Lysistrata Among the Hippies

This is the age of Aristophanes, the greatest ancient comic poet, and the only great poet who dedicated his entire career to thinking about democracy. Nor was this just Athenian partisanship, since his works have been preserved through the ages, we assume, because many different people in different cultures realized what a grasp he had on human nature. And since we all are depressingly aware that we ran out of comedy some time ago and we only have depressed or hysterical scolds now, it might be good to return to the most daring and shameless Athenian writer. We can call his work a safe space from outrage culture, cancel culture, political correctness, and privilege checking!

But the wisdom of Aristophanes is especially necessary to a free, democratic people. Example: Recently, Alissa Milano, a very liberal actress on Twitter said that American women should organize a sex strike to stop men from waging war on women—of course this sounds hysterical, since she only means to protest abortion bans. We all know that her 3.6 million followers are not going to start anything of the kind, nor will anyone else—this is just a fantasy—but it is a fantasy that reveals important things about politics and human nature.

The sex strike that ended the Peloponnesian War is the theme of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, one of a number of comedies that center on women and their contribution to politics for a free people—that is, Athens. In the middle of the worst war in Athenian history—which Athens was getting dangerously close to losing, the wives of the soldiers, led by Lysistrata, band together to deny their husbands sex until they make peace.

This inverts the old hippy dictum “make love, not war.” But Lysistrata, whose name means “breaker up of the army,” is not a foolish hippie: She knows her only weapon is the withdrawal of marital love that can stop warriors from violence. This is the first distinction between our liberals and the wisdom of the comic poet. The power of eros, of our desire for completion that is most obvious in sexual desire and giving birth to children, is something incredibly powerful and can change politics—as untethering sex from marriage and family has done in America.

The conflict in the play of Aristophanes is between the oldest men in Athens—the politicians who are too old for lust (this was before Viagra) and the young women, the least political Athenians, who just want their husbands back. The husbands themselves, the Athenian army, don’t have much to decide, since politics is run by old men and private life is run by women. The victory of the young women over the old men, of eros over political anger and the desire for violence or cruelty, is a victory of freedom.

This, of course, could lead to catastrophe. The hippie impulse if we followed it all the way to their desired end of complete liberation, would destroy a country inside of a generation. It would mean disarmament first and, secondly, extraordinary efforts to eliminate pain and suffering—no more hard work or long-term efforts that might not pay off for a generation or more. Giving in to this notion of making love to stop war would reduce citizens to  slaves—at first slaves to their erotic desires, but then slaves to anyone violent enough to enslave them. Lysistrata understands the seriousness of sex and the falsehood of emancipation.

Because of Lysistrata’s wisdom this catastrophe doesn’t happen in Athens, according to Aristophanes. If you accept for the sake of comedy this impossibility—a generalized sex strike, including the entire political community—you could have peace. Why? Because in Athens, all the young women are married. They depend on their husbands in some ways—politics and property, since Athenian women had none of the freedoms to live by their own productivity, as modern women do—but then the husbands are also utterly dependent on their women, since it is impossible for them to live alone and they do not know how to run their households. Athenian women, as modern women once did, control the morality of Athens, the beliefs by which we actually live, whether we shout them out loud or only feel them in our hearts.

This mutual dependence simply doesn’t exist in the West anymore—this is the second distinction between then and now. The liberal ideologists that “liberated” us from staying with hard marriages wrought divorce on a scale so massive that it completely destroyed the authority of women in private life. So although modern women have freedoms Athenian women would have found hard to imagine, Athenian women nonetheless had powers modern women simply cannot fathom.

Next, the consequences of divorce since the sexual revolution are obvious now and have birthed new consequences. When young people in their twenties increasingly don’t even bother to get married in the first place, it is impossible for wives to organize a sex strike. Without marriage as a norm, there is no way for women to tell men what to do and therefore there is no way for society to get them to do what’s needed for the common good. We are now learning the generational consequences of divorce the hard way: vast numbers of men might resign themselves to loneliness.

Finally, to understand the full delusion of liberals who think they could use the power of withholding sex against men—look up studies on young Americans up to their early 30s. They are the most free and least burdened by responsibility; they are the most passionate, least experienced; the most rash, least prudent part of America. Yet, studies show they aren’t having much sex anymore. Up to a third of young Americans report not having had sex in about a year. Many don’t report anger or even being ashamed about this. It’s just how we live now, loneliness as far as the eye can see.

