Episode 35: The Great Thundercrap

Aristophanes’ The Clouds is a dazzling satire on Athenian philosophy, showing a very different Socrates than Plato’s.

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Aristophanes’ The Clouds

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 35: The Great Thundercrap. In this episode, we’re going to talk about a play called The Clouds, written by the comedic Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, and first produced in the city of Athens in 423 BCE.

We have this tendency when we think about Ancient Greece. I think maybe it’s because a lot of us encounter Ancient Greece for the first time in the works of Plato, or in the myths. And it all seems rather serious. These bygone Greeks, we think, wrote epic legends about monster slaying – Medusas, and minotaurs, and hydras. They wrote about wars between nations, and they delved into the fine points of ethical philosophy. We picture them there, standing amidst fluted columns and engaging in sober philosophical disputations in between meetings of the assembly. They can seem, if we just read Plato and Sophocles, as composed and dignified as the sculptures they chiseled out of marble two thousand five hundred years ago. We might have this image of – particularly – classical Athens, as a time and place of dignified intellectualism, of discipline, of moderation and self control. We might have this image of Athens, if we didn’t have a small handful of texts, the most important among them being the plays of Aristophanes. And as the great German poet Heinrich Heine said, “There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.”1

Aristophanes - Project Gutenberg eText 12788
This is probably the most famous thing ever said about Aristophanes. In some ways, it’s an odd statement about the ancient world’s most famous funnyman. Aristophanes’ plays are full of farts and poop jokes, bodily orifices and ridiculous lechery, x-rated quips about sex and undisguised authorial self-promotion, and scene after scene of characters behaving with undignified stupidity and gross selfishness. If we were looking for someone from Ancient Greece to award with the hyperbole of “god,” Homer seems like the obvious choice. So why would a writer as accomplished as Heinrich Heine select this ancient jokester as the deity of all writers?

I’ll give you a long answer, and a short answer. The long answer is this and the next episode, in which we’ll consider two plays by Aristophanes in full. And the short answer is this. In the hands of someone like Aristophanes, comedy is like a typhoon, or maybe like a stampede of elephants. It might have an original direction that it takes – maybe a specific piece of political commentary or social criticism.2 But once it gets going, comedy like that of Aristophanes whirls and tramples through anything and everything. It can be absolutely scathing toward organized religion. And at the same time it can denigrate the critics of organized religion. It can be fiercely anti-war. And at the same time it can be nationalistic and mock the enterprise of peacemaking. When Aristophanes pokes fun at something, he is able to simultaneously poke fun at the satirical position he seems to have taken, and thus, play after play, his comedy uproots everything, and flattens everything, leaving only in its place barren ground and gales of laughter. Over the years we’ve tried to convince ourselves that Aristophanes was a pacifist, or a secularist, or a feminist, or any number of positions that resonate with our own modern ones. But none of them quite fit. More than Aeschylus or Sophocles, and more than even the often deeply unorthodox Euripides, Aristophanes wrote plays that dismantled the creeds, and the people, and the culture of ancient Athens – and then, doubled back to dismantle that dismantling.

If, as Heine said, there’s something divine about Aristophanes, maybe it’s because this founding father of world comedy showed us – fairly early on during the history of civilization, that comedy can perform the astounding feat of criticizing everything that it comes across, while at the same time not taking itself particularly seriously. Civilization needs mantras and institutions that hold us together. But at the same time, civilization needs these mantras and institutions to be periodically second guessed, critiqued, and improved. Aristophanes, and the great comedians who have followed him, have all shown us that this process of second guessing and critiquing and improving our sacred and state traditions can be joyous, and fun, and lighthearted, even if from time to time it leaves a small handful of inflexible reactionaries on the margins. And for this reason, as I hope to show you over this and the next show, Aristophanes can truly seem divine. [music]

Before Venturing into Aristophanes. . .

The Aristophanes play we’re going to talk about today is, again, called The Clouds. This play is a riot. It is extremely profane – there will be x-rated things in this episode that involve pederasty, graphic sex and – uh vegetables, as well as the four letter words typically endemic to Aristophanes, so be forewarned. The thing is, if you sat down at the Theater of Dionysus in 423 BCE to watch this play, you wouldn’t exactly think you were attending a Sunday school lesson. Because as you looked around the orchestra area, you’d see strange costumes and lewd masks, probably a dozen characters with various sizes of fake penises – some merely a foot in length, and others far larger, made out of rolled leather and hanging out from beneath the short tunics that actors wore.3 Something about oversized artificial leather penises flopping around onstage before a show would probably clue you into the fact that the play was going to involve some adult themes. Or that you were on acid. Anyway, since you’re listening to a podcast, I invite you to picture all of this, and take heed ahead of time – this play, and the program that you’re listening to, is going to contain some really graphic stuff.

A performance of the play Birds by Aristophanes; a man is pe Wellcome V0040121

A nineteenth-century etching by Henry Gillard Glindoni of the set and chorus of Aristophanes’ play The Birds. Whatever you were watching by Aristophanes, you’d likely see fantastic chorus costumes and masks.

Now, you know the play we’re covering is called The Clouds. And you know it involves sex and fake penises. So, what do you think it’s about? A torrid affair between Hera and a mortal astronomer? A sexy tryst between Heracles and his squire Hylas? How about Artemis and Athena taking a trip to the island of Lesbos? Or Zeus, who, after having sex with almost every person and object in the known universe, finally just shrugs his shoulders and makes love to a hornet’s nest? But no, actually. No, no, no. This play, with its lurid masks and its dangling leathern weenies, is about philosophy.

Yeah. Philosophy. Now, I’m going to keep this introduction as short as possible, because I think the play speaks for itself. But that said, let me set you up with a bit of background information. The Clouds is most commonly explained as a satire of Socrates, and his philosophy. Socrates and Aristophanes were contemporaries in Athens. Socrates was twenty years older than Aristophanes, so by the time Aristophanes came of age and started writing plays, Socrates was already well known in Athens as an influential teacher and thinker. Now, we need to talk a little more about what Socrates was known for in his own lifetime.

Background: The Historical Socrates, and the Platonic Socrates

Let’s start simple. There are two Socrateses. There is the real Socrates, who lived from about 469 until 399 BCE. And then there is the Socrates of Plato, a fictional character who appears in Plato’s philosophical writings, the guy who asks his fellow conversants long serieses of questions, and backs them into logical corners. “Can you define virtue for me?” “Yeah, Socrates, you know, it’s – like – the doing good and stuff. Doing good stuff.” “But what if one does good stuff, and is not virtuous in his heart?” “Then – I don’t know, Socrates, he’s not virtuous, I guess.” “Then isn’t your definition based on a false idea of virtue?” “Man, I don’t know, Socrates, what do you think – what’s virtue?” “Why, let me see. If doing virtuous things alone doesn’t constitute virtue, then we must also consider – .” You know. That guy. The fictional Socrates, after whom the Socratic method is named, whom we’ve met in a number of past episodes of this very podcast.

So Plato’s Socrates – the fictional Socrates, is the universally famous one – the mild mannered guy in modest clothes, the preacher of moderation and discipline, courage and careful logical deduction. Socrates is witty, and perceptive, and relentlessly annoying in all of Plato’s dialogues, and I think the kind of person who listens to educational podcasts probably knows a thing or two about the Platonic Socrates. Now, historians of philosophy usually organize ancient Greek philosophers into the pre-Socratics and then the post-Socratics. And this is aggravating to those of us who love ancient philosophy. Because a lot of stuff happened before the Platonic Socrates that makes his achievements seem rather modest. Before Socrates, the philosopher Thales predicted an eclipse. Before Socrates came Xenophanes, from whom we have religious relativism. Before Socrates came Heraclitus, who articulated the idea of nonlinear time. Before Socrates came Protagoras, who suggested that the mechanisms of human perception wholly determine the way we look at the world. Before Socrates was lifted into sainthood by Plato, the philosopher Democritus generated an atomic theory of the universe. In these five figures alone – not to mention many others – we have the stirrings of modern comparative sociology, psychology, and physics; astronomy and quantum mechanics. But no matter, right? Sociology, physics, astronomy, atomic theory – it’s all a bunch of rubbish before Plato’s Socrates showed up and started asking his long strings of questions.

