Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
“The Thinkery, a likeness of death, teaching Whirligig and Bamboozle, ‘back to nature’ without families, without the old paternal gods, and without nomoi (not paying back money owed and using unusual forms of words) . . .” — Thomas Prufer
Socrates was 46 or 47 years old when Aristophanes’ Clouds premiered in March or April of 423 BCE at the festival known as the Greater Dionysia. At this festival, Athens put on 15 plays funded by donations from wealthy citizens. There were nine tragedies, consisting of three trilogies, each trilogy written by the same tragedian. Both Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy and Aeschylus’ Oresteia were premiered at various Greater Dionysia. They also put on three satyr plays which were light-hearted treatments of mythical topics, written by the same playwrights who authored the tragedies. Finally, there were three comedies. Awards were given for the best tragedy trilogy, the best comedy, and the best satyr play.
The Clouds came in dead last in the competition. Interestingly enough, there was another play in the competition that very year that also parodied Socrates. It was by a playwright named Ameipsias. Only a few lines have survived from this play, but we know that it was voted either first or second place over the Clouds. Two years later, in 421 BCE, another comedy on Socrates, this one by Eupolis, was premiered. Aristophanes, of course, has gotten the last laugh, because the other plays have perished.
The plot of the Clouds is very simple. Strepsiades is a country gentleman who makes a living tilling his land outside Athens. Strepsiades has married the niece of Megacles, whose name could almost be translated as “Big Shot.” She was the niece of Big Shot from a wealthy urban family. Naturally, she has all kinds of expensive tastes.
Their son Pheidippides is a cross between the country gentry and the citified aristocracy. His name itself reflects that. Pheidippides is a compromise between his mother’s desire to give him a classy aristocratic name (it has the root word for horse in it) and his father’s desire to name him after an old-fashioned virtue. Thus Pheidippides means “thrifty horseman,” which is a very strange concept, because keeping horses is quite expensive.
Pheidippides’ desire to have horses and chariots and other expensive accoutrements has put his father in great debt. His father is forced to mortgage his land to spoil his son. He’s very much an indulgent father. But the time is coming to pay off his debts, and he’s trying to figure a way out. So, the old man decides to try something new-fangled. He wants to send his son to the Thinkery, which is a school run by Socrates. He has heard that in the Thinkery Socrates teaches how to “make the weaker speech the stronger.”
The weaker speech is the morally weaker speech. To make the weaker speech the stronger means to make the morally weaker speech more effective in persuading people. It’s morally weak but persuasively strong.
To induce Pheidippides to go to the Thinkery, Strepsiades asks Pheidippides to swear an oath that he will do his father’s bidding. But when he finds out what his father has in mind, he breaks the oath immediately, because he doesn’t want to go to the Thinkery at all. In the course of the Clouds, Pheidippides is corrupted, but it is clear from the very start that he’s not the most honorable lad.
It’s interesting that Strepsiades only knows a little bit about the Thinkery by reputation, even though it’s right next door, but his son actually knows the names of Socrates and Chaerephon. Again, the son is a liminal figure, straddling the country gentry and the urban elite. The fact that he knows Socrates’ and Chaerephon’s names indicates that they themselves too don’t quite fit into normal society either. Imagine the Thinkery as a little run-down building off to the side of the stage.
In Xenophon’s Memorabilia Socrates says:
Just as another is pleased by a good horse or a dog or a bird, so I myself am even more pleased by good friends, and if I possess something good, I teach it and I introduce them to others from whom I believe they will receive some benefit with a view to virtue. In reading together with my friends, I go through the treasures of the wise men of old which they wrote and left behind in their books, and if we see something good, we pick it out and we hold that it is a great gain if we become friends with one another.
In the last sentence, the first two uses of “we” refer to Socrates and his friends, but the last use of “we” refers to Socrates and his friends and the wise men of old. Socrates and his friends are already friends with one another, but they become friends with the wise men of old through reading their books.
This really does refer to a kind of Thinkery, where Socrates and his friends get together to study philosophy. So, there’s some reason to think that the Thinkery is not just Aristophanes’ invention. Socrates inherited a house from his parents, and the Thinkery was probably Socrates’ little run-down house.
Since Pheidippides refuses to go to the Thinkery, Strepsiades goes in his stead. Strepsiades is initiated into the Thinkery and educated there, but he’s just too stupid, so he flunks out. He’s finally forced to send his son. But this time he’s successful in persuading Pheidippides to go to the Thinkery.
Pheidippides goes to the Thinkery and turns out to be a better pupil than his father. He learns how to make the weaker speech the stronger, becoming a rather shameless little S.O.B. in the process. His father fêtes him with a graduation dinner, and in the midst of the dinner they quarrel about poetry, the son beats up his father, and the father rushes into the street and asks his neighbors — whom he has wronged — to be witnesses to his plight. Then the son proceeds by means of argument to persuade his father that it’s just to beat him.