The sex strike, despite deluded liberals who talk about women’s issues, has already started. Its character must be a political revolution just as surely as in the comedy of Aristophanes. But it is not under the control of liberals or abortion enthusiasts—our sex strike has slipped the bounds of political control entirely. Which reminds me: Americans don’t have enough children to replace themselves anymore. For the first time in American history, people are willingly, it seems, refusing to make more of themselves—or even as many as themselves. The belief that it’s good to be American leads us to make more of ourselves. It is the fear that it’s not worth being American that leads to this unprecedented lack of sex, marriage, and children.

Men and women are becoming indistinguishable in certain ways, but also helpless to preserve the truth about themselves. The help they might have had in previous generations was each other. Men need women, but don’t quite know it. Now, women, like men, don’t realize this either.

The advantage of comedy is that it supposes an impossibility—Lysistrata‘s generalized sex strike—in order to talk about a real, urgent, political problem that scares people. If we had writers as wise and daring as Aristophanes, someone would be telling us what’s going on with us, too, such that we could deal with it. Until that happens, we have to at least learn from the comedies we have.

None of our elites are in a position to make demands on the American people or bully them—instead, we should fear whether most of us really believe there’s a future ahead that’ll be any good. The people who think abortion is the future are the only ones we can be sure who really don’t even want a future, at least not for the rest of us. So we need wiser, less suicidal elites who aren’t playing around with eros while we’re in the middle of a historic crisis.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 30, 2019 at 16:15:25 pm

What actually ended the Peloponnesian War was the Spartan naval victory at Aegospotami in 406 BC. With the Athenian fleet destroyed ,trade was impossible and Athens could do nothing but make peace.

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George Leef
on May 30, 2019 at 16:16:33 pm

A very wise essay.

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Max Hocutt
on May 30, 2019 at 19:01:47 pm

how did divorce deprive women of power at home, when 70% - 80% of all divorces are initiated by women?!

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Garth Dangler
on May 30, 2019 at 20:57:34 pm

The comedy is a 46-year old, over-the-hill actress, urging a sex strike for any cause--as if she's been granted wisdom of ages to pass along sage advice on topics of her choosing--rather than as a grasping narcissist attention whoring on social media 24/7.

The prog-left continues to evidence a complete lack of the self-awareness gene...

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on May 31, 2019 at 06:24:27 am

The irony of the sex strike is that it shows that sex is the only thing that women have to bargain with. It's not like they could go on a work strike and seriously interrupt the production of electricity, food, transportation or anything else that would be immediately noticed by the general population. Sex is the only card that they have to play, and that will only effect the tiny number of people that the strikers are presumably having sex with now. If the whole point of the strike is to show that women are merely sex objects, then they did a great job.

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John P McMahon
on May 31, 2019 at 06:33:08 am

Modern feminism demands women express themselves angrily, Have a Voice. As if they didn't before. My grandmothers would have been surprised to f8nd the sex was the only power they had.

I have to complain that women always worked outside the home. The worked in the shops and taverns and fields and the homes of the others. It was only the fortunate women who stayed at home. Those whose husbands could afford to keep them and children there. The most fortunate didn't even have to do all of the housework, think Penelope, because men and also, importantly, women worked for them.

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Kate Pitrone
on May 31, 2019 at 08:17:26 am

"Many don’t report anger or even being ashamed about this."

Are they supposed to be angry or ashamed?

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on June 01, 2019 at 09:21:09 am

"Without marriage as a norm, there is no way for women to tell men what to do " -- On the contrary, women tell men what to do by way of taxes. It is disproportionately women who vote for government with high taxes and high level of services. Then, IRS enforces what women want men to do.

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Ted Shepherd
on June 02, 2019 at 20:48:46 pm

This essay is indicative of the author's ignorance of fifth-century Athenian history and culture as well as his inability to understand 21st century American culture. This is why I have mt undergraduate students stay within the text and not demonstrate their ignorance on other subjects,

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Bruce F. Holle
on June 12, 2019 at 16:26:24 pm

Well-to-do people are actually increasing their output of children. Everyone else is being priced out of the related labor, marriage, and childrearing markets. Declines in population are really nothing to be concerned about--the populations of most countries were much smaller a century ago. We don't have enough jobs for the people already extant as offshoring, outsourcing, othersourcing (digital technology, mechanization, robotization) continue apace.

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Stephen Cavendish

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.