Middlemarch offers a defense of classical liberalism that celebrates the role of marriage and the market in bettering our lives together.
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.