The Clouds | Study Guide

Aristophanes

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The Clouds | Episode 1 | Summary

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Summary

Socrates enters from the Thinkery, grumbling. He swears he's never met a more forgetful man than Strepsiades. He calls to Strepsiades to bring out his bed, but Strepsiades says the bugs won't let him. Strepsiades eventually drags the bug-filled bed outside.

Socrates asks Strepsiades what he'd like to learn first—"Poetic measures? Diction? Rhythmic verse?" Strepsiades wants to learn measures so he can measure what men owe him. Socrates asks about musical measures, and Strepsiades is stuck on physical measurements. Impatient, Socrates moves on to rhythm, and Strepsiades asks if rhythm will help him get food. Socrates tries to compare rhythmic meters to digits to help him understand. Strepsiades says a digit used to mean a finger, and he sticks his finger up Socrates's nose. He doesn't want to learn poetry, music, or rhythm, only argument.

There's more material to go over first, says Socrates. He asks Strepsiades which of the "quadrupeds," or four-footed animals, are male and female. Strepsiades lists the names of male and female animals he knows. Socrates points out Strepsiades used the word fowl to designate both the male and female bird. Socrates says the correct gendered nouns are fowl and fowlette. Strepsiades, impressed by Socrates's cleverness, says he'll "fill your kneading basin up with flour" just for teaching this topic. Again, Socrates says, Strepsiades used a male noun—basin—when he should have used a female noun. Now Strepsiades is bewildered. How can basins be male or female? Socrates tells him to use the female noun bassinette, comparing the word to a feminine version of a masculine name.

They move on to male and female first names. Strepsiades says he can tell the difference between a male and female name; it's obvious. But Socrates thinks his pupil is still making mistakes. He tells Strepsiades to lie in the bed and contemplate. Strepsiades begs to lie on the ground instead, but Socrates says he has no choice. Socrates returns to the Thinkery.

The Chorus encourages Strepsiades to think. He's too miserable to think; the bugs are attacking him all over his body. He's convinced the bugs will kill him. Socrates and the Chorus have no patience for Strepsiades's complaining. The Chorus Leader says he needs to find "a sexy way to cheat." When Socrates comes to check on him, Strepsiades is masturbating under the blanket and hasn't come up with any ideas. Socrates instructs him to cover his head with the blanket and keep thinking.

Finally Strepsiades has an idea. He will buy a witch and have her haul the moon down from the sky. With no moon to signal the new month, his creditors can't collect debts on the first day of the month. Socrates has him solve another problem: How would he get out of a conviction if someone sued him to pay five talents in court? After some thought Strepsiades decides he will buy a piece of glass at the drug seller's shop. Then he will manipulate the sun's reflection in the glass to melt the scribe's wax tablet in court.

Socrates gives his pupil another dilemma. How would he duck a charge in a hearing he'd lose without a witness? This one is easy, Strepsiades says. He would hang himself. No one can sue a dead man. By now Socrates is fed up and wants to quit. He asks Strepsiades if he can even remember the first thing he learned. Strepsiades struggles to recall what it was—something to do with flour? An angry Socrates kicks Strepsiades out of the Thinkery.

Strepsiades feels no better off than when he arrived. He asks the Clouds for advice. The Clouds tell him to send a son in his place, if he has a grown son. Strepsiades says his son's unwilling to learn. Pheidippides is from a wealthy, haughty family on his mother's side. Strepsiades will force him to go to school or evict him. He walks off to get Pheidippides.

The Chorus gives Socrates advice as his "only god." Socrates should get whatever he can from Strepsiades and his son, they say. Clearly, Strepsiades is willing to do anything to please Socrates.

