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Aristophanes' Clouds
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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Suggested Background Reading

Clouds and Old Comedy. In many ways Clouds is an atypical play. The version we have is not the first version (produced in 423) but a partially revised text that, in its present state, could not have been produced on the 5th-century stage. [FN 1] (See, e.g., fn. 45 in Sommerstein's translation: as we have it, the entrance of the two Arguments at 889 is awkward, requiring either five actors or a strange pause in the action while "Socrates" changes his costume; the disappearance and later reappearance of Socrates is handled clumsily in any case. The parabasis opens at 518ff. with a direct reference to the play's defeat on its initial production.) Its plot and general structure are also atypical. Strepsiades' (the name means "Twisty" or "Slippery") plot to escape from his debts scarcely fits the general image of the fantastic scheme presented in the Course Notes on Aristophanes and Greek Old Comedy, nor is Strepsiades the typical Aristophanic hero. He is never triumphant in the usual sense: he is Socrates' dupe throughout the early scenes and the dupe of his son at the end of the play; his "victory" over his creditors at 1214ff. is doltish and illusory; the play ends, not with a celebration of his glorious triumph, but with Strepsiades' pseudo-tragic recognition of the error of his ways and his brutal revenge against the Thinkery (Gk. phrontisterion — a comic term that implies a place where clever ideas are manufactured, often translated as "Thought factory"). The play concludes on a sour note of vindictive repentance rather than one of healing and redemption. There is no agon in the usual sense of the term (note, e.g., that in the delayed agon between the two Arguments and in that between Pheidippides and his father at the end of the play, the wrong side wins), while the chorus, rather than playing the role of opponent-turned-ally, instead lures Strepsiades further down the road of ruin until the sudden revelation of its true nature at 1451. (Which of these features formed part of the original Clouds and which belong to the revised version is a matter of dispute.) The play is also unusually "bookish," presenting a brilliant but perhaps overly sophisticated and detailed attack on various intellectual trends of the day (see next paragraph). This may account for its lack of success on stage.


Clouds and the Greek Enlightenment. Clouds presents a brilliant analysis of the various intellectual trends of the Greek Enlightenment or "New Education." (See the Course Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus and the Greek Enlightenment.) The latter term is used to indicate the changes wrought in the traditional system of education by the rise of the sophists and of sophistic teachings. By tradition, Greek education or paideia dealt with three basic subject areas: literacy (including basic mathematics and geometry), music, and physical training (see The World of Athens 4.39-43). Its essential purpose was to instill in its pupils the values of the polis — to make them good citizens — rather than to prepare them for a career or help them discover any hidden potential. Thus, for example, the training in literacy and music focused on the traditionally respected poets and musical forms, which were felt to mold a sound character (as well as providing a veneer of culture that would be useful at symposia), rather than on theory or analysis. (Compare the education of the 19th-century British "gentleman.") Such training was confined to young boys and (male) adolescents: it was assumed that by the time a boy had reached adulthood, his character had been fully formed and his concerns had matured beyond the matters of the schoolroom. Moreover, the indignities commonly inflicted upon students by their teachers (themselves individuals of relatively low status) would have been regarded as unseemly for an adult. (Thus part of the humor of Clouds lies in the intrinsically funny notion of an older man willingly returning to school.) With the rise of the sophists much of this changed (The World of Athens 4.43-48). Emphasis now was placed on clever and effective argumentation and on the aggressive challenging of established norms and traditions. This brand of education no longer trained the pupil in the values of the polis — the sophists were itinerant "outsiders" with no connection to the city-states they visited — but actively encouraged revolt against those values. And many of the pupils were older, men who were trying to further their political careers by means of the new methods of argumentation offered by the sophists' rather pricey lectures.

