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The Clouds | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

Strepsiades leaves his house for the Thinkery. He's dreading his court case, which will be decided in five days. He still has no money. If he asks to postpone his payments, his creditors will sue him, thinking they'll never be repaid. His only hope is Pheidippides's newfound skill in argument.

Strepsiades greets Socrates at the Thinkery and gives him a small sack as a present. Socrates assures Strepsiades his son can argue his way out of any debt, even a loan with thousands of witnesses. Strepsiades rejoices. He collects Pheidippides, who is now pale like the other Thinkery students. He praises the stare on his son's face—"the look which makes you seem a victim, even though you're the one at fault."

He pleads with Pheidippides to rescue him from "the day of the Old Moon and the New," the first day of the month, when creditors pursue debtors. Pheidippides asks how a day can be old and new. Strepsiades's creditors can't take him to court then, Pheidippides says, because it's impossible. One day can't be two days. The lawmaker Solon, Pheidippides explains, set up two days for court summonses and debt collection—the Old Day, or the last day of the old month, and the New Day, the first day of the new month. Defendants would settle their debts on the Old Day so deposits could be made on the New Day. Strepsiades asks why judges don't accept payments after the New Day, and Pheidippides says the judges like to get money early out of greed.

Satisfied with the explanation, Strepsiades turns to the audience and asks why they sit around foolishly for "wise types" like him and his son to take advantage of. He sings a victory song and returns home.

Pasias, one of Strepsiades's creditors, soon comes knocking with a friend as his witness. He's embarrassed to make Strepsiades, a man from his own deme, or village, his enemy. But he needs his money. Pasias reminds Strepsiades he gave him a 12 minai loan for a horse, and Strepsiades swore on Zeus he'd repay. Strepsiades says he made the promise before Pheidippides learned to argue, so his oath is void. He's prepared to swear another oath, by the gods, claiming he owes nothing. Pasias is appalled and gets even angrier when Strepsiades starts mocking his stomach.

Pasias demands an answer—will he be paid or not? Strepsiades goes into the house and returns with a kneading basin for flour. He asks Pasias what the object is. When Pasias calls it a basin, Strepsiades says it's a bassinette, and he won't repay anyone foolish enough to call objects the wrong names. Pasias leaves with his witness, promising to pursue Strepsiades in court.

Amynias, another of Strepsiades's creditors, knocks next. Amynias is limping and in obvious pain. He demands Strepsiades's son pay back his loan. Strepsiades says Amynias is clearly not thinking straight after his injury. When Amynias says he'll sue Strepsiades for the funds, Strepsiades asks him if Zeus sends fresh water when it rains or if the sun sucks water into the sky from down below. Amynias doesn't know or care. Strepsiades claims it's unjust for him to repay someone with no interest in "celestial things."

Amynias, frustrated, asks if Strepsiades will at least pay the interest on his loan. Strepsiades asks what interest is, and Amynias explains it is money that increases as time goes by. Strepsiades then asks if the water in the sea can expand. If the sea can't grow, how can his debt grow? Strepsiades gets a cattle prod and chases Amynias from his house.

The Chorus sings about how Strepsiades's vice and trickeries may get him out of payment now, but he'll suffer consequences later. His son will "present a case against what's true" as Strepsiades wished, and he might not like the case.

Analysis

Strepsiades may think he's triumphed. The speech where he "roar[s] aloud a mighty shout" to his creditors is performed "in a parody of tragic style," imitating tragic heroes who have succeeded (or imagine they've succeeded) in their quest. But drama relies on a reversal or two of fortune for the main character. The Chorus, like choruses in other Greek plays, can comment on the play's action from an outside perspective. They can even see the conclusion before the characters can.

And Strepsiades is becoming less sympathetic as he's associated with the Sophists. When he swears "in the name of Fraud, queen of everything," it's both funny and devastating. He's replaced any moral scruples he once held with a reverence for fraud and cheating. He aligns himself with a privileged class, mocking the "helpless fools" in the audience for their blindness to the winning skills he now sees as obvious.

The audience senses his pride won't go unpunished. They may also sense Strepsiades has been defrauded himself by the Thinkery. Socrates promised stunning, unrealistic levels of success, and the "logic" Pheidippides uses is hardly as effective as promised. Pasias and Amynias, who haven't been affected by the philosophies of the Thinkery, see what the audience sees—a pompous man trying to cheat them. A sense of dramatic irony, where the audience knows what a character does not, creeps in as Strepsiades haggles with his creditors and the Chorus issues warnings.

Pheidippides bases his argument on a deliberate misinterpretation of the way the courts defined the Old and New Day. Solon was an historical Athenian lawmaker. The argument is intentionally hard to follow, and even harder to imagine succeeding in court. The argument is semantic: How can the same day be both old and new?, just as person cannot be both young and old at the same time. It reflects the Sophists' willingness to bend language and rules to their desires and create new laws if the existing ones did not serve their arguments.

Pheidippides is now a true Thinkery student, as pale as he feared he would be. Strepsiades's remark about the "national character" of offended innocence on his son's face is a biting joke about Greece's moral decline. Pheidippides and Strepsiades are contrasted with devout Athenians like Pasias, who wants to follow the law and "not let my country down" even though he doesn't like collecting debt from a neighbor.

Strepsiades's arguments against Pasias are both arrogant and irrelevant. The lesson on gendered nouns returns unexpectedly when Strepsiades insists the basin is called a bassinette. But out of the classroom, in the context of real-world problems like debt, the concept seems silly. So does Strepsiades's argument to Amynias about the growth of water in the sea.

The audience sees Strepsiades hasn't learned to debate at all. He's just grasped a few facts, which he brandishes as proof of his intelligence and moral superiority. Strepsiades's process of quizzing Amynias ("do you think Zeus always sends fresh water?") has the ring of a Socratic argument, in which Socrates questioned listeners about a concept and led them to realize a logical conclusion themselves. But Strepsiades doesn't offer wit or wisdom. He only makes his creditors more determined to sue him.

The Chorus suggests Pheidippides will "beat all those he runs into with sophistry," offering a metaphor the play will soon make literal.

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