Strepsiades pushes his son toward the Thinkery. Pheidippides thinks his father is out of his mind when Strepsiades refuses to swear by Zeus and claims "Vortex" has replaced Zeus as god. Pheidippides can't believe his father admires the fools at the Thinkery who can't teach anything useful. Strepsiades protests the students are clever and frugal, saving money by not bathing, and learning "the full extent of human thought." As an example he takes two birds, a male and female bird, and teaches Pheidippides to call one "fowl" and the other "fowlette." Pheidippides is skeptical—that's all he's learned? He also wonders where his father's cloak and shoes went. Strepsiades says he donated them to the Thinkery in exchange for knowledge.

Strepsiades introduces Pheidippides to Socrates. Pheidippides insults Socrates immediately, and Socrates points out the "feeble tone" of Pheidippides's speech. Strepsiades urges Socrates to take his son on as a student despite his insolence. Pheidippides is bright, Strepsiades says; he'll just need to learn two forms of argument, the "Better" and the "Worse." Strepsiades adds Pheidippides should preferably learn the worse argument if there's no time to teach both.

Analysis

Socrates swears by the gods of the Thinkery, "Respiration, Chaos, and the Air." This phrase is a different version of Socrates's earlier naming of the gods in the Parodos: "Chaos, the Clouds, the Tongue." The Thinkery gods are vague concepts rather than deities with definite personalities and moral stances, like the gods in the Greek pantheon. The Cloud goddesses, for instance, may be interchangeable with Air and other forces of nature. The audience begins to see the character of Socrates as someone who pretends to know more about science and weather than he actually knows.

This oath would have sounded strange and blasphemous to an Athenian audience. The two men are positioned as opposites, a common comic setup. Socrates is the heathen intellectual, one of the elite city dwellers of the Thinkery. Strepsiades is provincial and poor, a "country bumpkin" without the patience for academic subjects. But both men are targets in a satire growing increasingly dark and uncomfortable.

Strepsiades only wants to learn when learning will suit his purposes. He forgets any information he can't use to benefit himself, such as when he owes money. He's in school to learn to break his oaths and cheat his fellow Athenians. His ideas for avoiding his debt are absurd and disproportionate to his actual problem, requiring much more effort than simply paying his debts would. Aristophanes relies on this lack of proportion to find humor in Strepsiades's buffoonery. Socrates may be sincere or sarcastic when he praises his pupil's ideas, though Socrates reaches his limit when Strepsiades earnestly suggests hanging himself.

Socrates isn't much wiser than his pupil in this scene. His lesson of learning in a bug-filled bed doesn't produce any meaningful thought. Insects represent both unorthodox learning methods and a focus on the trivial. Though the bugs are individually small, their collective impact torments Strepsiades. Even the trivial becomes significant in the right context, similar to nitpicking Sophist debates.

The Chorus reminds Socrates he can take advantage of his pupil's clear desire to learn. Since the Clouds are the only gods Socrates worships, he doesn't need to follow the moral standards set by any other gods or religious codes. The Clouds, reflecting their viewer, are perfectly happy to advise Socrates to do anything for money.

Plato calls the ideas of the Sophists "eristic" arguments. Eristic, from the Greek eristikos or "fond of wrangling," refers to an argument focused on victory rather than on truth. The argument may require dubious reasoning or flat-out lies; the only goal is to win.

Socrates's lesson about gendered nouns and pronouns shows the Sophists' obsession with minor details in language. The word fowl, for instance, can apply to both male and female birds. When Socrates insists fowlette is correct, he's inventing rules for language and making sure Strepsiades follows these rules. Strepsiades will use the same guidelines in a later scene to assert his intellectual superiority over his creditors, implying anyone who doesn't know the Thinkery's arbitrary rules is an idiot.

After a brief and unsuccessful session with Socrates, Strepsiades counts himself among the learned. He pokes some slightly self-aware fun at himself for forgetting everything—"because I'm old"—but is still playing the role of buffoon. Pheidippides, still naturally skeptical, calls the Thinkery students "Sons of Earth." The word Earth points to the Thinkery's focus on earthly phenomena, like insect movements and financial profit.

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