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The Clouds | Agon 1 | Summary

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Summary

After Strepsiades's statement about Better and Worse arguments, two men emerge from the Thinkery in the middle of a spirited debate: the Better Argument, an old man, and the Worse Argument, a young man. The Worse Argument says he'll "formulate new principles" to conquer the Better Argument. The Better Argument agrees new principles are popular thanks to the "idiots" in the audience.

When the Better Argument says he'll use justice to triumph, the Worse Argument claims he'll prove justice doesn't exist. When the Better Argument retorts the gods deliver justice, the Worse Argument asks why Zeus wasn't punished for chaining up his father. The Better Argument feels sick. The two men swap colorful, juvenile insults.

The Better Argument accuses the Worse Argument of corrupting the young men in school. They argue over who will teach Pheidippides. The Chorus Leader breaks in to tell the men to stop fighting. Instead they should take turns explaining their views to Pheidippides, so he can decide whose philosophy to follow. The Worse Argument allows the Better Argument to go first, planning to destroy his ideas afterward.

The Chorus Leader introduces the Better Argument as a respected teacher of men long ago, "with so much virtue in their characters." The Better Argument describes a time in the old days when men practiced restraint. Children were silent and walked in straight lines. They memorized songs passed down from their fathers, and teachers beat them if they misbehaved. Young men were careful not to excite others sexually or adopt effeminate mannerisms. The Worse Argument interrupts to call the Better Argument's idealized past "antiquated rubbish."

The Better Argument says these methods have produced soldiers. If Pheidippides chooses the Better Argument, he'll learn to respect his parents and elders and to shun any disgraceful behaviors. The Worse Argument again interrupts to mock the Better Argument's methods. Pheidippides, the Better Argument promises, will be in top physical condition. He won't loiter or get arrested, but he'll attend top schools and live in luxury. If Pheidippides chooses the Worse Argument instead, taking up "what's in fashion nowadays," he'll be out of shape and morally confused.

The Chorus admires the Better Argument's speech. They tell the Worse Argument he'll have to be especially clever to triumph.

The Worse Argument is confident. He thinks it's an even sweeter triumph "to select the weaker argument and yet still win." First he asks the Better Argument what's wrong with bathing in hot water. The Better Argument says warm baths turn men into cowards. The Worse Argument can refute this easily. Hercules, the manliest and most hardworking of the gods, was never in a cold bath.

Next the Worse Argument says young men should loiter and debate in the marketplace, which produces good public speakers. Learning self-restraint instead of debating skills is actively harmful, the Worse Argument continues. When has self-restraint helped anyone? The Better Argument mentions Peleus, a hero in Greek mythology, whose virtue won him a sword and a wife. The Worse Argument scoffs. Corrupt Hyperbolus makes more money selling lamps in the market, he says. And Peleus's wife left him. What's life worth, the Worse Argument asks, if you can't experience pleasure?

The Worse Argument says he can help a man fulfill his physical desires too. For instance, if a man's caught in adultery, he can talk his way out of the charge by claiming even Zeus slept around, and no man can be stronger than a god. With the right debate skills, a man can do whatever he wants.

The Better Argument says his competitor's advice might lead a man to public punishment—"a radish rammed right up his arse." The Worse Argument gets the Better Argument to admit the country's lawyers, poets, and politicians, as well as every member of the audience, all come from "major assholes." The Better Argument concedes defeat, takes off his cloak, and exits into the Thinkery.

The Worse Argument convinces Strepsiades his son is in good hands. As the Worse Argument takes Pheidippides into the Thinkery, the Chorus warns Pheidippides he may regret this later.

Analysis

The satire becomes broader in this section. Aristophanes isn't just indicting Socrates and the Sophists, or even Athens, anymore. He addresses the decline of traditional values in education and what this decline might mean. Aristophanes thinks there's a danger in shaping a moral worldview according to the changing whims of scholars.

Athenians, like Strepsiades, are interested in bettering their lives. The ideas of the Sophists are new and exciting. It's tempting to win an argument; it's great to experience pleasure and enjoy life. But this Agon makes a larger point through the Worse Argument's triumph. If a citizen can engage in bad but enjoyable behavior, such as adultery, theft, or other crimes against a neighbor, and then talk his way out of the consequences, why wouldn't he? Without social stigma and legal punishments to keep people in line, what's the point of self-restraint and self-denial? The Better Argument and the Worse Argument can't find anyone in the audience who's beyond reproach.

Ancient Greek society, like many societies, had both spoken and unspoken moral codes. Violation of these codes was punished through shame (an adulterer had a "radish rammed right up his arse" in public if he were caught) and guilt (the Better Argument hopes young men will "feel ashamed of shameful things" within themselves, as well as desiring community honor). But what happens when the codes are up for debate? If justice exists, the Worse Argument asks, where is it? Religious Greeks believed the gods delivered justice. This is the Better Argument's easy answer. At the same time the gods can get away with cruelty and misbehavior, just like humans.

The Worse Argument brings up an unpunished crime of a son against a father: Zeus chaining up his father Cronos. This example becomes especially potent in the second Agon, when Strepsiades (whom Socrates earlier compared to the ancient and defeated Cronos) will try to argue his son should respect him. The Better Argument accuses the Worse Argument directly of destroying its father, drawing clear father/son parallels and generational conflict between the two arguments.

The Worse Argument is more confident in his rhetorical techniques. He aligns the audience immediately with his side, saying "they're smart" while the Better Argument thinks they're "idiots." The implication is the audience members, susceptible to the Sophists, will have to pick a side too. The Worse Argument doesn't hide his willingness to "formulate new principles." If he can't win by using established principles, he'll make things up. His opinions will sting with "so many hornets," comparing the Sophists, again, to pesky, painful insects.

The Better Argument's devotion to piety isn't necessarily more sympathetic. Aristophanes makes the Better Argument self-righteous, pompous, and a little ridiculous. He fits the stereotype of an old man who dislikes change; he thinks new music is "contorted sounds" and advocates discipline in schools. He continues the characters' disdain for any actions marking men as effeminate or homosexual, and doesn't want young men to express their sexuality at all. The life of wealth the Worse Argument offers, complete with horse racing, still sounds rigorously disciplined and restrained.

As the Better Argument increasingly loses footing, protesting "lots of people" benefit from self-restraint but not convincing his opponent, the Worse Argument becomes bolder. Peleus, the example of rewarded repression the Better Argument offers, led more of a tragic life than a triumphant one. One of his wives hung herself and another, Thetis, left him—though the Worse Argument invents the story of Thetis's sexual dissatisfaction to further his own case about the importance of pleasure.

The gruesome public punishment for adultery, which the Better Argument cites as an example of too big a risk to take, leads to a riff on "gigantic assholes," indicting the audience and leading the Worse Argument to victory. Athens's most admired academic citizens—its lawyers, poets, and politicians—are all imperfect. Aristophanes gives the audience a few good laughs at the expense of aristocratic Athenians. But satire is most effective when turned on its audience, and the audience slowly realizes Aristophanes has been mocking them, too, the whole time. What would they do if they could talk themselves out of any negative consequences? Are they setting up their city for a downfall?

The Chorus Leader sets the audience up for the tragicomic reversal of fortune by telling Strepsiades, cryptically, "I think you may regret this later on."

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