Socrates Ridiculed in the Clouds

The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece despite receiving a mere third place at the Dionysia 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 a hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few contemporaneous artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.

In the play, 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.

For this reading I used the Focus Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

The Reckoning of Edom in Obadiah

The book of Obadiah is a text that claims to record a vision of Obadiah; a vision of the downfall of Edom (the kingdom that is descended from Esau), a mountainous kingdom located just south of Moab and Israel, or Judah. The book is a single chapter lasting twenty-one verses, and is sometimes written as “Abdias”. It is the shortest book in the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible. The name Obadiah means something like “servant of YHWH.”

Obadiah expresses anger at Edom, for its failing to support Israel and fight off enemies together. It is portrayed as a betrayal of Esau (Edom) for his brother Jacob (Israel). Obadiah foretells of a coming reckoning of Edom for its betrayal of Israel, as the northern kingdom of “Samaria” was conquered and enslaved by Assyria, the greatest empire of the ancient Mesopotamian world. The tone of the book is vengeful. We imagine a bitter Obadiah prophesying the downfall of Edom for not coming to Israel’s aid when the northern kingdom of Samaria is carted off and enslaved under the empire of the Assyrians. The only hopeful message of the text is the hope that God will one day bring His wrath upon Edom for its betrayal.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Notes on the Trachiniae

In The Women of Trachis, also called the Trachiniae, Sophocles exposes the audience to the recollections of a domestic woman, Deianira (Greek for “destroyer of husband”), and wife of the great Heracles (Romanized as Hercules). In contract to Aeschylus’s portrayal of Clytemnestra at the end of the Trojan War in his Oresteia, the audience is compelled to sympathize with, and perhaps even pity, Deianira. Women of Trachis is a defense of Heracles’s tragic wife, Deianira.

Notes on the Story of the Women of Trachis
In her opening lines, she indirectly cites the Solon of Herodotus, and disagrees. She claims that a man’s life can be determined if good or bad before death, and that hers is “sorrowful and heavy” (1-5). She recalls the early years of marrying Heracles, but now he is rarely home, and has been gone for more than one year. She calls their son, Hyllus, to venture out after Heracles. Hyllus has heard that his father is in campaign against the city of Eurytus in Euboea. Deianira recounts a prophecy, that it is said Heracles would iether come to his life’s end or live a happy life after the end of this campaign. Upon learning of this propechy, Hyllus leaves to discover the fate of his father. Heracles has left behind a tablet detailing how he would like his estate divided upon his death. Messengers arrive and alert Deianira that Heracles has been held captive as a slave, and then turned against the city but fell under the spell of a younger woman, Iole (we recall the spell under which Odysseus was held after the Trojan War). Initially, Heracles’s messneger, Lichas, was dishonest, but another messenger appears with Iole as a captured slave and reveals the whole affair to Deianira.

Heracles has sent this woman home to be wife, and share his marriage with Deianira. Furious, Deianira, recalls a gift from a centaur -the dying hairy-chested Nessus, ferrier of the river of Evenus, who tried to force himself on Deianira, but Heracles had shot him with an arrow from afar. While he lay dying, he gave Deianira his tunic, dipped in his blood, and told Deianira this tunic with his blood would compel Heracles to love no other woman but her. She had hidden it in a copper urn for years, until the moment when her feelings of jealousy for Ione were aroused.

After sending Heracles’s messenger away with the urn with the robe in it, instructing him that no man nor the light of the sun may touch the tunic, Lichas departs. However, Deianira accidentally spills some of the blood on the ground and it burns through the wood of her house, and she discovers the centaur meant it was poison for Heracles. Suddenyl, Hyllus comes in laments what his mother has done to Heracles. Heracles had just finished sacking Eurytus and in celebration, wore the robe from Deianira, and it began to consume him, causing him spasms of pain. The Chorus then reveals to the audience that Deianira retires to her bed chamber and cuts herself open in suicide. Moments later Heracles arrives by boat to his homeland

This story of the demise of Heracles is also recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IX. The villainous centaur also appears in Dante’s Inferno as the river guide for Virgil and Dante across the river Phlegethon. Recall in the Odyssey, that Odysseus encounters the phantom of Heracles in Hades. This encounter posed problems in the classical world, as Heracles was considered part of the pantheon of demigods on Mount Olympus, however a close inspection of the Homeric text reveals that Odysseus merely ‘perceived’ or ‘conceived of’ Heracles, he did not in actuality ‘see’ Heracles in the Underworld. Herodotus thought Heracles lived about 900 years before himself.

