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The Clouds | Study Guide


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The Clouds | Quotes


I tread the air, as I contemplate the sun.

Socrates, Prologos

Socrates's opening statement demonstrates his character succinctly. Aristophanes liked to express metaphorical ideas in literal form. Socrates, lofted in a basket, is actually treading the air. His need to be physically elevated to think of celestial concepts demonstrates the Sophists' methods of showing off their superior intelligence. This line recurs in the Exodos when Strepsiades repeats it on the roof of Socrates's Thinkery, mocking the philosopher.


Heavenly Clouds, great goddesses/for lazy men—from them we get ... our power to strike responsive chords in speech/and then rebut opponents' arguments.

Socrates, Parodos

Socrates introduces the Clouds as unorthodox goddesses, patrons of proudly "lazy men." The Thinkery students see laziness and skill in language manipulation as virtues and "power" sent from heaven. The Clouds help humans use speech as a weapon against opponents the way the Sophists used speech to succeed in meaningless debates. By giving the Thinkery students their own goddesses, Aristophanes emphasizes the influence the Sophist debate schools have over the Greeks.


They become anything they want.

Socrates, Parodos

Socrates is speaking about the Clouds after Strepsiades mentions the Clouds look like human women, not actual clouds. The shape-shifting Cloud goddesses, like clouds in the sky, can take on different forms depending on the viewer. Aristophanes compares the Clouds' constant transformations to the ideas, language, or words of the Sophists, who don't pursue objective truth but agree with whatever concept wins the argument.


The highest good is victory in action,/in deliberation and in verbal wars.

Chorus Leader, Parodos

The Chorus explains how they'll help Strepsiades and other men triumph in any argument or court case. They describe the Sophist attitude toward debate—you don't win if you're right, you're right if you win. The phrase "the highest good" shows changing attitudes toward what's considered virtuous: victory and triumph by any means instead of right action and sacrifice. The words action and wars recall wartime imagery. Athens is at war with Sparta when the play takes place.


So now you won't acknowledge any gods/except the ones we do—Chaos, the Clouds,/the Tongue—just these three?

Socrates, Parodos

Socrates sums up his view of the universe in the three gods he and the Thinkery worship. Chaos rules the world, not order. The Clouds allow men to see the world however they choose. The Tongue stands for skill in speech. With these gods, men can create their own destinies but also allow their lives to spin out of control—as Strepsiades realizes in Agon 2.


I can just get out of all my debt/and make men think of me as bold and glib,/as fearless, impudent, detestable.

Strepsiades, Parodos

Strepsiades is going to school not to seek wisdom but to seek triumph. He wants to be a man no one will take advantage of, and he's willing to become a bully. This quote and monologue, in which Strepsiades expresses his hopes for his education, shows what Aristophanes thinks of the Sophists he's attacking.


They say this city likes to make disastrous choices,/but that the gods, no matter what mistakes you make,/convert them into something better.

Chorus Leader, Parabasis 1

The Chorus is speaking directly to the city of Athens. Pious Athenians still believed in divine intervention. Aristophanes thinks the Athenians have chosen corrupt leaders and supported mercenary, greedy instructors. The goddesses in the play, the Clouds, suggest they may "convert" these poor choices into "something better," but only if the people take responsibility for their mistakes.


The day will come/when the Athenians will all realize/how you teach these silly fools.

Better Argument, Agon 1

The "archaic" Better Argument warns the Worse Argument that the Athenians will learn the true nature of the Sophists. The Better Argument implies the city's morals have declined, and Athenians (including the audience) aren't yet aware of the long-term impact of the change in their city. His statement implicates the Greek audience, asking them to examine themselves to see which side of the argument they prefer and why.


And it's worth lots of money ... to select/the weaker argument and yet still win.

Worse Argument, Agon 1

The Worse Argument explains why Pheidippides should choose his method of education. Learning how to advance "the weaker argument" will be lucrative because it's a challenging skill few men have cultivated. He acknowledges the other side of the argument, the "better" or "just" side, truly is superior in a fair case. But if men can use the weaker argument to advance their own cause at the expense of others, they've played a successful trick on their opponent and on the rules of debate.


Where have you ever witnessed self-restraint/bring any benefit to anyone?

Worse Argument, Agon 1

The Worse Argument believes sacrificing pleasure isn't worth it to prove virtue or please the gods. He refutes the Better Argument's examples of Greek mythological heroes who restrained themselves, saying things didn't work out for them in the end. He acknowledges people will seek to fulfill their desires no matter what—even if they may be caught. His philosophy is utilitarian and self-indulgent. It also assumes humans are morally imperfect and shouldn't strive for perfection. He gives the example of a man being caught in the crime of adultery and talking his way out of a charge.


A son who's got a gleaming two-edged tongue—/he's my protector, saviour of my home,/a menace to my foes.

Strepsiades, Episode 2

Strepsiades sent Pheidippides to school so his son could protect him in court. Afraid he'll be sued and lose his property, Strepsiades trusts his duplicitous son as his advocate. The situational irony of this statement, it which the outcome is contrary to what is expected, lies in Pheidippides eventually using the "two-edged tongue" against his father when Strepsiades planned for the opposite to happen.


The look/which makes you seem a victim, even though/you're the one at fault, the criminal.

Strepsiades, Episode 2

Strepsiades praises the look on his son's face after Pheidippides gets out of the Thinkery. Pheidippides looks victimized, self-pitying, and defensive, prepared to "deny and contradict." Strepsiades acknowledges his son will argue on behalf of the one who's actually "the criminal" but present a defense so persuasive the criminal will turn into a victim. Strepsiades also says the look reflects Greece's "national character," showing Aristophanes's disdain for current trends in Athens.


How sweet it is to be conversant with/things which are new and clever, capable/of treating with contempt established ways.

Pheidippides, Agon 2

Pheidippides, like his father, undergoes a transformation at the Thinkery. He imagines himself wiser than his countrymen. The "new and clever" idea he's defending is a son's right to beat his parents, which disrupts conventional family dynamics and may seem morally wrong to the audience. Pheidippides shows how changes in "established ways" can have unexpected results in the wrong hands.


That statue there,/the cup, is called a vortex. What a fool/to think this piece of clay could be a god!

Strepsiades, Exodos

Strepsiades sees the statue in front of the Thinkery again. In the Prologos and Parodos, Socrates convinced Strepsiades to worship the "vortex" and the Thinkery's shrine to the vortex as a deity. This quote represents Strepsiades's disillusionment with the novel Thinkery ideas and his return to his old views—the second reversal in his character, which sets the Exodos in motion.


Why were you so insolent with gods/in what you studied and when you explored/the moon's abode?

Strepsiades, Exodos

Strepsiades blames the "insolent" Socrates for ruining his relationship with his son. Socrates's ideas also disrupted the sense of control and order the gods represented to Strepsiades. Strepsiades's final statement in the play calls Socrates and the Sophists to account, asking the Athenians to consider what new ideas might mean to their established way of life.

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