ARISTOPHANES: The Clouds
• Strepsiades is unable to sleep because he worries about the debts he has incurred for his son. His son, Phidippides, is a horseman who participates in chariot races.
• Strepsiades curses the “go between” who made him marry his wife. He degrades his wife as a haughty and extravagant woman who instilled a love for luxuries in Phidippides.
• Strepsiades believes that he has discovered a road to salvation, both miraculous and divine, and wakes his son to implore him to aid him in his pursuit.
• Strepsiades entreats Phidippides to enter the Thoughtery, a place of great thinks who can teach Phidippides to win law suits, whether they be just or unjust.
• Phidippides calls the people in the Thoughtery quack with pale faces, who walk about barefoot. People such as the miserable Socrates inhabit the Thoughtery
• When Phidippides refuses to help his father, Strepsiades asserts that he will no longer support him. Phidippides retorts that his uncle will take care of him, an leaves his father.
• Strepsiades resolves to enter the Thoughtery himself. He hesitates however, unsure of whether he can grasp the subtleties and fine distinctions because he is old and his mind is slow. But he overcomes his doubts, and raps on the door.
• A disciple of the Thoughtery answers the door, and chastises Strepsiades for loudly banging on the door and disturbing the thoughts of those within.
• The disciple tells Strepsiades of how Socrates measures the length a flea jumps by making wax slippers for the flea. Socrates also explains that a gnat’s arse is like a trumpet, and thus the noise which it makes comes from its arse.
• A lizard cause Socrates to lose a sublime thought. Socrates was gazing open-mouthed at the heavens while studying the revolutions of the moon when a lizard crapped on him.
• The disciple allows Strepsiades to enter the Thoughtery. Many disciples are sitting in various positions. They are pale and emaciated. Some disciples are ben over, souning the depths of Tartarus. Strepsiades asks the disciple what their arses are looking at in the heavens. The disciple answers that the arses are studying astronomy on their own account.
• Socrates enters the stage suspended in a basket. He is pompous and condescending towards Strepsiades, addressing him as a mortal. Socrates explains that he was in the basket so that he could mingle the subtle essence of his mind with the air in order to clearly perceive the things of heaven. I would never have discovered anything had he remained on the ground because the earth attracts the sap of the mind to itself.
• Strepsiades implores Socrates to teach him how to repay nothing because he is in tremendous debt to his creditors because of his son’s love for horses.
• Socrates invokes the Clouds, who are the genii of Socrates and his followers, to reveal themselves.
• The Clouds enter amidst rumblings of thunder. They sing beautifully of rising from the ocean and flying toward the forest laden mountains.
• Strepsiades, frightened by the thunder, declares that he reveres the Clouds, and will let off his own thunder. He proceeds to fart and defecate.
• Strepsiades asks Socrates who these women are. Socrates responds that they are the Clouds of heaven, great goddesses for the lazy to which Socrates and his disciples owe everything.
• In the presence of the Clouds, Strepsiades burns to babble about trifles, maintain worthless arguments, tease opponents, and voice petty reasons.
• Aristophanes derides poetry. Socrates states that the Clouds support idlers who write dithyrambic verses because they write about the Clouds. As a reward for writin elaborate lines about the clouds, the Clouds provide these idlers with tasty fish and birds.
• Socrates explains that the Clouds take various shapes to deride the particular faults of men and women they see. For example, they saw a coward, and assumed the shape of a deer. They saw a lecherous man, and assumed the shape of a centaur.
• The Clouds address Socrates as the high-priest of subtle nonsense.
• Socrates informs Strepsiades that the Clouds are the only gods. Zeus does not exist.
• Strepsiades asks who makes it rain if Zeus doesn’t exist. Socrates answers that the clouds do. He explains that it never rains without clouds, and challenges Zeus to make it rain with a clear sky.
• Strepsiades always thought rain was Zeus pissing into a sieve, but what about thunder? Socrates describes how the Clouds roll over one another and, because they are full of water, burst sonorously. Socrates uses an analogy of a man who has eaten too much. His stomach rumbles. Strepsiades recounts how he perceives similar noises issuing from him when he eats too much stew, and when he craps it is thunder indeed.