But when Pheidippides tries to persuade his father that it’s just to beat his mother as well, the old man snaps, and he won’t hear another word. Instead, he calls to his slaves for help. One of the slaves takes up a rustic implement, a hoe, and climbs onto the roof of the Thinkery. He breaks the roof tiles, then Strepsiades sets the whole building ablaze. Socrates and his students are forced to flee for their lives. And that’s the end of the comedy.
The Clouds as Philosophy
There’s a lot of dirty language, funny jokes, and slapstick in the Clouds. But it would be a mistake to think that this is pure silliness, because the Clouds is really a philosophical work. In fact, in the play itself, the spokesman for Aristophanes calls it his “wisest play” (p. 137). I would argue even more strongly that it’s the first fully extant philosophical work that we have in the Western tradition.
Many people who comment on the Clouds simply treat Aristophanes as a poet, a terribly reactionary poet. There’s no question that he was an old-fashioned reactionary. He hated all the new-fangled things that were going on in Athens at the time and fought against them by mercilessly parodying them in his eleven surviving comedies, which are magnificent.
At the same time, Aristophanes is not what you could call a mindless conservative or reactionary in the sense that he simply defends the old ways because they’re old. He’s a new kind of defender of tradition. Aristophanes seems to regard the ancient ways as good, but not just because they’re ancient. He appeals to another principle to argue that the ancient ways are good. He appeals to nature.
But this is very strange, because before Aristophanes, both the natural philosophers and sophists who appealed to nature were contemptuous of human conventions, especially long-standing, refined human conventions like traditions.
If Aristophanes is appealing to nature to validate tradition, he must have a very different conception of nature. It’s very easy to believe that man has no nature when you see how plastic human beings are, how amazingly adaptable they are to all sorts of situations, how amazingly corruptible they are, how amazingly perverse they are. There doesn’t seem to be any intrinsic limit to human behavior. It’s very easy to think man is just conventions all the way down, or historically evolved traditions and practices all the way down, that there’s nothing natural about us. But Aristophanes believes in human nature.
The second thing that’s extraordinary about Aristophanes’ appeal to nature is that he has the notion of what’s right or just by nature, whereas the pre-Socratic natural philosophers and the sophists had no conception of what’s right or just by nature. Their only conception of right was purely conventional, and they didn’t think that convention really mattered.
So, Aristophanes represents the first thinker in the philosophical tradition to appeal to a notion of natural right based on human nature. It’s on the basis of his understanding of human nature, and of what’s right by nature, that he comes to a defense of the traditions of Athens.
Now, there are many reasons to believe that he’s not entirely a defender of Athenian tradition. In a number of his plays, it’s clear that he thinks that the gods have to be overthrown. That’s clear even in this play.
In the contest between the Just Speech and the Unjust Speech, the Just Speech loses, yet the Just Speech is supposedly the speech that Aristophanes is most in sync with. It represents the conservative party in Athens at the time. Yet, Aristophanes — who is the playwright and thus has some control over what happens in his plays — contrives to have the Just Speech, his own side, lose. Why does he make the Just Speech lose?
The Just Speech loses because Aristophanes thinks that the traditions of Athens have weak points that must be changed in order to preserve the Athenian way of life as a whole. Every serious conservative thinker — Edmund Burke is an excellent example — recognizes that an institution or practice that doesn’t have the capacity to change under new circumstances, does not have the capacity to conserve itself. To conserve old Athens, Aristophanes thinks it necessary to change old Athens, just up to the point that the weaknesses are eliminated. We’re going to see what he thinks the weaknesses of the traditional position are. But, on the whole, he is still a conservative thinker.
Introduction to the Thinkery
When Strepsiades first points towards the Thinkery, he says, “That is a Thinkery of wise souls. In there dwell men who by thinking persuade one that the heaven is a stove, and it is around us, and we are charcoal. When someone gives them money, they teach him how to win both just and unjust causes by speaking” (p. 119).
The claim that heaven is a stove and that we’re charcoals is a typically goofy, Strepsiadean misunderstanding of natural philosophy. This is one of the first things you notice about Strepsiades. He just doesn’t understand science or natural philosophy. Whenever he hears a proposition of natural science, he translates it into something that’s familiar to him, and what’s familiar to him are practical considerations and bodily functions. So, we hear a great deal about farting in this play because apparently Strepsiades is quite familiar with that. We hear a great deal about food because, again, that’s something that ranks high in his list of priorities. And ovens, charcoal, kneading pans, measures for barley, and so forth. They’re all things that he finds intelligible.
