Whenever I hear that someone is quitting his job to join a think tank, I am reminded of a play by Aristophanes, written more than 2,000 years ago, where exactly this happens.
I know little about think tanks. I know that they are not like regular tanks, except in the sense that you do not want to wake up and find one rampaging through your house. They are more like scientists: Every so often, they emerge with a paper, a lot of folks go on television to yell about it and afterward people try to stop you from eating beets.
So I turned to the wisdom of the ancients.
The parallels between Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds” and the tale of Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator who has announced his departure from the Senate to join the Heritage Foundation, are striking. And uncanny.
In Aristophanes’ version, Strepsiades, an honest country man who is undeniably hardworking if prone to noisy complaint, is fed up with his spendthrift son, Phidippides. Phidippides’ spending is clearly excessive. He takes Strepsiades’ hard-earned money and wastes it on frivolous projects like chariots and horses. Strepsiades has had enough. That is not, he feels, the way that the household should be run. Creditors are clamoring at the door, demanding payment. He cannot raise revenue. Things look grim.
So he joins a think tank.
Strepsiades shows up outside the “phrontisterion” (think tank, basically, although you can translate it as Thinkery if the spirit moves you), run by no less a man than a parody of Socrates himself. Strepsiades knocks so loudly that he causes a thought to miscarry.
The think tank in “Clouds” engages in no such weighty projects as the Mandate for Leadership. The thinkers spend most of their time treading the air and contemplating the sun. Sometimes they ponder which end of a gnat makes the buzzing sound. Once Socrates has a Very Serious Thought but gets interrupted by a lizard relieving itself on him. I am not making any of this up.
But they are convinced that it is all Very Important. They sit indoors pondering heavily and grow pallid and useless. Their primary virtue is their ability to teach you bad arguments that you can use to avoid your obligations.
Strepsiades shows up and demands that they teach him the kind of arguing that will let him wriggle out of his debts.
An elaborate drama ensues, with a lot of bad arguments flung around. Strepsiades gets out of his debts, but in the course of all the specious argument his son takes some of it to heart and begins beating his father. Eventually Strepsiades lights the place on fire.
Aristophanes was fundamentally conservative, in the Abraham Lincoln sense of preferring the old and tried to the new and untried. He mistrusted the new sophistic philosophy. His characterization of Socrates’ Think Tank certainly didn’t help the philosopher’s case when it came time for the Athenians to put him on trial. Then again, the playwright’s low opinion of philosophers and their thinkeries full of slick arguments was exceeded only by his low opinion of politicians, and I’m not sure what he would have made of a politician quitting one for the other. It might have seemed like leaving the fire to jump into the frying pan.
Strepsiades knows about think tanks only that they are powerful and apparently convincing. He is not there to question their arguments or float new lines of thinking. He is there to use their tools to gain an advantage.
Suffice to say, the adventure ends badly for the think tank.
The parallels between the present and the past fade as initial premise melts into plot. Sen. DeMint is no Strepsiades, fortunately for everyone involved. He is known for boosting the ranks of conservatives, not beating creditors over the head with large wooden objects. And think tanks these days contemplate practical policy, not the rear ends of gnats. Some would say this is not an improvement. At least no one is setting fire to anything, unless some of these metaphors about fire-breathing get very out of hand. But the images linger.