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Topic #A16

Aristophanes, Clouds


15 October 2001

Scribes: Sumeet Khushalani and Danny Kharazmi


These minutes were not spoken; for another version,

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Professor Hutchinson began Monday’s lecture by declaring that he did not wish to talk about Aristophanes in an academic way, but instead he would ask members of the class to act out parts from his play The Clouds.  Before beginning to select students to come and perform, Professor Hutchinson gave a brief background on Aristophanes and his style of writing.  The plays of Aristophanes are often difficult to translate because of the many puns and jokes.  His plays are of a comedic genre similar in a way to the works of Gilbert and Solomon, or the modern cartoon comedy The Simpsons.  The comedy of Aristophanes was full of obscenities and many elements of slapstick comedy.  Professor Hutchinson then gave an example of a famous slapstick that resembled the works of Aristophanes.  It was a story about the women of Athens and how they came to realize that their men could not come to peace with the Spartans, and were not giving any attention to the women.  So they get together and organize a sex strike.  The men begin groaning and pleading with the women to call off the strike, but the women do not quit.  Finally the men begin to listen to the Athenian women and their strike proves to be a success.  At the end of the play, the men march out onto the stage wearing nothing but a mask to cover their face and fully exposed erections.  After this example, Professor Hutchinson have a brief outline of the plot and then read out four sections from Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, with the help of class members.  The Clouds is the story of a father whose son has an obsession with buying horses because he finds to be beautiful.  However, the father is a little concerned because his son’s obsession is extremely expensive and the father now owes a large debt.  Suddenly, the father gets the idea of sending his son to the “Thinkery”, the school of Socrates.  He tells his son to join this school and give up his costly obsession, because at the “Thinkery” the son will learn the skills of argument and be able to win the court case when his father goes on trial for his debts.  When his son refuses to go, the father takes it upon himself to attend the school and learn the skill of argument in order to save himself from debt. The first section is the discussion between the father and his son.


Section 1 of 4

Line 93 ff


PHEIDIPPIDES:  Yes.  What is it?

STREPSIADES: That, my son is the Thinkery.  For the clever brains only, they say.  It’s where 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-

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

STREPSIADES: Exactly – you 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.

PHEIDIPPIDIES: (guardedly): Who are those 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 the 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 go join them?  Just for me!

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

STREPIADES:  (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 – and one of 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.

PHEIDIPPIDIES:  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 or home.  Anyway, I don’t believe you. (he goes out of the room but, needless to say, not the house.)

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


This first section that was read in class focused on the position of the philosopher in ancient Greece, and the usage of knowledge.  The reference at the beginning of the section, near line 95, is to Anaximenes who is one of the Milesian philosophers that we studied in September.  It was he how proposed the idea of the universe being a disk in the shape of a baking stone.  This reference is an example of a model of the cosmic universe on the basis of small-scale systems.  Aristophanes is trying to show that by engaging in discussions, such as the one in the portion above, you come to explain cosmic phenomena by the things around you such as a “baking stone”.  Professor Hutchinson said that it was a common thing by philosophers of that time period to try and model large systems (such as the cosmos) by using smaller systems that the people could understand.  This was a form of Natural Philosophy.  The next element mentioned in this first reading are the notions of Right and Wrong.  This is a reference to the works of Gorgias and his argument for salt being very precious and valuable.  Also his famous piece The Encomium of Helen, where he tries to show that she is innocent using an argumentative style called a ‘quadilema’ (refer to scribe notes on Gorgias, Oct. 10/01).  This reference is also describes the works of Protagoras who always argued both sides of the argument because one can never know which side he would be representing.  Gorgias and Protagoras are both examples of the Wrong argument mentioned in the play.  The skill of lawyers and politicians is also acknowledged by this reference of the Right and Wrong and goes to show that in ancient Greece, lawyers and politicians were ridiculed for their scrupulousness, just like they are in our modern day.  I guess some jokes never get old.


Section 2 of 4

Line 130ff


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 marking 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 this 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 was 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 off 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 do you 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 like that one! The lizard shitted in 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 – l mean my brain can hold out much longer. Come on, open it up, can’t you?


