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Topic #A16

Aristophanes, Clouds


15 October 2001

Scribes: Andrew Chiang and Rebecca Cuneo


These minutes were spoken on 17 October; for another version,

go to the unspoken minutes



         Professor Hutchinson decided to take a less dry and academic approach to his lecture on Aristophanes’ Clouds.  He began by saying that this work as well as other ancient comedies were difficult to translate because they were full of jokes and puns.  He likened these comedies to a combination of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Simpsons, and stand-up comedy.  They were all elaborately staged farces.  For example, an ancient comedy in which the women of Athens staged a sex strike after realizing that the Greek war with Sparta was ruining their lives.  During the course of that play, the men came on stage with huge paper mache erections and cartoonish masks that depicted the pain they were in.  As evidenced by such a scene, slapstick humour was a prominent part of these plays.


         Professor Hutchinson then prepared to dramatize certain passages from the Clouds with student volunteers.  Before doing that, he provided the class with some background information about the plot of the play.  The play’s protagonist was Strepsiades whose son, Pheidippides, had a very expensive vice – a passion for horses.  This costly habit had sunk Strepsiades deep into debt, so he decided to send Pheidippides to Socrates’ Thinkery so that he could learn philosophy and wisdom and thus be able to win any court case.  Pheidippides, however, was not interested in attending, and so Strepsiades wound up going himself.


         At this point, Professor Hutchinson and the first student volunteer dramatized the discussion between father and son.  This passage started at line 93 and ended at line 129.  It is quoted below in its entirety.


PHEIDIPPIDES: Yes.  What is it?


STREPSIADES: That, my son is the Thinkery.  For clever brains only, they say.  It’s where the scientists live, the ones who try to prove that the sky is like one of those round things you use to bake bread.  They say it’s all around us and

we’re –


PHEIDIPPIDDES: And we’re the lumps of coal, I suppose?


STREPSIADES: Exactly – you’ve got the idea.  Anyway, if you pay them well, they can teach you how to win your case – whether you’re in the right or not.


PHEIDIPPIDES [guardedly]: Who are these people?


STREPSIADES: I don’t remember their name, but they’re very fine – what do they call themselves? – philosophers.


PHEIDIPPIDES: Ugh! I know the buggers.  You mean those stuck-up white-faced barefoot characters – like that bloody Socrates and Chaerephon.


STREPSIADES: Really, you shouldn’t talk so childishly!  My boy [emotionally], if you care at all whether your poor father gets his daily bread, will you forget about horses for a bit and join them?  Just for me!


PHEIDIPPIDES: I wouldn’t, by – Dionysus, not if you gave me all the pheasants in Athens.


STREPSIADES [on his knees]: My – my beloved son – I beg of you – do go and study with them.


PHEIDIPPIDES: What am I supposed to learn?


STREPSIADES [raising himself to his feet]: they say they have two Arguments in there – Right and Wrong, they call them, Wrong, can always win any case, however bad.  Well, if you can learn this Argument or whatever it is, don’t you see, all those debts I’ve run into because of you, I needn’t pay anyone an obol of them ever.


PHEIDIPPIDES: No, I won’t.  How could I ever look my cavalry friends in the eye again, with a face looking like it had been covered in chalk?


STREPSIADES: Then, holy Demeter! you’ll never eat anything of mine again, not you nor any of your damn thoroughbreds.  I’ll throw you out of the house – you can go anywhere so long as it’s hell.


PHEIDIPPIDES: I know Uncle Megacles will see I’m not without horse and home.  Anyway, I don’t believe you.  [He goes out of the room but, needless to say, not out of the house.]


STREPSIADES: Come on, Strepsiades, this can’t be the knockout punch.  Please the gods, I’m going to go to the Thinkery and get taught there myself. 


In this rather comic scene, they discussed Pheidippides’ distaste for the philosophers and Strepsiades’ belief that the philosophers could teach his son how to get him out paying his debts.  Strepsiades tells his son that Socrates will teach him the two arguments – the Right and the Wrong and that the Wrong argument can win every time no matter how weak it is. 


