The Clouds

Aristophanes' Nephelai (The Clouds) is a comedy lampooning the sophists and the intellectual trends of late fifth-century Athens.

The play opens with the farmer Strepsiades (whose name means "twister") bemoaning the horse addiction of his son Pheidippides which has put him into deep debt. His son refuses to get a job, so Strepsiades decides to go to Socrates' Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn rhetoric so he can talk his way out of having to pay his debts.

(Here it is worth noting that the idea of Socrates as a sophist runs contrary to every other account of his career. While he did teach philosophy and rhetoric to his students, he never took money for his teaching, nor did he advocate the relativistic ideas of the other sophists. What Aristophanes intended by confounding Socrates with the sophists is perhaps impossible to determine now. The references to the play that Socrates made during his trial suggest that he did not take the satire very hard, and it is known that Aristophanes and Socrates were drinking buddies.)

Socrates takes Strepsiades into the Thinkery, and explains to him that the gods do not exist, and that the true gods are the Clouds.

Upon learning this, Strepsiades tells his son what he has learned and encourages him to study under Socrates as well. Pheidippides arrives at the Thinkery, and two of Socrates' other students stage a debate for him to encourage him to study there. One of the students goes by the name Kreittôn (Right, Correct, Stronger), and the other goes by the name Êttôn (Wrong, Incorrect, Weaker). These names are a direct reference to Protagoras's statement that a good rhetorician was able to make the weaker argument seem the stronger; a statement seen as one of the key beliefs of the sophists. As the debate gets set up, the audience learns that there are two types of logic taught at the Thinkery. One is the traditional, philosophical education, and the other is the new, sophistic, rhetorical education. Right explains that Pheidippides ought to study the traditional way as it is more moral and manly. Wrong refutes him, using some very twisty logic that winds up (in true Greek comedic fashion), insulting the entire audience in attendance.

Pheidippides agrees to study the new logic at the Thinkery, and Strepsiades learns that the Clouds never existed in the first place. Dejected, he goes to speak to his son and asks him what he has learned. Pheidippides has learned a loophole that will let his father escape from their debts, but he also has learned that he doesn't need to respect his father, and proceeds to explain to his father why it is all right for Pheidippides to strike him. The play ends with Strepsiades free from debt, but stuck with an immoral son who can now talk his way out of anything.

In conclusion, the play was intended as a slyly intelligent critique of sophism. Later historians have argued though, that the innocously intended conflation of Socrates and the sophists may have had some influence on the jury who passed a death sentence on Socrates.

See also: Greek literature.

External Link

  • Perseus has a full version of the text here. The text is split into several different pages.
  • Project Gutenberg also has a copy available for download.

There is a popular Australian indie rock band called The Clouds.

copyright 2004