Konstantinos Karathanasis (ASCSA), Old Comedy and Civic Education: Aristophanes’ Knights on the Behavioral Effects of Fifth-century Athenian Public Economics
Respondant: Julien Faguer (EFA)
The relationship between politics and Aristophanic comedy has been a matter of debate. On the one hand, Aristophanes’ oeuvre has been ascribed a politically neutral outlook, as scholars argued that references to contemporary politics were a convention of genre. On the other hand, there have been arguments for a partisan outlook, which in turn was analyzed as either a conservative or a liberal one. At the same time, Aristophanic comedy has been read within the context of institutions, where comic theater is seen as a medium of civic education. Focusing on the Knights, I would like to show how Aristophanes’ preoccupation with Athens’s public finance, especially payments for political services, aimed at problematizing his audience with respect to its politically adverse effects. My approach is informed by the latest research in behavioral economics and social psychology, especially regarding the way the implementation of economic incentives in civic settings introduces noxious market-oriented behaviors. In proper social science terminology, incentives appeal to our internal, utility-maximizing homo oeconomicus, and an excessive appeal to that aspect of our behavior has been shown to “crowd out” other motivational factors, like altruism. Since 1990, social scientists have argued that this “crowding-out” phenomenon is corrosive for civic motivation, and in the Knights it appears that Aristophanes is after this very same phenomenon, warning his fellow citizens about an onset of flagrant individualism while calling them back to their ancestral virtues. As a result, it appears that Aristophanic comedy indeed attempted to contribute to the civic education of Athenians, and given that the negative effects of market norms have only been recently studied by social scientists, this kind of approach provides a historical case for the way such norms affected civic behavior across space and time.