• What about lightning? A dry wind ascends ino the clouds and blows them out like a bladder; finally, being too confined, it bursts them, and escapes with fierce violence. Strepsiades says that this is similar to when he cooked a pork belly and forgot to slit it open. It swelled, bursted, and discharged into his eye.
• The Clouds inform Strepsiades that he must abstain from wine, gymnastics, and other similar follies, and believe that the greatest of all blessings is to live and think more clearly than the vulgar herd, to shine in the contest of words.
• Strepsiades agrees to worship only them if they bestow the ability to turn bad law suits to his advantage so that he will not need to pay his creditors.
• The Clouds command Socrates to commence instructing Strepsiades. Socrates asks him if he has a memory. Strepsiades replies that he has a memory when he is owed anything, but no memory when he owes something
• Frustrated with Strepsiades, Socrates commands him to enter the Thoughtery.
• During an interlude, Aristophanes flatters the audience and hopes that his comedy has amused the audience thus far. He then rails against other playwrights who have plagiarized his works.
• Socrates emerges from the Thoughtery irate at Strepsiades stupidity.
• After giving several asinine answers to Socrates’ questions, Strepsiades is compelled to leave the Thoughtery by Socrates.
• The Clouds advise Strepsiades to send Phidippides to the Thoughtery.
• Strepsiades ridicules Phidippides for believing in Zeus and naming a female pigeon a pigeon instead of a pigeonette. Phidippides believes that his father has lost his wits.
• Phidippides tells Strepsiades that he will soon repen for forcing Phidippides to ener the Thoughtery.
• Strepsiades implores Socrates to teach his son the false method of reasoning. Socrates states that the Just and Unjust Discourse shall instruct him.
• The Just and Unjust Discourses enter the stage quarreling with each other.
• The Unjust Discourse asserts that justice does not exist, and asks where it is if it does exist. The Just Discourse answers that justice exists with the gods. The Unjust Discourse then asks how Zeus was not put to death for putting his father in chains if justice exists with the gods.
• The Just Discourse exhorts Phidippides follow his precepts. If Phidippides adheres to his counsel, then Phidippides will be strong and healthy. But if Phidippides follows the unjust fashion of the days then he will be pale, weak, small, and able to spin forth long-winded arguments on law.
• The Unjust Discourse inquires of the Just why he condemns hot baths. The Just responds that hot baths enervate men. The Unjust retorts that the stoutest man to ever live was Hercules, and he did not bathe in cold baths. The Just answers that the hot baths attract young men away from the gymnasia into idleness and sloth.
• The Unjust approves frequenting the market place, public speaking, and does not preach chastity.
• The Unjust claims that the Just deprives Phidippides of the only delights worth pursuing – women, play, delicious food, and boisterous laughter. The Unjust will teach Phidippides how to satisfy his passions, to dance, to laugh, to blush at nothing. Suppose he is caught in the act of adultery. He must then inform the husband that he is not guilty, citing Zeus, who allowed himself to be conquered by lust for women, as an example. Being a mortal, can you be stronger than god?
• The Just yields the argument to the Unjust after the Unjust proves that everyone is a broad-arse, or faggot.
• Strepsiades beseeches the Unjust to turn his son into a Sophist. The Unjust agrees to teah Phidippides and they enter the Thoughtery. The chorus of Clouds tells Strepsiades that he will repent for this soon, and then proceeds to threaten the audience with ruin of their crops and homes if they do not vote this play to win the competition.
• Strepsiades returns to the Thoughtery on the day that his creditors will come to him to seek payment for their loans. Strepsiades shudder with fear, but declares that he cares nothing for the creditors and their threats if his son has learned how to argue. Socrates greets Strepsiades and informs him that Phidippides has learned how to argue persuasively and win any law suit.
• Phidippides emerges pale, and Strepsiades rejoices to see his son with the same aspect and demeanor of those of the Thoughtery. Phidippides displays his newly acquired skill for argument, and Strepsiades joyfully invites Phidippides to return to their house and revel.
• During their revelry, Stepsiades’ two creditors arrive at his house and demand payment. Strepsiades spurns them both, confident that when they bring him to court Phidippides will persuade the jury of Strepsiades’ innocence.
• Strepsiades retreats into his house, and the Clouds prophesy that some disaster will punish him for his shameful schemings. Then Strepsiades runs out of his house, screaming that his son beat him and tried to kill him. Phidippides does not deny that he beat his father and justifies his behavior, arguing that fathers beat their children for their own good and therefore children should beat their parents for their own good.
