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The Trial of Socrates: 
Aristophanes’ Clouds, Part 3

Socrates_in_a_basket [1]5,079 words

Part 3 of 3

Author’s Note:

The following text is a transcript by V. S. of a discussion [2] of Aristophanes’ Clouds, which took place prior to a lecture on Plato’s dialogue Theages [3]. As usual, I have edited this transcript to remove excessive wordiness. The questions and comments of the audience are paraphrases. Click here to read the original lecture: Part 1 [4], Part 2 [5].

I want to talk a little bit about the Clouds just to wrap things up. The Clouds is fascinating because I think it’s the first fully extant philosophical work in the Western tradition. Most people say that Plato’s dialogues are the earliest complete philosophical works that have come down to us, but I think that Aristophanes is a philosopher. The reason I think he’s a philosopher is because he gives us plenty of clues in the play itself that indicate he is a philosopher.

Remember that the philosophers are followers of nature. They derive their wisdom from nature, whereas Aristophanes is often regarded as simply a person who is conservative in a simplistic sense. He looks to tradition for his wisdom. He’s regarded as the first great reactionary in the Western tradition, the first great knee-jerk conservative. But although you’d have to say that Aristophanes is conservative, he’s not a person who gives primacy or priority to tradition. He says that he is one of those nourished by the clouds, and the clouds represent looking to nature for wisdom, a kind of wisdom that goes according to nature.

For Aristophanes, wisdom according to nature is going to involve looking specifically to human nature. That’s where he differs from previous Greek thinkers, because both the Sophists and the natural philosophers were not concerned with human nature. The Sophists were concerned only to the extent that human nature is manifest in the form of desire. That was really the only thing they were concerned with. They did not see, though, that there was any moral law that nature taught us.

The two main differences between Aristophanes and previous people who looked to nature for guidance are these:  Aristophanes believed that human nature was our primary guide, our primary source of wisdom and that there is a right way of doing things, a right way of living according to nature. But you have to look to human nature to discover that. You can’t look to the nature of gnats and fleas to discover how human beings should live. But if we look to ourselves, to the human condition, to human nature, to human life you are going to find clues as to how to live well.

So, Aristophanes is a follower of this idea of wisdom according to nature, and therefore he is a follower of the clouds, but his understanding of exactly what sort of nature he’s looking to is different from the earlier ones, because he doesn’t overlook the human, and he sees that there is a right and wrong way of doing things that you can discover through an examination of human nature. Aristophanes makes it very clear that Socrates, although he looks to nature, does not gain what you could call genuine wisdom. Another way of putting it is that the idea of wisdom from nature that Socrates represents really just boils down to this: that he knows what we call science. He’s got a theoretical grasp of the way things are.

However, there’s another sense of the word wisdom, and that’s practical wisdom which is the ability to get along in life, the ability to do the right thing. Socrates is entirely bereft of practical wisdom. He has no idea how to deal with Strepsiades or Pheidippides. And that comes out in many different ways.

The first clue is when Strepsiades promises him if he taught him the speech that pays nothing back that he’ll pay whatever fee is required. Now, that’s self-evidently contradictory to any person with a sense of practical human affairs, but Socrates doesn’t even notice it. That’s very interesting to see how foolish, in a way, Socrates is. He thinks he’s becoming wise, but really by any conventional standard or by any natural use of the words wisdom and folly you’d have to say that Socrates is a fool.

And so another thing that Aristophanes is really pointing towards here is the idea that true wisdom is not knowledge of nature, because that can make you a fool. What wisdom has to be, then, is knowledge of what’s right by nature, which requires that we know human things, we know ourselves, and we discover what’s good and therefore we can, in some sense, regulate our actions in accordance with what’s good.

For Aristophanes wisdom is the ability to make right use of things, make use of anything, including scientific knowledge of nature.

