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The Trial of Socrates: 
Aristophanes’ Clouds, Part 2

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Part 2 of 3

Author’s Note:

The following text is a transcript by V. S. of part of my lecture on Aristophanes’ Clouds. As usual, I have edited this transcript to remove excessive wordiness and any factual errors. The quotes come from the translation of the Clouds in Four Texts on Socrates. Click here to read the first part of this lecture.

Knowledge of Human Nature

What the natural philosophers, the Sophists, and the “New Age” counter-culture of the day have in common is a certain critical distance from the reigning conventions. Aristophanes returns to the conventions of the city and embraces most of them, but he is still critical of them and takes a critical distance from them. And the step that he takes outside the conventional viewpoint is made possible by an appeal to nature. So, even he is a follower of the clouds, and that’s really an important dramatic detail here. Later on, as it turns out, he’s the leader of the clouds. Not just a follower but their leader, because he is their spokesman.

It’s possible for people to criticize conventions of society “within” convention by stepping back from one convention and using another one basically as a lens for criticism. But you can’t really take the whole into view that way. You’re always “inside” it and depending on it. If you’re going to take the whole of the human world into your view, you have to find a perspective outside of it, from where you can see it.

It’s much easier to draw a map of a building if you can step back from it, and see the whole contour of it, than if you’re wandering around inside, trying to figure out how the whole thing fits together. So, if you’re going to have a holistic understanding of the nature of human things, you’ll need to have a standpoint outside of the human world from which to see them. If you’re going to have an understanding of human convention, you’re going to have to have a natural standpoint, from which to see the world of convention and take it in as a whole picture.

Nature provides that standpoint. This is why people are constantly trying to get to what’s natural. We want to know what’s permanent and what’s not. Because if you remain entirely within the realm of convention it’s very easy to mistake things that are merely conventional for things that are natural. People do that all the time. People travel around to different cultures and suddenly realize things that seemed entirely natural to them really aren’t natural in a sense. They’re “second nature,” meaning that they’re deeply embedded conventions.

One of the things that’s interesting about the clouds, too, is that they take on the shapes of things, and they reveal the natures of people. The clouds are great judges of character. It’s discussed how the clouds, when they come into the presence of a coward, will take on the shape of a deer.

Strepsiades says “They’re like spread out wool, not women, by Zeus, not at all. They don’t look like women. They look like big balls of wool. These have noses!” (p. 29). Now, of course, Socrates is famous for his big Karl Maldenesque nose, so the clouds have taken on the shape of Socrates’ nose. Then Strepsiades goes through a list of how the clouds reveal people’s inner nature by taking on their shapes (p. 30).

Now, this shows that the clouds have an insight into human nature, and later on the clouds make it very clear that they have grave reservations about Strepsiades’ fitness for undergoing the course of study that he wants to get into. Socrates doesn’t have such reservations, though, and this is a very important issue.

Socrates has merely token secrecy measures. He has a token interview; a token initiation to get into the thinkery. But when you really look at it carefully, it’s a miserable token because it doesn’t work. Socrates has absolutely no sense that Strepsiades is not the right kind of person to initiate into the secrets of nature, even though he has ample opportunity to determine this before he takes him into the thinkery. Socrates is just a terrible judge of character.

But the clouds aren’t. What the clouds represent is, in a sense, knowledge not just of nature in the non-human sense, but also knowledge of the dynamics of human nature as well. But Socrates is unaware of that. The clouds represent wisdom derived from nature, but it’s possible to derive wisdom about human beings from a study of nature too. Socrates is a natural philosopher who looks away from the human things to huge things like planetary bodies and tiny things like gnats and fleas but completely leaves out the realm of the middle where we live. We’re middle-sized things. Socrates has no interest in that.

Socrates’ conception of nature is much narrower than the conception of nature represented by the clouds. So, in a sense, the clouds are wiser than Socrates because they represent a wisdom according to nature that has a much more expansive notion of what nature is. In fact, when you get right down to it, Socrates is a fool in this play. He’s the butt of humor because he behaves in a foolish way. Why does he behave foolishly? Because with all of his scientific knowledge, he has no knowledge of human nature, and therefore he does not act prudently. When it comes to his conduct, it is extremely flawed, because he doesn’t understand human beings and how human events take place.