Strepsiades has no idea of nature, i.e., of a non-human world, The idea of an objective world that you know scientifically, not through the categories of human concerns and practical interests, is entirely foreign to him.
Strepsiades doesn’t know the names of the thinkers in the Thinkery. “I don’t know their names precisely. Pondering thinkers, noble and good men . . .” (p. 128). It’s interesting that this phrase “noble and good man” (kalos kagathos is the Greek) can be translated as “gentleman,” if you don’t want to do it literally, like the translators here.
Strepsiades thinks the guys over in the Thinkery are gentlemen, and this is an indication of his social class. He’s an uneducated man, a rustic, a country farmer, and even though he has money and the men in the Thinkery have none, Strepsiades thinks they are somehow higher on the social scale.
Pheidippides’ reaction is entirely different, and this shows how in some ways he thinks of himself as on a higher social level than his father because of his inheritance from his mother. He says, “Ugh, villains, I know. They’re boasters, pale, shoeless men that you’re speaking of and among them that miserably unhappy Socrates and Chaerephon.” Socrates, indeed, was famous for going around shoeless.
Strepsiades continues, “It’s said that they have two speeches: the stronger, whatever it may be, and the weaker. Of these speeches, the weaker wins, they say, although it speaks the more unjust things. So, if you learn this Unjust Speech for me, I wouldn’t give anyone back even an obol of those debts that I owe because of you” (p. 120).
This is the plan. Strepsiades has to go himself in place of his son because his son is a sportsman. He doesn’t want to spend his time slaving away indoors and lose his tan and get out of shape. So, Strepsiades has to go in his son’s stead.
Strepsiades piously prays to the gods before he goes off to the Thinkery. There are people who will pray to God before they stick up a bank. They see no contradiction in praying for success at being a scoundrel.
Strepsiades knows himself to the extent that he knows he’s old and slow. He doesn’t think that he will be able to handle the subtleties of the Thinkery’s program. As it turns out, Strepsiades has a far more accurate assessment of his own character than the people he meets.
Strepsiades approaches the Thinkery and bangs on the door. The student inside dresses him down as a crude buffoon because he caused a thought to miscarry. This is an allusion to Socrates, who claimed that he followed his mother’s profession as a midwife, but he served as a midwife of ideas, helping them to be born.
The student says, “I can’t tell you what’s going on in here because these things are mysteries. You’re not initiated.” Strepsiades says, ‘Well, okay. I’ve come to you to be a student.’ “Well, I’ll tell you then, but you must believe that these things are mysteries.” Obviously, the Thinkery is not very discerning about with whom it shares its secrets. Then the student explains what Strepsiades had just interrupted.
A flea had jumped from Chaerephon’s head to Socrates’ head after biting Chaerephon on the eyebrow. Apparently, the Thinkery and its inhabitants are dirty and infested with vermin. This incident, however, does not prompt them to do something practical, like wash. Instead, it is an occasion for theory. They immediately began to speculate how many feet a flea can leap. But they decide not to measure it in terms of human measurements, our notion of feet, because that’s our convention that we’re imposing upon nature. They want to know how many feet a flea can leap in “flea feet,” because that’s nature’s own measure.
There’s a notion of objectivity here, of peeling away human categories and seeing nature as it is. They want nature to tell its story in its own language.
This is how they do it. They take some wax, melt it, and dip the flea’s feet in the wax. Then after the wax cools, they have little slippers which they measure — with obviously very tiny instruments — to gauge the size of the flea’s foot. Then they calculate how many flea feet the flea can leap. This is obviously absurd, but there’s a serious point to it.
The next topic they discuss is how gnats hum. Do they hum from their anuses or from their mouths? A complex theory is presented that gnats actually hum through their anuses. Socrates is unkinking and plumbing the anuses of gnats, which is very delicate work. Strepsiades is terribly impressed: “Then the gnat’s anus is a trumpet! Oh, thrice blessed for intestinal insight! How easily would a defendant escape the penalties if he thoroughly knew the intestines of the gnat!” (p. 122).
Then the student mentions how Socrates was recently robbed of a great notion on the courses of the moon by a lizard. Socrates was peering up at the moon, making astronomical observations, and a lizard crapped on him from the roof. This may be an allusion to the story of Thales looking at the heavens and falling down a well.
Then the student talks about how Socrates contrived to get their barley for their last meal, because not only is the place infested with bugs, they are also extremely poor and hungry, and they have to steal food to get by. The student says Socrates “sprinkled fine ash on the table, bent the meat spit [apparently they didn’t need it for meat], and then taking it as a compass he made away with the cloak from the wrestling school” (p. 122).
