On Aristophanes & Catholic Social Teaching

As many of you already know via an old blog post, I have been reading the Penguin Classics translation of Aristophanes: The Birds and Other Plays. Quite a fascinating read, if I do say so myself. I’ve been reading one play per day and upon this day (actually this morning), I read The Assemblywomen. Here is a basic summary/synopsis of what this work is about. “The Assemblywomen considers the war of the sexes, as the women of Athens infiltrate the all-male Assembly in disguise” (Aristophanes: The Birds and Other Plays, Back Cover). In other words, the women of the Athens steal their male-counterparts clothes (cloak, walking shoes, and staffs) and take a variety of other actions to present themselves as men at the all-male Assembly. They then proceed to declare (as men) that they should hand over the ruling of Athens to the women, seeing as they would do a much better job. Their newly proclaimed ruler, Praxagora, decides that the citizens of Athens would be best off if everything became public property (homes, land, food, clothing, material possessions, etc.), and if (oh, how do I put this) sexual intercourse became something shared amongst all, young and old, married and un-married, one and all, going at it with each other left and right. Of course, this would result in children not knowing their their own fathers and so on and so forth.

Now, I am quite positive that anyone who has any sort of good foundation in Catholic Church teaching to find problems with this way of life for obvious moral reasons. I am also quite positive that anyone with an ounce of common sense would find similar issues. (And those of you who have neither of these things, well, let’s just say you have some work to do.) As for me, one particular issue arrived in the forefront. And it probably came to mind first, because of a particular college course I had on Catholic Social Teaching. It is the subject of private property. A particular discussion occurs between Chremes (one of the members of the Assembly) and a Citizen.  It is actually one line which really stuck out to me before the two enter into discussion.

CITIZEN: Hand over my property? You won’t catch me doing that in a hurry. I wouldn’t be such a fool. I’ll have to think the whole thing over very carefully. Why should I hand over what I’ve sweated and slaved for, just because somebody says so? It’s just damned silly.

Six sentences. A whole lot of meaning in those sentences.

Leo XIII specifically writes on the importance of private property in his Encyclical, Rerum Novarum. There are three points that he makes, two of which I think really apply to the above statement in this work of Aristophanes.

1) “If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another” (RN 47).

2) “Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them” (RN 47).

In summary:

“The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether” (RN 47).


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