Professor Hutchinson then asked the class what struck a chord with anyone regarding this play and what the class had already learned about pre-Socratic philosophy.  Professor Hutchinson got the class started by mentioning that Anaximenes believed the world was shaped like a baking stone and that the universe was described as analogous to an oven by the members of the Thinkery.  This was an apt illustration of what the pre-Socratics were attempting to do: they described large-scale systems on small-scale models and thus made those systems easier to understand.  Like the sophists the class had studied – Gorgias who argued for the weakest case i.e. that salt was precious and Protagoras who believed that one could argue both sides of a particular issue – the Socrates of Clouds and his followers tried to transform the weaker argument into the stronger one.  Professor Hutchinson likened the sophists to modern-day lawyers and mentioned that many of the skills useful in the courtroom transferred well into the realm of politics.  Another note was made of the fact that there were as many jokes about the unscrupulous nature of politicians in the ancient world as there are about lawyers and politicians today.


Then Professor Hutchinson and another student volunteer enacted the second passage from the play.  This time it was Strepsiades talking to the student who opened the door at the Thinkery.  This passage began on line 130 and ended on line 180.  It is quoted in its entirety below.


STREPSIADES [to himself]: How can I?  How can I study all this logic-chopping and hair-splitting?  I’m an old man; I never was brainy, and now I’ve hardly got any memory at all.  [Remembering something that seems to be an overriding consideration]  I’ve got to.  No more dilly-dallying.  [He resolutely climbs the steps and knocks.]  Boy!  My little boykins! 


STUDENT [from inside]: Go to blazes!  Who’s that making all that racket?


STREPSIADES: Strepsiades is my name, son of Pheidon, from Cicynna.


[The STUDENT, looking angry, comes out.]


STUDENT: What kind of fool are you?  Do you realize that by your violent and unphilosophical kicking of the door you have precipitated the abortion of a discovery?


STREPSIADES: I do apologize.  I’m only a countryman.  But do tell me, what was thing that got aborted?


STUDENT [mysteriously]: It is not lawful to divulge it to non-members.


STREPSIADES: Well, that’s all right.  I want to join the Thinkery, that’s why I’ve come.


STUDENT: Very well; but remember, your lips must be sealed.  It was like this: Socrates just asked Chaerephon how many of its own feet a flea could jump – do you see? – because one of them had just bitten Chaerephon’s eyebrow and jumped over on to Socrates’ head.


STREPSIADES: Well, how did he find out?


STUDENT: He used a most elegant method.  He melted some wax and put the flea’s feet into it, so that when it set the flea had a stylish pair of slippers on.  And then he took them of its feet and measured the distance out, like this, you see [taking a step or two, toe touching heel].


STREPSIADES: Gosh, what an intellectual brain!


STUDENT: Like to hear another?


STREPSIADES: Yes I would, please, do tell me.


STUDENT [as repeating a story learned by heart]: Chaerephon of Sphettus once asked Socrates whether he was of the opinion that gnats produced their hum by way of the mouth or – the other end.


STREPSIADES: Well, well, what did he say?


STUDENT: ‘The intestinal passage of the gnat,’ he replied, ‘is very narrow, and consequently the wind is forced to go straight through to the back end.  And then the arse, being a hole forming the exit from this narrow passage, groans under the force of the wind.’


STREPSIADES: Like a trumpet, you mean.  I must say that’s a marvellous feat of intestinology.  I can see getting acquitted is going to be child’s play for a chap who knows all there is to know about gnats’ guts.


STUDENT: Then the day before yesterday Socrates was robbed of a great thought by a lizard.


STREPSIADES: How on earth did that happen?


STUDENT: Well, he was studying the path of the moon, or its orbit as we call it, and he was gazing up at the sky with his mouth open, in the dark, you see, and this lizard [trying to keep himself from laughing] – this lizard on the roof shitted right in his face!


STREPSIADES [half collapsed with laughter]: Oh, I liked that one!  The lizard shitted on Socrates’ face!  Ha! ha! ha!


STUDENT [when he has recovered]: And then yesterday, we found we had nothing to eat at dinner-time.  So Socrates –


STREPSIADES: What did he bring off this time?


STUDENT: I was just going to tell you.  He sprinkled a little ash on the table, bent round a skewer to serve as a pair of compasses, and then –


STREPSIADES: Yes, yes, what did he do then?


STUDENT: He whipped somebody’s coat while they were wrestling.