The Non-Theistic Understanding of Nature

The next sort of interchange is really interesting. Socrates goes on to explain how the clouds are the only goddesses and all the others are drivel.

“And what about Zeus?” Strepsiades asks. Socrates says, “What Zeus? Don’t babble. Zeus doesn’t even exist” (p. 131).

Then Strepsiades says, “Who makes it rain then?” Because, of course, Zeus was the one who was supposed to make it rain. Socrates says, well, the clouds make it rain. When have you ever seen rain without clouds? But if Zeus makes it rain then you’d think he could make it rain any time whether there are clouds or not. Strepsiades finds that rather convincing.

“Then who makes it thunder?” he asks. And Socrates says, well, the clouds make it thunder when they roll around and crash into one another up in heaven. They make noise. Strepsiades finds that interesting.

But then he says, “Well, who moves the clouds around? Isn’t that Zeus?” Socrates says, “No, they’re borne along by necessity.” “When they are filled up with much water and are compelled to be borne along by necessity, hanging down full of rain, then they heavily fall into each other, bursting and clapping.”

“And who is it that comels them be borne along?” Strepsiades asks. “Is it Zeus?” And Socrates says, “Not in the least. It’s the ethereal vortex. It’s the vortex that causes things to happen.”

This is Anaximander’s view, for instance, that there’s this great vortex which is the source of all motion. Empedocles had a similar view that there’s a vortex, a swirling force, that sets the rest of the cosmos in motion; the beating heart that sends everything else coursing around.

Strepsiades thinks, “Vortex? I hadn’t noticed that Zeus doesn’t exist and that instead of him vortex is now king.” The Greek word for vortex is dinos. And a form of Zeus is dio. Now dinos could be understood as the diminutive or the offspring of dios. So what’s happened here is that poor Strepsiades thinks that dinos, meaning vortex, is really the son of Zeus and that Zeus has been ousted by his own son, and there’s a new king of the gods.

Of course, this is perfectly consistent with Greek mythology, because Zeus ousted his father who ousted his father before him. So Strepsiades immediately taken this notion of a vortex, which is just a natural force, and personified it and turned it into another god. This is the pattern of Strepsiades’ thinking. He really can’t conceive of a non-theistic notion of nature.

Then, of course, Strepsiades wants to know about thunder. Socrates says, “Well, have you ever eaten some stew and gotten gas from it and it rumbles through your belly?” And Strepsiades says, “Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. That’s happened to me many times.” And he goes through this whole scatological routine.

This is very interesting, because what Socrates is doing is he’s trying to sap sublimity and majesty from heavenly forces by explaining them away on the analogy of the lowest of human things, namely our gas and our farting and our tummies rumbling.

Then Strepsiades gets to the thing that really concerns him here. “What about the thunderbolt? Because isn’t it the case that Zeus smites perjurers with his thunderbolt?” And that’s what really concerns him because, of course, he’s going to lie. He’s going to go and be sworn in, the equivalent of putting his hand on the Bible by swearing an oath to Zeus, and then he’s going to lie when he has to go to court. So, he wants to know if Zeus is going to punish him.

And what Socrates says is “No. The thunderbolt is caused by purely natural phenomena.” Dry wind gets clogged up in the clouds, then the clouds are swollen up, and they burst, and the wind rushes out of the clouds very quickly and is ignited by the swiftness of the force, so you get the thunderbolt. Of course, it’s very clear that the lightning falls on the guilty and the innocent alike. Zeus sent lightning down to smite one of his own temples! Lightning hits oak trees. Oak trees don’t perjure themselves. They did nothing wrong. Clearly, there’s no Providence here. It’s just natural, random phenomena.

Strepsiades is enormously relieved by this, because now the last scruple has been hung, so to speak. He doesn’t have to worry about Zeus, and so he feels that he can now go forward with his plan to cheat his way out of his debt.

Strepsiades Enters the Thinkery

Then the clouds address Strepsiades, and they say, “OK, old man, you’re going to have to give up everything; food and sleep and friends and so forth and wine and gymnastics and fun and study.” They’re not sure that he’s capable of it, and they’re right to be concerned with this. Socrates says, “Now, won’t you believe in no god but ours? This chaos [meaning the vortex] and the clouds and the tongue” (p. 133). This is their trinity: the chaos, the clouds and the tongue, meaning the art of speaking.