Apparently, Socrates spread ash on a table top to create a surface on which he could draw; then using a compass, he did some sort of complex geometrical proof, and while the people were gawking at Socrates’ geometrical acumen, he somehow stole a cloak from the wrestling school and pawned it to buy food.
This is very interesting, because Aristophanes is hinting that there’s a connection between the activities of natural philosophers, who are concerned about things like geometry and astronomy, and the dishonest activities of sophists. It’s a goofy connection, but he wants us to ponder what the underlying connection might be.
Then the student admits Strepsiades into the Thinkery, and he’s aghast at how skinny, undernourished, and pale they are. He notices that there are some students who are looking down at the earth
Strepsiades: But why ever are these over here looking down at the earth?
Student: They’re investigating the things beneath the earth.
Strepsiades: Then it’s vegetable bulbs. (p. 123)
This is the first thing that comes to mind, right? Investigating things under the earth? Aha! Must be turnips! These are practical things under the earth, and that’s all that Strepsiades thinks in terms of. Then he tries to give them advice about where to find good vegetables, and of course they’re not interested in that. They’re delving to Erebus under Tartarus. They’re delving into the secrets of the underworld.
Apparently, they’re bent over, so their heads are to the ground and their rear ends are pointing to the sky. And Strepsiades says, “then why is the anus looking to the heavens?” And the student says, “it itself, by itself, is being taught astronomy.”
This phrase “it itself, by itself” is in Plato’s Phaedo. It’s the term that’s used to refer to the “Forms”: the eternal exemplars of the things that we see around us, the form of cup or animal or chair. Later scholars argue on the basis of ambiguous testimony from Aristotle that Socrates didn’t have a theory of Forms. But assuming that this phrase is being used in the same way as in the Phaedo, this is very good evidence that Socrates himself spoke of Forms, because this text was written long before Plato’s dialogues, even before Plato was born. So, the theory of Forms may not be Plato’s creation that he foists on Socrates. There’s reason to believe it’s something Socrates himself thought up.
Then the student says, “Well, go inside so he won’t happen upon us.” “Not yet! Not yet! Let them stay so I can share a little matter of mine with him.” I think this may be an allusion to a prominent theme later in the play, which is buggery. But the student says, “No, they have to go inside. They can’t take the air for very long.” Their health is very delicate, you see.
Then Strepsiades looks around and sees instruments for observing the heavens and instruments of geometry. The word “geometry” literally means “Earth measurement,” and so Strepsiades immediately thinks, “Oh, for land allotments!” For dividing up the Earth amongst people, i.e., surveying, which is the origin of geometry. The student says, ‘No, we’re not measuring the earth around here. We’re measuring the whole Earth. All of it.’ Anaximander, the first student of Thales, was renowned to be the first man who created a map of the whole earth. So, this is very consistent with the early Greek thinkers. Strepsiades, however, thinks measuring the whole Earth is simply an allotment of the earth to the Athenians, which he praises as a popular measure.
The students show Strepsiades the map, and they point to Athens, and Strepsiades says, “I don’t believe that’s Athens. Where are the law courts? Where are the judges?” These are the things that are foremost on his mind because he’s got a lawsuit pending. Again, he wants to see the world drawn to the scale of his concerns. Drawn to an objective geometric scale, the law courts don’t show up, but drawn to the scale of his concerns they would.
And then he says, “Well, where are the Spartans, our enemies?” The student points to another dot, and Strepsiades says, “So close? Can’t you move them a little further away?” Again, by the scale of human priorities, you would draw Sparta far away, but by the objective scale of geometry you just have to put it where it is.
So, there’s a conflict here between two basic ways of looking at the world. Strepsiades looks at the world through the lens of practical human concerns, whereas the pre-Socratic thinkers in the Thinkery have stepped outside the human perspective on things. They’ve put aside all their human concerns, and they’re trying to see the world as it is in itself and measure it according to its own scale. Those are two very different perspectives on how to see the world.
If you sit outside the human condition and take up an objective, scientific perspective on things, you tend to find that the human condition is the last thing you worry about. Scientific naturalists tend to think that the language of science is the only objective language. What about everything else? Well, it’s poetry; it’s politics; but it’s not objective. It’s all rhetoric. Which is exactly the position of the ancient sophists. That it’s all rhetoric; it’s history; it’s convention all the way down. We’ve made up our nature, and we can remake it at will. There is no human nature. The only nature is non-human nature.