Anyway, side track there, but perhaps for good reason. Aristophanes, probably rightly, did not see Socrates as some fulcrum on which all philosophical history turned. To Aristophanes, Socrates was an integrated part of a long and unwinding tradition of philosophy, and – this is the important part – Aristophanes did not see Socrates as some break with contemporary Athenian philosophy, at all. Aristophanes saw Socrates as central to all the humdrum fads of the 400s BCE. To Aristophanes, Socrates was just another jackass on the street corner, blathering at people and swindling them out of their drachmas. The play that we’re about to explore – The Clouds – is the single largest piece of evidence that the great Socrates, in his own time, was regarded as just – another – sophist.

Sophistry. Sophists, sophists, sophists. We talked about this several episodes ago, but let’s hit the sophist bullet points again. In the intensely rhetorical culture of Athens in the mid to late 400s – in this culture in which compelling speeches at the assembly and law courts were the difference between legislation passing and failing, between a defendant being acquitted or convicted, rhetoric was staggeringly important. Think of a democratic system in which fact checking is sluggish or impossible, and illiteracy makes documented, detailed plans difficult to circulate for review. In this kind of a system, the electorate is less acquainted with the facts, and does not have the literacy to review proposals and measures in documentary form. And so what does the electorate seek? Or, similarly, what does a large jury seek? They seek a powerful, pyrotechnic, pedal-to-the-metal speech that will drive them into a passionate yea, or nay. They seek a piece of fiery rhetoric that will compel them to put the pottery fragment onto which their vote is written into one of two jars. That is why rhetoric, and oration were the most important subjects of study to up and coming young men in Athens, in the 400s BCE. Rhetoric and oration turned the motor of politics and law courts.

So, all that is already pretty interesting, and let’s recall how the Sophists fit in. Sophists were most famous for teaching their students to argue both sides of a case. This was their job as, principally, teachers of rhetoric. If you went to a sophist instructor, including, we can assume, the real Socrates, you would be taught to argue that a defendant was innocent, and then, that he was guilty. You’d be taught to argue that a piece of legislation was indispensable to your city-state, and then, a moment later, to argue that this piece of legislation was a pile of manure. The most famous Sophist, Protagoras, was an agnostic. He believed that two opposite, and equally true arguments can be made about everything. Protagoras believed that knowledge of absolute truth eludes us, and that we know nothing more than what comes through our senses.4 We don’t know how much the real Socrates shared this stance – the fictional Socrates shares almost none of it. But according to one often quoted source, the real Socrates wasn’t the inventor of the Socratic method – it was his predecessor, Protagoras. Protagoras, a later chronicler wrote, “Since he ignored meaning and focused his talk on mere words. . .was the forefather of the tribe of. . .speakers who are so common nowadays. . .He was also the first to develop the kind of argument known as ‘Socratic.’”5

So let’s go over the facts essential for The Clouds. The real Socrates – the one Aristophanes knew, was in his own time thought by many to be just another sophist. According to one scholar, “There is no evidence that [Socrates’] contemporaries in general regarded him as a man of any exceptional merit at all.”6 The real Socrates taught rhetoric, and seemed to have believed that when it came to speech, persuasiveness was more important than truth, if there were any such thing as truth at all. The real Socrates taught young people to argue vigorously and relentlessly, and to challenge any kind of orthodoxy, or tradition, or received wisdom that stood in their paths. The real Socrates, unlike the fictional Socrates, probably didn’t have any theory of forms, or notion of a philosopher king, or the oppressive police state that Plato outlines in The Republic.7 Plato uses the figure of Socrates to outline these ideas, just as ancient Hebrew chroniclers attributed the Pentateuch to Moses, and Psalms to David, and Ecclesiastes to Solomon, and so on. But the real Socrates, to repeat for the umpteenth time, was a sophist and a teacher of rhetoric, and likely a guy who loved argument for its own sake, even if he didn’t believe the argument he was making.

Socrates and Xanthippe

This 1607 illustration shows Socrates having a chamber pot dumped on him by his wife. He was the butt of jokes long after Aristophanes took him to task in The Clouds.

Let’s talk about the main idea of this episode. The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 35: The Great Thundercrap. This is a quote from the play – and we’ll get there in a minute, but I think it’s a single word that sums up what Aristophanes thought of Socrates, and sophistry in general. To Aristophanes, Socrates wasn’t a revolutionary, or a divergent figure amidst lesser philosophers. To Aristophanes, Socrates is simply at the helm of a grand, influential, and utterly silly movement in contemporary philosophy – a movement that aims to reduce all experience to arguments and counterarguments, a movement in which nothing is sovereign – other than the rhetorician himself. This was both sophism and Socrates to Aristophanes – a large, influential, amusing, but ultimately absurd phenomenon in contemporary Athens – nothing more, or less, than a great thundercrap.

So the plot of this play is really simple. There’s an old farmer. He’s poor, and he owes some money. This old farmer has a lazy, good-for-nothing son with an entitlement complex. And the old farmer decides that he wants his son to be educated in rhetoric, so that his son can make brilliant arguments, and talk them out of debt. And so the old father gets in touch with Socrates. Socrates has a school, and this school is called “The Thinkery.” And when the old farmer, and his son enroll in this so called “Thinkery,” the two learn that sophism is, definitely, a double edged sword.

The edition I’m occasionally quoting from is called Lysistrata and Other Plays. It was translated by Alan H. Sommerstein and has an introduction and notes by the translator, and was published by Penguin Books in 2002. I really recommend this edition, particularly because of its introduction and notes. You need notes with Aristophanes, so that you can understand all of the naughty bits. Penguin’s got your back. So, let’s take a deep breath, folks. We’re opening our first piece of comedy for the podcast, and it’s going to be fun. From 423 BCE, here comes The Clouds, by Aristophanes. [music]

Opening: The Plight of the Old Farmer

It was morning in the house of the farmer Strepsiades. The roosters had already crowed, and the early sun hung over the courtyard, where the old man tossed and turned. Strepsiades and his son were in their beds, but Strepsiades was awake. He looked around his home with disapproval. The war, he said, had put everything out of joint. No one was getting up in time. You couldn’t discipline your slaves. Nothing was happening in an orderly fashion any more.

Strepsiades looked over at his son, Pheidippides, and grimaced. “And what about this dutiful son of mine,” said the old farmer Strepsiades. “He never wakes up before sunrise either; just farts merrily away wrapped up in five or six blankets. . .I’m being bitten all over. Not by bugs – by. . .bills and debts, on account of this son of mine, him and his long hair and his riding and his chariot.”8 Young Pheidippides, said Strepsiades, was affecting to be a member of the upper class, and young Pheidippides was doing things like wearing his hair long, and riding horses, and deepening the family debts.

Strepsiades summoned a slave and told the man to bring in the family accounting book. With his accounting documents in hand, Strepsiades looked through a number of tablets, and grimaced. He’d borrowed money, he saw, in order to purchase a horse. As old Strepsiades groused about this horse, his son Pheidippides mumbled in his sleep about horse racing. Strepsiades became increasingly disgusted with the account books and his son’s sleepy mumblings until the old man’s grumbling finally caused young Pheidippides to awaken.