Then Strepsiades goes through a long list of things that he promises to do and what he wants to become (page 133). I always hear these lists as sort of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. Finally, he goes into the thinkery

But the clouds deliver a few prophecies. This is very important. The clouds prophesy about the future of human behavior and, again, that shows an understanding of human nature and also of the way society works. They know that what goes around comes around. Socrates doesn’t.

Strepsiades says, “I don’t want anything great. I just want to get out of my debts.” And the chorus responds with the Delphic utterance, “Then you’ll get what you yearn for since you have no desire for great things” (p. 134). That could mean that he’ll get small things, but it could also mean bad things. All oracles utter such purposely ambiguous statements.

Then a little later on page 135 near the bottom, the clouds say, “I think you’re going to need blows.” You’re going to need a little bit of beating to get this into your head. Of course, that foreshadows what happens to him later at the hands of his son.

And then finally there’s this last little bit of slapstick as he goes to the thinkery, and he acts like he’s going down into the underworld. So, he takes off his cloak because you enter the underworld stripped. He says, “Put a honey cake in my hand” and they go down into the cave. It’s a katabasis; the descent into the underworld which is an image that you get in the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Katabasis literally means just “going down.” In the context of the Greek, it refers to stories of descent into the underworld, and so the thinkery is a kind of underworld, which brings to mind how it’s described at the very beginning. It’s a thinkery of wise souls, the shades, the souls of the dead.

So, he goes into the thinkery and then the first choral interlude takes place.

[During the interlude, an indeterminate stretch of time passes, during which Strepsiades is indoors being educated. When the interlude ends, Socrates and Strepsiades emerge and we see what he has learned.]

[. . .] Socrates wants to quibble and hair-split about words. Poor Strepsiades says, “Why am I learning things that we all know?” (p. 144). Socrates says, “For nothing, by Zeus!” Again, this is the theorist’s contempt for practical concerns. We’re learning this for nothing. That’s what’s so good about it. This is how he understand it.

Finally, Socrates forces Strepsiades to go and crawl under his blanket and come up with a thought, or he’s going to be booted out of the thinkery. So, the first thing Strepsiades comes up with is how to get out of his lawsuit. He says, “I have an idea. I’ll hire a witch to charm the moon out of the sky by capturing its reflection in a mirror, and then I’ll put it in a little feathered box. Then the lunar months won’t change, so I won’t owe the interest on my loan” (p. 146). Socrates thinks that’s pretty good. It’s not great, but it’s an attempt.

But the next thing that Strepsiades comes up with is really quite good. He says, “How about when they write out an indictment of me, I take a glass lens and stand a little ways off and reflect the sun and burn the indictment off the book.” And Socrates says, “Now, that’s a great idea!” Of course, that’s applied science, right? It’s science applied to mischief.

Again, there’s this connection that’s being shown between the Sophists and the natural philosophers, between the collapse of morality in the human realm and the investigation of nature scientifically. The thing that connects them is the death of Zeus. It’s only when Socrates shows that you don’t need the gods to explain nature that Strepsiades feels completely comfortable behaving badly. Science causes morality to collapse by undermining religious sanctions for moral behavior. That’s the message here.

The third thing Strepsiades comes up with, however, is quite shocking, and it leads to him being expelled, being flunked out of the thinkery. Socrates asks, “What if you get indicted? What will you do next?” And Strepsiades says, “Well, I’ll run away and hang myself. That way they can’t bring me to trial.” That’s kind of extreme. Of course, it would work, but it’s foolish.

But Socrates finds it so intolerable that he boots him out of the thinkery. Now, after all the stupidity he’s endured with Strepsiades, you’d think that this wouldn’t be any worse. But for some reason the idea of not preserving one’s life seems especially offensive to Socrates. That’s very interesting. Socrates seems to put a premium on self-preservation.

That’s very different from the Socrates you get in Plato who doesn’t put a premium on self-preservation but on doing the right thing. The idea of giving up one’s life for anything seems entirely irrational for Socrates here. That means there are no things he values more than his own skin when you get right down to it.

