46. The Clouds, by Aristophanes (423 BC)

Plot : Strepsiades, an elderly farmer being driven bankrupt by his son Pheidippides’ horse racing debts, goes to the Thinkery run by Socrates, to learn how to argue so well that he cannot be sued in the courts. After failing to remember anything he has been taught, he takes the Clouds’ advice and enrols his son instead. But this backfires, as his son, instructed by Wrong Argument, now argues eloquently that he can beat his father black and blue with impunity.

My copy is again the Penguin edition Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds, translated by Alan H. Sommerstein (ISBN 0140442871)

PS The image accompanying this post is from Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Cafe website

My thoughts : Naturally enough, the atmosphere is so completely different from the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. There are no mighty heroes of legend, no violent deaths or tragic doom filled pronouncements, but pratfalls, lewd and disgusting behaviour and merry making and debauchery.

I love the sheer ridiculousness of many of the early scenes : making wax slippers for flea’s feet to measure their leaps, lizards defacating on Socrates’ face as he stares at the moon, and students staring at the ground to learn about hell, while their bottoms point at the stars to study astronomy to learn twice as much at once.

Socrates and his scholars reject the gods and worship the Clouds, “the patron goddesses of the layabout”, who “nourish the brains of the whole tribe of sophists… the prophets and teachers of medicine and other such dirty long-haired weirdies – anyone, in fact, so long as he doesn’t do any useful work.”

Not only does he satirise Socrates and the schools of philosophers, as well as contemporary political and civic figures throughout his plays, Aristophanes also again addresses his audience directly via the Chorus Leader in a sort of intermission to comment on the success and reception of his plays, his feelings on his competitors and their plagiarism of his works, and has another tirade on Cleon (despite saying a page or two earlier that he wouldn’t), accusing him of stealing public funds and taking bribes.

Pheidippides is dragged to the Thinkery to be instructed by either Right or Wrong, who are personified (with Right depicted as a stagnant old queer secretly lusting after young boys, who is so overpowered by Wrong’s arguments that he admits defeat and leaps into the audience to cuddle with one of the spectators)

Favourite lines/passages : It almost becomes a musical comedy as the Clouds sing their intentions to help Strepsiades and he and Socrates repeat the refrains.

“If you’re ready to work and your memory’s good, if you’ve got the ability to think

If you laugh at the cold and at shortage of food, wrestling, dice, sex, fresh air, even drink

If you honour the art of defeating your foe  by stratagems deft of the tongue –

Then we’ll make you so smart that wherever you go, Strepsiades’ praise will be sung”

The Clouds [chorus], page 130

“So I give myself entirely to the school – I’ll let it beat me

It can starve me, freeze me, parch me, it can  generally ill-treat me,

If it teaches me to dodge my debts and get the reputation

Of the cleverest, slyest fox that ever baffled litigation.

Let men hate me, let men call me names, and over and above it

Let them chase me through each court, and I assure you that I’ll love it

Yes if Socrates can make of me a real forensic winner

I don’t mind if he takes out my guts and has them for his dinner”                Strepsiades

“If he has them for his dinner – “                                                                              The Clouds

“If I have them for my dinner – “                                                                              Socrates

Diversions/digressions : There will be plenty of opportunity to think about the real Socrates with the works of  Plato and Xenophon so I will leave him for then, but a lot of what is laid at his door in satire in this play is, according to Sommerstein, said in good natured jest of all the ‘new’ philosophers and Socrates is used here as a well known representative.

Personal rating : 7

Next : Returning to the Old Testament and read the ‘historical’ books of the King James Bible : Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.



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