Strepsiades lamented having married Pheidippides’ mother. She’d been a member of a very rich family called the Alcmeonidae (a real Athenian family, by the way), and she’d sired him an expensive son. Strepsiades, before his marriage, had been a contented country man. But he’d not been able to afford his wife’s extravagant tastes. Their son, unfortunately, had inherited the mother’s appetite for luxury. Pheidippides’ mother used to tell her son that he’d one day drive a chariot in a fine robe. Strepsiades, on the other hand, had told his son he’d probably just end up driving goats and wearing a leather smock. Young Pheidippides had listened to his mother.

Yet even though he was in financial trouble, Strepsiades, looking down on the sleeping form of his lazy son, said he had a plan. He gently awakened the boy, and told him he needed the boy to do something. The two men went out into the street, and Strepsiades gestured to a adjacent house. This house, he said, was called the Thinkery. This Thinkery was where young men learned to argue – and once trained there, they could argue anything. They could argue a point, Strepsiades emphasized, regardless of whether or not it was true.

Young Pheidippides was very skeptical. Did his father really want him to learn from a bare footed, pallid quack – like that man Socrates who worked in the Thinkery? Pheidippides asked why. Strepsiades said that if Pheidippides learned how to prove a correct argument wrong, then the young man might get the two of them out of debt. Unfortunately, Pheidippides was absolutely unwilling. Pheidippides said he’d go and seek money from his rich uncle, and then he vanished back into his father’s house.

Alone on the street, then, poor Strepsiades wondered what he’d do. After some hesitation, Strepsiades happened on an idea. He said he himself would go to school there at the Thinkery. He worried that he might be too old or woolheaded, but in short order, Strepsiades tramped over and knocked on the door. [music]

Strepsiades is Acquainted with the Brilliance of Socrates

A flummoxed student answered the door of the philosophical school. Strepsiades, said the student at the Thinkery, had just interrupted a terribly important piece of research. A flea had jumped from a fellow student’s eyebrow and onto Socrates’ head. This had prompted a scientific investigation as to how far flees could jump. The unit of measure would be in flea-feet. Accordingly, Socrates had made little waxen shoes for the flea and then meticulously measured how many flea-feet the insect had jumped.

Hearing this, Strepsiades was stunned. “Lord Zeus,” he said, thinking of Socrates, “what a subtle intellect!” Strepsiades then consented to hear another tale of Socrates’ great brilliance. This time, the famous philosopher had applied his mind to determining why gnats made humming noises. In considering why these small insects emitted such noises, Socrates had quickly focused on their anuses. They had, the philosopher had decided, a trumpet like organ there, which was the source of the buzzing that they emitted. Again, the old farmer Strepsiades was deeply impressed. Anyone who could make such precise proclamations about the back end of a gnat would certainly be able to dismantle the case of a greedy creditor!

But it wasn’t all dazzling displays of reason on the part of Socrates, the student said. “[T]he day before yesterday,” said the student, “[Socrates] was robbed of a great thought by a lizard.” Strepsiades asked what had happened. “Well,’ the student replied, “he was doing some research on the movements and revolutions of the moon, gazing upwards, open-mouthed, and then this gecko shat on him from the ceiling in the dark.” Strepsiades laughed. “Oh, I liked that one,” he said. “[A] gecko shitting in Socrates’ face.”

Notwithstanding this setback, the student told Strepsiades, Socrates was blindingly intelligent. In fact, just the other day, when no one in the school had anything to eat, Socrates had covered the dinner table with ash, in what his students believed to be preparation to draw out some equations. Socrates had bent an eating utensil into a pair of compasses. His students waited to see how he’d use his great mind to solve the problem of their hunger. And soon enough, Socrates had gone to the local gymnasium, and stolen someone’s cloak to sell it for cash! What a mind he had! What a powerful, capacious mind! Strepsiades said he could wait no longer. He absolutely had to see this great man, and the rest of his pupils. [music]

Socrates Makes His Appearance

A wheeled platform was pushed out, and Strepsiades looked over the pupils of Socrates. They were hardly robust specimens of masculinity. In fact, they were altogether wheezy, pallid, and didn’t look to be particularly well. Strepsaides scrutinized their bizarre postures, and then, as they were wheeled away, some scientific instruments at the back of their wheeled platform. Strepsides was shown a map of Greece, but it was distorted and inaccurate. And a moment later, Socrates himself appeared. Side note here. Socrates appears in this play suspended by the mechane, or crane. Usually in Ancient Greek theater, when someone flew on the crane, it was either a really powerful mortal, like Medea, or a god, like Zeus or Athena. So Socrates appear in the mechane, or crane, is all part of Aristophanes’ strategy to make the philosopher appear toweringly absurd. Okay, side note over.

When asked by the old farmer Strepsiades, Socrates said he was suspended there in order to study the mysteries of the sun. He needed to be suspended, he explained, because the earth interfered with his ability to ponder the sky and stars. Though Strepsiades did not pretend to understand this method of studying, he explained his own reason for being there. He needed, he said, to learn how to argue against any case. And he would swear by any god to pay Socrates anything he wanted if only he could learn rhetoric in this fashion.

This promise, however, confused Socrates. Socrates said that the gods were no longer up to date – the Thinkery had newer and improved deities. It was time, said Socrates, for Strepsiades to meet the gods of the Thinkery. These gods were called the Clouds. Socrates had Strepsiades adorn himself in a garland of ugly, moldering vegetation. And then flour was dumped all over Strepsiades, too. Following this, Socrates recited a careful invocation in order to summon the Clouds, who will henceforth be the chorus of this play.

The Clouds appeared with a roar of thunder singing a brief song about their vast scope of their vision and the way that they watered villages and rivers. Socrates asked Strepsiades if Strepsiades wasn’t indeed filled with awe, and Strepsiades said the display had been so imposing that he’d nearly soiled himself. A moment later the Clouds continued their song, singing of rain and watering crops, temples and timely, generous sacrifices. Strepsiades asked who they were, and Socrates explained that the Clouds were goddesses of the shiftless and lazy – they enabled the inhabitants of the thinker to have great intelligence and capacity in argumentation. And Strepsiades announced that when he had heard the Clouds sing a moment ago, he had wanted little more than to quibble and to engage in all manner of argumentation.

Strepsiades, looking at the Clouds, was compelled to admit that he’d never thought they were anything other than condensed vapor in the air overhead. Socrates snickered. They were no mere vapor, he said. They were the inspiration and nutriment of sophists everywhere – sophists and prophets and idling, long haired poets with fine little rings. Socrates said the Clouds could take any form they needed to. The Clouds then offered lavish praises to Socrates, and Socrates, returning the compliment, said that the Clouds were indeed the only deities. Zeus, Socrates said, was just a fable.

Strepsiades, hearing this, was a bit put off. Well, surely, Strepsiades said, Zeus existed. After all, whenever it rained – that was Zeus, of course, urinating through a gigantic sieve. But Socrates said this, too, was a fable. The Clouds, said Socrates, caused the rain – above the earth they floated, full of water, and when they collided, it rained, and that was that. But what, said Strepsiades, caused the clouds to collide? – that had to be Zeus! Socrates shook his head. “No,” he said, “it’s a celestial vortex” (90). And hearing this curious explanation, Strepsiades requested more information.

Socrates, for a moment adopting something like the Socratic method, asked Strepsiades if the old farmer had ever had an upset tummy from eating too much soup. Strepsiades said that indeed this had happened to him. “You have,” said Socrates, “had a bit too much soup and got an upset stomach, and then suddenly a bit of wind has set it all rumbling?” And Strepsiades said this had certainly happened to him.

