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fast talk

The Clouds

The Clouds (Νεφέλαι / Nephelai) is a comedy written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes lampooning the sophists and the intellectual trends of late fifth-century Athens. Although it took last place in the comic festival Aristophanes entered it in, it is one of his most famous works because it offers a highly unusual portrayal of Socrates. Many also find the play to be quite funny as an irreverent satire of pretentious academia.

Aristophanes re-wrote the play after its initial failure, inserting an interlude into the middle of the action in which the playwright himself takes the stage and chastizes the audience for their poor sense of humor. Thus the play can also be regarded as one of the first instances of self-referential literature. It is also the subject of scholarly examination as an early instance of postmodernity.

The Plot

The play opens with a citizen of Athens, Strepsiades (whose name, loosely translated, means slippery, deceptive, twisty, or scheming), bemoaning the addiction of his extravagant pretty-boy son Pheidippides, to horse-racing, and thus to buying expensive carts and horses, all of which has put Strepsiades deep in debt. Strepsiades recalls his own humble upbringing in the country and curses his marriage to an aristocratic city woman, whose social pretensions he believes are responsible for spoiling his son. But Strepsiades has now hit on what strikes him as a brilliant way to get out of his troubles, by forcing Pheidippides to enter Socrates' school and learn the unjust argument, which will allow for him to argue anything he wants successfully in court. When Pheidippides refuses to cooperate, Strepsiades is reduced to entering Socrates' school himself.

The audience is first introduced to Socrates' school, the "Thinkery" (Phrontisterion), by means of an anonymous slave or student, who answers the door when Strepsiades knocks. The place turns out to be populated by starving students and pedantic scoundrels, foremost among them Socrates' associate Chaerephon. Among its patently absurd "discoveries" are the distance a flea can jump (measured by fitting it with tiny wax booties), and the source of gnat's hum (found to emerge from its anus, which is described as resembling a trumpet). Eventually the great philosopher himself emerges, dangling in the air and spying out various celestial phenomena.

In a parody of contemporary initiation rituals (probably developed at greater length in the lost original version of the story), Socrates introduces Strepsiades to the Thinkery, and in particular to its patron goddesses, the Clouds (which make up the chorus of the play). The Clouds inspire all Socrates' fast talk, and appear at this point to be entirely on his side. In the course of this scene, Socrates mounts a systematic attack on contemporary religion beliefs, insisting that Zeus does not exist and that the universe is instead governed by a celestial vortex (dinos). The dim-witted Strepsiades confuses this to mean that the god Vortex has dethroned Zeus, as Zeus did Kronos.

He later forces Strepsiades to enter his bed, flea-ridden like the rest of the Thinkery, in order to elicit solutions to common lawsuits (albeit ridiculous ones). The Eleven Comedies by Aristophanes Nephelae

Socrates has to steal from the neighboring wrestling school in order to feed the students, and he later steals all of Strepsiades' clothes by the time he gives up on teaching him.

Upon learning this, Strepsiades tells his son what he has learned and encourages him to study under Socrates as well. Pheidippides arrives at the Thinkery, and two figures stage a debate (apparently modelled on a cock fight) designed to demonstrate the superiority of the new versus the old style of learning. One goes by the name Kreittôn (Right, Correct, Stronger), and the other goes by the name Êttôn (Wrong, Incorrect, Weaker). These names are a direct reference to Protagoras's statement that a good rhetorician was able to make the weaker argument seem the stronger; a statement seen as one of the key beliefs of the sophists. As the debate gets set up, the audience learns that there are two types of logic taught at the Thinkery. One is the traditional, philosophical education, and the other is the new, sophistic, rhetorical education. Right Logic explains that Pheidippides ought to study the traditional way as it is more moral and manly. Wrong Logic refutes him, using some very twisty logic that winds up (in true Greek comedic fashion), insulting the entire audience in attendance.

Pheidippides agrees to study the new logic at the Thinkery. Shortly afterward, Strepsiades learns that the Clouds actually exist to teach mortals a lesson in humility. They have in fact been masquerading as goddesses of philosophy to reveal the airy and pretentious nature of academic learning and sophistic rhetoric: "We are," proclaims their leader,

Shining tempters formed of air, symbols of desire;
And so we act, beckoning, alluring foolish men
Through their dishonest dreams of gain to overwhelming
Ruin. There, schooled by suffering, they learn at last
To fear the gods.

Dejected, Strepsiades goes to speak to his son and asks him what he has learned. Pheidippides has found a loophole that will let them escape from their debts, but in the process he has imbibed new and revolutionary ideas that cause him to lose all respect for his father. The boy calmly proceeds to demonstrate the philosophical principles that show how it is morally acceptable for a son to beat his father. Strepsiades takes this in stride, but when Phedippides also begins to speak of beating his mother, the old man finally becomes fed up with the new-fangled learning of Socrates and, after consulting with a statue of Apollo, he seizes a torch, climbs on to the rafters of the Phrontisterion, and sets it on fire. The play's final scene depicts a vicious beating and thrashing of Socrates, and his bedraggled students, while they comically choke on smoke and ash.

Reception

Despite its brilliance as a work of comic drama, which is almost universally agreed upon, The Clouds has acquired an ambivalent reputation. Some believe it was responsible for stirring up civic dissension against Socrates that may have contributed to his execution. The play's portrayal of Socrates as a greedy sophist runs contrary to every other account of his career: while he did teach philosophy and rhetoric to his students, he never took money for his teaching, and he frequently derided the sophists for their disingenuous arguments and lack of moral scruple. What Aristophanes intended by confounding Socrates with the sophists is perhaps impossible to determine now. Some read the play as a condemnation of Socrates' students rather than the teacher, as we never see what Socrates teaches, only the absurd actions the teachings inspire in his students. However, the references to the play that Socrates made during his trial suggest that he was not greatly offended by The Clouds (he is reported to have obligingly stood and waved to the audience at the close of the play's first performance). Furthermore, Plato's Symposium, written after Clouds but possibly a purely fictional narrative, shows Aristophanes and Socrates quite amiably drinking together and speaking as friends.

Kierkegaard regards Aristophanes' portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds to be the most accurate representation of the man. Whereas Xenophon and Plato portrayed Socrates seriously, Kierkegaard felt that Aristophanes best understood the intricacies of Socratic irony.

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