The clearest indication that a kind of knowledge is not wisdom is if you can think of a situation where that can be used foolishly. Science claims to be wisdom. OK. Well, if it’s wisdom, then there can be no conditions under which science could be a form of folly. But yet we know of instances where scientific knowledge has been used in a foolish way. If wisdom and science were the same thing you would never find foolish science. So, we know that there’s a difference between wisdom and science, because science requires wisdom in order to be used rightly. It can’t be used wisely from its own resources and therefore it needs to be supplemented by something from outside of it. That’s a clear enough indication that science is not wisdom. Now, that kind of argument will be very useful when we go through the Theages, too. So, we’ll see that later.

Question: “Is Aristophanes sort of a transition person between pre-Socratic and Socratic thought?”

Yes, I would say so. And the way I would put it is this: Aristophanes is, in a sense, the inventor of what you could call Socratic thought. Because what Socratic thought is going to be is simply, again, looking to the human condition for moral wisdom. That’s the Socratic/Platonic model of philosophy as the search for wisdom through coming to understand the human condition. Wisdom is being defined here as the ability to make right use of things, the ability to live well as opposed to just scientific knowledge, that’s really of no practical purpose.

Remember what Socrates says when Strepsiades says, “Why are we studying these things?” “For nothing.” There’s no practical import to what Socrates is doing. It’s a purely theoretical activity. That’s pre-Socratic wisdom. Socratic wisdom, or if you will, Aristophanean wisdom is practical wisdom, and it’s directed towards good conduct, towards living well, and it bases this capacity to live well on a knowledge of human nature.

One interesting question is this: in the Clouds, Aristophanes shows how the earlier natural philosophers brought about the collapse of morality and society and therefore paved the way for the Sophists. The means by which they bring about the collapse of morality is by undermining the traditional religion. Because Zeus hurls thunderbolts at perjurers, right? And you’d never lie in the law court (be a Sophist in other words) if you really believed that Zeus would smite you dead with a thunderbolt. But once Strepsiades has been relieved of that scruple, of that fear of the gods, then the way is clear for him to be a scoundrel, and it leads to his own corruption and the corruption of his son. So, science undermines morality by undermining religion.

The reason it undermines morality by undermining religion is that traditional religions are filled with moral teachings, and they give sanctions (carrots and sticks) for doing good and bad. Natural science does not have a moral teaching, as Socrates and pre-Socratic philosopher practiced it. Again, they looked to nature and saw no moral law at all. They just saw a bloody struggle for survival. They thought that morals were simply conventional and that these conventions represented in some sense an imposition on the liberty of the mind, that was somewhat ignoble. Conventions also represented an imposition on our natural desires. Therefore, they were to be regarded with contempt.

For the pre-Socratic philosophers, morality goes out the window, because they regarded morality and religion as a piece, and they regarded them as merely conventional and thus not fundamentally true. So, they were somewhat contemptuous of morality and religion simply because they were conventional. And because, as conventions, they, in a sense, prevented us from seeing nature as it is and also prevented us from living by nature in our own lives by satisfying our desires. So, the pre-Socratic thinkers undermined religion and thereby undermined morality altogether.

Now, when you look at Aristophanes, though, you see a thinker who believes that there is a right and a wrong according to nature, who believes that you could turn away, in principle, from traditional religion and traditional morals, and yet you wouldn’t be bereft of moral guidance because you could look to nature for your moral guidance. On Aristophanes’ model, that is possible. Yet, there’s something very peculiar about the clouds. The clouds go out of their way to recognize the gods of the city. They pay respects to the gods of the city. The question is why would Aristophanes pay respect to the gods of the city if he believed that he did have, in fact, a higher court to appeal to, namely nature, in order to teach morals?

Aristophanes could turn away from traditional religion and traditional morality because he believed that nature could teach morals. But then when you look at the behavior of the clouds, which personify this kind of wisdom according to nature, they take great pains to pay lip-service to, or recognize at least, the gods of the city. But why do they need to recognize the gods of the city if they can appeal to nature to teach morals? It seems paradoxical. What’s the necessity of preserving the gods if you have an appeal to nature?

