What explains the recent, alarmingly broad and rapid capture of cultural, political, and economic institutions by neo-Marxist identity politics and liberation ideologies? Writing in Tablet, Russell Jacoby argues that the end of the rapid expansion of universities in the late Nineties meant that PhDs in subjects such as “critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, [and] radical anthropology” could no longer find employment in the professoriate. Ideas that for years were confined to the halls of academe spilled forth like seeds from a bursting pod and are now bearing noxious fruit in the larger culture.

In the United States, the results of this process (which, after more than two decades, is still ongoing) have been both ridiculous and tragic. It’s laughable that someone celebrated as “history-making” for being “the first openly genderfluid senior government official” steals ladies’ luggage to supplement his wardrobe. It’s disgraceful that high schools are abandoning advanced placement courses in the name of equity. It’s horrific that violent crimes in minority communities have spiked in the wake of the nationwide push to defund police departments and eliminate cash bail for felonies.

Yet in a deep sense, this is old news. None of these developments would have surprised the ancient Athenian playwright Aristophanes, a brilliant cultural critic who, with the ideologically-driven cancellation of classics, is little studied today and even less understood. Law-breaking, cross-dressing men? Check out his Thesmophoriazusae. Levelling to achieve equality? Read his Assemblywomen, where communistic female rulers infantilise male citizens, and young men must first satisfy the oldest and ugliest women before they are allowed to have sex with their girlfriends. Utopian ideologues who cannibalise the populations they are supposed to serve? Welcome to The Birds’ Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Written during the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes’s make-love-not-war comedies enjoyed a broad resurgence in the era of Vietnam, not least because they resonated with the women’s liberation movement. In Lysistrata — named for its heroine, Dissolver of Armies — the wives and mothers of Athens and Sparta conspire to stop the war by going on a sex strike. Sometime in the late Sixties, my mother took me and my brother to a performance of the play by students at the University of Chicago. The male characters were all walking around with broomsticks poking up under their togas. One of the women announced: “If he won’t come by the hand, take him by the handle”, and then proceeded to drag some hapless fellow off the stage in just this manner. I was about ten years old, and the scene made a great impression on me.

Aristophanes anticipated not only the rebellious and carnivalesque ethos of the Sixties, but the nihilistic cultural repudiation of the 2020s, a nihilism in which the romantic fantasies of late modernity seem inevitably to issue. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dostoevsky’s Demons observe this phenomenon by showing how the old Russian liberals of the 1840s, who celebrated “the beautiful and lofty”, spawned the young radicals of the 1860s, who regarded their fathers as decadents and hypocrites and excoriated their ideas as sentimental bourgeois slop. (A related example is the transition, in little over a decade, from Star Trek’s utopian future to the cynicism of gritty sci-fi films like Blade Runner and Outland in the early Eighties.)

Aristophanes’ understanding of the relationship between gauzy utopianism and nihilism is grounded in his deep insight into human nature. He saw that our erotic and aggressive instincts are separated by a hair’s breadth, and that indiscriminate compassion is apt to decay, like some radioactive element, into tyranny. He would have regarded the cult of Charles Manson as a predictable consequence of the psychological and political anarchy of the Sixties. He doubtless appreciated Euripides’s characterisation of Dionysus, the theatrical god of intoxication whom the tragedian portrays in the Bacchae as a psychopath, as “most terrible, and yet most gentle to human beings”.

Where do universities fit into this picture? It is in The Clouds, a send-up of the philosopher Socrates, that Aristophanes prophecies the socially destructive effects of contemporary higher education. The play, which debuted in 423 BC, is the first work I know of that occupies itself with the strange new phenomenon of academic cults, and that explores the perennially fraught relationship between schools of radically counter-cultural thinkers and the larger society.

In The Clouds, a family is destroyed by the twisted education a young man receives at the ancient equivalent of a university. Wanting to wriggle out of debts incurred by his son Pheidippides’s excessive spending on horses, a rustic Athenian named Strepsiades proposes to send him to Socrates’s school, the Thinkery, to learn the art of unjust speech. (The historical Socrates in fact had no school, although the Pythagoreans, a contemporaneous philosophical sect, did establish a cloistered academic community.) Strepsiades has heard only confused rumours about what goes on in the Thinkery, but he is strongly impressed by the ability of the “wise souls” who live there to persuade people of patent absurdities, for example, that “the heaven is a stove… and we are charcoals”. This is Aristophanes’s caricature of the speculations of early Greek physicists.