Background on Heracles
Heracles was hated from birth by Hera, as he was the illicit son of Zeus and his affair with a mortal, Alcmene (pronounced Allk-may-nay). Zeus came down to Thebes and disguised himself as Alkmene’s husband, Amphitryon, and consummated with Alkmene. Shortly thereafter, Amphitryon returned from battle and also consummated with his wife, yielding twins in her belly. These were hetero-paternal twins, a rare condition whereby a woman conceives of two separate twins by different men. Heracles’s twin brother was Iphicles. On the eve of the birth of Heracles, Hera persuaded Zeus to declare the child born this day in the line of Perseus was to rule over all men. She did this knowing that Eurystheus was also to be born. She delayed the birth of Heracles and prematurely forced the birth of Eurystheus. Eventually, Heracles was unknowingly raised by Hera, but his bite on her teat was so strong and it caused her such agony that she threw him down, but the milk from her breast sprayed across the heavens, creating the Milky Way. He was originally given the name, Alcides, by his parents. At one point Hera sent large serpents into the children’s bed. While Heracles’s twin, Iphicles shrunk in fear, Heracles strangled them both and played with them as if they were toys. In astonishment Amphitryon sent for Tiresias, the blind seer, who prophesied many monsters to be vanquished by the young boy.

He was known for his courage and strength. There are many various mythological accounts of delays in Alcmene’s delivery of Heracles. In his youth, Heracles killed his music teacher with his Lyre in anger. He as then sent away to tend cattle on a mountain, and per Xenophon, Heracles was visited by both Vice and Virtue. He was offered an easy but forgettable life, or a strenuous but glorious life (recall the choice offered to Achilles), and Heracles chose the latter. He went back to Thebes and married Megara, but was soon given a fit of madness by Hera and killed all of his children by her. When he realized what he had done he fled to the Oracle of Delphi, under the control of Hera, who convinced him to go to Eurystheus, where Heracles served him for ten years. Eurystheus initially developed ten labors for Heracles to win his freedom, however he cheated Heracles and included two more, leading to the famous twelve labors of Heracles.

Other adventures are recounted in the Argonautica in the search for the golden fleece and the Bibliotecha, most clearly outlined by Apollodorus. He also sacked Troy before the Iliad, as was alluded to in several passages by Homer. Both Hesiod and Aeschylus recount the tale of Heracles shooting and killing the eagle tormenting Prometheus, and Heracles freed the titan from his bondage. His tragic end is most memorably recounted in Sophocles’s Women of Trachis.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with a translation by Michael Jameson.

Plato’s Republic Book II (Part I): Glaucon and Adeimantus

Glaucon and Adeimantus, both brothers and Athenians (brothers of Plato), make up the bulk of the remainder of the Republic. Both brothers are praised by Socrates for their noble actions as soldiers at Megara and also for their aristocratic lineage, descending from Ariston (meaning “excellence”). The Battle of Megara was a crucial victory for the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.

Socrates begins the next section thinking he has freed himself from argument, but he acknowledges that the acts of Book I seems to have only been a “prelude” (357a). While Thrasymachus, the foreign tyrant, has been tamed in Book I, his exchange with Socrates has appeared to be little more than a joke that had taken the virtue of justice lightly. Thrasymachus takes his sophisticated art seriously, but not the question of justice.