Answer: Would it be so you wouldn’t be banished?

Well, that would be an external reason, right? You don’t want to get your fellow citizens angry at you, so you go around paying lip-service to their beliefs. But is there another meaning besides that?

Answer: I don’t think that the clouds are that unlike the Olympian gods, since the clouds trick Strepsiades and Socrates into doing wrong, and then they are punished.

And that’s not unlike the Olympian gods who are constantly playing tricks on mortals and getting them to be hubristic and then punishing them.

If you look at the Just and Unjust Speech and their contest and you ask yourself why the Just Speech fails, you have to give one reason for that failure that the Just Speech depends upon the gods in order to back up his moral teachings, and yet it fails precisely because it depends upon the gods. That, I think, is an indication to us, in a very subtle way, that Aristophanes regards an appeal to the gods, at least in some cases, as something that undermines moral teachings. So, that would give even more force to the question. If he regards the gods as such bad moral examples, why not dispense with them altogether? Why not toss them out and go directly to nature? It is an interesting question because he does seem to want to pay lip-service to or recognize the gods even though he has very good indications that his own values, the more traditional values, that he wants to uphold are in fact undermined by the very religious revelations that are being brought forward to back them up or shore them up to justify them.

It is interesting that Hermes, the god that appears at the end, is another gesture that the playwright is recognizing the gods even though he recognizes the limitations of the gods. Another thing that is interesting is near the end of the play when Strepsiades and Pheidippides are arguing after the beating. When Pheidippides hints around that maybe mother-beating is on the agenda, Strepsiades snaps and refuses to hear anymore. He swears an oath by Zeus. Now, Zeus is the god not only of the law courts, but also of the patriarchal family. He suddenly realizes that the Zeus he had to overthrow in order to cheat on his debts is the Zeus he needs to preserve his family’s order, and Pheidippides says, “Zeus doesn’t even exist! Vortex is king.”

Now, either he’s just mocking his father’s stupidity by repeating his father’s words, or you get the sense that Pheidippides himself doesn’t really understand all of Socrates’ teachings either. Either way. I think the latter one is more interesting as an interpretation. But Strepsiades responds, “Well, Zeus does exist!” When you strip it down to what he really means, he’s saying, “He must exist.” He’s got to exist, because the utility of Zeus is now apparent to him. Zeus provides an important prop to the moral order. And he needs that appeal if the family and the institutions of the society are to be preserved.

But, it’s interesting. Why couldn’t he just explain to all the Strepsiadeses of the world that, that’s all well and good, but there’s a better reason. There are natural reasons for being honest and respecting your father or not having incest in the household. We can just put aside these religious superstitions and appeal to what’s right by nature. All you’d need to do is teach Strepsiades and Pheidippides what is right by nature.

Let’s at least enumerate a few things: Paying your debts, respecting your father, honoring your mother, not beating up the old man, and so forth. These would be things that would be right by nature in the context of the play. Why not just teach Stepsiades and Pheidipides what’s right by nature? Then you could dispense with the gods.

Let’s just pretend that none of this horrible stuff ever happened. Instead of Strepsiades and Pheidippides going to Socrates’ thinkery, they went into Aristophanes’ thinkery instead. And Aristophanes said, “Look guys, Zeus doesn’t exist, and vortex isn’t king either, but you should pay your debts, and you should honor your father and mother and be a good guy because . . .” Couldn’t you convince them? Couldn’t you give them a good, solid, knock-down, iron-clad philosophical proof that certain things are right by nature?

Answer: Anarchy emerges. The son beats the father, and he’s going to beat the mother. You have complete chaos and anarchy . . .

But wouldn’t that be the case only if the conventions were ignored and ridiculed but nothing else was put in their place?