Socrates first appears in this play floating aloft in a basket. This is a wonderful device for indicating how he’s divorced himself from the human condition and the human point of view. He’s floating above the Earth. Strepsiades coaxes him down out of his basket. Socrates doesn’t want to come down at first, and he refers to poor Strepsiades as a mere “ephemeral one.” Socrates is interested in the things that are and the things that always will be. He’s interested in the laws of nature. Strepsiades is just a human being. He’s going to be dead pretty soon. He’s ephemeral. Natural law isn’t, so Socrates is concerned with nature.
This is the basis for the natural philosophers’ contempt for convention. Conventions change from time to time and from place to place, but the laws of nature, as the ancient Greeks understood it, do not change at all.
Socrates says he treads on air and contemplates the sun, and Strepsiades says, “So, you’re looking down on the gods from a perch?” The “looking down on” here has a dual meaning. It can mean literally looking down from above, but it can also mean holding the gods in contempt. Both of those meanings are there, because it’s very clear that Socrates is an atheist.
Then we get a passage that sounds like any number of pre-Socratic fragments: “I would never discover the matters aloft correctly except by suspending mind and subtle thought and mixing them with their like, the air. If I considered the things from below on the ground, I would never discover them. For the Earth forcefully pulls to itself the moisture from the thought. The same thing happens also to watercress” (pp. 124–25).
My first reaction to this is “What?” It sounds weird, but this was early science, which combined wild analogies and a very mechanistic understandings of how things work. Thought is moist. If it dries out, then you can’t think. Or Heraclitus thought that dry souls were the best and wet souls were the worst. So, there was a debate. Is the dry or the wet soul the better soul? The categories just don’t seem to apply. It sounds like people tripping on acid.
Strepsiades then announces what he wants to learn: “Teach me the one of the two speeches. The one that pays nothing back. Whatever fee you set, I swear by the gods to pay you” (p. 125).
I don’t know about you, but if somebody said that to me, what’s the first thing that would come to mind? What’s peculiar about that declaration? ‘Teach me the speech that pays nothing back, and I swear that I’ll give you whatever fee you demand.’ Put it this way: If you go to a credit agency because your bills are in a shambles, I don’t think any of these agencies will take you on without first securing payment in advance. If you say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m $100,000 in debt. I have all these credit cards that I haven’t paid. Help me out and then bill me,’ it’s not going to work. The first thing a practical person would see is this contradiction. If he wants to learn how to cheat, I’m not going to trust him to pay the bill later. I want the payment up front.
But what’s the first thing that Socrates fastens on? It’s the fact that he swears an oath by the gods. Socrates has a deaf ear for practical considerations and immediately focuses on the fact that Strepsiades swears an oath by the gods. He says, “What gods indeed will you swear by? For, first of all, we don’t credit gods.” And Strepsiades says, “Well, what do you credit here? Iron and coin?” The very idea of disbelief in gods doesn’t occur to him. Strepsiades understands the idea of not giving god any credit in terms of money.
Strepsiades literally doesn’t know what it means to be an atheist. Later on, when he promises not to recognize the other gods, he says, “I promise and if they should come up to me, I’ll just ignore them.”
Socrates says, “I’ll teach you divine matters plainly.” He also asks, “Do you promise to associate in speech with the Clouds, our daimons?” (p. 125). He just said that we don’t credit any gods here, but you have to promise to associate in speech with them. There’s some reason to believe that associating with the gods in speech is all Socrates’ religiosity amounts to. Today, we might call this “lip service.”
When Strepsiades goes into the Thinkery for his instruction, Socrates refers to the Clouds as the “Queen of All,” the ruler of all. After Strepsiades comes out of the Thinkery, Socrates does not ever mention the Clouds. Instead, Strepsiades swears an oath to fraud, queen of all. If the Clouds are queen of all, and fraud is queen of all, and there’s only one queen, then we have to conclude that the Clouds are fraud.
This would make sense of the locution “to associate with them in speech.” The divinity of the Clouds is a fiction for Socrates. The natural philosophers would deify natural forces. ‘Yes, yes. We don’t believe in the gods of the city, but we believe that water is divine.’ People would think, ‘Are these people just condescending to us? Are they just playing with us? Are they divinizing something which they don’t think is divine for public consumption?’ There was a sense that the early Greek philosophers were entirely disingenuous about their professions of religiosity. And Socrates is, in a very subtle way, being shown to be that disingenuous here.
But what’s interesting is that the Clouds actually play a role in the play. Socrates associates with them in speech, but after he starts ignoring them, they still perform a function in the play. The Clouds are real daimons, even though Socrates believes they are mere fiction, mere fraud. And the question then is: What are the Clouds? What do they represent?
I want to suggest, at least as a preliminary interpretation, that the Clouds represent what you could call “wisdom from nature” or “wisdom according to nature,” a wisdom that derives from following nature. For Socrates in the Clouds, wisdom from nature means simply natural philosophy, which is atheistic and amoral.
