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The Trial of Socrates: 
Aristophanes’ Clouds, Part 1

Socrates: a good 5 cent cigar

Socrates: among other things, a good 5 cent cigar

6,365 words

Author’s Note:

The following text is a transcript by V. S. of the second 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.  

The Clouds was premiered in 423 B.C. when Socrates was about 46 or 47 years old. It was premiered in the spring in March or April of that year at the festival known as the Greater Dionysia.

At this festival the city of Athens put on a number of plays funded through the donations of various wealthy citizens. They put on nine tragedies, consisting of three trilogies; each trilogy written by the same tragedian. The Oedipus trilogy was one of the trilogies premiered. The Oresteia was another of these trilogies premiered at the Greater Dionysia. They also put on three satyr plays which were light-hearted treatments of mythical topics. And they put on three comedies. There were awards for the best tragedy trilogy, the best comedy, and the best satyr play.

The Clouds came in dead last in the competition. Interestingly enough though, there was another play premiered that very year that also was a parody of Socrates. It was by a comic playwright named Ameipsias. Nothing has survived of this play, but we know that it was voted either first or second place over the Clouds. Aristophanes, of course, has gotten the last laugh, because the others have perished. Two years later in 421 B.C., another comedy by Eupolis on Socrates was premiered. 423 B.C. was the year of the first two Socratic parodies. The Clouds was the one that has survived, and it was probably the best of them.

The plot of the Clouds is very simple. Strepsiades, who’s a country gentleman who has a certain amount of land outside of the city of Athens and certain income and basically makes his money by working his land, has married the niece of Megacles. Megacles was a name that you could translate almost as “Big Shot.” She was the niece of Big Shot from a wealthy urban family. His wife has all kinds of expensive tastes, and their son is a sort of cross between two different groups: the country gentry and the citified aristocracy. He’s sort of a man between.

His name itself reflects that: Pheidippides is a compromise between a classy upper-class aristocratic name (it has the root word for horse in it) and his father’s desire to name the child something equivalent to an old-fashioned virtue. Pheidippides was the compromise and it basically means “thrifty horseman,” which is a very strange concept then as today because you don’t find the poor keeping horses.

Pheidippides’ desire to have horses and chariots and other expensive accoutrements has put his father in great debt. His father is forced to mortgage his land and things like that to spoil his son. He’s very much an indulgent father. That’s quite clear. But the time is coming to pay off his debts, and he’s trying to figure a way out. So, the old man decides to try something new-fangled. He wants to send his son to the Thinkery which is a school that’s run by Socrates and it’s reputed that in the Thinkery Socrates teaches how to make the weaker speech the stronger.

What does that mean? Well, the weaker speech is the morally weaker speech, and to make the weaker speech the stronger means to make the morally weaker speech more effective in persuading people. So, it’s morally weak but persuasively strong.

He wants to send Pheidippides over there to the Thinkery to learn how to make the weaker speech the stronger, and Pheidippides, after swearing an oath to his father that he will do this, when he finds out what his father wants to do, breaks the oath immediately, and he doesn’t want to go there at all.

It’s interesting that Strepsiades only knows a little bit about the Thinkery by reputation, even though it’s right next door, but his son actually knows the names of Socrates and Chaerephon. Again, the son is a sort of person who’s between the traditional classes in the society and the fact that he knows Socrates’ and Chaerephon’s names indicates that they themselves too were sort of on the margins of society. They don’t quite fit in to any normal part of society either. The Thinkery is a little run-down building off to the side. Socrates was supposed to have inherited a small house from his parents.

Socrates says in Xenophon’s Memorabilia the following:

Just as another is pleased by a good horse or a dog or a bird, so I myself am even more pleased by good friends and if I possess something good I teach it and I introduce them to others from whom I believe they will receive some benefit with a view to virtue. In reading together with my friends, I go through the treasures of the wise men of old which they wrote and left behind in their books and if we see something good we pick it out and we hold that it is a great gain if we become friends with one another.

In the last sentence, the first two uses of “we” refer to Socrates and his friends, but the last use of “we” refers to Socrates and his friends and the wise men of old. Socrates and his friends are already friends with one another, but they become friends with the wise men of old through reading their books.

