First produced at the City Dionysia of 423 BC, The Clouds is, arguably, Aristophanes’ best-known comedy – though for all the wrong reasons. A critical assessment of sophistry in Ancient Athens, the play satirizes and lampoons the city’s greatest philosopher, Socrates, and may have contributed to his trial and execution about two decades later. However, originally it wasn’t well received and only won the third prize at the festival, prompting Aristophanes to revise it a few years later. The play that has reached us is an incomplete version of this revision. It begins with the farmer Strepsiades (meaning “Twister” or “Cheater”) bemoaning his fate: his son Pheidippides has run him into debt because of his passion for horses. Now, he wants him to become a student at the Thinkery, the philosophical school of Socrates and there learn how to turn lies into truth and use this knowledge to get him out of debt. Pheidippides refuses, so Strepsiades has no choice but to go himself. At the Thinkery – located just next door to his own house – Strepsiades meets a student who tells him all about Socrates’ supposedly great discoveries, and soon enough, at his bequest, he is introduced to Socrates himself, who is seated in a floating basket and studying the sun. Strepsiades is accepted as a student at the school and his induction is celebrated with a parade, at which the Clouds, the patron-deities of the Thinkery, suddenly appear (representing simultaneously the worldliness and the impracticality of Socrates’ teachings). Unfortunately, the apprenticeship of Strepsiades doesn’t go according to Socrates’ plans: he seems unable to learn or remember anything. The Clouds blame this on his old age and advise him to find someone younger to replace him. Strepsiades offers his son, and Pheidippides witnesses the agon between the Superior and the Inferior Argument. The latter wins and becomes the teacher of the boy. Thanks to his education, Pheidippides enables his father to avoid two of his aggrieved creditors, but it also helps him trick his father into believing that the father has less right to beat his son than vice versa. In a fit of moral outrage, Strepsiades arms his slaves with torches and leads them to the Thinkery. Eventually, they burn down the institution to the ground.
The Clouds was first produced at the City Dionysia of 423 BC. It finished last, behind Cratinus’ The Wine-flask (a satire on his own drinking habits) and Ameipsias’ Connus. The outcome hurt Aristophanes’ pride deeply: dubbing it his masterpiece, in the parabasis of his next play (The Wasps), he attacked the audience for failing to appreciate the originality of The Clouds. Soon after, he began to revise the play, but seems to have never completed the revision. The task was abandoned incomplete (probably sometime between 419 and 416 BC), but, somehow, alongside copies of the original play, copies of the revised version began to circulate among the literary public as well. It is the revised version that has reached us.
It’s impossible to know how similar was the revised version to the original, but they might even have been substantially different. At least so claims an anonymous ancient scholar who wrote in one of the introductions (hypotheses) to the play: “This play is the same as the first, but has been revised in details, as though the poet wanted to produce it again but for whatever reason did not after all do so. To speak generally, corrections can be observed in almost every single part. Moreover, some parts have been removed, while others have been woven in and altered both in the arrangement and in the alternation of speaking parts. Some parts as they stand belong entirely to the revised version: thus, the chorus’s parabasis has been replaced, and two scenes are introduced – where the Superior Argument speaks to the Inferior, and where Socrates’ school is burned.” We know for a fact that the ancient scholar is not lying about the chorus’ parabasis, but there is no way to confirm the factuality of the other two major changes. Even so, as textually different the two Clouds might have been, they were certainly identical both structurally and thematically, and Aristophanes’ revisions, even if extensive, may have been mostly stylistic and technical.
• Strepsiades, an Athenian farmer
• Pheidippides, son of Strepsiades
• Slave of Strepsiades
• Student of Socrates
• Socrates, Athens’ greatest philosopher
• Chorus of Clouds
• The Superior Argument
• The Inferior Argument
• Two creditors
• Chaerephon, a philosopher
• Xanthias, slave of Strepsiades
The first part of the play is set before the house of Strepsiades, and the second before Socrates’ Thinkery – both located on the same street.