In the Socrates of Clouds we find embodied all of the traits of the New Education. He is shamelessly mercenary and amoral, offering to teach anything for money and actively subverting the traditional subject matter of the schools (to the degree that he teaches it at all): re-read, e.g., Strepsiades' account of his son's literary tastes at 1353ff. (notice the assumption there that tastes in poetry and music reflect an individual's fundamental moral character). Moreover, this Socrates' interests cover the entire spectrum of studies associated with the Greek Enlightenment: the "scientific" interests of the Presocratics (astronomy, geometry, meteorology, entomology, cartography, medicine); the relativism of the ethnographers; above all, the linguistic and rhetorical teachings of the sophists (with diction, linguistics, metrics, and critical literary analysis taught as a propaedeutic to the study of rhetoric). Regarding the last, you will note that Strepsiades' main purpose in entering the Thinkery is to learn the two arguments identified by Protagoras (called Right and Wrong in your translation, but more accurately referred to as the Stronger and the Weaker by Strepsiades at 112ff. and 883), particularly the "weaker" (i.e. the one that will allow him to avoid paying his legitimate debts), and these two arguments are brought on stage in person in the agon at the climax of the play. The triumph of Clouds lies in the way it connects all of these seemingly disparate intellectual pursuits, presenting a brilliantly sophisticated analysis of the challenge they present to traditional religion and morality. Clouds consistently highlights the secularism inherent in these new modes of thought and the moral consequences of such an outlook. Zeus is dead, replaced by the impersonal universe of the Presocratics (embodied in the very Empedoclean "Awhirl" [380-81], with its pun between Dinos ["whirl"] and Dios [a form of Zeus' name]). In such a world, there is no perceivable moral order but only base physis overlain by a flimsy veneer of nomos. The latter is easily ignored, as we see in the triumph, first, of the Unjust Argument and, later, of Pheidippides over his father. The result is a valueless universe that lacks purpose or meaning. Thus (in addition to the Dinos/Dios pun noted above) the Socrates of Clouds is the high priest (436) of a new secular religion which worships the trinity of Chaos, Clouds, and Tongue (423-24). Chaos represents the impersonal universe of the Presocratics, as do the Clouds (cf. 365ff. and, e.g., Diogenes' aer), although the latter also suggest the airy will-o'-the-wisps and murky obfuscation that mark the teachings of pseudo-intellectual frauds. Tongue, of course, represents the rhetorical teachings of the sophists, but also their utter lack of values — their ability to argue for anything, no matter how perverse. Strepsiades' entrance into the Thinkery is presented as an initiation into this new "religion" at 247ff., where Socrates employs purification rituals associated with the various "mystery religions" of the day. [FN 2]

Examine the first scene between Strepsiades and Socrates (218-509), the agon between the two Arguments (889-1114), and the final confrontation between Strepsiades and Pheidippides (1321-1492). Be prepared to present and discuss passages that you feel particularly reflect Aristophanes' analysis of the intellectual trends represented by his Socrates. (You should begin by reviewing the material on the Greek Enlightenment in the unit on Sophocles. You might find it useful to draw upon material from our discussion of Euripides and Thucydides as well.)


Socrates in Clouds. The Socrates of Clouds is a complex figure: a Presocratic philosopher, sophist, ethnographer, quack, egghead, and threadbare ascetic/mystic rolled into one. One of the most discussed questions in the study of philosophy in the late 5th century is the true nature of the historical Socrates and of his achievement. We have three main witnesses: (1) The philosopher Plato, a younger contemporary and brilliant disciple of Socrates who presents Socrates as the main character in the majority of his dialogues. The Socrates of Plato is something of a Christ figure — a prophet without honor in his own land, whose penetrating intelligence, masked by an ironic playfulness, redefines the nature of philosophical inquiry. (2) The soldier and well-heeled country gentleman Xenophon (c. 430-c. 355), a petty bourgeois who presents Socrates as one of his own: a pompous, self-satisfied, rather dull Athenian aristocrat with intellectual tastes. (3) Aristophanes. We will meet Plato's Socrates when we read Plato's Euthyphro, The Apology, and Crito. It is this Socrates who is customarily presented as "the" Socrates, in part because Plato's portrait is so compelling, in part because it is difficult to see how Xenophon's Socrates could have been so influential and attracted such a throng of devoted followers, while the Socrates of Aristophanes is usually written off as a caricature. The Socrates of Plato shares nothing with the cunning fraud we meet in Clouds: he criticizes the concerns of the Presocratics for failing to address the important question of how life is to be lived, is openly hostile to rhetoric, explores with a passionate devotion the true nature of justice and piety (scarcely the pastime for a relativist!), and willingly goes to his death rather than transgress the laws of his polis, even though innocent of the charges on which he is condemned. (For more on Plato's Socrates, see the Course Notes on Euripides' Hippolytus and the Course Notes on Plato.)

