Comedy by Aristophanes, c. 420 B.C., anonymous translation. A satire on Socrates and his followers.


PASIAS, a Money-lender
AMYNIAS, another Money-lender

The Clouds - Part 1
The Clouds - Part 2
The Clouds - Part 3
The Clouds - Part 4

A comic play by Aristophanes, featuring a very distorted caricature of Socrates as a sophist who fills young mens' heads with airy nonsense and teaches them the rhetoric to make Wrong vanquish Right. It is one of three extended contemporary portraits of Socrates, but is quite at odds with the other two, those of Plato and Xenophon. But as Socrates was a native Athenian, so always around, and was strikingly ugly, he made a very visible target in a play.

Strepsiades is a farmer deeply in debt, largely because of his lazy no-good son Pheidippides, who is mad on horses. Strepsiades wants to send him to enrol in the nearby Phrontistery ('Thinkery'), to learn about the two arguments Right and Wrong, so that he will be able to argue his father's creditors out of their money. The son refusing in horror at being confined indoors, Strepsiades himself resolve to try.

A student admitting him to the Phrontistery solemnly tells him of the useful scientific thoughts Socrates has had, such as how far a flea can jump, and shows him other students intensely scrutinizing the ground; one is so hunched down in study that his arsehole is being trained independently to do astronomy.

Socrates appears out of the sky, where he had been making observations, and tells him they now worship new gods, the Clouds. (They are the chorus of the play.) He explains how they fill philosophers' heads, and also fulfil all the functions normally attributed to Zeus.

Aristophanes' original production of The Clouds came third (last place) in the festival in 423 BCE, and at this point the revised version has an extended complaint about this and a rubbishing of other people's cliché'd plays, with a plea for a better vote this time.

Strepsiades is a hopeless student, but is made to absorb a bit of confused nonsense, and brings his son along to learn the argument between Right and Wrong. He does, but uses it to justify beating his father up.

The Greek name for it is Nephelai; it used to be often known by its Latin name Nubes.

The Clouds: A Review: Aristophanes' Timeless Humor

Shortly after meeting Strepsiades (while suspended in midair in a basket), Socrates begins to introduce him to the Clouds (a delightful parody of the Socratic Forms). Strepsiades responds:
I rever you, much honored ones, and wish to fart in response
To the thunder, so much do I tremble and fear before them.
And if it is sanctioned - right now, in fact, even if it isn't sanctioned - I want to take a crap. (292-294)
I suspect this is the usual response to having to listen to Socrates. I know it is how I felt when first subjected to Plato. Unbeknownst to him, Strepsiades has unwittingly discovered the key to unlocking the secrets of the clouds and the rain. Whereas he had previously erroneously thought that rain was Zeus pissing through a sieve (373), Socrates reveals to him that rain is actually the clouds themselves congregating and letting themselves go. Thunder is the clouds farting (390-395), and lightning is analogous to the clouds taking a crap. (411)

Later in the play, Socrates is instructing Strepsiades in poetic meter and rhyme, a subject I recalling learning with great enthusiasm in grammar school. Strepsiades' succinct nonverbal summarization of the intricacies of dactylic rhyming structure "{He extends his middle finger in a vulgar gesture.}" is very similar to a few critical analyses that I offered my high school teachers before being offered private consultations with the principal.

But Aristophanes can elucidate not merely the experiences of a mere schoolboy, but also the sense of mystery and wonder of the Philosopher! Picture yourself in a moment of contemplation, exploring the mysteries of heaven and earth, at one with understanding, knowing only that true beauty and wisdom are real, approachable, and you are a creature of pure comprehension. What better explication of that one terrifyingly real moment than Strepsiades and Socrates search for abstract meaning:
SOC: Have you got hold of anything?
STREP: No, by Zeus, I certainly don't!
SOC: Nothing at all?
STREP: Nothing but the dick in my right hand. (731-734)
It is the best art that truthfully reflects life.

Aristophanes, in a fit of perhaps divine inspiration, anticipates the spirit of Christ (to come four centuries later) in counseling Pheidippides on how to avoid embarrassment if he has a radish stuck up his ass for committing adultery. Pheidippides may be buggered, but who will his accusers be? The public advocates? They're buggers. The tragedians? They're buggers. The orators? They're buggers. The mass of spectators? Well, they're all especially buggered. (1083-1098) As Jesus might have said, had he been so inspired: Let he who is without buggery shove the first radish!

My only complaint with The Clouds is the author's high-minded refusal to indulge us with a bit of low class comedy. A "hanging leather phallus stiched on, thick and red at the top" (538) would have done wonders for the play.

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