• Strepsiades laments his past behavior. He declares that he lost his wits when he renounced the gods and heeded Socrates’ insidious and seductive arguments. He resolves to burn the Thoughtery to ashes. When the disciples inquire of Strepsiades what he is doing on the roof of the Thoughtery, he replies that he is entering upon a subtle argument with the house’s beams. Socrates asks him what he is doing and he mockingly answers that he is traversing the air and contemplating the sun. Strepsiades burns the Thoughtery down and chases the disciples, determined to punish them for their blasphemies.
“I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself.”
“Eternal Clouds, let us appear; let us arise from the roaring depths of Ocean, our father; let us fly towards the lofty mountains, spread our damp wings over their forest-laden summits, whence we will dominate the distant valleys, the harvest fed by the sacred earth, the murmur of the divine streams and the resounding waves of the sea, which the unwearying orb lights up with its glittering beams.”
“Ah! that was why, as I listened to them, my mind spread out its wings; it burns to babble about trifles, to maintain worthless arguments, to voice its petty reasons, to contradict, to tease some opponent.”
“Oh, mortal, you who desire to instruct yourself in our great wisdom, the Athenians, the Greeks will envy you your good fortune. Only you must have the memory and ardour for study, you must know how to stand the tests, hold your own, go forward without feeling fatigue, caring but little for food, abstaining from wine, gymnastic exercises and other similar follies, in fact, you must believe as every man of intellect should, that the greatest of all blessings is to live and think more clearly than the vulgar herd, to shine in the contests of words.”
“I shall follow upon the very ground he shall have chosen and shall shatter him with a hail of new ideas and subtle fancies; if after that he dares to breathe another word, I shall sting him in the face and in the eyes with our maxims, which are as keen as the sting of a wasp, and he will die.”
“Suppose you are caught in the act of adultery. Then up and tell the husband you are not guilty, and recall to him the example of Zeus, who allowed himself to be conquered by love and by women. Being but a mortal, can you be stronger than a god?”
The Clouds is a comedic play written by Aristophanes in 423 BC. It is an example of Old Comedy, which is a comedic genre that utilizes satire, caricature, and vulgar dialogue to ridicule public figures, politics, ideas, trends, and institutions. The play is very amusing and entertaining, but it also expresses serious concern about the radical new ideas arising in Athens during the writing of the play. Aristophanes chiefly focuses on the new ideas espoused by Socrates and by the Sophists, and he emphasizes the threat that these new ideas pose to traditional values and morals.
In this play, Aristophanes presents Socrates as a man who blasphemes against Zeus and the gods of Olympus. Socrates only worships the Clouds, and he argues that Zeus does not exist. Socrates’ new teachings threaten to undermine the traditional values of Athens. Perhaps afraid of what may result, Aristophanes ridicules Socrates in an attempt to discredit him.
Aristophanes also targets the Sophists for derision and mockery. The Sophists were associated with specious reasoning and deceptive argumentation. They preached the virtue of argumentative discourse, and firmly maintained that traditional Greek values, such as truth and justice, were relative, and that these values changed according to the needs of men in particular times and circumstances. In short, the Sophists asserted that what is right and just in one society may not be right and just in another.
Although Socrates denounces the principles of the Sophists, Aristophanes discerns no difference between them. Aristophanes believes that both Socrates and the Sophists use deceptive reasoning that leads to conclusions which are dangerous to the State. His challenge of Socrates’ arguments is a model which readers of the great books should emulate. Regardless of the supposed intelligence of the writer, readers should not unconsciously accept an argument. Aristophanes demonstrates that no man or argument is inviolable. He advises us to question everything, and to resolve difficult dilemmas according to our own intuitions and knowledge. He commands us not to relinquish our abilities to contemplate and to form our own conclusions. We must strive to understand the subtleties, intricacies, and premises of an argument. Only then ought we to make a conclusion regarding its truth. During this endeavor to read through the Great Books of the Western World, I will strive to reach my own conclusions after reflecting upon the writer’s reasoning. I may agree with the author, I may disagree. I must always remember that no argument or man is inviolable.
Aristophanes alludes to the cave of Triphonios. “To descend into the cave of Triphonios” is a proverbial way of saying “to suffer a great fright.”