Why is it that Aristophanes seems loath to completely substitute nature for the gods? You can look forward to someone like Aristotle who is someone who tries to give rational, nature-based justifications for moral living. Aristophanes clearly believes that is possible. Why doesn’t he avail himself of that?

Why wouldn’t Aristophanes, if he were alive today, basically say, “Look, one of the purposes of public education should be to strip away all of people’s religious superstitions and teach them the right way of living, which can be justified by a rational appeal to human nature”?

Answer: Religion is natural to man too.

So, you’re saying that one of the things natural to us is that we have these religious illusions? All religions can’t be true. So, even if you’re a partisan of the truth of one, you have to, to take it seriously, regard all the others as illusory, and you have to come up with some kind of explanation for why people are so prone to these illusions. You’d have to say that it seems to be natural. But still, lots of these illusions give rise to attitudes like slavery or widow-burning and things like that. Wouldn’t you just want to get rid of those things? Sweep them away? Teach these Indians to respect women? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Why would Aristophanes draw back from this conclusion? He seems to draw back from it.

Answer: He sees disbelief as corruptive of society.

But there’s a difference between what he would be saying and what they’re saying. The old corrupters are amoral, but he’s a kind of moralist. So, why not replace religious morals not with self-seeking and hedonism and nastiness but with intelligent, rational morals? Why not do that? Wouldn’t that seem to be a great step forward in human civilization? And what’s to prevent that? What’s to prevent us from progressing from religious superstition and an ethics based on religious taboos to a morality based on a rational understanding of nature?

Answer: Religion gives some people power over others.

Well, I think that would clearly be part of it, but I don’t think Aristophanes is one of these people trying to hold power for himself.

Comment: You’re going to tell us, right?

Well, I just want to see what comes up.

Let me raise this question: Can you imagine Strepsiades learning what’s right by nature? Have you ever seen Strepsiades to be capable of learning anything by nature?

Answer: No. After being in the company of Socrates for a period of time, he learned nothing.

It’s impossible for Strepsiades to have a non-theistic understanding of nature. As soon as he hears about the vortex he just thinks that’s Zeus’ son who’s overthrown him. And Pheidippides is apparently in the same boat.

One of the things you learn when you look at human nature is what? When you look at human nature, what do you see? You see that some people are more capable of change than others. He’s old and slow. He knows himself. In fact, at the beginning he says, “Because I know myself to be old and slow . . .” Which is something that Socrates doesn’t know, but that’s what Socrates’ motto becomes later, “Know thyself.” Strepsiades knows himself, and he knows that he’s old and slow. He’s literal minded. He’s kind of dumb.

What Aristophanes is showing us is that part of Socrates’ lack of knowledge of human nature is manifested in his willingness to try and teach what nature is to someone like Strepsiades. Because he looks at Strepsiades, and he doesn’t see that Strepsiades can’t learn and to what extent he does learn will just eventuate his corruption rather than improve him. And that one ought to not want those kinds of students. They bring disgrace and destruction upon yourself. This is what a man who knew something about nature would conclude about Strepsiades, but Socrates doesn’t. This is his undoing.

Socrates is unaware of human nature and specifically the different kinds of human beings, the different types of men. There are some types who can never know what exists by nature or what’s right or wrong by nature. And, therefore, if you ask how they know what’s right or wrong, well, they learn it through religion. However, he’s also fully aware that religion is somewhat limited and that one of the quickest ways of corrupting a society . . .

Put it this way, I think the average American who believes in Christianity is morally better than he would be if he didn’t believe in anything. However, if he became too enthusiastic about the Bible, I think that chances are he would be worse than a non-believer. This is one of the dangers. There’s lots of stuff in the Bible, “Go out and kill the Canaanites to the last man.” “Well, OK. We have to go out and find the Canaanites and kill them!”

