Clouds – Aristophanes

Clouds


“Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes (Aristoph., Clouds.), who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy…… As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; this accusation has no more truth in it than the other… a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong—acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”

Plato’s version of Socrates’ confession during the latter’s death trial (399BC) insinuates Aristophanes to be a conservative thinker, an affirmation later established during the play. Although several of Aristophanes’ works are a philosophical think-tank debating the validity of orthodoxy dogmas, his rebuttal to Socrates’ Western philosophy stemmed from the argument discourse on atheism (a grave offence in the 5th century) and deficient holistic theoretical rearing. Aristophanes’ dismissal of the ‘sophists’ philosophy outweighing traditional values by means of scientific reasons was acutely delineated through lampooning caricatures of Socrates and his school of reasoning. Thus, portraying Socrates as a dangerously hypnotic figure of modern values which could be detrimental to a just society; the complete idea of “one man’s virtue, other man’s vice” being ridiculed.

Despair, without which happiness would never be the nectar of the heart, is a demon mocking melancholic cries; a curse to human soul. The burden of his son’s gallivanting debts deprives Strepsiades from peaceful nightly reveries. He laments the day he got married, the root of his misery –Phidippides, his son. Anxious about his escalating financial woes, Strepsiades relentlessly pleads his son to acquire eloquent verbal skills as a plausible defensive method to escape the problematical debt. In a turn of unfortunate events, Strepsiades takes utmost responsibility of eradicating the prevailing misery by enrolling in the “thinking” school presided by Socrates himself.

Kierkegaard in his moralistically aesthetic tome articulates,
“Aren’t people absurd! They never use freedom they do have but demand those they don’t have; they have freedom of thought they demand freedom of speech”.
How truthfully one can assert these words to be, rightfully in the case of Strepsiades! A man ridden with monetary obligations to his lenders chooses to escape his moral responsibility by sheltering his shortcomings in the veil of eloquent orations; Strepsiades comes forth as a desperate man, yet, a coward to own up to his follies and chooses the art of glib as his weapon to envelop the quarters of corrupt thoughts. When questioned by Socrates on how would he win his case without any witnesses, Strepsiades resorts to the absurdity of abducting the moon through witchcraft; an obnoxious notion of lunacy and if vulnerably cornered he would kill himself as no can prosecute a dead man. Aristophanes satire screams the deviant tactics used by numerous scamming actors in various walks of life. The bankruptcy claims filed by corporate giants and public figures in bid to escape grave punishments are personified through Strep’s each irresponsible procedures. The question of suicide being the remedy of a defenseless acquittal however is debatable over humane grounds of self- sacrifice, though not escaping the cowardice stigma. On the other hand Phidippides, the carefree youth who initially mocks the Sophists for their preposterous sermons, ultimately succumbs to sophistry fluency exercising the training on his own father. Aristophanes’ handling of Phidi’s education as a metaphor exposes the intricacies of Socrates’ Western philosophy; the assault of Strep by Phidi rationalizing the violence as a equalized moralistic chastisement affirms Aristophanes’ fear of scholastic radicalism despite the fact that it implies the Aristophanes very proposal of challenging stagnated principles.

Soren Kierkegaard in Conspiracy of Irony esteems Aristophanes for his meticulous portrayal of a sardonic Socrates;
” It is of importance first of all to be satisfied that the Socrates brought on stage by Aristophanes is the actual Socrates. Just as ancient tradition fortifies this conviction, there are various traits found in this play that either are historically certain or at least prove to be altogether analogous to what we otherwise know about Socrates.”
This seems a bit incongruous as both these thinkers stand under the same existentialists umbrellas. Further, the scene where Strepsiades derides Socrates for hanging mid-air cuddled in a basket questioning the validity of GOD ;uttering the inferential ‘Clouds’ to be superior (as events of thunderstorms, rains, etc…are scientifically proven to be the effects of evaporation rather than miracles) affirms the skepticism over Socrates ironical works. As Kierkegaard surmises,

“The ironist, to be sure, is lighter than the world, but on the other hand he still belongs to the world like Mohammed’s coffin, he is suspended between the two magnets”; a perfect case for Socrates mid-air illusion of looking down on Gods yet somehow he remains attached to the ground- earth. Speaking of ironical suppositions, one cannot overlook the emphasis on the Socratic Method used in the initial stages of Strepsiades enrollment in the “thinking” school; two opposite views pitted against in a series of debates to extract the beliefs and stance on an exacting issue.