This really does refer to what might be considered a kind of thinkery, where Socrates and his friends get together and study philosophy. So, there’s some reason to think on the basis of Xenophon’s testimony that that might exactly be what Socrates did. In his little house he gathered together friends, and they studied philosophy. There’s some reason to think that the Thinkery is not just made up; that there really was something like this in Socrates’ life, and it was probably his little run-down house.

Since Pheidippides refuses to go to the Thinkery, Strepsiades goes in his stead. Strepsiades is initiated into the Thinkery and educated there, but he’s just too stupid. He’s just too slow to get all the stuff that’s taught, so he’s flunked out. He’s finally forced to send his son, and this time he’s successful with persuading Pheidippides to go to the Thinkery.

Pheidippides goes to the Thinkery and turns out to be a better pupil than his father, and he learns how to make the weaker speech the stronger and he becomes a rather shameless little S.O.B. in the process. His father fêtes him with a graduation dinner, and in the midst of the dinner they quarrel about poetry, and the son beats up his father, and the father rushes into the street and calls for his neighbors—who he has wronged himself—and asks for them to be witnesses to his plight, and then the son proceeds by means of argument to persuade his father that it’s just to beat him.

But when Pheidippides tries to persuade his father that it’s just to beat his mother as well, the old man snaps, and he won’t hear another word of it. Instead, he goes and calls his slaves, and they take a hoe, and they climb on to the roof of the Thinkery. And they break off the roof tiles, then they set the whole building ablaze. And Socrates and his students are forced to leave. And that’s the end of the comedy.

There’s a lot of dirty language and funny jokes and slapstick in the Clouds. But it would be a mistake to think that this is just goofiness, because this is really a philosophical work. I would argue even more strongly that it’s the first fully extant philosophical work that we have in the Western tradition.

Many people who comment on the Clouds simply treat Aristophanes as a poet. And Aristophanes is widely regarded as a terribly reactionary poet. No question about that. He was an old-fashioned reactionary. He hated all the new-fangled things that were going on in Athens at the time and fought against them and mercilessly parodied them in his 13 surviving comedies, which are magnificent. In fact, they’re the only complete comedies that have come down to us from ancient Greece. There are some almost complete comedies by Menander of the next century, but only 13 complete comedies exist and they’re all by Aristophanes, and they’re all fabulous.

It is very clear that he is a conservative or reactionary, but at the same time he’s not what you could call a mindless conservative or a reactionary in the sense that he simply defends the old ways because they’re old. He’s a new kind of defender of tradition. If he were just a mindless reactionary, he’d be like most all the other Greeks, or like most every other member of a traditional society which regards things that are ancient to be good simply because they’re older. This is the traditional, pre-philosophical worldview. What’s old is good just because it’s old.

Aristophanes seems to regard the ancient ways as good, but not just because they’re ancient. He has another kind of principle to which he appeals to argue that the ancient ways are good: an appeal to nature.

Now, this is very strange, because you find that up until that time those thinkers who appeal to nature are precisely the ones who are most contemptuous of human conventions, especially long-standing, refined human conventions like traditions and old-fashioned customs and so forth.  These are the things that they think are the worst, for the natural philosophers and the Sophists.

If Aristophanes is appealing to nature to validate tradition he has to have a very different conception of conventions. It’s very easy to believe that man has no nature when you see how plastic human beings are, how amazingly adapted they are to all kinds of different situations, how amazingly corruptible they are, how amazingly perverse they are. There doesn’t seem to be any intrinsic limit to human behavior. It’s very, very easy to think man is just conventions all the way down, or historically evolved traditions and practices all the way down, that there’s nothing natural about us.

But Aristophanes does see that there’s a human nature, and the second thing that’s most extraordinary about his appeal to nature is that he has the notion of what’s right or just by nature, whereas the pre-Socratic natural philosophers and the Sophists had no conception of what’s right or just by nature. Their only conception of right was purely conventional, and they didn’t think that convention really mattered.

So, Aristophanes represents the first thinker in the philosophical tradition who appeals to a notion of human nature and the first thinker to appeal to a notion of natural right. It’s on the basis of his understanding of human nature, and also this notion of what’s right by nature, that he comes to a defense of the traditions of Athens.