“That’s just right,” the old farmer agreed. “It makes a great nuisance of itself right away, and the soup crashes around and roars fearfully just like thunder. First. . .gently, ‘prrrr prrrr,’ then it takes a step up, ‘prrr prrr,’ and then when I crap, it really is a thundercrap, ‘prrrrrrrrrrrr!,’ just like [the Clouds over there do].” (90). Socrates said this was exactly how thunder worked – a bunch of celestial roiling and then great booms of noise – just on a larger scale than a human fart. He added that lightning came from wind being trapped inside of clouds, and then rushing out with such friction that it ignited.

Seeing Strepsiades won over by his evidence, Socrates said he presumed Strepsiades would, in the future, remember that the Clouds, and the logical lessons they offered, were the only gods. Strepsiades said that indeed, these would be the only gods he’d honor – the Clouds, from henceforth. And then the chorus of Clouds asked Strepsiades what it was he sought from them. Strepsiades said he wanted to be the most powerful orator in Greece – not so much in order to accomplish anything political, but instead to talk his way out of debts. The chorus of Clouds said this could certainly be done, and Strepsiades heartily vowed that he would become a devotee of the Thinkery, and adhere to all its precepts at all costs, and worship the Clouds as his gods. [music]

Strepsiades Begins His Training at the Thinkery

The first part of Strepsiades’ education was to be a test – a mental test. The old farmer was asked a series of questions. “Do you have a good memory?” Socrates asked him. “Yes and no,” said Strepsiades. “Very good if somebody owes me something – very bad if I owe it to someone else” (93). After a few more questions, Socrates was not convinced that Strepsiades was a particularly promising pupil. Socrates said that physical punishment might need to be part of the old farmer’s training. Yet even with this threat, and after having been made to remove his outer cloak, Strepsiades was convinced to head into the school.

In Strepsiades’ absence, the Clouds who serve as the play’s chorus talked. The main speaker of this chorus of Clouds was a figure who stood for the playwright Aristophanes. The figure speaking for Aristophanes said he was original, and always came up with new ideas, and just as importantly, once Aristophanes had satirized a public figure and knocked them down a few steps, he didn’t press the point, like other playwrights sometimes did. The figure speaking for Aristophanes said some of his ideas had been stolen by lesser playwrights, and that Aristophanes hoped that his present, and genuine novelties, would win the approval of the audience.

Following this singular figure’s speech about Aristophanes, the Clouds all gathered and sang together. They said that they were terrifically important, and yet no one honored them. They said they, (and presumably their creator Aristophanes) had warned Athens against electing a hawkish demagogue named Cleon, but the Athenians hadn’t listened. The Clouds went on and on, and grumbled to the audience about how Athens’ calendar didn’t particularly follow a lunar cycle. And following the lengthy performance of the Chorus, the door of the Thinkery flew open and Socrates emerged.

The philosopher was flustered. Socrates said he’d never met a more hopeless, idiotic rustic than Strepsiades. Socrates brought out Strepsiades in order to show just how stupid the old farmer was. Strepsiades was asked about the poetic measures he’d like to learn, but the only measures he knew were things like gallons and liters. Strepsiades similarly failed to understand what rhythms were. He had trouble learning some novel ways of conjugating words that Socrates showed him. Eventually Socrates told Strepsiades to just lie down on the bed outside the Thinkery. Strepsiades did so, and Socrates left the old farmer alone with the Chorus.

Reclined on the bed, Strepsiades began complaining immediately. Bedbugs, Strepsiades said, were biting him all over – including his ribs, and testicles, and anus. He suffered vociferously for a while, speaking first to the Clouds and then to Socrates, who reemerged from an upstairs window, until the philosopher came downstairs again and recommenced speaking with his new pupil. Socrates asked Strepsiades if he’d had any ideas about how to talk his creditors out of collecting money for him.

Strepsiades said that he had, actually, had one idea. He said he’d find a witch. And he’d have this witch steal the moon and put it in a box. Without the lunar cycle, there would be no collection process – because no time would pass. Socrates, hearing this idea, congratulated Strepsiades on his plan. But Socrates pushed Strepsiades further. What if, said Socrates, Strepsiades owed 30,000 drachmas to someone due to a lawsuit? Strepsiades thought about it, and came up with another plan. If this happened, he said, he’d find a piece of glass. And as the law clerk drew up his bill for 30,000 drachmas, Strepsiades said, he’d take this piece of glass, focus it on the waxed tablet of the bill, and melt the document, effectively canceling his debt. Socrates again congratulated Strepsiades on an ingenious plot.

And so Socrates drew out another scenario. What if, Socrates said, Strepsiades was the defendant in a case, and he had no witnesses, and he was about to be convicted? What would Strepsiades do, then? Strepsiades said this was easy. He’d kill himself! How could they convict him, then? But Socrates disapproved of this solution. He grumbled about Strepsiades’ limitations, and further, observed that Strepsiades didn’t remember anything he was taught. The Clouds, when asked, recommended that Strepsiades send his son to be taught, since the young man’s sharper mind would take to new information more easily.

Strepsiades was skeptical. His son Pheidippides, he said, wasn’t exactly a hard worker. But nonetheless, Strepsiades hurried into his house, and reemerged shoving his bewildered son in front of him. Pheidippides asked his father what in the name of Zeus he was doing. Strepsiades scoffed at him. The boy, he said, still believed in Zeus – what a buffoon! There was no Zeus. Repeating what he’d heard from Socrates and the Thinkery earlier, Strepsiades told his confused son that the Clouds, and the vortex in the air that they created, ruled everything. He’d learned it from Socrates, he said – and Socrates was an expert on the feet of fleas.

Young Pheidippides shook his head. Uh – his father couldn’t possibly believe such lunatics, he said. Strepsiades gave Pheidippides an illustration of his new education, demonstrating the new names he had learned for chickens. Young Pheidippides listened incredulously, and noticed that his father’s shoes were missing. Strepsaides called for Socrates, and the bald old codger emerged in his airborne basket. Young Pheidippides was – understandably skeptical about the sudden manifestation of this notorious quack, but, due to his father’s furious pressure, Pheidippides said that he would learn Right and Wrong, at the Thinkery, as he had been bidden.

Now, Right and Wrong are two characters in this play. And they are the embodiments of two principles. Right is the embodiment of making an argument for a true and justified cause. Wrong is the embodiment of purposely making an argument for a cause known to be false. The two characters look their parts. Right is an elegant old fellow, wearing clothing of about two generations back. And wrong is a rather immoral looking young man with an enormous fake penis. In the scene that’s about to take place, these – uh – rather different figures are going to argue with one another. [music]

The Debate Between Personified Right and Wrong

As soon as dignified old Right, and dissipated young Wrong took the stage, the argument began. Right said that he would win out because he would speak the truth, and what was just, and justice was seated with the gods. Wrong scoffed. The audience, he said, was wise enough to know that there was no such thing as justice – why, if there were, then how in the world had Zeus been able to get away with assaulting and imprisoning his own father? This question sent Right into a renewed fury, and the two figures began bickering in earnest, Right always a defender of conservativism and orthodoxy, and Wrong a champion of nonconformity and logical horseplay. The bickering between Right and Wrong grew so intense that finally, the leader of the chorus of Clouds had to intervene.

The leader of the chorus asked Right and Wrong to explain education – wouldn’t Right lay out the old ways in which boys used to be taught, and wouldn’t Wrong explain the new educations received by boys at present? That way, Pheidippides could decide which we wanted to learn! Wrong said that he would go second – that way, he could listen to whatever Right said and dismantle it. And so Right went first.

