The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece, though it received only third place at the festival. Aristophanes’s earlier plays had all been a string of successes. There is a rumor that, in anger at his loss over the Clouds, Aristophanes edited the original manuscript. This is referenced in the play’s first parabasis. We cannot know how much of our inherited play has been revised. Nevertheless, his comedy remains hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.
In it, Aristophanes presents Socrates as saying and doing many laughable things. Socrates becomes a laughingstock, not unlike the story of Thales as presented in Plato’s Theaetetus –a story about the philosopher Thales being so practically inept and so focused on the ethereal questions that he trips and falls straight down a well. Similarly, Socrates runs a useless school primarily for young men to learn irrelevant facts about fleas and clouds and so on. He openly preaches atheism, replacing the gods with the clouds. His teachings, mirroring the sophists, praise injustice over justice – illicit private profiteering over civic virtue.
However, Socrates is merely a symptom of a broader Athenian decay. The cause of the action in the play is Strepsiades’s indebtedness. Why is he in debt? Because his long-haired son, Pheidippides, has a passion for expensive horse racing. The new generation in Athens lives a kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the old generation of merchants supports it. This whole scene is taking place within the context of the Peloponnesian War, a foreign war that appears largely irrelevant to the main characters in the play. Within this context, Socrates appears silly, unproductive, and perhaps even counterproductive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, represents the voice of the demos, in its blame of Socrates for the ills that have befallen Athens, a charge which Socrates notes in Plato’s Apologia.
In typical Aristophanes fashion, the Clouds celebrates the pain-loving antiquarianism embraced by many conservatives, then and now. Aristophanes looks to a time-gone-by, a golden age of noble Marathon fighters, to judge his present-day woes. He is in love with a painting of the past, in which things seemed to be simpler and easier, superior. He is blinded by his ideological allegiances, and unlike Socrates, he is dependent on the applause of the crowd. As we see in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes is also a contemporary and, to some degree, a student of Socrates, though he has trouble keeping up with Socrates’s claims regarding comic and tragic poets (recall the concluding lines of the Symposium). Perhaps, as Leo Strauss inquires, Aristophanes is capable only of embracing certain teachings from Socrates. The issues facing Athens – indebtedness, mounting war losses, extravagance, the public pursuit of injustice – come from a certain disharmony in the city, Socrates merely becomes the scapegoat of the city’s troubles.
The Clouds tells the story of Strepsiades (a reference to the Greek words for “tossing and turning), an old member of the Athenian gentry whose son, Pheidippides (a harmony of the Greek words for “thrifty” and “horse”) has become indebted and listless, as a result of his passion for horse-racing. He is long-haired and ignorant of practical matters. Horse-racing was one of the novelties promised to Socrates by the men in the Piraeus during the festival of Bendis, as detailed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.
Regarding the issue of indebtedness, recall in Plato’s Republic the importance placed on ‘paying one’s debts’ and also Socrates’s final words to pay his debt to Asclepius. The unjust person lacks a certain degree of balance, or harmony in the soul. Indebtedness is a tangible, numerical way to account for a man’s imbalance.
Interestingly, Socrates’s Thinkery and sophism are not the cause of the old generation’s woes. Instead it is the new generation who is causing debt, and this causes the older generation to look for a superior argument, regardless of justice, to escape debt. Thus sophism is a symptom not a cause of Athenian amorality.
Strepsiades tries to convince his son to go to the Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn of an argument – either the Better or the Worse argument – to help him talk his way out of debt as a result of the son’s expensive habits. Pheidipides declines and flees to go to his rich uncle, so Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery himself and he is exposed to their absurd mystery-cult. The pupils are busy deep in thought regarding the question of how many of its own feet a flea can jump (135), among other absurd and vulgar activities. He discovers Socrates in a wicker basket ‘treading the air and contemplating the sun,’ praising the clouds as gods. Strepsiades attempts to learn Socrates’s apparently nonsensical teachings and he lives with the cult at the Thinkery in a bed filled with bedbugs. He returns to his son and convinces him to go to the Thinkery, as well.
Then the Better and the Worse arguments debate one another – the Better argument states that justice exists among the gods, and the Worse argument claims that justice does not exist. Pheidipides emerges as the pale intellectual from the Thinkery promising to argue his way out of his father’s debts, however shortly thereafter he beats his father, Strepsiades, who laments the cold intellectual that Socrates has formed. His education has turned son against father. Strepsiades takes his slaves with torches to burn down the Thinkery as Socrates and his pupils flee.