Study Guide

The Clouds Themes

  • War and Violence

    Athens was in the middle of the Peloponnesian War when The Clouds was first performed, and so it's not super shocking that war comes up here and there. And not just as an aside or afterthought. The play is pretty focused on morals, education, and philosophy, but the topic of war is actually related to those other things.

    How so, you ask? Well, when Better Argument and Worse Argument start duking it out over which school of thought is best, one of the arguments Better Argument keeps coming back to is that his attention to morals, tradition, and physical discipline/exercise is better for producing good warriors. Worse Argument, by contrast, is better for producing pasty couch potatoes who don't give a hoot about whether something is moral.

    Questions About War and Violence

    1. Why do you think that the more morally oriented school of thought is also all about prepping guys for war and physical activity/violence? Do those things seem naturally linked to you? Or is the relationship weird?
    2. How do you think Socrates and Worse Argument would prepare their students to deal with war/international conflict? Obviously they're not into physical fitness, so what would their approach be?
    3. Why are there so many references to beatings and other (non-war) types of violence? What do those references do for your overall understanding of the play?

    Chew on This

    The frequent references to other types of violence draw our attention back to the fact that there's a larger conflict (i.e., the Peloponnesian War) going on.

    Socrates and Worse Argument would probably say that fighting a war is silly—diplomacy achieved through communication (or rhetorical manipulation) would do the trick.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    You're in for a good time reading The Clouds, since it's not short on the silly factor. Of course, there's a serious point amid all that humor: Aristophanes is trying to show how foolish Socrates and his philosophies (and the people who follow them) are… but hey, there's no reason that critique can't be funny and filthy, right?

    That's how Aristophanes seems to feel anyway, and the result is lots of potty and sex-related humor as we watch the characters embrace their own ridiculousness (until, well, circumstances force them not to, as is the case with Strepsiades).

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Do you think that the filthy humor and overall light tone add to or take away from the play's overall critique of Socrates and his ideas? Does the humor work or distract?
    2. In particular, why do you think there's so much vulgar humor? Why do you think the author draws on that particular kind of ha-ha to make his point?
    3. Are there any non-foolish characters in the play? If so, who are they and how do you feel about them?
    4. Does the foolishness/folly of certain characters soften your attitude toward them, or make you more critical of their behavior?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Strepsiades comes off as unintelligent makes us less inclined to focus on his behavior/morals and more likely to home in on Socrates's failings—after all, he's the jerk who's taking advantage of this guy.

    The foolish and ridiculous behavior that characters like Strepsiades and Pheidippides engage in make us less inclined to be sympathetic toward them/their actions, since they embrace/revel in their ignorance (except when they want a particular piece of knowledge to suit their very specific, selfish ends).

  • Education

    It all comes back to education in The Clouds. The question of how best to prepare people mentally for the challenges of life is a huge question (like, just in general), and Aristophanes is definitely taking aim at particular philosophies and teachings that he thinks are potentially harmful to young people. The play lampoons Socrates's fictional school and its instruction as silly at best and morally harmful at worse.

    You see, Socrates is portrayed as pushing the Worse Argument, which basically involves using rhetoric to bring people over to your point of view, regardless of how moral what you think or want actually is. The play shows us the potentially devastating consequences of learning and buying into this idea when Pheidippides uses it to justify beating his father, who then totally renounces his enthusiasm for Socrates's "Thinkery."

    Questions About Education

    1. Is education portrayed as overall helpful or dangerous? Or is it entirely dependent on the school/teacher/situation?
    2. Are there any good teacher or educational figures in the play? What about Better Argument—how much "better" does he seem than Worse Argument?
    3. Chaerephon (Socrates's partner in crime, er, education) is mentioned but never appears in the play. Why do you think that is?

    Chew on This

    Since Better Argument is revealed as flimsy when he flips over to Worse Argument's side, it appears that Better Argument is no "better" than Worse Argument.

    Better Argument is better than Worse Argument; his flip to WA's side simply emphasizes how powerful Worse Argument is at fooling people (not how weak BA is).

  • Change and Aging

    No, you haven't been beamed back to your grandparents' front porch, but it might feel that way—there's a lot of reminiscing about the "good old days" in The Clouds, and chatter about how much better life was in the past. Socrates and his Thinkery are all about newfangled ideas and methods, but Strepsiades is so stuck in the past (and, as he keeps reminding us, old) that he can't quite keep up, so he has to send his son there to learn the rhetorical skillz they think they need to shake off their creditors.

    Better Argument, the personified school of thought that is all about pushing for tradition, reverence for elders, and morals, believes that the new "worse" argument (personified as Worse Argument) is poisoning Athenian youth, but Strepsiades is all about it… until he realizes that it gives his son the ammunition he needs to be as badly behaved as he can be.

    Questions About Change and Aging

    1. If they play is trying to praise tradition/the elder generation, why does it make its one elderly figure such a fool?
    2. Is Better Argument's yearning for tradition and the "old" days portrayed positively? Negatively? Neutrally? Does nostalgia seem to be helpful or harmful?
    3. Is change ever portrayed as a good thing in the play?

    Chew on This

    Strepsiades is portrayed as foolish so that the audience focuses on the right thing when critiquing Socrates's ideas: it's not that the older generation and its values are better; it's just that Socrates's philosophy/approach is bad.

