Doddering Dotards and Brazen Ingrates: Archê and Finitude in Aristophanes
33 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2012 Last revised: 2 Aug 2012
Date Written: 2012
Intergenerational justice has recently arrived (or resurfaced?) on the political theory scene in a big way. A number of scholars are trying to work out what we owe future generations in a general sense, while others are figuring out exactly what political rights children and not-yet-existing people may have. Yet almost all this work looks at the problem as a question of future generations, moving forward temporally to the generations after us, whether already born or not yet existing. In this paper, I want to engage in some looking backward: what are the demands of intergenerational justice when it comes to previous generations? While work on memory and historical injustice address some of the concerns here, I am specifically interested in still-existing generations, citizens who remain with us, but who are “past their prime” — that is, power has shifted to younger citizens. What does it mean to live in a temporal continuum, ceding power over what we have created to those who come after? How does our mortality figure into democratic freedom? While questions about old age obviously have moral import, there is also a political dimension. These are questions about power, how it circulates in a shared world, and how we can best temper its potentially destructive edges. To begin this exploration, I turn to Aristophanes and his use of the old man figure in Knights. In this work, Aristophanes presents a particular notion of old age, one that highlights its difficulties in a polity that demands youthful vigor. The essay then moves to Aristophanes’ portrayal of intergenerational dynamics in Clouds to probe the nature of these difficulties and what meaning they hold for democracy more generally. Because he so consistently draws upon the elderly figure, and because his work directly engages with the democratic life of Athens, Aristophanes provides readers with a wealth of material for thinking about the relationship between aging, democratic politics, and a robust sense of intergenerational justice.
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