The Socrates in the Clouds

Aristophanes lampoons Socrates

νεφέλη, nephelē, noun, "cloud, mass of clouds" The Clouds (Νεφέλαι) is the first comedy of the ideas. It lampoons Socrates and the new intellectual ideas that had become in fashion in 5th century Athens.

The play begins with Strepsiades sitting up in bed. He is a beset father and husband who cannot sleep because he is worried about the debts he cannot pay. His son, Pheidippides, sleeps blissfully in the bed next to him. Strepsiades laments that his aristocratic wife has encouraged their son to indulge in horses and that the expense is beyond their means. To get out from under the debt, Strepsiades hits on a plan to enroll Pheidippides a school Socrates runs, a "think-shop of wise souls." There he would learn the rhetorical skills necessary to defeat their creditors in court, but Pheidippides (who is athletic and part of the young and beautiful in Athens) will have nothing to do with those "quacks, the pale-faced wretches, the bare-footed fellows, of whose numbers are the miserable Socrates and Chaerephon." So Strepsiades decides to enroll himself.

When Strepsiades enters, he sees students bent with head to the ground and rear pointing straight up and Socrates suspended midair in a basket. He is told the students are "in search of the things below the earth." He can only think that they are searching for roots but is told they are "groping about in darkness under Tartarus." Because their posture (think exaggerated downward facing dog in yoga) is strange and inappropriate for someone gathering roots

τί δῆθ᾽ ὁ πρωκτὸς ἐς τὸν οὐρανὸν βλέπει;

αὐτὸς καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ἀστρονομεῖν διδάσκεται

(Aristophanes, Clouds 193-194)

why then does their rump look toward heaven?
τί δῆθ᾽ ὁ πρωκτὸς ἐς τὸν οὐρανὸν βλέπει;

In reply, the student showing him around gives him the matter-of-fact answer that

It is getting taught astronomy alone by itself
αὐτὸς καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ἀστρονομεῖν διδάσκεται.

Here, with Strepsiades' perspective, in absolutely hilarious fashion, Aristophanes represents how those who circled around Socrates looked to Athenians raised in the old ways.

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