    Better Argument's values—tradition, morals, etc.—are portrayed as good, but his pining nostalgia doesn't come off as super powerful or positive.

  • Philosophy

    Who would have thought that the discipline of philosophy could be harmful—after all, what could be better and more helpful to human beings than pondering the meaning of life? Well, judging from what happens in The Clouds, a lot.

    Aristophanes portrays the great philosopher Socrates as using silly methods (like having his students stare at the ground with their butts pointed toward the sky) to pursue deep thoughts, which makes his school and teachings look pretty ridiculous.

    But silliness is the least of Socrates's crimes, the play implies. Socrates's philosophy is all about rhetorical success and winning your argument at any expense, rather than following any objective moral code or standard... and Aristophanes as a real problem with that.

    Questions About Philosophy

    1. Are only Socrates's ideas portrayed as bad, or do you think philosophy in general gets a bad rap in the play? Is all philosophy kind of portrayed as mental self-indulgence?
    2. Better Argument appears to be, well, better than Worse Argument, but how much better is he and his school of thought?
    3. Are there any examples of good philosophers or philosophies in the play?

    Chew on This

    You get the vibe that Aristophanes kind of objects to philosophy as a whole, since it encourages people to like and value ideas over morals.

    Philosophy is fine in the play's universe, as long as it's directed toward moral ends; it's only when philosophy gets separated from a moral sense that it becomes problematic.

  • Religion and Science

    In addition to his mad rhetorical skills, Socrates is notable for being The Clouds' primary scientist figure. He teaches Strepsiades about how clouds (not Zeus) make the rain, and apparently he has all kinds of instruments hanging around that can be used for geometry, astronomy, etc.

    Seems innocent enough, right? Well, the downside (in the play's logic, anyway) appears to be that Socrates isn't super interested in taking his cues for how to act from gods and their moral codes—and without some external force defining morality for him, he seems free to decide right and wrong for himself. And he doesn't always do such a good job.

    Questions About Religion and Science

    1. We know that religion is portrayed as good for instilling a moral code, but is belief in the gods always portrayed positively?
    2. Is science always portrayed negatively? Are there any moments when it gets a neutral or positive treatment?
    3. Why is it significant or important that Socrates views the Clouds as gods? Are they gods, or do you think the Clouds are just feigning god status to have some fun with the characters?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Socrates turns the Clouds into gods is the ultimate proof of his hypocrisy. Even though he's all about lecturing Strepsiades about science (and how things like rain are just natural phenomena, not proof of godly intervention), Socrates believes in gods just like the people he critiques/ridicules— he just finds them in different (and arguably more ridiculous) places.

    The Clouds are gods, as far as the play's universe is concerned. They have all the telltale signs: the tendency to prescribe morals from on high, a love of testing people by giving them challenges to overcome (Abraham and Isaac, anyone?), and a vengeful attitude toward people who don't listen to them (which apparently is lots of people).

  • Language and Communication

    Okay, yes, Socrates is a philosopher, but a big part of his philosophy is figuring out the best way to argue a point to get what you want. Sure, you could argue his approach is more about persuasion than trying to communicate, but it still involves heavy attention to language and its power.

    Among other things, Socrates teaches his pupils the Worse Argument, which is rhetoric so powerful that it can make things that are morally wrong appear correct—you know, like getting out of debts that you've racked up.

    You've probably heard it said that language is power, and that's definitely true here... unfortunately, a lot of the focus in The Clouds is on how that power can be used for evil.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Is rhetoric portrayed as inherently evil? Or is the problem simply that Socrates and his associates are using it for evil purposes?
    2. Do you find it contradictory and/or ironic that rhetoric is being critiqued via a work of fiction (which has persuasive speeches to the audience sprinkled in)? How are language and art portrayed overall in the play?
    3. Do the characters communicate well overall? Why or why not, and why is that important?
    4. What do you make of the way Socrates communicates with others? How does that shape your opinion of him?

    Chew on This

    Rhetoric is not inherently evil; Socrates just uses it in evil ways. If you use rhetoric toward moral stuff, it's moral.

    Rhetoric is inherently immoral, because it values the strength of the argument rather than a moral code.

  • Morality

    If philosophy and rhetoric are kind of the Big Bads in The Clouds, morality is the white knight. Characters like Socrates and Worse Argument (and Strepsiades, for most of the play) seem to think that worrying about some external moral code is sooooo 500 BCE; the modern way is just to pay attention to science and what can be empirically proven.

    Socrates is all about using rhetoric to push your own agenda, regardless of how moral it is by an external standard; if you can back it up with proofs, it's all good. Of course, the play strongly suggests that this view of morality only leads to bad things. For example, Pheidippides ends up using Socrates's teachings to prove that he's justified in beating his father, which sends Strepsiades running back into the anti-Socrates camp.

    Questions About Morality

    1. In terms of characters, who is the play's moral center? That is, which character would you consider the most moral?
    2. Are rhetoric and morality completely incompatible? How about science and morality?
    3. Has Strepsiades really learned any kind of moral lesson at the end of the play, or is he still doing just what's expedient for him?

    Chew on This

    The Clouds are definitely the play's moral center, as they present the most coherent voice about what constitutes right and wrong.

    Strepsiades has not learned anything by the end of the play; he only rejects Socrates because he is mad his son is using Socrates's ideas to justify beating him. Ironically, in his single-minded pursuit of self-interest, he seems like the ultimate subscriber to Worse Argument.