So, the clouds advise Strepsiades that the only way out of his ruin now is to send his son to the thinkery. So, Pheidippides is finally forced to go into the thinkery. But before he goes into the thinkery, Socrates says, “I’m not going to tell him myself which of the speeches is the best [the Just or the Unjust]. I’ll let the speeches teach him.”

The Debate Between the Just and Unjust Speeches

Then the Just and the Unjust Speech come out of the thinkery personified and have a debate. This is truly magnificent. Let’s look at the contest between the Just and the Unjust Speech.

The Just Speech says:

I will speak then of the ancient education as it was established when I was flourishing, speaking the just things and when moderation was believed in. First, it is needful that no one hear a boy muttering a sound. Next, that those from the same neighborhood walk on the streets here in good order. That the cythera teachers lightly clad in a group even if the snow came down like barley meal. Next again, he used to teach them to sing a song by heart standing with their thighs apart. “Pallas, terrible sacker of cities” or “A far-reaching shout,” pitched the harmony that their fathers handed down. If anyone was ribald or added any modulation of the sort they use nowadays he would be thrashed and beaten with many blows as one who had effaced the muses.

So, children are to be seen and not heard. They’re to learn patriotic songs. They’re to march around in little formations lightly clad so they won’t get soft and effeminate. If they try to change the songs handed down from the past they’ll be thrashed for effacing the muses. This is the old-fashioned education, and it’s supposed to produce moderation and the other virtues the Greeks prized: moderation, courage, piety, and so forth.

It was needful for the boys to keep their thighs covered while sitting at the gymnastics trainers so as to show nothing cruel to those outside. Next again, when they’ve stood up they had to smooth the sand back again and be mindful not to leave behind an image of puberty for their lovers.

Now we start getting an insight into one of the fascinations of the Just Speech. The Just Speech has a strange fascination with the genitalia of pubescent boys. He’s fascinated with the ancient Greek institution of pederasty. He’s a little more fascinated by it than might seem appropriate.

At that time, no boy would anoint himself below the navel so that dew and down bloomed on their private parts like fruit. Nor would he make up a soft voice and go to his lover, he himself pandering himself with his eyes. Nor was it allowed to him at dinner to help himself to the radishes, nor to snatch dill or parslsey from his elders, nor to eat relishes, nor to giggle, nor to cross his legs.

The Unjust Speech basically just says, “Yes, this reeks of Leave It to Beaver.” This theme runs through the play. The Unjust Speech always treats anything that’s old as old-fashioned and silly. The Unjust Speech has a sense of progress, that things are getting better and better, whereas the Just Speech has a sense that things are getting worse to the extent that we depart from the old ways. So, the Unjust Speech makes fun of things that are old-fashioned throughout.

The Just Speech says, “Yes, but these are the things from my education which nurtured the men who fought at Marathon.” The equivalent of the World War Two generation today. They went out and beat the Persians. We might have been square, but we were very tough back then. The Just Speech then accuses the Unjust Speech: “But you teach them how to bundle themselves up in their cloaks right away. So then I’m ready to choke whenever someone at the panathenaea who ought to be dancing holds his shield in front of his haunch having no care for Tritogeneia.”

The point is that today the youth are soft. They’re bundled up in their cloaks so they won’t catch the sniffles. They don’t know the proper warrior dances and things like this.

And so the Just Speech says finally to Pheidippides, “In view of these things, lad, be bold and choose me, the stronger speech. You’ll have knowledge of how to hate the marketplace and keep away from the baths and to be ashamed at shameful things and to be inflamed if anyone mocks you.” There’s a sense of honor that’s a part of the old-fashioned education.

“And to stand up from your seat for your elders when they approach.” Old-fashioned respect.

“And not to misbehave towards your own parents and not to do anything shameful that would tarnish the statue of awe. And not to dart into a dancing girl’s house lest you be broken off from your good fame by being hit with a fruit by a whore or gaping at the things there. And not to talk back to your father at all and not maliciously to remind him, by calling him Iapetus at his age, when he nourished you as a nestling.” Don’t make the old man feel like an old man. Respect him.

Of course, the Unjust Speech says, “You’ll be a goody two-shoes. People will think you’re just a baby.”

