By Alice Frances

November 2020

Democracy? Now and Then

extract from podcast

Madness in Ancient Drama

The ancients knew a thing or two about madness. Shakespeare's Lear was tricked by ruthless flatterers and self-seeking courtiers. MacBeth was ruined by venal ambition

Sophocles's protagonist was a morally upstanding hero, cruelly mocked by the Fates. Despite the prophecies, Oedipus couldn’t see in front of his nose; he wound up killing his father and marrying his mother.

The 'Father of Comedy', Aristophanes, may have regarded the incumbent king (with a small 'k') as a latter-day demagogue, like Cleon.

Cleon was a trenchant critic and accuser of state officials, but he now came forward as the professed champion and leader of the democracy and rapidly came to dominate Athenian politics. Although rough and unpolished, the dramatist was charismatic, with natural eloquence and a powerful voice, and he knew how to work upon the emotions of the Athenian populace.

The Greek aphorism 'know thyself', was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo, wise wise advice that never reached the moaner-in-chief, whose attempt to undermine democracy failed.

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Aristotle's treatise on drama, resonates most of all. In 'Poetics' he discusses the role of catharis in Greek Tragedy.

A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions

Source: Aristotle, Poetics

The founders of democracy excluded women from public life but the ancient Greeks certainly valued strength of character, both male and female, which they saw as essential for long-lasting civilisation.

Greek democracy accorded honours to some of the most brilliant female minds in history. Women like Hypatia a genius mathematician and inventor of the Astrolabe - murdered by fanatical Christians.

Catharsis the purification or purgation of the emotions (especially pity and fear) primarily through art. In criticism, catharsis is a metaphor used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the effects of true tragedy on the spectator. The use is derived from the medical term katharsis (Greek: “purgation” or “purification”). Aristotle states that the purpose of tragedy is to arouse “terror and pity” and thereby effect the catharsis of these emotions.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Seeing the protagonist go through his trials, the spectator feels purged.

Modern catharsis in America


Trumpism was a movement that appeals to supremacists and the KKK who still remain active in the heartlands of America. There is a painful transition to come, but a chance, now that the boils of hatred and division have been lanced, that catharsis can begin.

Hypatia being dragged off to her death


Another great lady in the ancient world was Diotima (5th century B.C.) a priestess from Mantineia, Peloponnese. Her wisdom in art medicine was renowned, and honoured by the ancients.The online publication, Definitely Greece states:

Under her instructions the Athenians postponed the coming of the plague for a decade. In modern times the name Diotima means the quest for philosophical, scientific and social answers and symbolizes the equality of men and women, as she is the only woman referred to in the male-dominated Symposium of Plato.

2020, and women's voices are unheard in the global conversation on COVID. Then again, no surprise there, since our modern hero disses women, bigly , and those 'suburban housewives' carefully spotlighted during the recent US election campaign definitely weren't impressed, as the election results showed. However, we the spectators of the tragic twitter-drama know that true democracy CAN endure, despite the failure to include us in the decision-making process on important issues. This will change, is changing.