Now, there are many reasons to believe that he’s not entirely a defender of Athenian tradition. In a number of his plays it’s very clear that he thinks that the gods have to be overthrown in some ways. That’s very clear even in this play.

What we’re going to find as we look at the contest between the Just Speech and the Unjust Speech is that the Just Speech loses yet the Just Speech is supposedly the speech that Aristophanes is most in synch with. It represents the conservative party, in a sense, in Athens at the time. Yet, Aristophanes who is the playwright and has some control over what happens in his plays, contrives to have the Just Speech, his own side, lose. You have to ask why he wants the Just Speech to lose.

Well, if you look at why the Just Speech loses you realize the points on which Aristophanes thinks that the traditions of Athens are weak and the things that need to be transformed in order to preserve them. And again, every classical conservative thinker—Edmund Burke is an excellent example—has always recognized that an institution or practice that doesn’t have the capacity to change does not have the capacity to conserve itself. So, to conserve old Athens Aristophanes regards it as necessary to change old Athens, just up to the point that the weaknesses are eliminated. So, we’re going to see what he thinks the weaknesses of the traditional position are. But, for the most part, we’d have to call him a conservative thinker.

Let’s just start going through the play. There are some just wonderful passages here that are rich with meaning, and we could spend six or eight hours looking at this, so let me try to be brief.

On page 119, at the bottom of the actual Aristophanes text, Strepsiades first points towards the Thinkery and he says, “That is a thinkery of wise souls. In there, dwell men who by thinking persuade one that the heaven is a stove and it is around us and we are charcoal. When someone gives them money they teach him how to win both just and unjust causes by speaking.”

Now, this claim that the heaven is a stove and that we’re charcoals is one of the typically goofy, Strepsiadean misunderstandings of natural philosophy, and this is one of the first things you notice about Strepsiades. He just doesn’t understand science or natural philosophy. Whenever he hears a proposition of natural science, he translates it into something that’s familiar to him, and what’s familiar to him are practical considerations and bodily functions. So, we hear a great deal about farting in this play because apparently Strepsiades is quite familiar with that. We hear a great deal about food because, again, that’s something that ranks high in his list of priorities. And ovens, and charcoal and things like that, kneading pans and measures for barley, and so forth. They’re all things that he finds intelligible to him.

Nature he finds entirely unintelligible. The idea of a non-human world or an objective world that you approach not through the categories of human concerns and practical interests is entirely foreign to him.

So, again, the claim that heaven is a great dome overhead becomes like an oven, and the idea that human beings contain the power of reason, which Heraclitus likened to fire, means we’re all like charcoals. We’re all on fire in the stove.

Strepsiades doesn’t know the thinkers’ names precisely. On the top of 128:  “I don’t know their names precisely. Pondering thinkers, noble and good men . . .” It’s interesting that this phrase “noble and good man” (kalos kagathos is the Greek) can be translated as “gentleman,” if you don’t want to do it literally, like the translator here.

Strepsiades thinks the guys over in the Thinkery are gentlemen, and this is an indication of his social class. He’s an uneducated man, a rustic, a country farmer, and intellectuals to country farmers are higher on the social scale. Whereas Pheidippides’ reaction is entirely different, and this shows how in some ways he thinks of himself as on a higher social level than his father because of his inheritance from his mother. He goes, “Ugh, villains, I know. They’re boasters, pale, shoeless men that you’re speaking of and among them that miserably unhappy Socrates and Chaerephon.”

Socrates, indeed, went around shoeless. This was one of his common features. There are many, many features of Socrates that we know from the Platonic dialogues that appear in this play. There’s a great deal of historical accuracy.

At the center of 120, Strepsiades says, “It’s said that they have two speeches: the stronger, whatever it may be, and the weaker. Of these speeches, the weaker wins, they say, although it speaks the more unjust things. So, if you learn this Unjust Speech for me I wouldn’t give anyone back even an obol of those debts that I owe because of you.”

This is the plan. Strepsiades has to go himself in place of his son because his son is a sportsman. He doesn’t want to spend his time slaving away indoors and lose his tan and get out of shape. So, he has to go in his son’s stead. Strepsiades piously prays to the gods before he goes off to the Thinkery. This is so common; there are many people who will pray to god before they stick up a bank, or something like that. They see no contradiction or cognitive dissonance between praying to the gods and then doing something wrong. Praying for success and being a scoundrel.