STREPSIADES: And we still think Thales was the wisest man that ever lived!  Come on, come on, open the door and let me see the great man now.  I don’t think my blad – I mean my brain can hold out much longer.  Come on, open it up, can’t you?


During this dialogue the student explained how to measure fleas’ feet and otherwise mixed coarse humour with intellectual discussion.


         When asked for more parallels between the play and other philosophies, a student mentioned that the members-only rule of the Thinkery was reminiscent of the exclusionary style of the Pythagorean societies.  The play also poked fun at experiments dealing with the natural world, which may have been performed by Hippias at that time.  The jabs were evident in the discussions on flea feet and gnat entrails.  In the same passage, the student at the Thinkery described how a lizard defecated on Socrates’ face while he was examining the stars one night.  A student in the class asked, in relation to that scene, why the students at the Thinkery did not eat the lizard for dinner when there was nothing left to eat.  Professor Hutchinson reminded the class that the play was a comedy and had nothing more to say about the lizard.


         When Strepsiades first arrived at the Thinkery, the student who answered the door accused him of causing the “the abortion of a discovery.”  This remark reflected Plato’s claim in his Theaetetus that Socrates had the esoteric skills of a mid-wife.  Plato was not referring to the birthing of children, but that metaphorically, Socrates helped to bring the brainchild of a young man to life.  Just as a mid-wife was usually past the age of child bearing herself, Socrates claimed that he had no real knowledge himself, but could bring it about in others.  And so the abortion joke could be seen as an absurd twist on the idea of Socrates as a mid-wife.


         In his dialogue, the Apology, Plato accused the Clouds of creating a misleading and irresponsible portrait of Socrates.  He claimed that Socrates not only gave birth to ideas, but nourished and protected them as well.  In fact, it could be argued that much of Plato’s work was a literary response to Aristophanes’ and others’ works that he felt damaged the reputation of Socrates.


         The third passage that Professor Hutchinson pointed out was also a satire of politics and current events.  It began on line 200 and ended on line 217.  The passage is quoted below in its entirety.


STREPSIADES [examining some of the instruments]: What on earth are these things?


STUDENT: Well, this one’s for astronomy, and that one’s for geometry, and –


STREPSIADES: Geometry – what’s that useful for?


STUDENT: Well – for – for – sharing out allotments of land, for example.


STREPSIADES: Oh, you mean in a new settlement?


STUDENT: Any land you want.


STREPSIADES: That’s delightful!  I never heard of a more democratic invention.


STUDENT: And this, you see, is a map of the whole world.  Look, there’s Athens.


STREPSIADES [inspecting the map]: Can’t be; if it’s Athens, where are the jurymen?


STUDENT: No, I assure you, it is, and all this area is Attica.


STREPSIADES: Well, what’s happened to my own village, Cicynna?


STUDENT: It’s in there somewhere.  Anyway, here’s the island of Euboea, look, lying stretched out opposite us, all along here.


STREPSIADES: Yes, I knew that already.  It’s been lying like that ever since me and Pericles and the rest of us knocked it out.  Where’s Sparta?


STUDENT [pointing]: Right here.


Strepsiades asked the student about the different instruments he encountered in the Thinkery.  Among them were geometrical tools.  Geometry, Professor Hutchinson noted, was first developed in Ancient Egypt as a method for dividing the land along the Nile Delta.  Strepsiades also asked about the maps at the Thinkery.  Maps were still a relatively recent development when the Clouds was written, having only been brought to Athens in the fifth-century B.C.  Anaxagoras was possibly the first cartographer, and later Hecateus of Miletus became famous for his map.  A student then remarked that the first maps must have required a great leap of imagination.  Professor Hutchinson agreed.  The idea of mapping was extremely subtle in that it depicted a bird’s-eye-view of the land from miles above that had never been seen before.  In modern times, access to many satellite images of the earth from a bird’s-eye-view have made mapping more obvious.


         Next, Professor Hutchinson attempted to sing for the class a verse from the chorus of clouds that started on line 358 and ended on line 364.  It is quoted in its entirety below.


CHORUS [in close harmony]:

         Hail, grey-headed hunter of phrases artistic!

         Hail, Socrates, master of twaddle!