Right’s vision of the past was idyllic. Once, said Right, young men were brought up humble, and decent. Boys dutifully followed their music teachers, and learned the songs of old, and sung them in the way that they were supposed to be sung – not with a bunch of harmonic tomfoolery. Back then, he said, boys weren’t so seductive. The old man grew misty eyed – and a little distracted – as he talked about the way boys used to be more chaste and not oil themselves so much below the belt – and, he added, boys were more obedient, and –

But Wrong could hear no more. Wrong interrupted elderly Right, saying that the old timer’s vision of the past was antiquated and idiotic. But Right interjected, and continued his reminiscences. The generation who fought the Persians, Right said – those who lived before the Peloponnesian War and lifted Athens to its greatness – the earlier generation was more respectful, and disciplined. They didn’t chase after dancing girls. Young men needed to be healthy – they needed to run amidst the olive groves north of the city, to run amidst poplars in the autumn and planes and elms in the springtime. If they did this, their muscles would grow strong, and their penises would be nice looking – they’d look different than modern youths, who were pale and talked too damned much.

The chorus of Clouds, hearing the stirring speech of stately old man Right, said that indeed he was from a bygone golden age. The Clouds said that when clever young Wrong rebutted the argument of dignified old Right, Wrong had better be careful.

But Wrong wasn’t worried in the slightest. He laid out the heart of his philosophy in his first two sentences. “I,” he said, “was the one who invented ways of proving anything wrong, established laws, soundly based accusations, you name it. Isn’t that worth millions – to be able to have a really bad case and yet win?” (112).

Young Wrong argued against old Right’s opposition to young men taking hot baths. Wrong ridiculed Right’s hostility toward youths spending time in the marketplace. Wron said being modest and decent didn’t win you an iota of profit in the end. Now, Wrong’s arguments were filled with amusing loopholes.9 But nonetheless, he assaulted Right’s arguments vigorously.

Maybe most memorably, Wrong laid out a lurid and dubious dichotomy. What if, Wrong said, one wanted to have sex with a married woman? Hmm? This was quite possible, wasn’t it? And if one chose to act on one’s desires, and he were caught in the act – if this happened, the only way one could defend oneself was to be able to argue his way out of his predicament. One needed to be able to use argument to defend himself in such a case, said Wrong, because otherwise, he would be anally penetrated with a radish. Seriously, this was – uh – one of the punishments that husbands could inflict on men who slept with their wives – men who slept with married women in Athens could have their pubic hair torn out and be sodomized with a radish. And then, said Wrong, the wife seducing man who had been sodomized would have the ass of a male prostitute – the same kind of ass a lawyer had, or an actor, or a politician, all of who, evidently, frequently had things inserted into their – uh – you get the picture.

Now, at this, dignified old Right was nonplussed. What was there to say? If one did find oneself in the situation of having been caught in the act sleeping with someone else’s wife, old Right evidently thought, then one would need some pretty sophisticated argumentative tools. Otherwise, he might face some manner of root vegetable. Right said he didn’t know if he could argue against Wrong, and he looked vaguely around, finally tossing his cloak off. Beneath his cloak, old Right wore women’s undergarments, and he hurried out into the audience, flirting with the intermittent audience member before vanishing down one of the aisles.

Wrong was thus triumphant. He turned to Strepsiades and said he was ready to take young Pheidippides under his wing. “Don’t worry,” said Wrong, “when you get him back, he’ll be a top-class sophist” (115). Strepsiades said that this was what he wanted, and, as the Clouds murmured that all might not be well after the tutelage was complete, Pheidippides was led into the school to be taught all the ways of modern argumentation. And as this took place, the chorus of clouds announced that Strepsiades would probably live to regret sending his son in to learn the ways of sophistry. [music]

Strepsiades Uses His New Rhetorical Skills

Once Strepsiades had gone into his house, and young Pheidippides had gone into the Thinkery, the chorus of Clouds took – uh – another moment to give Aristophanes himself a little plug. In a long song, they warned the judges present at the theatrical competition that these judges had better award Aristophanes first prize. If The Clouds didn’t receive first prize, said the chorus of Clouds, then the Clouds would consider themselves disrespected, and rain and hail would soak anyone who doubted them. With this none-too-subtle piece of self-promotion complete, the play continues forward.

Strepsiades emerged from his house, mumbling. He was filled with renewed anxiety. The first of the new month had arrived – the day that his creditors expected their payments. He hurried over to the Thinkery and knocked on the door. Socrates answered. When asked, Socrates said that indeed, young Pheidippides had mastered the ways of fraudulent and sophistic argumentation. Strepsiades raised a cry of praise to the heavens. He said he would no longer be at the mercy of his creditors – for now, he had a secret weapon – a rhetorically ingenious son!

Pheidippides emerged from the Thinkery, appearing a few shades paler than he had previously. Strepsiades said that the young man would be his salvation. Strepsiades said that the last day of the month was coming up – the day that the Ancient Greeks called “Old and New Day” (118) – and he said that his son would save him from creditors on this day. Only – Pheidippides objected – how could two days be a single day, he said – how could there even be an Old and New Day? The two men discussed this, and Pheidippides’ displays in fine points of logic showed his father that he was indeed now schooled in rhetoric and sophistic thinking. The father and son hurried into their house to celebrate. And soon enough, the end of the month having arrived, the first of Strepsiades’ creditors showed up.

The first creditor was a very fat man, and as he hammered on the door, he said was there, at the end of the month, on the occasion called Old and New Day, to collect 1,200 drachmas that Strepsiades had borrowed in order to buy a horse. Strepsiades said it was absurd – he didn’t even like horses. The creditor asked him – would Strepsiades be willing to swear, by Zeus and every other god, that he owed nothing? Would Strepsiades dare to do this?

Strepsiades scoffed. He giggled and said that these gods were a hilarious idea. The fat creditor demanded a straight answer. He noticed that Strepsiades was holding a small pan – one used for kneading bread, and he asked if Strepsiades intended to pay him with a pan. A pan? said Strepsiades. Why, it wasn’t a pan, at all! It was a mini-pan! Socrates, after all, had taught him all about the precise use of words. Strepsiades said that if his creditor didn’t even know the difference between a pan, and a mini-pan, he wouldn’t even consider paying him. And so, the first of Strepsiades’ creditors thus stormed off, promising he’d get his payment.

A moment later, Strepsiades’ second creditor appeared – a younger man. The second creditor was a little worse for the wear, looking as though he had taken a beating. He sang sadly under his breath. This second creditor said the gods were set against him. He said Strepsiades needed to pay him. Strepsiades said the young man had lost his mind. And this downtrodden second creditor said this wasn’t the case at all – Strepsiades owed him money!

Strepsiades then began his argument. The rain, Strepsiades said, came from rain that had already fallen. The sun drew old rain up from the ground and made it new again. Didn’t the second young creditor know this? The young man said actually he didn’t know this. And Strepsiades seized on the young man’s ignorance. “Then how,” said Strepsaides, “can you claim the right to have your money back, if you have no knowledge of meteorology?” (122). The second young creditor said that Strepsiades needed to at least pay interest on the money he’d borrowed. Hearing the word interest, Strepsiades began a second argument. Water, he said, ran into the ocean all the time. And yet the ocean stayed the same height. And so why did this absurd young man – again, Strepsiades’ second creditor – why did this absurd young man think that his money should increase, when the ocean stayed the same level? Strepsiades told him to get lost, and chased the young man away with a whip before heading back into his house. He was, it seemed, victorious, and better yet, his son shared his great verbal prowess. The door latched shut. [music]

Strepsiades, Pheidippides, and the Final Debate

The chorus of Clouds, having witnessed Strepsiades’ harsh and dishonest conduct, said that the old farmer had become rather evil. He was openly refusing to pay money he had borrowed with oaths to the gods. The chorus of Clouds said that Strepsiades would soon regret the course of the day, because whatever he’d learned from Socrates and the Thinkery, his son had learned it, too.