But it’s very interesting to note that Aristophanes himself also indicates that he’s a follower of the Clouds. In fact, Aristophanes is one of the Clouds, because when Socrates and Strepsiades retire into the Thinkery, there’s a choral interlude. The lead Cloud in the chorus steps forward — it’s called the parabasis, which literally means “stepping forward” — and gives a speech to the audience. And it’s very clear that the lead Cloud is speaking on behalf of Aristophanes, which is very peculiar.
Socrates goes through a little initiation ceremony to make Strepsiades part of the Thinkery (p. 126). He sits Strepsiades down on a couch, puts a wreath on his head, and sprinkles him with flour from a can. It’s a parody of the initiations of the mystery religions, which were adopted by certain schools of philosophy like the Pythagoreans. Socrates treats the initiation as a farce, but at least there’s some nod in the direction of treating the Thinkery as a religious organization, at least on the surface. They at least go through the forms of a religious initiation while paying lip service to the Clouds.
The Invocation of the Clouds
Then Socrates begins an invocation of the Clouds. “O, master and lord! Measureless air who holds the Earth aloft in bright aether and august goddesses, Clouds, the thunder and lightning, arise! Appear, O ladies, aloft for the thinker!”
The chorus offstage begins to chant, and the chorus slowly files in dressed as clouds. All the actors in Greek plays were men, even the ones playing women’s roles. So, a group of men dressed as women who are Clouds would file in. They would probably wear white, flowing robes and masks to cover the fact that they had beards. They filed in slowly, chanting.
If anyone’s ever seen Japanese Noh theater, this is probably what the Greek plays were like: extremely static, hieratic, slow-moving. You have to be a real connoisseur or you go crazy watching this stuff, because nothing ever seems to happen. For me, it’s like watching baseball. It’s two minutes of action crammed into three hours. Imagine them in very formalized poses, like Egyptian reliefs, tip-toeing in.
Socrates characterizes the Clouds as, “The heavenly clouds, great goddesses for idle men, who provide us with notions and dialectic and mind and marvel-telling and circumlocution and striking and seizing” (p. 128).
The Greek word for “idle men” is the root of the word “scholar.” It just means idle lay-abouts, good-for-nothings. These idle men include, first of all, those who talk about notions and dialectic and mind. Those would be the natural philosophers. But also there are marvel-tellers (people who tell tall tales, including, perhaps, religious tales), circumlocutors (literally people who talk around topics), and strikers and seizers (smash and grab artists). These are the sophists. So the sophists and the natural philosophers are nourished by the Clouds.
These people are nourished by the Clouds because they base their worldview on nature. In the Clouds, Aristophanes is trying to display the underlying identity of the natural philosophers and sophists, who look quite different on the surface. Both groups, however, have essentially the same atheistic and amoral conception of nature.
Then don’t you know, by Zeus, that they [the Clouds] nourish most of the sophists, Thurian diviners, practicers of the art of medicine, idle-long-haired-onyx-ring-wearers, song modulators of circling choruses, men who are imposters about the things aloft. Idle do-nothings are nourished too because they make poetry and music about these Clouds. (p. 129)
Aristophanes is talking about the bohemian counter-culture of his time. This includes what we would call the New Age crowd today: astrologers, spiritual healers, channelers. “Thurian diviners” try to see the future. “Practicers of the art of medicine”: medicine wasn’t considered much of a science at the time. It was more akin to magic and faith-healing. “Idle-long-haired-onyx-ring-wearers” are probably the fashionably degenerate youth that Socrates was accused of corrupting. The “song-modulators of circling choruses” and those who “make music and poetry” about the Clouds refer to the artists of Athens, which would include Aristophanes himself.
What do all these people have in common? They are all unconventional. What does unconventionality have to do with the Clouds? The Clouds represent knowledge of nature, which leads to the breakdown of convention.
Surprisingly, Aristophanes claims that even superstition is nourished by the Clouds, i.e., by atheistic and amoral natural philosophy. How could this be the case? The decline of traditional religion and morals opens up a space for new religions and morals. But what would prompt their emergence? Could it be nature? Could the natural philosophers and sophists be wrong that nature teaches us to be atheistic and amoral? Could nature — particularly human nature — prompt us to create religions and morals?
It is worth noting that, although Socrates denies the gods of the city, the Clouds appeal to them in their choral ode. The Clouds represent knowledge of nature, but unbeknownst to Socrates, nature has a place for conventional gods. This lesson is made clear at the end of the play.
Knowledge of Human Nature
What the natural philosophers, the sophists, and the “New Age” counter-culture of the day have in common is a certain critical distance from the reigning conventions. Aristophanes returns to the conventions of the city and embraces most of them, but he maintains some critical distance from them. The step that he takes outside the conventional viewpoint is made possible by an appeal to nature.