There are many significant points made about philosophers and the view that Aristophanes held about philosophy.  The concept of the ‘Thinkery’ makes reference to the mentality of that time period about philosophy being a study for only those who were members.  Non-members, such as Strepsiades, were not easily welcome into these intellectual groups.  Next is the discussion of the flea and the gnat’s guts. Professor Hutchinson said these two points are made to exaggerate research projects that many philosophers conducted.  It also goes to show that people were already doing investigations in the natural and social world.  Hippias conducted numerous natural experiments during that era.  The concept of the compass represents an example of constructive geometry.  The people of Greece constructed curves with simple devices, for example a compass.  A student then asked what role the lizard symbolized in the play?  However, Professor Hutchinson said that he would not comment on the lizard, only that it may have been a study of repellent creatures.  There was also special astronomical terms used in this section such as ‘orbit’, meaning the path of the moon.  The last point that was made about this section of the play was regarding the concept of abortion that was brought near line 140.  Professor Hutchinson explained that these comedies are full of puns.  In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates claims to have the skill of being a midwife, and by this it is meant that Socrates is able to help young men bring to life the brain child inside of them.  Since, Socrates claimed that he himself had no knowledge but could however, make bring knowledge to life from within other people.  Similar to a midwife who is old and cannot have any children, yet her role is to help others bring their children to life.  Professor Hutchinson also noted that Plato was very outraged at this comedy The Clouds, because he felt that it spread a bad image of Socrates.  Plato believed that Aristophanes was misleading the public’s impression of Socrates and that this comedy created a suspicious persona of Socrates at his trial.  Whether or not the conversations of Socrates were as Aristophanes describes them in The Clouds is something that we will never know for certain.  We only have an idea of what the discussions were like but do not know the actual details.  Someone from the class asked if Plato’s Apology is a response to Aristophanes or if Aristophanes’ writing was a response to Plato.  Professor Hutchinson claimed that Plato’s Apology was a literary response to Aristophanes.  Nevertheless, Plato ultimately believed that The Clouds damaged the reputation of Socrates and that it was a rude political satire. 


Section 3 of 4

Line 200ff


[The other STUDENTS go into the school. They leave behind a number of instruments and a map.]


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, here’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.


After this passage was read, Dr. Hutchinson commented that geometry was invented in the second millennium B.C. However, it was during the 5th century B.C. that geometry was used in order to measure the earth; in fact, it was even used to divide arable tracts of land. Maps representing the world were a relatively, recent phenomenon. An early philosopher was the first person to draw a map of the world. Dr. Hutchinson thought it may have been an Anaximander, but was not sure.  Hecateaus was another ancient Greek who attempted a map of the world. Someone in the class asked, “isn’t this (the idea of mapping) a leap of faith in imagination?” The professor replied that mapping was indeed a very subtle business and that it was not all evident to having been thought of.  In modern times, man has the ability to take photographs of the world from above. However, in the ancient days, one had to draw a map from one location on the land, and therefore, it must have been much more difficult.


Section 4 of 4

Line 358ff


Chorus [in close harmony]

         Hail, grey-headed hunter of phrases artistic!

           Hail, Socrates, master of twaddle!

         Out of all of 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.


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

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

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

Socrates: Zeus? Who’s Zeus?

Strepsiades: Zeus who lives on Olympus, of course.

Socrates: Now really, you should know better. [Confidentially] There is no 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 it 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 do 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 Awirl 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 Zeus’ weapon against people who perjure themselves.


         Dr. Hutchinson began the discussion of the above excerpt by stating that the chorus was the voice of the clouds, and the clouds were the gods. In fact, Socrates said that the clouds were his gods. Next, Dr. Hutchinson referred to Plato’s account of Socrates in his Apology. In the Apology, Socrates is accused of two charges. The first charge is that he corrupted the youth, and the second one is that he did not believe in the Greek gods. Plato thought that the people were influenced to believe the latter charge because of Aristophanes’ play and this in turn led to Socrates’ death, since the Athenian court found him to be guilty. 


         Another topic of the discussion was that Aristophanes’ play showed examples of mechanical philosophy, which is the science of explaining natural phenomenon. One example was how Socrates explained the natural phenomenon of thunder as opposed to how it was perceived by the common people.  The ancient Greeks were always terrified by thunder, for they believed it was an omen of the Gods, and more specifically, an omen of Zeus. Dr. Hutchinson stated that thunder and lighting seemed as if it were a random phenomenon, but in fact, Zeus was punishing those who committed perjury. Somebody in the class did not know the meaning of the word “perjury,” and the professor replied that it is when a person swore under oath something that was not true. Opposed to this view that thunder was caused by the gods, Socrates stated it was caused by moisture clouded together in the air. He even used the word “density,” which shows that scientific terminology was starting to be used in order to explain natural phenomenon. In fact, many ancient Greek philosophers proposed mechanical explanations for phenomenon that was usually attributed to the Gods.