As if on cue, sudden screams emerged from the house of Strepsiades. He ran out of his house, clutching his face, and Pheidippides came out afterwards. The son had been hitting the father! Strepsiades cursed his son and called him names, and Pheidippides said he quite loved being insulted. Also, Pheidippides said, a son was perfectly justified in beating up his father. Strepsiades, of course objected, and father and son squared off in the final logical debate of the play, which the Clouds announced that they would moderate. First, the Clouds asked Strepsiades to explain what had happened. Strepsiades did so.

Strepsiades said he’d asked his son to sing a song, accompanied by a lyre, over their dinner. But Pheidippides said that doing such things was antiquated, and idiotic – particularly the poet his father had requested was an old relic whom no one cared about. Strepsiades said he’d grinded his teeth at this – but he’d requested a different song – one by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus. And at this, young Pheidippides scoffed again – Aeschylus, he said, was tiresome and overrated. This made old Strepsiades even angrier – the venerable veteran Aeschylus, after all, was of his father’s generation.

And so Strepsiades made a final request. How about something modern? And so Pheidippides had recited something from a newfangled Euripides’ play – a speech from the play Aeolus, about a brother and sister having sex with one another. And that was about all old Strepsiades could handle. He began shouting, and Pheidippides began shouting, and Pheidippides started physically assaulting his father. Strepsiades said that he had once taken great care of Pheidippides when Pheidippides was a baby, brining him milk, and bread, and cleaning up his waste, and Pheidippides had then gone and beaten his father until old Strepsiades pooped his pants!

The chorus of Clouds remarked that this assault on a parent was over the top, and told young Pheidippides to defend himself for doing so. Pheidippides said he could absolutely do this – after all – he was now schooled in contemporary philosophy and the latest notions of morality and logic! Strepsiades said he wished the boy would just go back to his damned horses, but Pheidippides then began his case against his father.

Point one. Pheidippides said that his father had once beaten him, when he was young, because the old man cared about his son’s conduct and character. Why, then, shouldn’t the son beat the father, later in life, for the same reason? Point two. Young roosters fought with their fathers all the time. It was natural for humans to do the same. Point three. Pheidippides said he was justified in beating his mother for the same reason – after all, hadn’t she abused him, too, when he was young? Point four. If all of this seemed unconventional, why, then, new laws were being created all the time!

Now, old Strepsiades’ jaw was dropping further and further as this conversation unfolded. Finally, when he saw the full extent of his son’s topsy turvy morality, Strepsiades cursed Socrates, and newfangled philosophy, and said the Clouds were responsible for his son’s crooked behavior. How could they have done such a terrible thing?

The Clouds offered the following – very important – explanation. “We do the same to anyone,” they said, “that we / Perceive to be in love with wickedness: / We cast him into misery, so he / May learn that it is right to fear the gods” (128). Strepsiades looked at them for a long time, in this turning point of the play, and he realized that he had indeed been acting very irresponsibly. All his efforts, he said, had been in an effort to avoid paying the money that he owed. The old farmer turned to his son and told young Pheidippides it was time to murder Socrates and his henchmen. Yet Pheidippides said he’d have none of this, and further, that he still believed that Zeus was a myth. The young man went back into his house, and Strepsiades turned to a statue of the god Hermes, asking it for forgiveness. “Have pity on me,” said Strepsiades, “if a set of clever windbags made me take leave of my senses for a time” (128). Strepsiades asked if he ought to launch a lawsuit against the Thinkery.

But he decided not to. The Thinkery, he decided, deserved worse. He had a slave come out, and told the slave to climb up on the roof of the Thinkery and begin chopping its roof with a mattock. Soon, the building next door was under heavy assault. The roof began to give way, and Strepsiades scrambled up a ladder with a blazing torch and set the second floor of the Thinkery on fire. He then began slamming his maddock into its timbers.

Students began rushing out of the Thinkery. A sophist asked Strepsiades what on earth he was doing as the old man dashed his mattock into the building, and Strepsiades said he was “Chopping logic. . .of course” (129). Socrates stumbled out, coughing, and another of the school’s teachers hurled himself from an upper story window. The two leading sophists coughed and groveled on the ground, and Strepsiades yelled that this was what they deserved – after all, they’d insulted the gods and delved into useless absurdities of logic. Strepsiades told his slaves to chase the terrified philosophers away, and soon Strepsaides and his household chased Socrates and company off the stage, and out of the auditorium. Seeing the pandemonium, the chorus of Clouds voiced a final couplet: “Lead the way out,” they said, “we’ve done, I think I’d say, / Sufficient choral service for today” (130). And that’s the end. [music]

The Contemporary Athenian Response to The Clouds

Alright, it’s time for the part of the show in which we talk a little bit more about the history behind the work fo literature we’re covering – in this case The Clouds. Now, as you probably know if you’ve listened to other episodes in this sequence, the City Dionysia, at which The Clouds was first staged, was a competition. Tragedians and comedians staged their plays in an effort to get first prize laurels. At key moments in The Clouds, Aristophanes has his chorus jockey the audience and judges to vote for him. But although the play we just explored is undeniably funny, and although it undertakes a successful satire of Socrates and those like him, The Clouds, evidently, proved a flop. The Athenians who watched it in 423, for some reason, didn’t like it. Aristophanes revised it, and in a passage I didn’t quote – this part of the choral songs, the chorus leader who speaks for Aristophanes recalls the experience of writing The Clouds and having it rejected during its first staging. And this is a quote from the revised version.
So may I be victorious and men think well of me,
I thought that you an audience intelligent would be,
And also thought I’d never written any play so witty
As this – and that is why I first produced it in this city.
A lot of toil went into it – and yet my play retreated
By vulgar works of vulgar men unworthily defeated. (95)

So this play that’s been the central subject of our episode – for whatever reason, this play wasn’t liked by its original Athenian audience. Let’s talk about why.

When a play, like Medea or The Clouds – a play that we read and respect today – didn’t take first prize in Classical Athens, there was always a chance that it was simply upstaged by something really fantastic that’s now lost to us. And there’s always a chance that a choregoi – or one of the play’s producers, was disliked by the general public, and so his play would be voted down for that reason. But there may be more specific reasons why Aristophanes’ The Clouds was a flop. First. The Clouds is a piece of intellectual satire. It’s not a comedy with a stock plot, or archetypal characters. To understand The Clouds you do have to know what sophism is, and how it works. It’s hard to imagine that the middle and lower class members of Aristophanes’ audience cared too much about how rich youths in the city were being tutored. So that’s the first reason. Maybe this play was just a bit too intellectual to hit the audience’s comedic sweet spot.

Let’s talk about another reason why The Clouds wasn’t a big hit at its world premiere. Maybe Aristophanes’ audience in 423 found the play offensive. Now, if other surviving comedies can be relied on, Aristophanes’ audience wouldn’t have been offended by bathroom humor, or any of the stuff about penetration with vegetables or seductive young boys. All that was humdrum and fair game in Classical Athenian comedy, and as you’ll see next time, Lysistrata was just as racy, and won first prize. If The Clouds proved offensive, it might have been because of this. The play is bristling with sacrilege. The Thinkery quickly convinces the old farmer Strepsiades that Zeus doesn’t exist, and that Clouds and a Great Vortex are all that drive motion and existence. Strepsiades recants in the end, but maybe – maybe for the everyday pious masses in the audience, the damage had been done by then. To less educated audience members, then The Clouds might have been a mixture of religious impiety on one hand and incomprehensible philosophical satire on the other. And to Aristophanes’ aristocrats, the play might have been offensive for a different reason. Maybe to the aristocrats in the audience, the satire of Socrates and his sophist team members might have bit a bit close to home. Many of these people, after all, had been trained with sophist methods, and they’d had their kids trained by sophists. Some of these aristocrats might have been uncomfortable with the depiction of their city’s most well known sophist as a bamboozler whose face gets pooped on by a lizard.