And then, in a passage that is beautiful in some ways as well as funny, the Just Speech says:

Yes, but you’ll pass your time in the gymnasium, sleek and flourishing, not mouthing prickly perversities in the marketplace like they do nowadays. And you won’t be dragged into court over a greedy, contradicting, shystering petty affair. Rather you’ll go down to the academy and run under the sacred olive trees with the moderate youth of your own age. You’ll be crowned with a wreath of white leaves smelling of yew and of leisure and of the white poplar shedding its leaves and in the season of spring delight whenever the plane tree whispers to the elm. But to do these things that I tell you and pay mind to them you will always have a sleek chest, bright complexion, large shoulders, slender tongue, large buttocks, small penis.

This brings us to a very strange notion. If you look at Greek statues, it’s very odd you find these statues of mature men with child’s genitalia. Tiny little penises. And you wonder, why is this? That was just to their taste. They thought that this was more attractive, and they also thought that large buttocks were attractive. So, large buttocks and a small penis were considered attractive on men. Things do change.

The Just Speech continues: “If you pursue what we do nowadays, first you will have a pale complexion, small shoulders, narrow chest, big tongue, small buttocks, big haunch, long decree.” Then he says if you listen to the Unjust Speech you’ll end up with bad pederasty. He condemns pederasty, but it’s apparent he’s fascinated with it at the same time.

Then the Unjust Speech takes his turn. Oh, and another thing I should mention that I skipped over is that when the two speeches first come out the Just Speech begins by insulting the audience. He calls them mindless and corrupt, whereas the Unjust Speech flatters them and says, “no, they’re wise.” You see the sort of pattern with the Unjust Speech here too. The Unjust Speech is a flatterer. That’s the first thing you notice about him. But let’s look at what he says next at the top of 158. I’ll just read his refutation of the Just Speech.

He says first that he won’t let you wash in warm water because that makes people soft. The Just Speech says, “In our days, the men took cold baths.” And yet, who is the toughest of them all? Isn’t it Heracles? Well, the Greeks called hot springs or hot baths the “baths of Heracles.” You’ve never seen a cold bath of Heracles, have you? No? Well, there you are then. If Heracles is the toughest of all, and he took warm baths then who are you to say that cold baths are necessary to give good character?” That’s the first refutation.

It’s very important also that the Unjust Speech asserts that he wants the Just Speech to go ahead first. Because he can’t make a speech on his own. He has to wait until the Just Speech speaks and then he picks holes in what the Just Speech says. He’s parasitic on what the Just Speech says.

The next argument is this: He says that you shouldn’t hang around the marketplace. That’s a bad thing to do. But if you look at Homer, isn’t Nestor, the wisest of the Greeks, an orator, a man of the public place, the marketplace? Yes? Well, there you go then.

Then the next argument is this. It’s against the idea of being moderate. “Again, he also says that there should be moderate. These are two of the greatest evils. For whom have you seen anything good happen to because of being moderate? Speak up, and refute me by telling who! Who has ever been well served by moderation?” He says, “There are many. Peleus, at any rate, got his sword because of this.” “A sword? A pretty gain the miserably unhappy man got. Hyperbolus of the land market got many talents—talents were a certain weight of silver or gold—because of villainy, but no, by Zeus, no sword.” He’s saying moderate men don’t flourish. They finish last. Nice guys finish last. Villains get ahead. Moderation, therefore, isn’t a virtue.

He then refers to other myths. He goes on with this myth of Peleus and Thetis. He says, “Well, you know, Thetis abandoned Peleus. She went off and abandoned him for he wasn’t hubristic or pleasant to spend all night with in the bed-clothes. A woman delights in being treated wantonly, but you are a big Chronos.” Chronos, of course, refers to the ancient times. You’re an old fogey is what he’s saying. So, he’s saying that moderation isn’t a virtue because you don’t have any fun if you’re moderate. In fact, you finish last.

And then he goes on and talks about the other things you’re denied through moderation. “Consider, lad, all that moderation involves and how many pleasures you’re going to be deprived of.” Here’s one of the hooks: pleasure. The Sophists were, again, hedonists, and their great appeal was to try and make their life seem the most pleasurable. “Would they deprive you of boys, women, kottabos (which was a drinking game), relishes, drinking, boisterous laughter? But what is living worth if you are deprived of all these things? Well then, from here I go on to the necessities of nature.” Here we have this notion of necessity. “What if, through the necessities of nature, you have sex with a married woman and you’re caught? What do you say to the husband? Well, if you listen to me, you’ll say, ‘Didn’t Zeus get bested in love? Who are you to be any better than Zeus?’” He appeals to the model of the gods, and the gods are doing all kinds of bad things.

