Peter Jones

Aristophanes would have had a field day with Greta Thunberg

Getty Images

Last week Athenian free speech was contrasted with a demand from some dons at Buckingham University to ban a ‘heterodox’ Social Science Centre questioning woke ‘culture’. The Centre should stage an Aristophanic comedy on the subject.

In the 5th century bc Athens was a hotbed of controversial ideas being taught, for money, by people called ‘sophists’ (lit. ‘experts, teachers’) about the gods, the nature of the universe, how to win political arguments and so on. Socrates was different: an ugly man with crab-like bulging eyes, bare-footed, badly dressed, never washed, with no interest in money, who spent his time in the marketplace, claiming to know nothing and mixing with anyone wishing to debate, he made fools of the pretentious and argued that nothing was more important than being good – but how then would one define ‘goodness’?

Aristophanes decided to make him the centre of a comedy about the sophists (Clouds, 423 bc ), turning Socrates into someone he was not: the revered head of a fee-paying ‘Thinkery’ which, parodying the sophists, taught all sorts of lunacy, but most of all Wrong Arguments, enabling anyone to win any legal case. The Clouds, ‘masters of twaddle’ and source of all Socrates’s ‘genius’, are the chorus. The comic hero is the old man Strepsiades who signs up with Socrates to escape the debts his son has incurred from horse-racing. He learns the tricks of the trade, but by the end of the play he has come to see the whole thing is one gigantic fraud and burns the Thinkery down.

So who should be the Socrates of the heterodox Centre’s version of Clouds, celebrating self-righteous woke orthodoxy? It must be someone famed for it. How about Greta Thunberg? Her surname refers to a fenced area on a mountain. Perfect! The curtain rises: there, high on a heavily protected peak, she sits, head in the clouds. The Centre’s comic hero invokes her. She replies (as in the Greek) ‘Why calls’t thou me, o creature of a day?’…