Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' The Clouds (Pt 1)

The Clouds by Aristophanes
Time: Written towards the end of the Fifth Century BCE
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas: Knowledge, Justice, Custom and Convention

[The complete text of The Clouds may be accessed online at though the translation is slightly different than the Alan Sommerstein translation used in the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World from which I'm quoting]

The Clouds is a play, written by Aristophanes in the Greek tradition of Old Comedy, that appears on its surface to be a straight-forward satire directed at the Socratic school of inquiry in particular and at philosophy in general. As one of only eleven plays written by Aristophanes that have survived into modern times, the reader is tempted to place special significance on Aristophanes’ relentless lampooning of a figure revered by Plato among others for his thoughtfulness and humility; not unlike eavesdropping in on an East Coast/West Coast MC battle from which we are removed in time and culture by almost 2500 years. In this sense, The Clouds provides a vital and complementary voice to Plato’s own on Socrates that sketches a much detailed picture of how the average Athenian might have viewed the obstreperous philosopher—as a polarizing figure and a man about whom it was difficult to be ambivalent.

That opposing balance, however, is not The Clouds most valuable contribution to our understanding of Aristophanes’ Athens or insight into the human condition. Under cover from his relentless lampooning of Socrates, Aristophanes constructs a haunting picture of a culture on a fulcrum between its more pastoral past and its increasingly complex urban future. While he hangs this paradox on a comedic frame, thus muting its medicinal flavor, his unity of action is pointed specifically at suggesting a bleak moral for which he neither provides nor, one assumes, knows a remedy. Though Aristophanes touches on a wide number of the Great Ideas in this and other plays, his themes in the Clouds address most directly the notions of Knowledge, Justice, and Custom and Convention.

The Clouds is the story of Strepsiades, an Athenian citizen whose son, Pheidippides, has run up a lot of debt due to his fixation with horse racing. Strepsiades decides that the only way he can avoid being sued is to enroll his son in the Thinkery, a school nearby overseen by Socrates where, “if you pay them well, they can teach you how to win your case—whether you’re in the right or not”. When Pheidippides shows little interest in this new-fangled learning, Strepsiades enrolls in the school, hoping to find out for himself what this argument known as “Wrong” is all about.

When Strepsiades meets Socrates, this fictionalized rendition of history’s most silent teacher lives up to his reputation of exposing how little men know but quite differently than Plato’s no-less fictionalized version. Aristophanes introduces him suspended above the stage “like a god in tragedy, in a contrivance like the gondola of a balloon.” It becomes clear quickly that the two men barely speak the same language.

SOCRATES: Why call’st me, O thou creature of a day?

STREPSIADES: Well, for a start, I’d be very interested to know what you’re doing up there.

SOCRATES: I am walking upon air and attacking the mystery of the sun.

STREPSIADES: Well, if you must attack the Mysteries of the gods why can’t you do it on the ground?

SOCRATES: Why, for accurate investigation of meteorological phenomena it is essential to get one’s thoughts into a state of, er, suspension by mixing small quantities of them with air—for air, you know, is of very similar physical constitution to thought—at least, to mine. So I could never make any discoveries by looking up from the ground—there is a powerful attractive force between the earth and the moisture contained in thought. Something similar may be observed to happen in the case of watercress.

While the comedic value of having Socrates address his newest student in a manner normally reserved for the gods in the theatre is obvious, there is a precision to Aristophanes’ language here that suggests he may not be merely kidding around. Though Socrates explains that he is attacking the “mystery” of the sun, Strepsiades immediately conflates that with attacking the “Mysteries of the gods.” In passage after passage, Aristophanes suggests that Socrates is, in effect, blaspheming against the gods by engaging in inquiry about phenomena once relegated to their authority.

After introducing Strepsiades to the Clouds (the Chorus but costumed “with dresses shaped and colored like clouds”), he brashly announces that they are, in fact, “the only divine beings—all the rest is just a lot of fairy tales.”

STREPSIADES: What on earth—! You mean you don’t believe in Zeus?

SOCRATES: Zeus? Who’s Zeus?

STREPSIADES: Zeus who lives on Olympus, of course.

SOCRATES: Now really, you should know better. [Confidentially] There is no Zeus.

STREPSIADES: What? Well, who sends the rain, then? Answer me that.

SOCRATES: Why, our friends here do that, and I’ll prove it. Have you ever seen it rain when the sky was blue? Surely Zeus, if it was him, would be able to send rain even when the Clouds were out of town.

STREPSIADES: That certainly backs your argument. I wonder why I was so na├»ve as to think that rain was just Zeus pissing into a sieve. Well, that’s one thing; but who is it that thunders and sends shivers up my spine?

SOCRATES: The Clouds do that too—when they get in a whirl.

STREPSIADES: I can see I’m never going to trip you. But what do you mean, a whirl?

SOCRATES: Well, being suspended in the air, you see, when they get swollen with rain they are necessarily set in motion, and of course they collide with one another, and because of their weight they get broken and let out this great noise.

STREPSIADES: “Necessarily set in motion,” you say. Ah, but who sets them in motion? Now that’s got to be Zeus!

SOCRATES: Not a bit of it; as I say, it’s a whirl in the sky.

STREPSIADES: A whirl!—ah, I get you. That I must say I hadn’t been told before. I get it. Zeus is dead and now a whirl is the new king. But you still haven’t told me what causes the thunder.

SOCRATES: Didn’t you hear? I said that it occurs when Clouds swollen with rain collide with one another, and is caused by their density.

The spookiest thing about this passage is how accurate even this Bizarro-Socrates’ explanation of rain as a natural phenomena rather than a supernatural one is. I find myself torn between two readings; one which assumes that the audience would have found these explanations laughable despite the fact that they were, in time, proven to be essentially correct and the second, which assumes that the audience would have recognized the paradigmatic shift that these explanations represented and yet found themselves, like Strepsiades, clinging to a supernatural explanation despite evidence mounting to the contrary. This tug-of-war over causality (ie do things just happen or do they happen for a reason?) is one that science, religion, and philosophy have continued to wage for over two millennia since Aristophanes wrote The Clouds. That alone may be enough to justify the assumption that the second interpretation is the more accurate.

[To be Continued]

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