The last thing he deals with is the issue of buggery. To the ancient Greeks, passive anal homosexual intercourse was considered to be dishonorable. Yet, of course, it happened all the time. On the one hand, it was strictly a bad thing. But on the other hand, it was a very common bad thing that people did. So, the Just Speech has condemned buggery and the Unjust Speech responds, “Where do all the politicians come from? The buggard. What about all the tragedians? Well, they were buggered too. What about the public advocates? They were buggered.” Then he says, “What about the audience here?” And you can imagine him looking out into the audience and saying, “Well, he was. And he was. And he has!” Of course, everyone’s laughing. “They’re all buggered! You debauches!” And then he takes off his clothes and deserts to the other side. The Just Speech deserts the field. He’s been bested.

The Weaknesses of the Just Speech

Well, this is an extraordinary little exchange. If you look at it carefully, you see that there are all kinds of things that Aristophanes is pointing to that constitute the weaknesses of the Just Speech. Aristophanes is basically on the side of the Just Speech. Yet, at the same time, he recognizes that the Just Speech has weaknesses, and it’s the weaknesses of the Just Speech that he would like to point out as the very causes for its losing.

I can think of five things, basically.

First of all, the Just Speech doesn’t know the art of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. The fact of the matter is that persuasion is just an art, and that means it’s morally neutral. You can persuade people of good things as well as of bad things. So, it’s sort of silly to allow all the scoundrels to practice rhetoric and not learn rhetoric yourself if you want to fight them. The Just Speech doesn’t know rhetoric because he begins by insulting his audience, whereas the Unjust Speech begins by flattering them which is a clear sign of superior rhetorical skill.

Now, another thing is this: the Just Speech doesn’t know how to defend what you could call natural inequality and natural authority. Where this comes out very clearly is in relationship to the gods. Heracles takes warm baths, so why can’t I? Or, why can’t we? That’s the question. Well, one could answer that by simply saying Heracles was the offspring of a god, and you’re not. So, maybe Heracles doesn’t need to take as many cares to make himself tough as a mere mortal does. We’re not on equal ground with Heracles. He’s better than us. There’s a natural inequality that exists there, and therefore we can’t expect to act in the same way.

The same point goes when he appeals to the example of Zeus. Yes, Zeus has been cheated on and cheated on many people. But Zeus is a god, and we are not. Hera is the goddess of the family, yet she also cheats on her husband just as the husband cheats on her. Zeus is the patron of the patriarchal family, yet he’s also an adulterer which undermines the family. So, why shouldn’t we all be adulterers too? Well, because Zeus is a god, and we’re not.

You see, the Unjust Speech basically says we should do as the gods do, not as the gods say. The gods don’t practice marital fidelity, but they tell us that we should. Since we’re not on equal terms with them it’s possible for them to say for us to do one thing but yet not practice it themselves. It’s only in a case where you’re on equal terms with somebody that it’s right to object to their hypocrisy, in a sense. When you’re a kid and your parents say they want you to go to bed at nine o’clock, and you say, “But you don’t go to bed at nine o’clock!” The proper response is, “I’m older than you, and I know what’s in your interests, and that’s that. So, you go to bed at 9 o’clock.” It’s not equal between us. There’s a natural authority that parents have over children or gods have over mortals and a natural inequality that exists. The authority is based on the inequality in some sense. Parents are wiser than children, and gods are wiser than mortals. But the Just Speech doesn’t have any way of defending that, and so as soon as these inequalities are pointed out he just sort of gives up the ghost. He gives up the argument, and that’s a deep flaw.

Put it this way, part of what Aristophanes is pointing towards is the recognition that inequality is a necessary lesson to learn from nature. We have to recognize that nature doesn’t cut us equally. Because of inequality, specifically the inequalities of wisdom but also the inequalities of age, there are inequalities of treatment or proper behavior. You can never treat your parents as equals, and they can never see you as equals. That’s just sort of the way things are. Even if you’re much wiser than they are or smarter or better educated, they always see you as a kid. There’s an inequality there that can’t be erased.

