A Philosopher’s Guide to Handling Insults in the Theater

Over the weekend there was a theatrical incident the interpretation of which depended almost entirely on political disposition and other biases. Anyone who knows about theater in the ancient world knows that authors like Aristophanes were effective because they were political. (And often very unsubtle.) When a public figure is a target of the show and is watching the show, his or her reaction becomes the show.


Apparently there was a similar incident over 2000 years ago with the philosopher Cleanthes. It is not a perfect model, since Cleanthes was not about to be a heartbeat away from controlling the most powerful military arsenal in the history of mankind. (And, there are many other important character contrasts.) Yet, the example is interesting….

Thanks to twitter for telling me about this:

(if Mr. Duncan keeps making good suggestions, I am going to make him write for the site)

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

“Once when he was talking with a youth, he asked him if he could perceive something. When the youth nodded that he could, Kleanthes said, “Why, then, don’t I perceive that you perceive it?”

When he was present at the theater and the poet Sôsitheos addressed him, saying “[the men] whom Kleanthes’ foolishness herds away”. Kleanthes sat there in the same position. The audience was delighted at this and they applauded him, driving Sôsitheos out of the theater. He received the poet kindly later when he apologized for the insult, explaining that it would be strange for him to get angry at circumstantial abuse when Dionysus and Herakles never got angry at the poets talking nonsense about them.

It is reported that he used to say that the men of the peripatetic school suffered a fate similar to lyres: they sing sweet sounds, but never hear themselves…”

μειρακίῳ ποτὲ διαλεγόμενος ἐπύθετο εἰ αἰσθάνεται· τοῦ δ’ ἐπινεύσαντος, “διὰ τί οὖν,” εἶπεν, “ἐγὼ οὐκ αἰσθάνομαι ὅτι αἰσθάνῃ;”

Σωσιθέου τοῦ ποιητοῦ ἐν θεάτρῳ εἰπόντος πρὸς αὐτὸν παρόντα

(N2, p. 823),

οὓς ἡ Κλεάνθους μωρία βοηλατεῖ,

ἔμεινεν ἐπὶ ταὐτοῦ σχήματος· ἐφ’ ᾧ ἀγασθέντες οἱ ἀκροαταὶ τὸν μὲν ἐκρότησαν, τὸν δὲ Σωσίθεον ἐξέβαλον. μεταγινώσκοντα δ’ αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τῇ λοιδορίᾳ προσήκατο, εἰπὼν ἄτοπον εἶναι τὸν μὲν Διόνυσον καὶ τὸν ῾Ηρακλέα φλυαρουμένους ὑπὸ τῶν ποιητῶν μὴ ὀργίζεσθαι, αὐτὸν δ’ ἐπὶ τῇ τυχούσῃ βλασφημίᾳ δυσχεραίνειν. ἔλεγε δὲ καὶ τοὺς ἐκ τοῦ περιπάτου ὅμοιόν τι πάσχειν ταῖς λύραις, αἳ καλῶς φθεγξάμεναι αὑτῶν οὐκ ἀκούουσι.

Leave a Reply