Aristophanes on Socrates

Mark asked:

I am having trouble deciphering Aristophanes’ clouds. He seems to be ridiculing Socrates for his radical beliefs, is this true? How far apart are these two men?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Answering the last part of your question first: They occupied virtually opposite positions in respect of their beliefs about a healthy society. Aristophanes sided with the conservatives; he wanted the old sterling morals of the Persian war generation reinstated, and although nothing much of it survived the explosion of wealth at Athens, plenty of lip service was still paid to it. The playwright evidently believed that the innate character of Athenian society was as good as one might wish, and that the exaggerations of recent times were reversible hiccups which did not impair the overall moral fibre of the state.

Whereas Socrates saw the Athenians succumbing to greed, immodesty, power hunger and political instability. So he made himself a one-man band for reform; but after some time of trying to awaken the citizens to the desperate need for virtues, for examining themselves in light of the good of their soul and their individual responsibility for the collective health of the state, he gave up. They just didn’t want to know. So he turned to the young, who were curious and fascinated by this ugly satyr with the honey tongue of wisdom. Before long, half the adults at Athens were incensed at what they believed to be his mission of undermining their authority over these teenage youths.

This is a nutshell view of what seems to have been going on. Socrates had become a ‘character’ known to everyone, with plenty of gossip flying around, most of it nonsense. None of this serves, however, as an excuse for Aristophanes. He is not ridiculing Socrates, but a straw man. The fact is that the playwright produced a vicious character assassination and put falsehoods on stage full well knowing that ‘public opinion’ about Socrates (i.e. gossip) confused his aims and methods with those of the travelling teachers of rhetoric who were flooding Athens at the time in search of prestige and a quick buck. This is a reference to the so-called ‘sophists’. I can’t enlarge on them here, so look them up. But the point about The Clouds is precisely that Socrates is depicted as someone who worships strange gods and runs a school (called the ‘Thinkery’) where people come to learn how to lie and cheat with conviction, which is indeed what some of the less scrupulous sophists were known for.

At his trial, years later, Socrates would ruefully remind his judges that none of the accusations against him had a foundation in truth; that they were mere echoes of Aristophanes’ play. When you are aware of this long-term outcome, the sardonic humour of the play tends to leave rather a sour taste in one’s mouth. Because this is more than satire; it is a pack of lies dressed up as comedy; and as it happened, lodged in the memory of the Athenians much longer than was good for their rational appreciation of what the trial was all about.


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