A third point is related to the second, which is that the Just Speech appeals to myth and to the poets to back up his education. Yet, the Greek myths were extremely bad sources of moral examples. Now, of course, you could say we are supposed to do as the gods say but not as they do. But still, the better thing would be to have better myths, better gods. Gods that you could actually look up to, which the Greeks certainly couldn’t do. So, the attempt to found morality on the Greek gods is a very, very foolish undertaking in Aristophanes’ view.

There’s a fourth point that I think is very important and that really comes in at the end with this whole issue of buggery, because on the one hand the Just Speech wants to maintain certain ideals of sexual morality that certain things are dishonorable or shameful. Yet, as soon as he’s confronted with the fact that people aren’t up to maintaining that standard his reaction is simply to abandon the standard. But that’s a weakness in his position.

The weakness comes from this fact: that he is not willing in some way to tolerate human hypocrisy or human moral failure. Yet if you maintain high moral standards it is inevitable that people are going to fail to meet them, given human nature. So, therefore, one of the costs of maintaining high moral standards is having to be somewhat tolerant of the human propensity to fail to meet them. Because if you have very high ideals, and you can’t recognize the necessity that people are going to fail to meet them, the tendency is just to abandon the ideals.

Put it this way: the Just Speech has no tolerance for the fact that there is a gap between real human behavior and ideal human behavior and, therefore, since he can’t bring real behavior up to the ideal, he abandons the ideal and just gives in to what’s real. He, in a sense, lowers his standards because he can’t abide any difference between what’s ideal and what’s real. So, he just abandons his ideals. He abandons his standards.

It’s these five characteristics, I think, of the Just Speech that Aristophanes thinks cause it to fail. These are the precise things, I think, that Aristophanes would want to amend about the traditional Greek understanding of things.

He wants to bring in an understanding of rhetoric.

He wants to bring in a notion that there are certain natural inequalities that lead to unequal forms of treatment. You can defend conventional inequalities on the basis of natural inequalities.

You should cease to appeal to myth to give reasons for being moral. There are natural reasons for being moral as Strepsiades discovers in this play.

You need to have some sort of tolerance for the gap between ideals of human behavior and human reality because if you don’t we are either going to spend our time futilely berating people to become better than they really can be, or we will simply abandon all moral ideals and just give in to whatever bad behavior people are habituated to.

There’s one fifth item too and that’s this: there is no real room for pleasure in the Just Speech’s worldview and this is one of its weaknesses. The Just Speech never tries to show that old fashioned virtues have its pleasures too. He’s just saying that if you don’t do this you’ll be thrashed. Well, fine, but is there anything in it for me if I do it, besides just avoiding a thrashing? That’s an important thing to talk about. Aristotle in his Ethics, for instance, is very, very good at trying to show that noble behavior has its more refined pleasures too, as a way of refuting the claims that the only pleasurable life is the life of immoral, hedonistic self-gratification. Yet, that’s not part of the Just Speech and, therefore, it’s a major weakness in the Just Speech.

The Conclusion of the Clouds

Now, let me just sort of sprint to the end of the play. Strepsiades’ son, Pheidippides, comes out of the thinkery and the father gives him a graduation feast. There’s an argument about poetry, and specifically it’s an argument about Euripides. The son wants to sing a bit of Euripides on incest, and the father thinks that’s shocking. Words are exchanged, and then blows are exchanged, and poor Strepsiades is beaten up by his son. He rushes outdoors and asks for his neighbors to bear witness to this effect, not even thinking that he has undermined his neighbors’ willingness to stand by his side by his willingness to cheat them. He’s starting to realize that what goes around, comes around.

Then the son goes through this shameless display of arguing that it is right to beat one’s father. It’s very interesting because what he does is he says, “Isn’t it right for the wise to beat the foolish?” Yes. “Well, I am wiser than you are, so I need to beat you for your own good.” The only inequality that Pheidippides can recognize is the inequality of wisdom. He doesn’t recognize that there’s an inequality that’s built into the relationship of parents to their children that has nothing to do with wisdom. Even if your parents are foolish old people or ones grandparents are foolish old people, you owe them something that you can’t really pay off. There’s a kind of filial debt that really can’t be repaid in any kind, and, therefore, you sort of owe them a kind of respect. That’s completely evaporated from poor Pheidippides. He has no respect for his father whatsoever. He only has respect for wisdom.