         Out of all the specialists cosmologistic

         We love for the brains in his noddle

         Only Prodicus; you we admire none the less

         For the way that you swagger and cuss,

         And never wear shoes, and don’t care how you dress,

         And solemnly discourse of us.


They praise Prodicus and Socrates for their cosmological inquiries and loyalty to the clouds.  Socrates claimed in the passage that began on line 365 and ended on line 397 that the clouds were the only true divine beings.  The passage is quoted in its entirety below.


STREPSIADES [in raptures]: How fantastic!  How divine!


SOCRATES: Yes, these are the only truly divine beings – all the rest is just a log of fairy tales.


STRESPSIADES: What on earth - !  You mean you don’t believe in Zeus?


SOCRATES: Zeus?  Who’s Zeus?


STREPSIADES: What?  Well, who sends the rain, then?  Answer me that.


SOCRATES: Why, our friends here do that, and I’ll prove it.  Have you ever seen it raining when the sky was blue?  Surely Zeus, if it was him, would be able to send rain even when the Clouds were out of town.


STREPSIADES: That certainly backs your argument.  I wonder why I was so naïve as to think that rain was just Zeus pissing into a sieve.  Well, that’s one thing; but who is that thunders and sends shivers up my spine?


SOCRATES: The Clouds do that too – when they get in a whirl.


STREPSIADES: I can see I’m never going to trip you.  But what d you mean, a whirl?


SOCRATES: Well, being suspended in the air, you see, when they get swollen with rain they are necessarily set in motion, and of course they collide with one another, and because of their weight they get broken and let out this great noise.


STREPSIADES: ‘Necessarily set in motion’, you say.  Ah, but who sets them in motion?  Now that’s got to be Zeus!


SOCRATES: Not a bit of it; as I say, it’s a whirl in the sky.


STREPSIADES: Awhirl! – ah, I get you.   That I must say I hadn’t been told before.  I get it.  Zeus is dead, and now Awhirl is the new king.  But you still haven’t told me what causes the thunder.


SOCRATES: Didn’t you hear? I said that it occurs when Clouds swollen with rain collide with one another, and is caused by their density.


STREPSIADES: Ha!  Do you expect me to believe that?


SOCRATES: You yourself are a living proof of it.  You have no doubt at some time – say, at the Pan-Athenian Festival – had a bit too much soup for dinner?

     [STREPSIADES nods guiltily.]

  Well, didn’t that make your tummy grumble, not to say rumble?


STREPSIADES: It certainly does, straight away, a terrible noise, just like thunder.  Gently at first [imitates the noise], then like this [again, a little louder], and when I crap, it really lets fly [tries to imitate the noise again, but finds himself breaking wind in very truth] – just like they do [indicating the CHORUS].


SOCRATES [approvingly]: Well, if a little tummy like yours [pats it] could let off a fart like that, what do you think an infinity of air can do?  That’s how thunder comes about.  In point of fact, I happen to know that in Phrygian – the oldest language on earth – they actually call thunder ‘phartos’.


STREPSIADES: Very well: how about the thunderbolt?  Tell me how that gets its fire – and hits us and burns us to a cinder, or maybe singes us alive – I don’t know which is worse.  Obviously that’s Zeus’ weapon against people who perjure themselves.


Professor Hutchinson commented on the line in which Strepsiades asked Socrates, “Well, that’s one thing; but who is it that thunders and sends shivers up my spine?” by saying that people of the ancient world were literally terrified of thunder and lightening and believed they were signs of the gods’ anger.  But here Socrates denied the existence of Zeus and explained the phenomena through natural and mechanical laws of physics.  Thunder occurred when clouds “get swollen with rain they are necessarily set in motion, and of course they collide with one another, and because of their weight they get broken and let out this great noise.”  According to Socrates, the motion of the clouds was caused by “a whirl in the sky.”  Socrates further explained thunder by likening the gas in Strepsiades’ stomach that caused him to fart to the infinite amount of air in the clouds, which he said would surely have made a massive sound when released.  He then explained away lightening as Zeus’ weapon against perjurers by noting that there were still many a politician who had not been struck down by lightening.


         Unfortunately, Professor Hutchinson ran out of time before he could elaborate on the later discussions between Strepsiades and Pheidippides.