Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Clouds

The Athenian philosopher Socrates shows up in the dialogues of Plato, but he also appears in dialogues of Xenophon, and in the play The Clouds by Aristophanes.

Most experts will tell you that the real Socrates is the Socrates of Plato, on the basis of... well, okay, there really isn't much basis for that. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes appear to have been closer in age to Socrates than Plato, so they might very well have known him better. However, it's Plato's version of the philosopher that shows him as the tragic martyr we want him to have been.

The Socrates of The Clouds isn't admirable in the slightest. He's just another fast-talking shyster who takes money to teach people how to argue that right is wrong and wrong is right. The play's protagonist Strepsiades (the name means "twister") wants to get his racehorse-loving son Pheidippides (whose name means "shy horse") to learn the new style of reasoning so he can finally get out of debt.

Socrates appears in a basket suspended in the air, and contrary to his depiction by Plato, seems more interested in science than moral philosophy. "I tread the air, contemplating the sun," Socrates says. "Sublime in air, / Sublime in thought I carry my mind with me, / Its cogitations all assimilated / To the pure atmosphere..." A fair depiction? Probably not, but the impractical man of thought trying to literally put his head in the clouds is a great metaphorical image.

Speaking of clouds, they form the chorus, and though the choral members were originally played by male Athenian citizens, the clouds are supposed to appear as female. Strepsiades asks how clouds have been transformed into women. "Clouds can assume what shapes they will," Socrates reassures him. For instance, if they see some young upstart like Xenophantes, they might "kick at him for vengeance." (Xenophantes was one of those crazy guys who thought there was only one God, and not a whole slew of deities atop Olympus.)

Apparently, the clouds have just gotten a look at Cleisthenes, a politician known for his womanizing, so they've transformed into ladies in order to mock him. Socrates claims that these clouds are the only divinities, and that Zeus and his crew are just a bunch of fables. Strepsiades objects that it's Zeus who makes the rain fall, but Socrates counters that it's really just the clouds who do that, and provide thunder and lightning as well. If Zeus really used lightning to strike down perjurers, why are there still so many lying politicians around, while innocent trees get blasted? (Actually, he's got a point there...)

The action really heats up with an on-stage battle between Dicaeologos (the name means "good reason") and Adicaeologos ("bad reason"). Since this is a school for shyster philosophers, Bad Reason kicks Good Reason's butt, making fun of the entire audience in the process. It's then that the chorus of clouds steps forward for the parabasis and address the audience the play just insulted.

In ancient comedy, the parabasis was the playwright's chance to appeal directly to the audience for votes. Since comedies were presented as part of a competition, and the winning dramatist won a prize, the parabasis was a bald-faced begging for votes. In The Clouds, the chorus does this by promising good things for anyone who votes for the play:

               Now to our candid judges we shall tell
               What recompense they may expect from us,
               If they indeed are studious to deserve it:
               First, on your new-sown grounds in kindly showers,
               Postponing other calls, we will descend.
               The bearing branches of your vines shall sprout,
               Nor scorch'd with summer heats not chill'd with rain.
               This to our friends who serve us,—but to him,
               Who dares to slight us...

Yup, that's followed by threats for anyone who votes for a different play. Their fields will never produce wine or olive oil again! Don't mess with clouds. They will hail on your house and send a deluge on your wedding day. (Anyone who got married the weekend of Superstorm Sandy knows this part is actually true.)

Anyway, after much back and forth, Pheidippides does get his lessons in lying from the school of Socrates. Unfortunately, things don't go the way his father intended. While Pheidippides is successful in getting out of paying his debts, he then turns the tables on Strepsiades and argues he has a right to beat his own parents.

Aristophanes's point here is that while new-fangled ideas might be fun and even useful at times, if you abandon tradition, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whether the historical Socrates was trying to do that or not, many of his successors have certainly attempted to overturn long-established traditions in favor of trendy intellectual fads, and The Clouds stands as a lasting warning against the overturning of the foundations upon which our society rests.