There’s this professor at the University of Georgia who’s a very Orthodox Jew, and he claimed that he followed all the laws. And a friend of mine who was studying with him said, “Well, what about killing all the Canaanites?” And he said, “They’re all dead.” And my friend said, “Well, what if the new neighbors moved in next door and you were to go over to give them a house-warming gift, and you discover Canaanite literature on their coffee table? What would you do?” He was just appalled that he had to face this question and that my friend was bringing this up. But he didn’t know what he would do. The thing is that he’s really better than his religion, because he wasn’t an enthusiast, and he was only following basically the good precepts of it and not following the bad ones.

The capacity to distinguish between good and bad precepts of religion presupposes, does it not, some sense of right and wrong over above what the religion tells you?

Answer: Convention is natural. If you are a student of human nature, you have to acknowledge convention.

You would have to acknowledge that they’re natural, but you don’t necessarily have to acknowledge that they’re all good. One of the things that’s very clear about the Clouds, again, is the recognition that the gods are just as much a source of morality as they are a source of corruption. One of the things that leads to the gods being a source of moral corruption is this: the idea that you should do as the gods do, rather than do as the gods say. Zeus says, “Honor your father.” Zeus himself overthrew his father. Zeus came from a pathological, dysfunctional family, yet he’s the god of the family order. That works fine as long as you recognize that you’re supposed to do as Zeus tells you but not do as Zeus does.

But the way that the Unjust Speech undermines the traditional moral teachings is he says to Pheidippides, “Why not do what Zeus does? Wouldn’t piety be doing as Zeus does? Zeus philanders, so should you. And if you’re caught in the act, you just jump up and say, ‘Who are you to go against the ways of Zeus?’” There’s a recognition that religion is both an extremely powerful way of teaching morals to those sorts of people who simply couldn’t be guided by anything but revelation. Yet, at the same time, there’s a recognition that religions themselves are somewhat ambiguous in their moral teachings and therefore they have to be carefully managed.

The only way you could manage them and pick and choose among the moral teachings is if you already knew in some way on the basis of nature what’s good or bad. So, this is an interesting and complex teaching that comes out of here.

Question: Couldn’t it be an obstacle also? Say you’re taking a newborn baby and going through the stages of development. If you didn’t have religion there . . . If the religion was there wouldn’t you be preoccupied teaching the child the precepts of the religion versus starting them off by teaching them this moral standard according to nature, this objective good.

I think the point you’re making is good, and Freud actually makes this in The Future of an Illusion. It’s not in his own voice, but in the voice of his critic, who actually has criticisms that are so powerful that Freud eventually, I think, succumbed to his own feigned self-criticisms and changed his mind. In this book, the critic says to Freud, “How can society afford to give up on the use of religion as a moral teacher and replace it with reason, given that reason does not fully develop until after a person’s puberty? Would we be able to delay moral teachings until after puberty?” No. That would be an absolute disaster.

I forget who said this. Maybe I said it. But every new generation of children is an invasion of barbarians. Children come into the world amoral, selfish, and wicked. They torment bugs. They torment cats. They torment one another. They come into the world very egocentric and nasty. To the extent that they don’t have good surroundings, they’ll remain that way. That’s my sense. Children are morally innocent in a certain way because they don’t know any better, but they’re also very destructive and very nasty. My sense is that in fact what happens is every new generation emerges from the womb as little unsocialized barbarians. Barbarians are people that don’t have any social skills, social graces, sense of right and wrong. The task of education is to civilize the barbarians before they overwhelm you. Every civilization has to educate the young from the very beginning because if they don’t it doesn’t matter what their enemies outside are going to do to them because they’ll be overwhelmed by their own children who’ve never been taught to be decent or to know the difference between right and wrong. You get kids who are just egocentric and basically worship the whim of the moment.