Pheidippides, a sun-tanned jock who is interested only in racing horses, adamantly refuses his father’s request. He is disgusted by Socrates’s impoverished companions, whom he regards as “boasters, pale, shoeless…[and] miserably unhappy men”. His instinctive reaction is anti-intellectual, perhaps, but nevertheless proves just. And for the many disillusioned students who find that life in graduate school is (to borrow from Hobbes) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, it rings true today.

Deciding to attend the Thinkery himself, Strepsiades is astonished to find Socrates suspended in a raised basket, looking down, as it seems to him, on the gods of the city. Were it not so spot-on, Socrates’s lofty disdain for religious and civic tradition would be a funny take on the meaning of “higher education” today. When Strepsiades swears by the gods to pay his tuition, Socrates explains that “we don’t credit gods” — literally, “the gods are not current coinage for us”. This remark implies that the Thinkery is its own separate community or polis (city), and that, just as every city mints its own coins, so, too, it mints its own gods. The gods of the Thinkery are Vortex, Aether, and Tongue — in other words, language, which is implicitly assumed not to represent reality but to shape it. In his relativism, atheism, and denial of objective truth, Socrates is the original postmodernist.

Yet Socrates insists that Strepsiades undergo a quasi-religious ceremony of initiation into the ways of the Thinkery, and here Aristophanes strikingly foreshadows the cultish character of contemporary intellectual schools and ideological movements. Socrates makes Strepsiades sit on a “sacred couch” and places a crown on his head, in a parody of the secret religious rites known as the Mysteries, which were supposed to ensure happiness in the afterlife. Tellingly, Strepsiades fears that he is about to be sacrificed. Read today, this episode brings to mind the implicitly pagan character of identity politics and related ideologies. These ideologies, all of which offer a secularised version of salvation through the ritual purgation of ethical and political sin, betray their Marxist roots in imagining a future earthly paradise of equality and justice that is in fact predicated on the sacrificial victimisation of some disfavoured group.

In the Thinkery everything is upside-down. Strepsiades encounters shockingly malnourished students who are doubled over, looking under the earth while their anuses study astronomy. Their education is literally preposterous, backside-in-front. Socrates investigates inane matters, like how far fleas can jump in flea-feet, which requires delicately fitting them with little wax booties. The things between the heavens and the underworld, the great celestial spheres and the tiniest insects, hold little interest for him. Socrates lectures Strepsiades on the proper formation of masculine and feminine nouns, but human life and well-being are for the most part studiously ignored in the Thinkery. The exception is a debate in which Unjust Speech vanquishes Just Speech by observing that the Athenians are “buggered” — universally and hopelessly corrupt. With cheerless students, pointless research, and a curriculum that involves exposing pervasive injustice, the Thinkery looks a lot like a 21st-century university.

Expelled because he is forgetful and dull, Strepsiades finally compels Pheidippides, who has no interest in anything but horse-racing, to enter the Thinkery. When he comes home from school, he quickly defeats his father’s creditors in argument. Strepsiades rejoices, yet, like all-too-many parents welcoming their sons and daughters home from university for the holidays, he is soon horrified to discover that Pheidippides has learned to repudiate his entire cultural inheritance. “How pleasant it is,” the young man declares, “to consort with novel and shrewd matters, and to be able to look down on the established laws and customs.” He berates his father’s old-fashioned ideas, beats him, and, to add insult to injury, uses sophistical arguments to make him admit that his behaviour is just. But when he threatens to beat his mother, Strepsiades is driven to burn down the Thinkery.

Like all great comedians, Aristophanes makes us laugh at things that might otherwise make us cry. His surviving corpus of 11 comedies is a distant but revealing mirror of our current ideological insanity, and this is especially true of The Clouds. For almost a millennium, universities served society by preserving, extending, and transmitting hard-won knowledge. They were rewarded for their essential role as cultural custodians and incubators of innovation with generous government support.

Perversely, they began to abandon that role just as the share of college graduates in the population exploded (increasing in the United States from less than 8% to more than 37% between 1960 and 2020). Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, advanced educational attainment has come to mean having suffered what Aristophanes suggests is a kind of intellectual buggery. The proliferation of Thinkeries in higher education would be of less concern were uninformed citizens not still rushing their doors in hopes of gaining admission for their children. As Aristophanes understood, it’s not the people who have entered our universities that are torching our society. It’s the ones who’ve left.

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