Study Guide

Socrates in The Clouds

By Aristophanes


Yes, that Socrates. The character you see in this play is based on the real philosopher. In fact, Aristophanes's sendup of Socrates's approach to teaching and philosophy is thought to have played a role in trashing his reputation, which, in turn, influenced the decision to put him on trial, which in turn, led to his execution.

Hey, who says art isn't powerful?

Socrates doesn't come off as evil per se, but our good playwright is definitely poking fun at him. Here's how.

Good Times in the Ivory Tower

You may have heard it said that academics live in a metaphorical ivory tower, high above and far away from real life and real people. Well, whether or not that's actually true of today's professors, it is pretty much Socrates's deal in this play.

Aristophanes tips us off to the fact that Socrates lives with his head in the clouds from the first time he flies onto the stage. Wait, don't we mean step onto the stage? Nope, when Strepsiades goes to meet him, Socrates is actually flying through the air. Strepsiades is shocked and asks him what in the world he's doing up there, so Socrates explains:

"Never / could I make correct celestial discoveries / except by thus suspending my mind, and mixing / my subtle head with the air it's kindred with. / If down below I contemplate what's up, / I'd never find aught; for the earth by natural force / draws unto itself the quickening moisture of thought. / The very same process is observable in lettuce." (228-234)

Translation: the mind is life a leaf of lettuce that loses "moisture" easily. Also: Socrates thinks he needs to be physically aloft to mingle with lofty thoughts and ideas. He takes it seriously, but it's supposed to (and does) look pretty silly to the audience.

Strepsiades makes fun of the Thinkery's thinky ways when he's trying to convince his son to enroll (perhaps that wasn't the right sales tactic):

"That house is a Thinkery for clever souls. / Some gentlemen live there who argue that the sky / is a casserole-cover—and make us all believe it— / and that it covers us all, and we're charcoal briquets. / These people train you, if you pay them money, to win any argument, whether it's right or wrong." (94-98)

Even though Strepsiades wants to enlist the Thinkery's services, he doesn't exactly cast the most positive light on Socrates or his way of thinking; in fact, he makes it seem pretty ridiculous.

Science and Progress?

Socrates is more into science than religion. In fact, one of the first things he teaches Strepsiades is that the gods he's gone around believing in for all these years don't exist. When Strepsiades asks Socrates if he is honestly denying that someone like Zeus is a god, Socrates is adamant: "Zeus, you say? Don't kid me! There's no Zeus at all" (367). Well, tell us how you really feel, Socky.

In fact, according to Socrates, the clouds—or should we say the Clouds—are the closest things to a god in existence:

"[…] They're clouds from heaven, goddesses for idle men. / They're the ones who give us judgment, dialectic, intelligence, fantasy and double-talking, eloquence and forceful talk." (316-317)

But don't get too excited about Socrates's willingness to confer religious powers on the Clouds—at his heart, he's a scientist, and he's careful to explain the science of rain to Strepsiades (who had previously thought that that particular weather phenomenon was just Zeus peeing on us):

"Clouds fill up with lots of water, then they're forced to move about, sagging soddenly with rain, then / getting heavier perforce, collide with one another, breaking up and making crashing sounds." (376)

Sure, Socrates's science is pretty surprisingly accurate for the times, but that doesn't necessarily make him a cool dude in the play's eyes. He represents anti-traditional, anti-religious, and amoral values that, when Strepsiades adopts them, end up being really harmful to him.

So, really, Socrates doesn't come off looking so great in the play. But now, thousands of years later, we still remember Socrates as an awesome genius. So ultimately, the tally is Socrates: 1, Haters of Socrates: -348,739,792,323.