Plato's Socrates and the problems he addresses have left an indelible mark on the Western philosophical tradition and on Christianity. Still, doubts linger about just how much Plato's own genius has improved upon his real-life model. There was, to be sure, an anti-Socratic tradition in antiquity, now mainly lost. The most vehement of Socrates' detractors was Aristoxenus (b. between 375 and 360 B.C.), who claimed to have heard from his father Spintharus that no one could be more persuasive than Socrates when he was in a good temper, but that he was easily angered and an ugly sight when upset, giving way to the most violent language and actions. (Aristoxenus also claimed that Socrates was promiscuous but only frequented married women and prostitutes [!], that he committed bigamy, that he had been the paidika [young (passive) lover] of Archelaus, that he did accept pay for his teaching, and that he and/or Plato stole many of their ideas from Protagoras!) This tradition is usually rejected as malicious slander.

The problem remains, however: why would Aristophanes choose Socrates as the target for a play criticizing the various intellectual trends associated with the Greek Enlightenment if the historical Socrates was not in fact sympathetic to those trends? A number of answers have been proposed to this difficulty. One approach holds that Aristophanes did not have any detailed knowledge of Socrates' interests and philosophical beliefs, or simply didn't care about them if he did. On this view Socrates was selected as a target for a number of reasons that have little to do with his particular philosophical tenets. First and foremost, he was known, at least by sight, to many in the audience. Socrates spent most of his days in the agora [the central marketplace] and other public haunts, neglecting his own affairs in order to engage in philosophical conversation with anyone who chose to converse with him (cf. Apology 31a-c). He would have been a familiar sight to the general public, and would have been known as an oddball, someone who sat about the agora all day instead of earning a living. In this regard, Socrates is often treated as the first hippie: someone who neglected matters of getting and spending in a quest for a higher truth. He fit the modern paradigm of the hippie in another regard as well: he was notorious for not bathing, for his shabby dress, and for going barefoot. (In Plato's Symposium one of Socrates' friends happens upon him in the street and remarks with surprise that, contrary to his usual custom, he has bathed, is nicely dressed, and is wearing sandals.) Adding to his strangeness was his habit of standing still and staring into space for extended periods of time. Socrates claimed that he was in contact with a divine voice [which he called to daimonion] that would warn him away from unwise decisions (cf. Apology 31c-d); we today might suspect a mild form of epilepsy. In any case, this habit (and his explanation for it) must have added to his notoriety. He also would have gained notoriety for the company he kept and for his political views (to the degree that these were common knowledge): the historical Socrates does not appear to have been a friend of democracy, which ran contrary to his belief that action should be based on proper knowledge (cf., e.g., Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.7.5-9), and many of his associates were aristocrats whose contempt for democracy was well known. (The most notorious of these associates were Alcibiades and Critias, both of whom should be familiar to you.) Moreover, by all accounts he was incredibly ugly.

[In a passage of Xenophon's Symposium (4.64ff.) Socrates himself is made to joke about his looks. In the course of flirting with the exceedingly handsome young Critobulus, Socrates argues that beauty is to be defined in terms of functionalism: that thing is most "beautiful" which best performs the function for which it is made. (This argument works better in the Greek than in English.) Having won this point, he then proceeds to argue that he is more "beautiful" than Critobulus in every particular: in his eyes, because Critobulus' can only see straight ahead whereas his own bulge out and so give him good peripheral vision; in his nose, because Critobulus' nostrils point downward whereas his own are wide open and turned outward, so as to catch odors more efficiently, while the fact that his nose is flat means that his two eyes aren't walled off from one another as are Critobulus'; in his mouth, because it is bigger and therefore more efficient at eating, while his thick lips are softer for kissing.]

Thus the figure of Socrates was ideal for a comic playwright who needed a peg on which to hang his philosophical farce: who better than this funny-looking, grungy, subversive kook whom everyone knew as an eggheaded intellectual who spent his days lounging about spouting philosophical claptrap, denouncing democracy to his aristocratic friends, and holding private conversations with a personal divine voice? As a citizen of Athens associated with the anti-democratic aristocrats, Socrates was a more fitting target for comedy than the sophists, who were foreigners, and his grotesque visage made for a suitably funny portrait mask. (According to one account [probably apocryphal] the real Socrates stood up in the audience when Aristophanes' Socrates appeared on stage so that everyone could appreciate the likeness.)