Strepsiades knows himself to the extent that he knows he’s old and slow. He doesn’t think that he’s going to be able to handle the subtleties here. As it turns out, Strepsiades has a far more accurate assessment of his own character than the people he meets.

He goes to the Thinkery and he bangs on the door. The student inside treats him as a buffoon and crude and says that he caused a thought to miscarry. And of course Socrates always claimed that he followed his mother’s profession as a midwife, so there’s an allusion to Socrates in his career as a midwife of ideas, helping them to come to birth.

The student says, “I can’t tell you what’s going on in here because these things are mysteries. You’re not initiated.” Strepsiades says, “Well, OK. I’ve come to you to be a student.” “Well, I’ll tell you then, but you must believe that these things are mysteries.” And then he goes on and explains what had just happened, what he’d just interrupted.

Apparently, a flea had jumped from Chaerephon’s head to Socrates’ head after biting Chaerephon on the eyebrow, and they immediately began to speculate how many feet a flea can leap. But they decide not to measure it in terms of human measurements, our notion of feet, because that’s our convention that we’re imposing upon nature. They want to know how many feet a flea can leap in “flea feet,” because that’s nature’s own measure.

There’s a notion of objectivity here, of peeling away human categories, human conventions, and seeing nature as it is and getting nature to tell a story in its own language. So, this is how they do it: they take some wax, and they melt it, and they dip the flea’s feet in the wax. Then they remove the flea feet after the wax cools, and they have little slippers. Then they measure—with obviously very tiny instruments—the size of the flea’s foot. Then they calculate how many flea feet the flea can leap. This is obviously absurd, but it’s serious playfulness, which we’ll get to.

Then the next topic they talk about is how do gnats hum. Do they hum from their anuses or from their mouths? A complex theory is presented that gnats actually hum through their anus. Socrates is unkinking and plumbing the anuses of gnats to figure out how they work. Again, a very tiny thing. And Strepsiades is terribly impressed. Where it says 165 on page 122 he says: “Then the gnat’s anus is a trumpet! Oh, thrice blessed for intestinal insight! How easily would a defendant escape the penalties if he thoroughly knew the intestines of the gnat!”

Then the student mentions how recently Socrates was robbed of a great notion on the courses of the moon by a lizard. Socrates was peering up at the moon, taking astronomical observations, and a lizard crapped on him from the roof.

Then he talks about how he contrived to get their barley for their last meal, because not only is the place infested with bugs, they are also extremely poor and hungry, and they have to steal food to get by. On page 122, the student says: “He [meaning Socrates] sprinkled fine ash on the table, bent the meat stiff [apparently they didn’t need it for meat] and then taking it as a compass he made away with the cloak from the wrestling school.”

Now, this is very obscure, but apparently what he did is he spread ash on a table top to create a surface on which he could inscribe, and then using a compass, he did some sort of complex geometrical proof, and while the people were gawking at Socrates’ geometrical acumen, he somehow, having distracted the crowd, stole a cloak from the wrestling school and pawned it to buy food.

This is very interesting, because suddenly you see that Aristophanes is hinting that there’s a connection between the activities of natural philosophers, who are concerned about things like geometry and astronomy, and the dishonest activities of Sophists. He’s pointing to some connection. It’s a goofy connection, but he wants us to ponder what the underlying connection might be.

Then the student admits Strepsiades into the Thinkery, and he’s aghast at how skinny, undernourished, and pale they all are. He notices that there are some students who are looking down at the earth. This is at the top of 123: “But why ever are these over here looking down at the earth?” “They’re investigating the things beneath the earth.” “Then it’s vegetable bulbs,” he says.

This is the first thing that comes to mind, right? Investigating things under the earth? Aha! Must be potatoes! (Although potatoes did not exist in Europe then.) Or turnips! These are practical things under the earth, and that’s all that Strepsiades thinks in terms of. Then he tries to give them advice about where to find good vegetables, and of course they’re not interested in that. They’re delving to Erebus under Tartarus. They’re delving into the secrets of the underworld.

Apparently, they’re sort of bent over, so their heads are to the ground and their rear ends are pointing to the sky. And Strepsiades says, “then why is the anus looking to the heavens?” And the student says, “it itself, by itself, is being taught astronomy.”