It’s possible for people to criticize conventions of society “within” convention by stepping back from one convention and using another one basically as a lens for criticism. But you can’t really take the whole of society into view that way. You’re always “inside” it and depending on it. If you’re going to take the whole of the human world into your view, you have to find a perspective outside of it, from where you can see it.
It’s much easier to draw a map of a building if you can step back from it and see the whole contour of it, than if you’re wandering around inside, trying to figure out how the whole thing fits together. So, if you’re going to have a holistic understanding of the nature of human things, you’ll need to have a standpoint outside of the human world from which to see them.
Nature provides that standpoint. This is why people are constantly trying to get to what’s natural. We want to know what’s permanent and what’s not. Because if you remain entirely within the realm of convention it’s very easy to mistake things that are merely conventional for things that are natural. People do that all the time. People visit different cultures and suddenly realize things that seemed entirely natural to them really aren’t natural. They’re “second nature,” meaning that they’re deeply embedded conventions.
One of the things that’s interesting about the Clouds, too, is that they take on the shapes of things, and they reveal the natures of people.
Strepsiades says “They’re like spread out wool, not women, by Zeus, not at all. They don’t look like women. They look like big balls of wool. These have noses!” (p. 29). Socrates is famous for his big Karl Maldenesque nose, so the Clouds have taken on the shape of Socrates’ nose. Then Strepsiades goes through a list of how the Clouds reveal people’s inner nature by taking on their shapes (p. 30).
This shows that the Clouds have an insight into human character, and later on the Clouds make it very clear that they have grave reservations about Strepsiades’ fitness for studying at the Thinkery. Socrates doesn’t have such reservations, though, and this is a very important issue.
Socrates has merely token secrecy measures. He has a token interview and a token initiation to get into the Thinkery. But these miserable tokens don’t work. Socrates has absolutely no sense that Strepsiades is not the right kind of person to initiate into the secrets of nature, even though he has ample opportunity to determine this before he takes him into the Thinkery. Socrates is just a terrible judge of character.
But the Clouds aren’t. What the Clouds represent is, in a sense, knowledge not just of nature in the non-human sense, but also knowledge of human nature as well. But Socrates is unaware of human nature. The Clouds represent wisdom derived from nature, but it’s possible to derive wisdom about human beings from a study of nature too. Socrates is a natural philosopher who looks away from the human things to huge things like planetary bodies and tiny things like gnats and fleas but completely leaves out the realm of the middle where we live. We’re middle-sized things. Socrates has no interest in that.
Socrates’ conception of nature is much narrower than the conception of nature represented by the Clouds. So, in a sense, the Clouds are wiser than Socrates because they have a much more expansive notion of what nature is. In fact, when you get right down to it, Socrates is a fool in this play. He’s the butt of humor because he behaves in a foolish way. Why does he behave foolishly? Because with all of his scientific knowledge, he has no knowledge of human nature, and therefore he does not act prudently.
The Non-Theistic Understanding of Nature
Socrates goes on to explain how the Clouds are the only goddesses, and all the others are drivel. “And what about Zeus?” Strepsiades asks. Socrates replies, “What Zeus? Don’t babble. Zeus doesn’t even exist” (p. 131).
Then Strepsiades says, “Who makes it rain then?” Because, of course, Zeus was the one who was supposed to make it rain. Socrates says that the Clouds make it rain. When have you ever seen rain without Clouds? But if Zeus makes it rain, then you’d think he could make it rain any time whether there are Clouds or not. Strepsiades finds that rather convincing.
“Then who makes it thunder?” Strepsiades asks. And Socrates says, “The Clouds make it thunder when they roll around and crash into one another up in heaven.” Strepsiades finds that interesting.
But then he says, “Well, who moves the Clouds around? Isn’t that Zeus?” Socrates says, “No, they’re borne along by necessity.” “When they are filled up with much water and are compelled to be borne along by necessity, hanging down full of rain, then they heavily fall into each other, bursting and clapping.”
“And who is it that compels them be borne along?” Strepsiades asks. “Is it Zeus?” And Socrates says, “Not in the least. It’s the ethereal vortex. The vortex causes things to happen.” Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Diogenes of Apollonia held that a great cosmic vortex sets the rest of the cosmos in motion. It is the beating heart that sends everything else coursing around.
Strepsiades thinks, “Vortex? I hadn’t noticed that Zeus doesn’t exist and that instead of him Vortex is now king.” The Greek word for vortex is dinos. And a form of Zeus is dio. Now dinos could be understood as the diminutive form of dios or the offspring of dios. So poor Strepsiades thinks that dinos, meaning vortex, is really the son of Zeus, that Zeus has been ousted by his own son, and there’s a new king of the gods.