I hope no one went to a Montessori school here. I went out and visited St. John’s College. And the impression I had of the students was that it was a big Montessori school, because the Montessori kids that I was around when I was in high school were bright and they loved to learn, but they had absolutely no control over their impulses. And the way the education works is that if you feel like doing this, you do this, and if you don’t, you do something else. So, they had no way of inhibiting their impulses. I think they never got out of this, because they were the kind of people that would simply do whatever they felt like impulsively, and you couldn’t depend on them. For example, you’re supposed to meet so-and-so for lunch. You’re waiting and waiting—they don’t show up.

A friend of mine said that St. John’s is a marriage of Maria Montessori and Mortimer Adler. It’s the Great Books. Mortimer Adler is the Great Books. Montessori is the sort of impulsiveness and willfulness of the way that the students conduct themselves in intellectual discussions, because in the classroom setting there’s no teacher really. There’s just sort of a discussion moderator.

If children are left to their own devices they tend to be very much impulsive, egocentric, and driven by their feelings, and they don’t ever come to a point where they learn to strategically suppress their desires, to think long-term about desire satisfaction. They become in some ways solipsistic and anti-social. You can’t depend on them. They have a tenuous sense of obligation to others. These sorts of patterns you can see in under-socialized or under-parented kids. That is a big concern if the only way you’re going to educate your kids about right and wrong is to wait until they are 16 or 17. In effect, what you’re going to have are uneducable kids, because they grow up basically impulsive and ruled by their desires.

Question: Why can’t you teach that too them secularly? Why does it have to be shrouded in religious convention? You don’t walk out in front of the car. You can teach that secularly . . .

Those things are really great, and you can convince a person that those are good things, intellectually speaking, but unless they’re taught that by habituation very early on it doesn’t really stick and that’s a terrible problem. This is why, in a sense, inhibiting a child’s impulsiveness early on is very good for them because it gives them a very solid grounding of habit and then later on they can understand why these are good things to have, why it’s good to be dependable or punctual. But if they’ve never gotten into the habit of being punctual then even if you can teach them rationally why punctuality is a good thing later on it’s still not going to be the kind of thing that sticks with them and can become the basis of a habit.

Question: Aren’t you giving religion a free ride? Religion can be used by tyrants.

But listen, we’ve looked at both sides and how religion can make you worse or better than the average untutored person. Now, I’m just saying let’s look at the good side of it for moral education of young kids. Now, of course, it can warp them and ruin them at the same time if it’s done badly and so, again, it’s got to be carefully managed. But there’s a sense in which something like religious education seems to be indispensable for having a purchase on the minds of young kids.

For instance, most religions teach morals in the form of stories. Now, if you don’t have parables from the Bible you at least teach them other moral parables because these things can be grasped. They don’t have to have a general appreciation of the principles behind them. That can come later. But they need a concrete, vivid illustration of right and wrong behaviors and different consequences. Aesop’s Fables are great for this.

The point is that religious education is ultimately education in the form of narratives, myths. And there are many other myths besides just religious narratives. Education is not only rational, but it is the kind of thing that anyone can grasp. Any human being, even with an IQ of 60, can grasp stories, follow simple stories. It’s amazing the capacity of narrative to cut across all the different levels and divisions that exist between people in terms of intelligence and aptitude. We can all listen to stories.

Now, the stories have to be carefully managed, and if you look at Plato’s Republic there are all these discussions of all the things that have to be gotten out of the stories that the Greeks tell their kids because they’re bad examples.

Comment: You don’t have to lie . . .

Well, when you talk about the fox and the grapes . . . Has anybody here ever told their child the story of the fox and the grapes? Is that story true?

Answer: Of course not!

Then you lied! You lied to your child! Shame on you!

But Plato talks about the noble lie, literally false story. False stories are not necessarily lies or invidious in a moral sense, although you tell kids stories that are false all the time.

Where do babies come from?

What’s crucially important to understand is that there’s a teaching about the relationship of morality and religion that’s implied in the Clouds that we’re going to see next time when we look at Plato’s Euthyphro. So, all these things need to be amplified from the lesson of the Clouds so that we’ll start seeing these things in Plato as we go along.