Now, this phrase “it itself, by itself” is something you’ll find in the Phaedo when we look at it, and it’s the term that’s used to refer to Plato’s idea of forms.

There are people who argue on the basis of ambiguous testimony from Aristotle that Socrates didn’t have a theory of forms, that he didn’t talk about the eternal exemplars of the things that we see around us: the form of cup or animal or chair or whatever. But this very good evidence that he did talk about this, because this text was written long before Plato’s dialogues were written. Even before Plato was born. So, the theory of forms or ideas that you find in Plato is not Plato’s creation that he foists on Socrates. There’s good reason to believe it’s something Socrates himself thought up.

Then the student says, “Well, go inside so he won’t happen upon us.” “Not yet! Not yet! Let them stay so I can share a little matter of mine with him.” I think this may be a very subtle allusion to a prominent theme later in the play, which is buggery. We’ll see that later. But the student says, “No, they have to go inside. They can’t take the air for very long.” Their health is very delicate, you see.

Then they look around, and they see instruments for observing the heavens, astronomical instruments, and then instruments of geometry. The Greek word geometry literally means “Earth measurement,” and so Strepsiades immediately thinks, “Oh, for land allotments!” For dividing up the Earth amongst people as in surveying, which is the origin of geometry. The student says, “No, we’re not measuring the earth around here. We’re measuring the whole Earth. All of it.”

Anaximander, who’s the second Greek philosopher, the first student of Thales, was renowned to be the first man who created a map of the whole earth. So, this is very consistent with the early Greek thinkers.

Strepsiades thinks this is very useful, measuring out the whole Earth. They show Strepsiades the map and they point to Athens and Strepsiades says, “I don’t believe that’s Athens. Where are the law courts? Where are the judges?” These are the things that are foremost on his mind because he’s got a lawsuit pending. Again, he wants to see the world drawn on to the scale of his concerns. Drawn to an objective geometric scale, the law courts don’t show up, but drawn to the scale of his concerns they would.

And then he says, “Well, where are the Spartans, our enemies?” The student points to another dot, and Strepsiades says, “So close? Can’t you move them a little further away?” Again, by the scale of human priorities, you would draw Sparta far away, but by the objective scale of geometry you just have to put it where it is.

So, there’s a conflict here between two basic ways of looking at the world. Strepsiades looks at the world through the lens of human concerns, practical concerns, whereas the pre-Socratic thinkers in the Thinkery have stepped outside the human condition. They’ve stepped outside the human perspective on things. They’ve put aside all their human concerns, and they’re trying to see the world as it is in itself and measure it according to its own language and its own scale in a sense. Those are two very different perspectives on how to see the world.

If you sit outside the human condition and take up an objective, scientific perspective on things, you tend to find that the human condition is the last thing you worry about. There is a tendency that Robert Almeder brought up in his last talk for the Atlanta Philosophical Society for scientific naturalists to think that the language of science is the only objective language, and what about everything else? Well, it’s poetry, it’s politics, but it’s not objective. It’s all rhetoric. Which is exactly the position of the ancient Sophists. That it’s all rhetoric. That it’s history, that it’s convention all the way down. We’ve made up our nature, and we can remake it at will. There’s human nature. The only nature is non-human nature.

Then Socrates finally appears. Socrates first appears in this play floating aloft in a basket. This is a wonderful device for indicating how he’s divorced himself from the human condition and the human point of view. He’s floating above the Earth. Strepsiades coaxes him down out of his basket. Socrates doesn’t want to come down at first, and he refers to poor Strepsiades as a mere ephemeral one. Socrates is interested in the things that are and the things that always will be. He’s interested in the laws of nature. Strepsiades is just a human being. He’s going to be dead pretty soon. He’s ephemeral. Nature isn’t, so Socrates is concerned with nature.

This is the basis for the natural philosophers’ contempt for convention. Conventions change all the time, whereas nature never changes. Conventions change from time to time and from place to place, but nature, as the ancient Greeks understood it doesn’t change, at all.

Socrates says he treads on air, he contemplates the sun, and Strepsiades says, “So, you’re looking down on the gods from a perch?” The “looking down on” here has a dual meaning. It can mean literally looking down from above, but it can also mean condescending or being snooty about the gods. Both of those meanings are there, because it’s very clear that Socrates is an atheist.