Soc. And for what did you come?

Strep. Wishing to learn to speak; for by reason of
usury, and most ill-natured creditors, I am pillaged and
plundered, and have my goods seized for debt.

Soc. How did you get in debt without observing it?

Strep. A horse-disease consumed me—terrible at eating.
But teach me the other one of your two causes, that
which pays nothing; and I will swear by the gods, I will
pay down to you whatever reward you exact of me.

Soc. By what gods will you swear? For, in the first
place, gods are not a current coin with us.

Strep. By what do you swear? By iron money, as in
Byzantium?

Soc. Do you wish to know clearly celestial matters, what
they rightly are?

Strep. Yes, by Jupiter, if it be possible!

Similar concept is applied in the powering dispute between the ‘Just’ and ‘Unjust’ regarding the establishment of the education system. At this juncture, Aristophanes does not fail to impress the reader with his strong views on a holistic education. Rationalizing the need for a traditional yet, liberal education, he addresses his ideas through the ‘Just’ mouthpieces criticizing the “new unjust education” of slippery rhetoric and murky morals. Satirizing orthodox teachings Aristophanes elucidates the dire need to challenge longstanding societal decree, whilst adhering to moralistic virtues, an ignorant aspect with the sophist’s radicalism. Strepsiades setting fire to the school, the flea ridden bed onto which Socrates shoves Strepsiades, the thrashing of a father by his son on moralistic grounds, speaks volumes of Aristophanes’ disdain for scientifically rationalized atheist edification. Thus, it can be carefully deduced that the lampooning of Socrates and his methods was for the very reason of Aristophanes dreading that “know thyself” existentialism might take a sinister turn; a fear of sinners becoming saints. Aristophanes not only subjects Socrates’ philosophical teachings to logical reasoning, but criticizes his contemporary methods to impart the virtues of good and evil. The satire which now seems more to be a battle between the sophists and realists rather than a frantic solution to a father’s debt problems, encircles each controversial issue from religion, education and moralistic corruption.

Lastly, ‘The Chorus of Clouds’; the finality of Aristophanes’ hypothetical dogma. The symbolism of clouds bore utmost responsibility in diagnosis of Socrates atheist beliefs debating the eternal dilemma of religion v/s science as well become the voice of the writer; primarily being the voice of scientific validation, and in due course substituting as a virtuous mediator imparting the repercussions of ‘karma’; a boomeranging bitch that chants the “reap what you sow” hymn.

Cho. What a thing it is to love evil courses! For this
old man, having loved them, wishes to withhold the money
that he borrowed. And he will certainly meet with
something today, which will perhaps cause this sophist
to suddenly receive some misfortune, in return for the
knaveries he has begun. For I think that he will
presently find what has been long boiling up, that his
son is skillful to speak opinions opposed to justice, so
as to overcome all with whomsoever he holds converse,
even if he advance most villainous doctrines; and
perhaps, perhaps his father will wish that he were even
speechless.


“A choice is a radical one. And its radicalness still lies in the total redefining of the values of a human life. It is important to realize the compass of the redefinition. It isn’t a matter simply of turning over a new leaf; the choice of oneself means rewriting the whole book.”

Taking Kierkegaard’s expressions in perspective I wonder if it is ever possible to live an aesthetically moral life or we as human are compelled to make a choice weighing the pros and cons that life throws at us. And, if undermining traditional values was detrimental to a well-organized social order then saints would eventually become sinners.

4/5****

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