At any rate, the inquiry into the nature of justice has now passed beyond the three claims of Book I, with each definition falling short, and the discussion has now passed to the more refined Athenian brothers. Together, they both launch an inauthentic attack on justice, in order to hear Socrates make a substantial praise of justice. Glaucon claims that there are three kinds of goods 1) that which is good for its own sake, 2) that which is good for its own sake and for another, 3) and that which is good for another sake. When asked, Socrates supposes that justice is the second kind of good which occurs for its own sake, as well as another sake. Glaucon defends Thrasymachus’s thesis that injustice is preferable to justice, but only in order to receive a proper praise of justice by Socrates.

First, Glaucon gives an account of the origin of justice. According to this argument, people commit justice unwillingly. They are always and everywhere seeking to commit acts of injustice for their own seeming profit, and to minimize their own suffering of injustice. It is the base, or slave, morality of Nietzsche laid out in the Genealogy of Morals. When it cannot be avoided, people look to make compacts with others but not to commit injustice nor to suffer it. The great masses of weak men commit wanton acts of injustice toward one another. Each man commits injustice and fears receiving acts of injustice toward themselves. Therefore, born of fear, men make compacts with one another in attempt to enforce justice. In contradistinction to Thrasymachus, Glaucon claims that justice is the advantage of the weaker. The perfectly just man and the perfectly unjust man are what Glaucon is concerned with. His conception of both is entirely divorced from art and nature, unlike Thrasymachus. However, like Thrasymachus he holds fast to the claim that the good life is fundamentally tyrannical. The paradox of honor and justice is that they both presuppose and also precede life in importance. Once he has completed this account of the origins of justice, Glaucon defers to the poets.

Here, Glaucon is given recourse to recount the famous story of Gyges, the Lydian shepherd. Recall Herodotus’s story of Gyges’s who looks upon the king’s wife at the king’s suggestion and must either kill himself or else kill the king and thereby become king himself, the latter of which he chooses (at the urging of the king’s wife). In Socrates’s tale in the Republic, a great thunderstorm and an earthquake occurs, opening a chasm in the ground which Gyges first sees, wonders at, and then goes “down” (perhaps not unlike the down-going of Socrates to the Piraeus at the start of the Republic). Gyges sees many marvelous things, one of which is a hollow bronze horse with windows and upon looking in he sees a larger than life corpse. It has no clothes, save for a gold ring which Gyges slips off. When it is time for the shepherds to give their regular report of the flocks to the king, Gyges turns the collett of the ring inward towards his hand and he becomes invisible. Using this power, he then becomes a messenger for the king. Upon arriving, he commits adultery with the king’s wife and kills the king in order to become ruler. Socrates’s account differs in unique ways from Herodotus.

Lastly, building on his two prior key points, Glaucon considers the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man. The former may appear to be just to the masses and so he gains power, while the latter undergoes much suffering in the name of justice. The key distinction Glaucon makes is between seeming to be just, and actually being just. That is, between opinion and truth. Recall that Glaucon is the reason Socrates remains in the Piraeus and he is also responsible for much of the remaining dialogue in the Republic. At any rate, Socrates must defend the just man who leads a mostly miserable life, according to Glaucon.

Before Socrates can respond in “delight,” Adeimantus comes to a strong defense of his brother. He adds that parents extoll the virtues of justice to their children not for its own sake, but for the praise and reputation one receives for being just. For this argument he cites the authority of Homer and Hesiod, the poets. He also adds that Socrates’s genuine praise of justice must exclude divine rewards and punishments, along with not relying upon the authority of the poets. Glaucon’s defense is characterized by his manliness and impetuosity, while Adeimantus is moderate and quiet. Adeimantus is interested in justice as pleasantness and easiness.

The demands from the two brothers on Socrates can be summarized as follows: Socrates must praise justice as choiceworthy for its own sake -that justice is a pleasant option to choose, and also that justice will make a man happy, even in the midst of extreme suffering. According to these demands, we must judge Socrates’s defense of justice throughout the remainder of the Republic and also in light of his treatment of the poets and the gods.

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.