Anyway, those are two likely reasons for the failure of The Clouds – one, it was too intellectually dense, and two, it seemed sacrilegious to the masses, and ungentlemanly to the aristocracy. But there’s another, major reason – one which is probably more obvious. And this third reason is that maybe, in spite of Socrates’ notorious ugliness, and the fact that even his disciple Plato conceded that Socrates didn’t bathe often enough, or wear shoes, even though it was really easy to make fun of him, maybe people really liked Socrates. Maybe, in spite of his unorthodoxy, he made a living in the city of Athens because he was a wonderful, fascinating person, and people loved him. Maybe Aristophanes’ audience in 423 BCE watched the vicious, no-holds-barred satire of Socrates, and said, “Hey, come on. Be nice.” Maybe they said, “Sure, Socrates isn’t much to look at, and he could use a bath, and he can be aggravating. But he’s our Socrates. He’s our pesky, dirty local philosopher. Go easy on him.” I think this is possible, too.

So the third possibility as to why Aristophanes’ The Clouds failed is that the play’s treatment of Socrates may have been unjustifiably harsh. This was certainly the viewpoint of Plato, who may have been born the very year that The Clouds premiered, and who, in his mid-to-late twenties, saw Socrates executed by the Athenian state. To the western world’s most famous philosopher, Aristophanes’ The Clouds was not a light piece of philosophical satire. No – to Plato, The Clouds was the beginning of a long series of inaccurate slanders of his beloved teacher, slanders which would eventually lead to Socrates’ death in prison in 399. Now, I don’t know how much you know about Socrates. But since it’s the central mission of The Clouds to make fun of Socrates, we should take a minute and go through some facts about Plato and the later life of Socrates – some well known, others less so. [music]

Plato’s Take on Aristophanes and The Clouds

David - The Death of Socrates

Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) is one of the most famous examples of neoclassical art.

Socrates, as most people know, was executed for crimes against the city of Athens. When Plato attended the trial of his teacher Socrates in 399, Plato wasn’t allowed to speak. We have no idea of what was said there, but in Plato’s Apology, written some time later in the 390s, he vindicated his earlier silence by saying quite a bit. Plato’s Apology is one of the most famous texts in world philosophy – the Apology is the one a lot of us read in junior high or high school, and it is Socrates’ long and frustrating explanation of why he’s willing to die for what appear to be false charges against him. In this dialogue – possibly Plato’s most dramatic and literary piece of work, Socrates, the main character, as usual, explains why his reputation has fallen, and he describes Aristophanes, in fact, and Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, as causes for the fall of his reputation. So here’s a quote from Plato’s Apology – the one about the death of Socrates. Socrates says,
What do the slanderers say? [Socrates asks in Plato’s Apology.] They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit. “Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.” That is the nature of the accusation, and that is what you have seen yourselves in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he can walk in the air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little — not that I mean to say anything disparaging of any one who is a student of natural philosophy.10

So there you have it. Plato’s Socrates feels that he has been badly misrepresented. He thinks that Aristophanes, and The Clouds, are major reasons why the Athenian public has a distorted view of him. Socrates – or the Platonic Socrates – emphasizes that his slow decline in reputation has been a result of the uncomprehending mockery with which he’s been portrayed in popular culture.

Well, Plato felt that his teacher had been maligned by Aristophanes in a work of fiction, and that this was part of the reason why Socrates had been executed. Now, what could Plato do in order to get revenge on Aristophanes for vilifying the venerable Socrates? Why, by doing the exact same thing Aristophanes had done, of course! Plato, around ten years after he wrote the Apology in the 490s, wrote a famous dialogue called the Symposium in the 480s. And in the Symposium, Aristophanes is a character – and not a very appealing one.

With the world's people; an account of the ethnic origin, primitive estate, early migrations, social evolution, and present conditions and promise of the principal families of men (1915) (14762199924)

A depiction of Socrates being lionized in Plato’s Symposium from around 1915. The reclining figure may be a drunken Aristophanes.

In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes shows up to a philosophical conversation hung over.11 He’s said to always be keeping company with Dionysus, god of wine, and Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and love. At one point, Plato’s Aristophanes is unable to speak because he’s eaten so much that he has the hiccups.12 Eventually, Aristophanes gives a rambling talk about the creation of mankind, but after this Socrates gives the company a much more climactic speech that ties together many themes in the conversation. Aristophanes refuses to acknowledge Socrates’ masterful wit, and Aristophanes ends up passing out drunk by dawn. It’s – the Symposium, by Plato, written in the 480s – it’s not quite the brutal satire of The Clouds, but the message is clear. Plato’s Socrates is a dignified and sober pursuer of the truth, and Plato’s Aristophanes is a glutton, and drunkard, and second-rate intellect.

So which is the real Socrates? And which is the real Aristophanes? And – maybe this is the heart of the matter – and did Aristophanes’ play The Clouds have something to do with the decline of Socrates’ reputation in Athens at the end of the 400s? Did a play involving farts, and lizard doo doo, and a stupid old farmer actually lead to the demise of the father of western philosophy?

The Specific Reasons for Socrates’ Execution

Well, we can’t say for sure. The Clouds certainly depicts Socrates as a rabble-rouser – as the sort of man who teaches youths to dismantle the beliefs and worldviews of their parents. The Clouds shows Socrates as an impious person who rejects the conventional Athenian pantheon. These were the reasons – state’s reasons for his execution in 399, according to the work of Plato and his contemporary Xenophon. But Aristophanes, rather than inventing these dangerous characteristics in Socrates, might have just been recording and embellishing something already there. And for another reason, we shouldn’t particularly blame Aristophanes for Socrates’ execution the way that Plato does. The usual reason we hear for Socrates’ execution was that he was “corrupting the youth of Athens.” But a very quick look into the late history of the Peloponnesian War shows us much more specific reasons for the persecution of Socrates by the Athenian state.

Twenty years or so after The Clouds was first staged, in other words, around 404 or 403, Socrates had some ill-advised political connections that would have made his life in Athens dangerous. Now, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War – this war that filled the lives of Aristophanes and Socrates – the later life of Socrates, at least. When Sparta won the Peloponnesian War, Sparta set up a bloody, ruthless oligarchy called the Thirty Tyrants. These pro-Spartan rulers were in power between 404 and 403 BCE, and they killed and they shackled proponents of democracy. Thousands of Athenians died. And during this oligarchy’s awful reign, many pro-democratic citizens of Athens fled to Thebes, where they would not be executed for their political beliefs. But Socrates did not. For whatever reason, he stayed under the anti-democratic regime of the Thirty Tyrants. And when the short reign of the Thirty Tyrants ended, and the pro-democratic elites poured back into Athens, Socrates might have been tainted with allegiances to the outgoing tyrannical regime. So that’s one big reason. Socrates also had had a long and torrid relationship with a man named Alcibiades. Alcibiades was Athenian, but he switched sides multiple times during the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades had been implicated in a flagrant piece of blasphemy in 415, when many Athenian statues of Hermes – statues with penises protruding from their bases, were mutilated. Hermes’ statues had their penises broken off, and believe it or not, this was a seriously ill omen, and Alcibiades was blamed. Socrates, who already evidently had a reputation for sacrilege by 415, was probably also tainted by this famous scandal.