As it turns out, he does regard Socrates as having a certain authority and there’s an exchange where Pheidippides is trying to show that it’s perfectly natural to beat one’s parents, and he says that chickens resist their parents if they attack them, and Strepsiades says, “Well, why don’t you eat your dung and sit on a perch too if you want to act like a chicken!?” The response that Pheidippides has is a very weak response. He just dogmatically asserts that it’s not the same and that Socrates wouldn’t think so either and that indicates that Pheidippides really hasn’t gotten the full speech. So, he just retreats to the dogmatic claim and appeals to the authority of Socrates.

It’s also very apparent too that he doesn’t understand natural philosophy any better than his father does, because when his father swears by Zeus he says, “don’t you know that Zeus is dead and vortex is king?” which is the same stupid error that his father makes.

Anyway, the issue of incest is really fascinating because it’s the thing that finally snaps poor Strepsiades out of his willingness to put up with his son’s bad behavior. The incest taboo is a fascinating thing that people have reflected on for thousands of years. Is it natural or is it conventional? It’s one of these deep-seated sorts of revulsions that exist in virtually every society in one form or another. It’s the prospect of mother-beating that sends poor Strepsiades over the age and in connection to the reference to the Euripides poem there’s a certain hint that this might involve something more than beating, that it’s a kind of incestuous relationship that maybe is being implied here. That really sends the father over the edge.

At this point, he realizes that by undermining Zeus who protects the law courts he’s also undermined Zeus who protects the family. He needs Zeus in order to maintain his family life. In effect, he decides he’s going to have to re-embrace Zeus again, and then he goes and he burns down the thinkery and that’s the end.

* * *

We’re going to find that they are all kinds of allusions to the Clouds throughout Plato’s dialogues. So, the larger meaning of the Clouds is going to become clearer and clearer as we read Plato.

The first thing I want to read for next time is this dialogue called Theages. Theages is very interesting because a rustic gentleman brings his son to Socrates to be educated, and the son is kind of a conceited kid. Socrates, after interviewing him for a while, decides that he’s not going to take the kid on as a student. But what he appeals to is his little daimonion, his little voice which says, “No.”

Now, Socrates in the Clouds has no little daimonion. The only daimonia that are referred to in the Clouds are the clouds themselves. But the clouds represent a knowledge of human nature and human affairs and the wisdom that is based on that kind of understanding. Socrates in Theages has that kind of ability to understand human nature and to regulate his actions prudently. The change in the character of Socrates is correlated with the presence of this thing he calls his daimonion, his little voice. What it represents in my view is the assimilation by Socrates of the lessons of the clouds.

I think that what the clouds taught Socrates is the necessity of turning away from this abstract, theoretical attempt to understand nature back towards understanding human things, and the reason is simple. Socrates is looking for wisdom by looking to nature, but he ended up looking like a prize fool because he was searching for wisdom in the wrong kind of nature. He was searching for wisdom in non-human nature, in very large and very small things and ignoring the human world. It’s only by looking at human nature that you’re ever going to come up with an understanding of what’s right by nature that will allow one to become a good judge of character and to regulate one’s actions prudently rather than foolishly.

What I see in the Clouds is, in a sense, the first piece of what we would call Socratic philosophy. It’s not Socratic. It’s Aristophanean philosophy. The turn away from nature towards human things and the turn away from theory-centered philosophy to moral-centered philosophy or practice-centered philosophy is in the Clouds. This gave a very powerful impetus to Socrates to turn from being a pre-Socratic philosopher to a Socratic philosopher, or what I would call an Aristophanean philosopher. It’s a turn towards what we can call a humanistic rather than a scientific approach to philosophizing. So, we’re going to see this borne out in Plato.

Socrates attacks Aristophanes in the Apology, but what’s most extraordinary about the Platonic dialogues are the very silent tributes to Aristophanes you find everywhere. Aristophanes was really the great teacher of both Socrates and Plato and really the first philosopher of his type in Western history.

 

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