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The Clouds | Themes

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The Decline of Traditional Values

Aristophanes shows how the rise of the Sophists' philosophies in Athens has led to an environment where every man is only out to protect himself. The "New Education" spurs a citywide decrease in loyalty, patriotism, religious piety, and respect for the elderly and tradition. Athenians support financially corrupt politicians like Cleon and Hyperbolus and ignore their civic duties of reverencing the gods. Even the city's lyric poets—the people who record Greece's history—have been affected by the new philosophies and "celebrate the Clouds."

The Better Argument and the Worse Argument demonstrate the tension between past values and evolving future values. Traditionalists aren't always right. Aristophanes portrays the Better Argument as self-righteous and dogmatic. But Strepsiades and Pheidippides's conflict over whether a son can beat his father shows Sophist moral relativism taken to its logical extreme. When "what's bad is good and what's good is bad," as the Better Argument says, Greek society will lose its moral compass.

The Manipulation of Language

Sophists used the skills of linguistic analysis to turn any argument in their favor. They'd even rearrange the meaning of words and phrases if it suited them.

Pheidippides attempts to argue his father out of debt by changing the meaning of "the Old Day and the New," proving the courts collected money on the wrong day. As he begins school, Strepsiades looks forward to becoming "one who cobbles lies together, makes up words." He knows language and communication give people power over others. Socrates teaches Strepsiades new words for old concepts, like gendered nouns to describe objects and "Vortex" to describe weather phenomena. Strepsiades then attempts to use the new gendered nouns to outsmart his creditors. But Strepsiades's argument with his creditors is a satire on the Sophists' use of language; Strepsiades proves nothing and only alienates his creditors further.

The Clouds, as Aristophanes portrays them, are goddesses who give men "our powers of speech, our comprehension ... our power to strike responsive chords in speech." The Clouds are patrons of using communication to shape the world around human whims and desires. The Thinkery, for instance, uses communication to manipulate rather than to describe and explain. Strepsiades hopes the Clouds will teach him to win an otherwise losing court case through persuasive speech and loose interpretation of the facts. The "Old Day and the New" argument is an example of this loose interpretation.

Faith versus Science

Socrates replaces the old Greek gods with scientific reactions. He worships "Vortex," an eddy or whirlpool, instead of Zeus. Socrates claims the Clouds, rather than the deities, bring rain and thunder. He gives examples based on empirical evidence rather than on faith, citing practical observations. Strepsiades grew up believing the gods controlled the weather, and he has trouble adjusting to a new outlook.

The play explores the consequences of Athens's new age of reason and enlightenment around the 5th century BCE. Great scientific and philosophical advancements emerged, but the previous sense of communal tradition and civic loyalty diminished as Athens became more cosmopolitan. Faith was part of the Greek tradition.The Cloudsshows a society moving toward science and away from faith and the tension inherent in this transition.

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