So when Socrates was put on trial in 399 and executed, there were many forces acting against him – some philosophical, but others political and endemic to the ideological microclimates of war torn Athens at the close of the 400s. Aristophanes might have been a small part of the general sentiment against the famous philosopher, but Aristophanes had a good deal amount of help. [music]

Socrates and Aristophanes: Kindred Spirits?

So now, you know The Clouds. You also know that Plato’s Socrates was a fictional character, and that the real Socrates is hidden somewhere behind all of the fictional and philosophical accounts of him. The main idea of this episode was its title – The Great Thundercrap, and I think a “Great Thundercrap” is a memorable way to summarize Aristophanes’ salvo against Socrates and sophist philosophy in general.

Greek dramas (1900) (14781579042) Aristophanes

A bust of the author

While Aristophanes’ assessment of sophistry as a “Great Thundercrap” is pervasive throughout The Clouds, I think there’s just a bit more to The Clouds than brutal satire. Aristophanes mocks sophistry, but he also finds that he has a lot in common with it. Because if sophistry aims to dismantle all argumentation for the sake of advancing a position, Aristophanes’ comedy also seeks to dismantle all argumentation – only – for the sake of producing laughter. The play does end on a conservative note, of course – old Strepsiades repents to the gods and literally begins burning down the sophist school next door. And yet throughout The Clouds, Aristophanes engages in sophistry with all the zest and enthusiasm of a sophist, gleefully dismissing the notion of gods, and advancing controversial arguments against everything from language to parenting, from the gods of Mount Olympus to the farts of gnats. For this reason, I think, you can’t just look at The Clouds as a conservative play against new intellectual movements in Athens. Plato might have thought Aristophanes was a villain who drove Socrates to his demise, but the real Aristophanes must have looked at the real Socrates as something of a kindred spirit. Comedians and philosophers might have their differences, but both, after all, are in the business of turning things on their heads, and taking a good, long look at the fleas, and gnats, and geckos, that lie beneath. [music]

Moving On to Lysistrata

Before we part ways today, a couple of quick things. One, in a couple of months I’ll be releasing somewhere between twenty-five to thirty-five hours of bonus content all at once – some more shows on Bronze Age literature, and then the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and also the most popular Greek myths. You can read about that at literatureandhistory.com under a link that says “Bonus Content.” Next thing, I have created a survey on the website. It’s anonymous, so you can say anything you want. If you have any advice for me on how to make this thing better, or any suggestions on what you want to hear in upcoming shows. If you have any suggestions for me and don’t feel like emailing, or if you want to just quickly say, “nice job, bro,” that survey will do the trick. And last thing, if you’d like to say “nice job, bro” in a public place, I’d love to have some more reviews on iTunes and other content providers. I’m sure if you listen to podcasts you get hit up for iTunes reviews all the time, so I try not to do it very often. But, you know, those reviews help determine whether this podcast shows up in various search applications, and reading them also makes me happy. When you’re researching and recording stuff in the evenings and weekends, and going to work during the day, it is great to read an iTunes review that confirms that people out there are listening to your work and that it is in some small way having a positive effect on their lives. That’s it then, for announcements – the upcoming bonus content, the existing survey, and a humble request for iTunes reviews, or reviews anywhere else you can write them.

Wait – one more thing. A couple folks have mentioned wanting transcripts of episodes. Dude. Just to make sure that everyone knows, every single episode transcript is posted in full at literatureandhistory.com. I spend a lot of time with each show doing footnotes and recommendations for further listening at the end of each transcribed episode, too, if you really like a topic and want to read more about it or listen to more podcasts on it. Also, there’s a search box on my site that searches all the text of all episodes. So if you’re researching something or want to track something down that you heard on the show, it should be really easy to do. I always wished podcasts that I listened to did that, so I did it for my own.

Okay, back go business. Next time, we’re going to read Aristophanes’ most famous play, Lysistrata. Lysistrata, which premiered twelve years after The Clouds, shows us a whole different kind of satire. While The Clouds takes as its target the emerging ranks of the sophists, Lysistrata pokes fun at the enterprise of making war. The next show will take us through the plot and history of this tremendous play, we’ll also learn about Aristophanes’ long career as a political satirist – one who took huge personal risks to denigrate warmongering opportunists, and when threatened with imprisonment and worse, refused to back down. So in the next episode, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry – you’ll be made to feel slightly morally uncomfortable, because it’s ancient Greek comedy, and you never know what to expect. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ve got a comedy song for you if you want to hear it. If not, see you next time for Lysistrata.

Still here? Okay. Well, doing a comedy song at the end of a comedy play is mildly redundant and – well – following the jokes of Aristophanes is pretty damned intimidating. But I thought I’d give it a shot and do a really short little ditty to celebrate Aristophanes. One of the things Aristophanes does in The Clouds is that he has two different moments of shameless self-promotion – even threatening the audience with rain and storms if they don’t vote his play first place. I got to thinking – what if I got sent in time and help Aristophanes write a song about himself to put in one of his plays? Not that he would need me – of course – the guy could obviously handle himself, but anyway I thought that in the entirely possible and very realistic event that I were shipped back 2,500 years into the past and then commissioned to write a brief choral interlude to an Aristophanes play, this would be the one I’d write. It’s an a capella tune called “Aristophanes Barbershop,” harkening back to my days of high school choir when I and other likeminded idiots would arrange funny songs and sing them for people. I hope it’s funny, and next time Aristophanes is going to bring the house down with Lysistrata.

1.^ Quoted in Bloom, Harold. Dramatists and Dramas. Chelsea House Publications, 2006, p. 16.

2.^ The socially critical edge of Aristophanic comedy was most certainly one of the things Heine prized about the writer’s work.

3.^ Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Alan H. Sommerstein. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Kindle Edition, Location 484.

4.^ Diogenes Laertius wrote that “Protagoras was the first to claim that there are two contradictory arguments about everything, and he used them to develop the consequences of contradictory premises, being the first to use this argumentative technique. He began one of his books as follows: ‘Man is the measure of all things – of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.’ He used to say that the mind was nothing but the senses, as Plato says in Theaetetus, and that everything is true. He began another of his books as follows: ‘Where the gods are concerned, I am not in a position to ascertain that they exist, or that they do not exist. There are many impediments to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of human life.’” Quoted in Waterfield, Robin. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, p. 211.

5.^ Ibid, p. 211.

6.^ Ibid p. 66.

7.^ This is debated and debatable. Certainly none of these ideas show up in the literary treatments of Aristophanes, who would have known the philosopher and his theories directly. The Orphic tradition, and that of Dionysus Zagreus and the Pythagorean cult, all placed emphasis on abstemiousness and concentration on the spiritual world. This turn away from materiality must have blossomed during and after the Peloponnesian War, as Athens fell out of prominence during the early life of Plato. Plato also wrote The Republic after traveling to Sicily and being exposed to Pythagoreanism some time around 390-388.

8.^ Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Alan H. Sommerstein. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 75. Further references are noted parenthetically in the transcription.

9.^ His rapid fire references to Heraclean baths, his puns on the word agora, and references to the story of Peleus and Thetis are too complex to go through in a podcast form, but see notes 118-122 in Aristophanes Lysistrata and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Alan H. Sommerstein. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2002 for the details.

10.^ Plato. Six Great Dialogues: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, The Republic. Dover Publications. Kindle Edition, pp. 2-3.

11.^ Ibid, p. 145.

12.^ Ibid, p. 152.