It’s midnight, but Strepsiades – a rural Athenian – can’t get any sleep, unlike his son Pheidippides and two of his slaves who are snoring right next to him. Not much time passes before Strepsiades reveals the reasons for his insomnia: “Oh, I am not able, miserable man, to sleep, being tormented by my expenses, and my stud of horses, and my debts – through this son of mine. He with his long hair, is riding horses and driving carriages, and dreaming of horses; while I am driven to distraction, for the interest is running on.” And, indeed, as Strepsiades starts counting his debts and calculating the interest, Pheidippides starts talking in his sleep of horses and war-chariots, blissfully unaware of the family’s financial troubles.
A few complaints and thoughts later, Strepsiades announces to the audience that he has devised a plan that might get him out of his debts. He awakes his son and, after making him swear to obey his wishes, he tells him all about the plan: Pheidippides is to be enrolled at the Thinkery, an institution for “wise spirits” located just down their street, and learn how to fool the creditors with wise words and bad arguments. “After all,” explains Strepsiades, “there dwell men who in speaking of the heavens persuade people that it is an oven, and that it encompasses us, and that we are the embers. These men teach, if one gives them money, how to conquer others in speaking, be you right or wrong.” Pheidippides begs to differ: “Bah! They are rogues; I know them. Hopefully, you don’t mean the quacks, the pale-faced wretches, the bare-footed fellows, of whose numbers are the miserable Socrates and Chaerephon?” But these are precisely the men Strepsiades has in mind, so Pheidippides refuses to comply with his father’s wishes. If he does, he says, he will never be able to dare to look upon a respectable Athenian anymore.
Seeing no other way out, Strepsiades decides to enroll himself, despite his old age and his diminishing intellectual capacities. He heads to the Thinkery, and knocks at the door. A student rears his head from behind the door, and a discussion between the two ensues, during which Strepsiades is introduced to three of the greatest discoveries of Socrates, the head of the Thinkery. Even though all of them seem ridiculous and impractical, Strepsiades is instantly taken over. “Why then do we admire Thales?” he exclaims. “Please, open the door to the Thinkery, and show to me Socrates as quickly as possible. For I desire to be his disciple.”
The door of the Thinkery opens and Strepsiades is treated to an interesting sight: as if under a spell, all of Socrates’ disciples look upon the ground, gravely silent and immensely focused. The student explains that “they are in search of the things below the earth” and quickly explains to him the differences between astronomy, geometry and geography. At this moment, at the behest of Strepsiades, Socrates appears above his head, suspended in the air in a basket. Questioned by his guest what he is doing, the philosopher answers that he is “speculating about the sun” and explains that he can only do that when in the air, “for the earth forcibly attracts to itself the meditative moisture.” Strepsiades, in turn, clarifies the reason for his coming and begs Socrates to teach him how to make the right – wrong. “I swear by the gods,” he says, “I will pay down to you whatever reward you exact of me.” “By what gods will you swear?” asks Socrates and irreverently adds: “For, in the first place, gods are not a current coin with us.”
The mention of the gods prompts Socrates to expound the truth about celestial matters – and he calls upon the “highly honored Clouds,” the patron deities of his school. Of course, these are meant to represent the materialism of Socrates’ teachings, which Aristophanes blames for replacing the gods with natural occurrences. At the same time, the Clouds symbolize the impracticality of Socrates’ philosophy in the sense of the proverb “he has his head in the clouds.”
Strepsiades is astounded by their arrival, but cannot understand how Socrates and his students at the Thinkery might respect them more than the powerful gods. The philosopher explains: “Have you ever, when you looked up, seen a cloud like to a centaur, or a panther, or a wolf, or a bull?... They become all things, whatever they please... These alone are goddesses; and all the rest is nonsense.” Socrates doesn’t stop there: questioned by Strepsiades, he goes on to explain that it isn’t Zeus who rains and thunders, but the Clouds. And it isn’t Zeus who moves them – but the Air. Zeus is just a word invented by people to explain things they didn’t understand. Unlike the Clouds, the Air and Language – Zeus doesn’t exist.