Then we get a passage that sounds like these pre-Socratic fragments. This is at the bottom of page 124, the top of page 125. Socrates says, “I would never discover the matters aloft correctly except by suspending mind and subtle thought and mixing them with their like the air. If I considered the things from below on the ground I would never discover them. For the Earth forcefully pulls to itself the moisture from the thought. The same thing happens also to watercress.”

Now, this has the quality of a lot of these fragments because you say “What?” It does sound slightly demented and weird, but this was early science, which combined wild analogies and a very mechanistic understandings of how things work. Thought is moist. If it dries out then you can’t think. Or Heraclitus thought that dry souls were the best and wet souls were the worst. So, there was a debate. Is the dry or the wet soul the better soul? The categories just don’t seem to apply. It sounds like people tripping on acid.

Strepsiades says “Well look, I’m here to learn the Unjust Speech. The speech that doesn’t pay anything back.” Let’s listen to Strepsiades on page 125. He says, “Teach me the one of the two speeches. The one that pays nothing back. Whatever fee you set, I swear by the gods to pay you.”

I don’t know about you, but if somebody said that to me, what’s the first thing that would come to mind? What’s peculiar about that declaration? “Teach me the speech that pays nothing back, and I swear that I’ll give you whatever fee you demand.” Put it this way: if you go to a credit agency because your bills are in shambles, I don’t think any of these agencies will take you without first securing payment in advance. If you go and say, “I’m sorry, I’m $100,000 in debt. I have all these credit cards that I haven’t paid. Help me out and then bill me.” It’s not going to happen. The first thing a practical person would think of is this is contradictory. If he wants to learn how to cheat, I’m not going to trust him to pay the bill later. I want the payment up front.

But what’s the first thing that Socrates fastens on? It’s the fact that he swears on oath by the gods. Socrates has a deaf ear for those kinds of practical considerations and immediately focuses in on the fact that he swears an oath by the gods. He says, “What gods indeed will you swear by? For, first of all, we don’t credit gods.” And he says, “Well, what do you credit here? Iron and coin?” The very idea of disbelief in gods doesn’t occur to him. So, this idea of not giving god any credit he thinks in terms of money.

This is the thing that’s very comical about Strepsiades. He literally doesn’t know what it means to be an atheist. Later on, when he promises not to recognize the other gods, he says, “I promise and if they should come up to me, I’ll just ignore them.”

Socrates says, “I’ll teach you divine matters plainly.” He also asks, “Will you associate in speech with the clouds, our daimons?” Now, that’s very interesting. The very last line on 125: “Do you promise to associate in speech with the clouds, our daimons?”

He just said that we don’t credit any gods here, but you have to promise to associate in speech with them. There’s some reason to believe that that’s all Socrates religiosity amounts to; associating with them in speech.

When Strepsiades goes into the Thinkery for his instruction, Socrates refers to the clouds as the “Queen of All,” the ruler of all. After Strepsiades comes out of the Thinkery, Socrates does not ever mention the clouds. He doesn’t ever recognize them, and instead he swears an oath to fraud, queen of all. If the clouds are queen of all, and fraud is queen of all, and there’s only one queen, then we have to conclude that the clouds are fraud in the eyes of Socrates.

This would make sense in this locution “to associate with them in speech.” The clouds are a kind of fiction for Socrates. This is the sense that many Greeks had about the natural philosophers when they would appeal to a certain kind of god that was not one of the gods of the city. “Yes, yes. We don’t believe in the gods of the city, but we believe that water is divine.” People would think, “Are these people just condescending to us? Are they just tweaking us? Are they divinizing something which they don’t think is divine for public consumption?” There was a sense that the early Greek philosophers were entirely disingenuous about their professions of religiosity. And Socrates is, in a very subtle way, being shown to be that disingenuous here.

But it’s very interesting, because the clouds actually play a role in the play. Socrates associates with them in speech, but after he starts ignoring them they still perform a function in the play. The clouds are real, even though Socrates recognizes them only as a fiction. And the question then is: “What are the clouds? What do they represent?”

What I want to say, at least as a preliminary notion, is that the clouds represent what you could call wisdom from nature or wisdom according to nature, a wisdom that derives from following nature. For Socrates, that’s going to mean the kind of wisdom that you have with natural philosophy.