Other scholars point out, quite reasonably, that Aristophanes displays too detailed and sophisticated a knowledge of the various intellectual currents of the day not to be aware that his presentation of Socrates is grossly unfair. They argue that the essence of Old Comedy was personal satire, but that no one in the audience took the comic playwrights' attacks seriously: the writers of Old Comedy were in effect licensed clowns, free to make fun of virtually anyone — even many of the gods — because of the temporary abeyance of social norms and rules during the festival (see the Course Notes on Greek Old Comedy on aischrologia). (This would explain, e.g., why Aristophanes could enjoy great success in the mid-420s with plays that viciously attacked Cleon, yet Cleon's political dominance continued unabated.) Thus in Plato's Symposium Socrates and Aristophanes are presented as attending a dinner party together (the dramatic date is 416) and conversing on quite friendly terms: only a bore would take Aristophanes' attacks personally. This same argument is used to explain Socrates' reference to Clouds in the Apology (18d). Socrates complains that he cannot confront, or even name, his more serious accusers — the people who have been slandering him in a general way for years — except, perhaps, for "a playwright" (clearly meaning Aristophanes: cf. 19c). Many scholars use this passage to argue that Clouds did damage Socrates' reputation, but it is possible that Plato's Socrates deliberately cites Aristophanes' comedy in order to demonstrate just how silly the people were who took this talk about him seriously: they were the sort who were either dumb enough or boorish enough to take the comic playwrights at their word.

Still the possibility lingers that the historical Socrates might not have been so removed from the interests that Aristophanes attributes to him as Plato would have us believe. There is a famous passage in Plato's Phaedo (96a-99c) in which Socrates recalls that, in his youth, he had a passion for the natural sciences as studied by the Presocratics. Many scholars have thought that this passage has an apologetic tone, that it represents an attempt on Plato's part to discount Socrates' earlier views in favor of his mature thought. If this is so, it might not have been unreasonable for Aristophanes to have mocked Socrates for such studies in 423 B.C. (Compare, however, Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.11ff. and 4.7.1-5.)


[FN 1] The introductory note to the play in our manuscripts (known as a hypothesis) summarizes the plot and then continues: "This play is the same as the one that I have just described (i.e. Clouds I), but it has been revised in its details, one assumes because the poet wished to bring it on stage a second time, although, for some reason or other, he never did. The play has been reworked on a large scale. Some elements have been removed, while others have been worked in and have been given a new form as regards the arrangement of incidents and the assignment of speaking parts. Some parts have been reworked altogether, including the parabasis, the scene where the Just Argument addresses the Unjust, and the final scene where Socrates' school is burnt down." (My translation here paraphrases parts of the original.) [Return to text]

[FN 2] Compare the following passage from a speech by the 4th-century orator Demosthenes (On the Crown, 258-260). Demosthenes is deriding his opponent Aeschines for the latter's supposedly humble background. He describes the private initiation ceremonies allegedly held by Aeschines' foreign-born mother (the ancient equivalent of making one's living as a fortune-teller):

But do you —you who are so proud and so contemptuous of others — compare your fortune with mine. ... On arriving at manhood you assisted your mother in her initiations, reading the service-book while she performed the ritual, and helping generally with the paraphernalia. At night it was your duty to mix the libations, to clothe the catechumens in fawn-skins, to wash their bodies, to scour them with the loam and the bran, and, when their lustration was duly performed, to set them on their legs, and give out the hymn: "Here I leave my sins behind, here I find a better way!" and it was your pride that no one ever emitted that holy ululation so powerfully as yourself. ... In day-time you marshaled your gallant throng of bacchanals through the public streets, their heads garlanded with fennel and white poplar; and, as you went, you squeezed the fat-cheeked snakes, or brandished them above your head ... saluted by all the old women with such proud titles as Master of the Ceremonies, Fugleman, Ivy-bearer, Fan-carrier; and at last receiving your recompense of tipsy-cakes, and cracknels, and currant-buns. With such rewards who would not rejoice greatly, and account himself the favorite of fortune? (Translated by C.A. Vince and J.H. Vince.) [Return to text]

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