“Will you now promise to believe in no god, except the ones we believe in: the Air, the Clouds, and the Tongue?” asks Socrates after his explanation. Strepsiades swears to even stop sacrificing to the gods, and begs the Clouds to make him Athens’ greatest orator in return. “Grant me not to deliver important opinions,” he elucidates. “I do not desire these. I only want to pervert the right for my own advantage – and to evade my creditors.” “Then you shall obtain what you desire; for you do not covet great things,” answer the Clouds. As Socrates leads Strepsiades into the dirty Thinkery, the Clouds step forward to address the audience in the first parabasis of the play.
It is in the parabasis that it first becomes obvious that we are reading a later version of The Clouds – and not the one produced in 423 BC. Because it is here that the Chorus, speaking in the name of Aristophanes, criticizes the intelligence of the spectators and blames them for not recognizing the greatness and originality of the comedy – the author’s “cleverest play” – when it was first performed. Moreover, the parabasis contains references to another comedy performed in 421 BC, and to an Athenian politician Hyperbolus. Since this Hyperbolus was ostracized in 416 BC, Aristophanes had probably given up revising The Clouds before this year. The incompleteness of the revision is, once again, noticeable in the parabasis, for it contains a reference to Cleon, who died in 422 BC. In addition to these political and aesthetic remarks, the parabasis contains prayers to Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Athena and Dionysus, and ends with a report of the Moon's good wishes for Athens, but also her irritation at the inadequacy of the Athenian calendar.
At the conclusion of the parabasis, Socrates comes out of his Thinkery infuriated at the idiocy of Strepsiades. “By Respiration, and Chaos, and Air,” he shouts, “I have not seen any man so boorish, nor so impracticable, nor so stupid, nor so forgetful!” Nevertheless, he gallantly resolves not to abandon his attempt to teach him and calls Strepsiades forth in the fresh air. The spectators can now see how inept this old man is: he has problems distinguishing between different types of verses, and can’t tell between masculine and feminine grammatical gender (though, to his defense, it is Socrates’ linguistic tricks that make it difficult for him). Most problematically, when covered with a blanket and left alone to meditate, Strepsiades decides to pleasure himself instead. He finally exhausts Socrates’ patience and the philosopher leaves in disgust. The Chorus counsels the old man to find someone younger to be educated in his stead. This time Pheidippides yields before his father’s threats and returns with him to the Thinkery.
Socrates decides to have Pheidippides instructed by none other than his closest associates: the Superior and the Inferior Argument (or, even simpler, the Right/Just Word and the Wrong/Unjust Word). The two begin a vicious debate. “I will destroy you miserably,” says the Superior Argument. “Tell me, by doing what?” replies the Inferior Argument. “By speaking what is just.” “But I will overturn that by contradicting it – for I deny that justice even exists at all.” “Cease from contention and railing,” intervenes the Chorus of Clouds. “Instead, show to us what you know so that Strepsiades may decide which school to go to. You, the Superior Argument, show us what you used to teach the men of former times, and you, the Inferior, show us the new system of education.”
And that’s what the two do. The Superior Argument claims that it was better in the old days – everyone kept their promises, the young respected the words of old, and very few ever dared to twist and turn language to serve their purposes. Moreover, those who did were ridiculed, be they lovers trying to woo their loved ones or politicians trying to win elections. Using a few tricks, the Inferior Argument demonstrates that this is simply not true and that the most honest people in history ended up being the least fortunate ones. Anyone who chooses to be schooled in the ways of his rival, he claims, sets himself for disaster, because he is bound to become part of the unhappy minority. Does it matter if they are just when they never win anything in life? Case in point: almost all of the spectators and the leaders of Athens are rogues and rascals, that is students of the Wrong and Unjust. Turning his eyes to the audience, the Superior Argument realizes that this is true and admits defeat. He leaves, and the Inferior Argument leads Pheidippides into the Thinker, taking over his education. Strepsiades is content, but the Leader of the Chorus ominously voices the opinion that he might regret this outcome, and then sings a brief ode in which he praises the power of the Clouds and asks the audience to vote for them, lest they want to risk the destruction of crops, roofs and weddings.
