In 399BC Socrates was indicted for godlessness. He was “considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted inquiry and his refusal to give assent to any dogma” (Hitchens:256). Socrates became a figure of ridicule in Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Athens in the 5th Century BC was a vast hub of intellectual commotion. Aristophanes himself was cynical about these new ideas permeating Greek society at the time and believed that “the old were right” and The Clouds is his exposure of the dangers that this “’new learning’ stands for and what it leads to” (Sommerstein:107). In many people’s minds, the then forty-five year old Socrates represented new directions of thought, supposedly promoting ideas of atheism, science, rhetoric and the search for a new morality code. But Socrates was not predominantly interested in heralding a new code of behaviour but to provide the “foundations for the old one to stand on” (108). In the fifth century BCE impiety was a serious crime.
Arguments for and against the existence of gods and a feasible morality code permeate throughout The Clouds, though no clear conclusions on those matters are reached. The play ends with the burning down of the ‘Thinkery’ (a school of scepticism and philosophical discussion); “How mad I was! I let Socrates persuade me to deny the gods!” (172), Strepsiades cries out to a statue of Hermes – the son of Zeus. After seeking forgiveness from the statue he asks it for some good advice. Aristophanes’ stage directions state; “pretending to see the statue indicating dissent” (172) to which Strepsiades replies, “I’ll go right off and burn the blighter’s school” (172). Is Aristophanes ridiculing belief in the gods, as in this scene there isn’t even the pretence of genuine communication with Hermes? Strepsiades hears what he wants to hear from the statue and acts accordingly. Of this scene in The Clouds Hitchens notes, “It is an attack on the right to free thought, free speech and free inquiry” as well as to “assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and enquiring one” (258). This unexpected and horrific burning of the ‘Thinkery’ is a defiant and significant act of destruction that is prescient in the wake of over two millennia of religious zealotry justifying wanton destruction, murder and the suppression of knowledge.
It is not inconceivable that Karl’s attitude and subsequent behaviour could, in part, be attributed to the knowledge he has received from books outside the religious canon. In fact, surprisingly many of the other robbers also appear to be very aware of what’s happening in the broader community. In Act 1 Scene 2 robber Roller quips “its all the rage nowadays” to write an “anthology or almanac” or “reviews for a shilling or two”. Schulterle jokes they could turn “evangelical and hold weekly classes in spiritual improvement”. Grimm suggests they could alternatively “turn atheist, blaspheme against the four Gospels, have our book burnt by the hangman and we should do a roaring trade” The intellectual landscape at the time was brimming with activity perhaps so much so that as Grimm concludes “They are holding an auction in my head: evangelist, quack, doctor, reviewer and rogue. I’m to be had for the best offer” (Act 1: Sc 2). The search for knowledge has always been the antithesis of Christian piety.
The Abrahamic holy books illustrate that original sin “all stemmed from the decision of one woman, Eve” when she erroneously ate fruit from the tree of knowledge (Onfray:110). This ‘mistake’ has meant all her future ancestors be tarnished with the scourge of original sin and was used as ample justification for the subjugation of women. It has also led to an irrational fear that somehow women are “simultaneously defiled and unclean” and yet ironically “a temptation to sin that is impossible to resist” (Hitchens:55). This in turn has led to “the hysterical cult of virginity and of the virgin” (55). Karl’s love interest Amalia easily fits into this category of the vestal, submissive, ideal pious woman. Despite displaying some feistiness to Franz at times, she is nevertheless an uninspiring character who appears to spend most of her time melancholy and pining for her man. Perhaps her devout, chaste and somewhat tedious existence contributes to her hysteria at the end of the play, upon realising she will never receive the love from Karl she has painfully has craved for so long. Arguably Schiller displays, in part, a woman forcibly deprived of her natural emotional and physical needs, of which social mores based on religious doctrine played a significant role. So strong is this drive, she is even prepared to forsake her god for Karl, the “Murderer! Devil! Angel…” (Act 5:Sc 2). Ultimately though, she would rather die than live in such existential agony; “(Clasping his knees)” she cries “…I cannot bear it. You can see a woman cannot bear it. Death is my only wish” (Act 5: Sc 2). It is a wish that is fulfilled a minute later when Karl stabs her in order to appease his robbers and hopefully bring some sort of balance to his world. Amalia’s death is but one of millions we can attribute to the legacy of the mythical Eve’s natural curiosity for knowledge.
The fear of knowledge was at the forefront when the ancient world made the transition from paganism to monotheism. “Christians were convinced academic learning hindered access to God” (Onfray:150). Both Muslims and Christian’s waged a campaign of deicide and wanton destruction forcing submission to a new single god. The Great Library of Alexandria went up in flames in 391, “by order of the bishop of Alexandria” (151). Religion says Hitchens, “comes from a period of human history where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on” and is itself a “babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge”; amongst other emotional and abstract needs (64). Religious texts have undoubtedly contributed much to societies globally if only, as Dawkins says, because “it is a major source book for literary culture” but like all religious myths should not be taken literally.
Obviously knowledge can be used for good or evil. Knowledge in Franz’s hands gets used for destructive purposes but, once again, this has nothing to do with god, the devil or religion. It is his personal choice to pursue this path. From the beginning of The Robbers Franz displays an innate understanding of the manipulative power of religion. “It is the word of God” Franz tells Old Moor after trying to persuade him to disown his other son Karl, to which Old Moor decides “Oh it is true, it is all true! It is a judgement upon me! The Lord wills it so” (Act 1: Sc 1). Realising the potential of his power, using the psychology of religion, he moves to another level of deception and contemplates the possibilities; “Terror! What can terror not accomplish?” (Act 2: Sc 1). He challenges the forces of both hell and heaven to strike him and when this doesn’t happen it only encourages him descend further into the abyss unafraid of the wrath of god or the flames of hell.