But it’s very interesting to note that Aristophanes himself also indicates that he’s a follower of the clouds. In fact, he’s one of them, because there’s a point in the play when Socrates and Strepsiades retire into the Thinkery, and there’s this little choral interlude where the chorus steps forward and sings an ode. The lead cloud in the chorus steps forward—it’s called the parabasis which literally means “stepping forward”—and gives a speech to the audience. And it’s very clear that the lead cloud is speaking on behalf of Aristophanes, which is very peculiar.

Let’s look a little forward, and we’ll see how this works.

First, on the top of 126, Socrates goes through a little initiation ceremony to make Strepsiades part of the Thinkery. He sits him down on a couch and puts a wreath on his head and sprinkles him with flour from a can. It’s a kind of parody of the initiations of the mystery religions. These sort of initiation rites were, of course, taken up by certain schools of philosophy like the Pythagoreans. For Socrates, it’s done in a sort of sloppy way, but at least there’s some nod in the direction of treating the Thinkery as a religious organization; at least on the surface. They at least go through the forms of some sort of religious initiation as well as paying lip service to the clouds.

“To associate in speech” you could translate more idiomatically as “pay lip service to our daimons, the clouds.”

Then Socrates begins (at the center of 126) to give a speech or an invocation to the clouds. At the center he says, “O, master and lord! Measureless air who holds the Earth aloft in bright aether and august goddesses, clouds, the thunder and lightning, arise! Appear, O ladies, aloft of the thinker!”

And then Strepsiades of course acts silly throughout this. Finally, the chorus offstage begins to chant, and the chorus slowly files in dressed as clouds. All the actors in Greek plays were men, even the ones playing women’s roles. So, there was a group of men who would come in dressed as women who were clouds. They would probably come in wearing white, flowing robes and masks to cover the fact that they had beards. They filed in slowly, chanting.

If anyone’s ever seen Japanese Noh theater, this is probably what the Greek plays were like: extremely static, hieratic, very slow-moving, very ritualized kind of chanting. You have to be a real connoisseur or you go crazy watching this stuff, because nothing ever seems to happen. For me, it’s like watching baseball. But that’s the way Noh theater is too. It’s like two minutes of action crammed into three hours. Imagine them slowly coming in in their very formalized poses, tip toeing in.

Center of 128: Socrates begins to characterize the clouds and he does so very interestingly. He says, “The heavenly clouds, great goddesses for idle men, who provide us with notions and dialectic and mind and marvel-telling and circumlocution and striking and seizing.”

Here we have two lists, basically. First of all, the Greek word for “idle men” is the root of the word “scholar.” It just means idle lay-abouts, good-for-nothings. These idle men include, first of all, those who talk about notions and dialectic and mind. Those would be the natural philosophers. But also the marvel-tellers, the fish tale tellers, the dog-story tellers, the circumlocutors, the people who talk around topics and the strikers and seizers, the smash and grab artists. These are the Sophists. So the Sophists and the natural philosophers are nourished by the clouds.

These people are nourished by the clouds because they have a notion of what’s wise according to nature. Both the sophists and the natural philosophers have essentially the same conception of nature. And in this play, Aristophanes is trying to make us see the underlying identity of two groups that look very, very different on the surface. But they share the same view of the relationship of nature to convention and the superiority of nature to convention.

Then at the center of 129, where it says 330 in the margin, Socrates says, “Then don’t you know, by Zeus” Socrates says, “that they [the clouds] nourish most of the Sophists, Thurian diviners [astrologers], practicers of the art of medicine [quacks in this context], idle, long-haired onyx ring wearers [good-for-nothing sorts], song modulators of circling choruses, men who are imposters about the things aloft. Idle do-nothings are nourished too because they make poetry and music about these clouds.”

This is interesting. The whole counter-culture set, what you call the New Age crowd today (astrologers, spiritual healers, channelers), is being included here. I think this is what he means by Thurian diviners. They’re figuring out the future. Practicers of the art of medicine. Medicine wasn’t considered much of a science at the time. Idle, long-haired onyx ring wearers. The whole Little Five Points community [a bohemian district in Atlanta] is encapsulated in this passage.


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