As soon as the Chorus ends its song, Strepsiades reappears and knocks on the door of the Thinkery. Socrates comes out of the building and proudly presents Pheidippides to his father. “Oh, oh, my child!” rejoices Strepsiades upon seeing his son. “How I am delighted at the first sight of your complexion: you are so pale! You also seem negative, disputatious, and ready to ask ‘what do you say?’ Though you appear injured at first glance, I well know that you are ready to injure others and inflict wrongs. Now, therefore, see that you save me, since you have also ruined me.”
At first, this seems to be precisely what’s happening: even without the assistance of his son, Strepsiades manages to get rid of two of his creditors in no time. After the second one barely manages to escape his fearsome blows, he enters his house in jubilant mood. The Chorus doesn’t share his frame of mind: left alone, the Clouds sing a reflective ode, and make their opinion known – “we think that Strepsiades will presently find what has been long boiling up…”
And, indeed, just seconds later, Strepsiades rushes back on stage in distress and pain. “O neighbors, o kinsfolk, o fellow-tribesmen,” he shouts, “defend me, by all means, I who am being beaten!” Pheidippides exits the house immediately after and, rather than being ashamed of having beaten his father, he claims that he had all the right to, and, moreover, that such an action is both just and moral. The two debate this, but Strepsiades is no match for his son’s sophistry. “How pleasant it is to be acquainted with new and clever things, and to be able to despise the established laws!” exclaims Pheidippides, and even threatens to find arguments to justify the beating of mothers as well. That’s the final straw for Strepsiades: he flies into a rage against Socrates and The Thinkery, and even blames the Clouds for their role in his calamity. “We always do this to him whom we perceive to be a lover of wicked courses,” reply surprisingly the Clouds. “So that he may learn to fear the gods.” “Ah me, what madness!” cries out Strepsiades. “How mad, then, I was when I ejected the gods on account of Socrates!”
The play ends with Strepsiades’ revenge: armed with torches, he and his slaves set the Thinkery on fire. As the house of Socrates is engulfed in flames, the Clouds silently depart from the stage: “Lead the way out,” they say, “for we have sufficiently acted as chorus for today.”
According to Alan Sommerstein, “the main subject of The Clouds is the growth, in the Athens of the late fifth century, of new and untraditional forms of education – above all, education in rhetoric – which Aristophanes here professes to regard as the art of winning arguments which, on the merits of the case, one deserves the lose.” For Aristophanes rhetoric isn’t even the art of seeing what is possibly persuasive in every given case (as it would be for Aristotle a century later) but the art of “making the inferior argument into the superior.” And, indeed, a few philosophers contemporary with Aristophanes blamed the so-called sophists for doing just this. Perhaps the loudest among them was Socrates – the man who, ironically, Aristophanes portrays in the play as the typical sophist. However, “apart from certain physical characteristics, the comic character is a deliberate distortion of the real Socrates, who never taught in a school, taught for money, or gave instruction in science, grammar, or rhetoric” (Storey). Aristophanes, in other words, either did not know what Socrates stood for or did not care. Considering Socrates’ reputation, the latter seems more probable. Moreover – all things aside – the gravest accusation made against him in the play is that of atheism, and Socrates was, indeed, suspicious of the traditional representations of the gods. Perhaps Aristophanes decided to misrepresent him because of this? Either way, it didn’t bring him fame: the play, as said in the introduction, placed last at the Dionysia of 423 BC. Unfortunately – at least if we are to believe Plato – the representation of Socrates in The Clouds probably shaped the prejudices of the Athenians against the philosopher, and directly influenced the outcome of his trial in 399 BC: death sentence.
There are a few translations of The Clouds available online, both in verse and in prose; if you are a fan of the latter, you can read William James Hickey’s translation here. If, however, you prefer poetry, feel free to delve into Benjamin B. Rogers verse adaptation here.
See Also: Aristophanes, The Wasps, The Frogs, Wealth
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