Mayhew, Robert. Introduction. Assembly of Women. by Aristophanes. New York: Prometheus Books. 1997.
  • Oates Whitney, J., and Eugene O’Neil Jr., ed. Introduction. A Complete Greek Drama. Vol. 2. New York: Random House, 1938. 2 vols.
  • Parker, Douglass. Introduction. Aristophanes Four Comedies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1962.
  • Rogers, Benjamin Britchey, Introduction. Aristophanes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1924.
  • Said, Suzanne. “The Assembly Women: Women, Economy, and Politics.” Oxford Reading in Aristophanes. Ed. Erich Segal. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1996. 282-313.
  • Sommerstein, Alan, H., and David Barrett. Introduction. Aristophanes. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
  • Spatz, Lois. Aristophanes, Kansas City: Twayne Publisher. 1978.
  • Strauss, Leo. Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1980.
  • Webster, T. B. L., Studies in Later Greek Comedy. New York: Manchester University Press. 1970.

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