Of course, this is perfectly consistent with Greek mythology, because Zeus ousted his father who ousted his father before him. So Strepsiades immediately took the notion of a vortex, which is just a natural force, and turned it into another god. This is the pattern of Strepsiades’ thinking. He really can’t conceive of a non-theistic notion of nature.
Then, of course, Strepsiades wants to know about thunder. Socrates says, “Well, have you ever eaten some stew and gotten gas from it and it rumbles through your belly?” And Strepsiades says, ‘Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. That’s happened to me many times.’ Then follows a whole scatological routine. Socrates is trying to sap sublimity and majesty from heavenly forces by explaining them away on the analogy of the lowest of human things, namely intestinal gas and farting.
Then Strepsiades gets to the thing that really concerns him here. ‘What about the thunderbolt? Because isn’t it the case that Zeus smites perjurers with his thunderbolt?’ That’s what really concerns him because, of course, he’s going to lie. He’s going to go to court and be sworn in — the equivalent of putting his hand on the Bible by swearing an oath to Zeus — then he’s going to lie to weasel out of his debts. Before doing this, however, he wants to know if Zeus is going to punish him.
Socrates says that the thunderbolt is caused by purely natural phenomena. Dry wind gets clogged up in the Clouds, then the Clouds are swollen up, and they burst, and the wind rushes out of the Clouds very quickly and is ignited by the swiftness of the force, so you get the thunderbolt. Of course, it’s very clear that the lightning falls on the guilty and the innocent alike. Zeus sent lightning down to smite one of his own temples! Lightning hits oak trees. Oak trees don’t perjure themselves. They did nothing wrong. Clearly, there’s no Providence here. It’s just natural, random phenomena.
Strepsiades is enormously relieved by this, because now his last scruple has been hung. He doesn’t have to worry about Zeus, so he feels that he can now go forward with his plan to cheat his way out of his debts.
Strepsiades Enters the Thinkery
Then the Clouds address Strepsiades, and they say, ‘Okay, old man, you’re going to have to give up everything: food and sleep and friends and so forth and wine and gymnastics and fun. Then you’ll have to study.’ They’re not sure that he’s capable of it, and they’re right. Socrates says, “Now, won’t you believe in no god but ours? This Chaos [meaning the vortex] and the Clouds and the Tongue” (p. 133). This is their trinity: the Chaos, the Clouds, and the Tongue, meaning the art of speaking.
Then Strepsiades goes through a long list of things that he promises to do and what he wants to become (p. 133). I always imagine these lists as like Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. Finally, he goes into the Thinkery
But the Clouds deliver a few prophecies. This is very important. The Clouds prophesy about the future of human behavior, which shows an understanding of human nature and also of the way society works. They know that what goes around comes around. Socrates doesn’t.
Strepsiades says, “I don’t want anything great. I just want to get out of my debts.” And the chorus responds with the Delphic utterance, “Then you’ll get what you yearn for since you have no desire for great things” (p. 134). That could mean that he’ll get small things, but it could also mean bad things. All oracles utter such purposely ambiguous statements.
Then the Clouds say, “I think you’re going to need blows” (p. 135). You’re going to need a little bit of beating to get this into your head. Of course, that foreshadows what happens to him later at the hands of his son.
Finally, there’s a last little bit of slapstick. As Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery, he acts like he’s going down into the underworld. So, he takes off his cloak because you enter the underworld stripped. He says, “Put a honey cake in my hand” and they go down into the cave.
This is a katabasis, the descent into the underworld which is an image that you get in the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Katabasis literally means just “going down.” In the context of the Greek, it refers to stories of descent into the underworld, and so the Thinkery is a kind of underworld, which brings to mind how it’s described at the very beginning. It’s a Thinkery of wise souls, the shades, the souls of the dead — or the barely living.
Strepsiades goes into the Thinkery, then the first choral interlude takes place. During the interlude, an indeterminate stretch of time passes, during which Strepsiades is being educated. When the choral interlude ends, Socrates and Strepsiades emerge from the Thinkery. Then we see what Strepsiades has learned.
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 Thomas Prufer, “A Note on King Oedipus, Clouds, The Defense of Socrates, Phaedo,” unpublished typescript.
 All quotations from the Clouds are from Four Texts on Socrates, trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), and will be cited parenthetically in the text.
 Xenophon, Memorabilia, trans. Amy L. Bonnette (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), I.6.14,
 As we will see in Plato’s Euthyphro, Euthyphro the soothsayer and enthusiast makes a similar promise.
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