Aristophanes: The Birds.

Click for source of picture.
Click for source of picture.

It’s difficult to care–I haven’t any desire to write this because I just don’t care for the play at all–but that should be beside the point, shouldn’t it? I mean, because it’s a classic I’m not meant to enjoy it, right? I’m just meant to absorb it so I can include myself in the collective unconscious of the cultured, right? Right? Can’t I find something at all that attracts me, that holds me? Yes–there’s this one thing: the concept transliterated as polupragmosune. Arrowsmith, in the introduction to his translation, calls it the “spectacular restless energy” amongst the Greeks peculiar to Athenians, going on to say that “on the positive side, it connotes energy, enterprise, daring, ingenuity, originality, and curiosity; negatively it means restless instability, discontent with one’s lot, persistent and pointless busyness, meddling interference, and mischievous love of novelty.” The Birds traces the unavoidable nature of this quality as Pisthetairos seeks simplicity away from Athens, which results in his combination of Athens and Olympus, and his own apotheosis. And it’s this polupragmosune that worries me about my own nature–I don’t believe it’s the nature of all Americans, but I think it’s the nature projected upon the rest of the world. We find ourselves sympathizing with Athens rather than Sparta, when reading Plato and Plutarch has convinced me to reconsider democracy, and I worry about what a president of the EU could mean, what a United States of Europe could do to destroy history and culture, if it means another great superpower, if it means war. So is polupragmosune something like the artist’s lot? Or is it a political and social plague? Is it something I should be proud to possess, or does it clothe me in the most highly criticized qualities of Americans? This leads to one last question, then: can one possess these qualities to a less offensive extent than is dramatized by Aristophanes? Arrowsmith recognizes that these qualities were “born of life and aggressive hunger for larger life” in conjunction with Aristophanes’ illustration that the restlessness always results in one’s loss of happiness, one’s loss of dignity, peace, and honor. Victor Ehrenberg notes that polupragmosune has an opposite, but there is nothing in the middle, that only when one acts in extremes can “a conclusion be drawn as to his own nature.” And I am reminded of the epidemic of tedious melodrama we come across daily, the stories and obsessions, the hurt feelings and revenge tactics used to waste time, to convince ourselves that our own lives are worthwhile and fascinating, to convince ourselves that we are doing something in the meantime. Is this polupragmosune manifested in a modern democracy, where we all feel the need to build monuments at any cost?

“Polypragmosyne: A Study in Greek Politics, by Victor Ehrenberg”

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