Who is Praxagora?

Praxagora is the heroine of the ancient comedy Ecclesiazusae, the Greek word for “parliamentarians” in a feminine form. This comedy was written in 392 B.C.E. by Aristophanes, whose combination of riotous stage action and disciplined patter make him perhaps the world’s greatest writer ever of comic drama.

The plot of Ecclesiazusae concerns a revolution. The women of Athens, led by the brilliant and sophisticated Praxagora, take over the parliament and, in short order, vote in a society of communism, equality for women, and free love.

At an astonishingly early moment in history, Aristophanes demonstrates a perspicacious grasp of some sophisticated elements in social dynamics: that sexual mores are intricately tied in with political and economic conditions, that women represent a latent revolutionary force (a theme he used in an earlier and better-known play, Lysistrata), and that the robust exercise of democracy leads to a wider and more just distribution of resources. The name Praxagora comes from the words praxis and agora, and therefore means something like “Taking action in a place of public discourse.”

Although the play tends to be deprecated by literary critics, all observers praise Praxagora—who turns a political body that has become essentially a conveyer belt for buying votes into a powerful force for change—as an immensely attractive character with a charisma forged from a combination of bold, penetrating insight and a powerful ability to articulate reasons for action. Both her wisdom and her oratorical skills commend themselves to a site such as this one that promotes technical expertise, experimentation, and progress.

Furthermore, Aristophanes himself represents an archtype of those unafraid of new ideas and practices. He respected no bounds in criticizing the politics, philosophical conceits, and day-to-day behavior of his society. The classics of the dramatic genre were parodied and put to scurrilous uses in his comedies, and he found surprising uses for even the established conventions of his art. He mocked the gods at religious festivals and excoriated powerful politicians during a time of war. In his play Thesmophoriazusae (whose title refers to a woman’s religious festival), where the women of Athens threaten to kill the playwright Euripides for his misogyny, Aristophanes even produces the first known criticism of political correctness.

Aristophanes’s characters don’t leave things up to fate: they take conditions into their own hands. What’s more important, they don’t look back: While purveyors of vice and hypocrisy are mercilessly castigated in Aristophanes’s plays, those who act boldly and decisively never are. Thus, both Praxagora and her creator represent proud models for the proponents of change two and a half millenia later.

May 23, 2007
Andy Oram