Act One: Scene 1–First Half of Scene 2
Strepsiades wakes from a fitful sleep. He bemoans the sorry state of war- torn Athens and the flighty servants, but most of all he is troubled by his spend-thrift son Pheidippides. Pheidippides has expensive tastes, especially as regards the racehorses after which he was named by his high-born mother with her aristocratic airs. The cost of buying and maintaining the necessary stables of thoroughbred racehorses is putting an enormous strain on Strepsiades's pocketbook. He asks his slave to bring him his checkbook so that he may mull over his debts and plot a way to avoid his creditors who will soon be clamoring after their money. Strepsiades's angry accounting awakes Pheidippides who is blissfully unaware of his father's plight and who makes a pathetic plea for peace and for sleep. Strepsiades beseeches Pheidippides to reform his extravagance and to practice moderation and thrift.
Strepsiades has noticed that the building next door houses the "Thinkery" (I.i.93) wherein scholars and philosophers of mystical, natural, and rhetorical wisdom reside, presided over by Socrates. Strepsiades declares that the scholars at the "Thinkery" have redefined the world in new, materialistic terms. According to Strepsiades, they say "that the sky is like one of those round things you use to bake bread" (I.i.93). These philosophers, he continues, are studying two stereotypical arguments, "Just and Unjust" (I.i.93). The "Unjust" argument is morally inferior but rhetorically superior: slick and convincing. These philosophers are studying how to conquer the "Just" argument by this cleverly concocted "Unjust" argument. Strepsiades sees potential in this pursuit, hoping that the philosophers will be able to teach Pheidippides a wittily "Unjust" argument to outdo the creditors In court. However, the smug, spoiled Pheidippides refuses to comply with his father's suggestion, and Strepsiades himself, in his desperation, marches over to the "Thinkery" to enroll himself.
Scene Two (Part One)
Strepsiades arrives at the "Thinkery" and meets a disdainful Student who tells him about some of Socrates's latest experiments, such as measuring how many flea-feet a flea jumped and examining whether gnats hum with their mouths or with their asses. The Student takes Strepsiades into the school where he sees several students comically bent over and studying the ground. The Student informs Strepsiades that, when bent over in this manner, the students can study geology with their eyes and astronomy with their behinds.
While Strepsiades and the Student are getting introduced, Socrates floats onto the stage, suspended in a gondola. Socarates, the exceedingly esoteric sophist, explains that his contrivance helps him think more openly by keeping his snap judgments in "suspension" (I.ii.230). Strepsiades explains his situation to Socrates and asks for admission. Socrates performs an initiation rite and calls in the Chorus of Clouds to prove to Strepsiades that the Gods do not exist. Strepsiades, misunderstanding Socrates's explanation of atmospheric physics as a new religion and not the end of religion itself, promises to worship the Clouds instead of the Gods. He asks them to be a superior orator so that he can win wealth and fame, and he celebrates the vision of his future self, enhanced by his education, with the Chorus in song.
Socrates and Strepsiades begin the "preliminaries" (I.ii.456) of Strepsiades's formal education as Socrates questions Strepsiades about his character and his native talents. Socrates becomes frustrated with Strepsiades's ignorance and stubbornness. He fleeces Strepsiades of his coat and hustles him into the school.
The subject of the "new education," the education offered by the schools of sophists that are parodied in The Clouds, is not new to Aristophanes or his audience. In 427 BCE, The Banqueters, Aristophanes's earliest known play was performed at one of the Dionysiac festivals. This play no longer survives in its entirety, but scholars can infer from what few fragments we possess that this play, like The Clouds, centers around a father-son relationship. However, in The Banqueters, the relationship is between a father and two very dissimilar sons, "the moral [boy] and immoral [boy]" (I.i.547). When the two sons are sent from their farm to a sophist in the city, the "moral" son flees the urban impropriety and the "immoral" son stays to imbibe the sneaky trade secrets of the sophists. This "new education" that the "immoral" son exploits is considered "new" because of its new emphasis on rhetoric and sophistry. Such an education focuses on showy but not necessarily sound arguments. The older, more traditional education, by contrast, relies upon more morally weighty models of conduct and eloquence, usually drawn from the epic poetry of Homer, who stressed martial valor and communal values.
In The Banqueters, the split between "old" and "new" education conforms to the predictable split in generations: the father is the traditionalist and the "immoral" son is gung-ho about the new models. However, in The Clouds, it is the father, Strepsiades, who is eager to have his son indoctrinated in the "new education." Pheidippides himself resists and clings to the privileges that tradition and "old money" have earned for him, such as his prized racehorses. Also, in The Banqueters the father and the "moral" son clearly represent Aristophanes and the audience's sympathies and sense of rectitude: they are the moral heroes of the play. Strepsiades, by contrast, in The Clouds, is in no way heroic or virtuous. His motivating impulse is crooked and dishonest: he wishes to cheat his creditors out of the money they have loaned him in good faith. Strepsiades, therefore, represents more of an "anti-hero" than a traditional "hero."
The "new education" that the sophists at the "Thinkery" pioneer represents the first stirrings of scientific theories that were circulating in Athens at the time of the play's production in the fifth century BCE. Aristophanes mocks this new science by making it appear ridiculous and trivial: obsessively concerned with the measurement of insect feet, the digestion of a gnat, etc. He combines this new scientific experimentation with the new emphasis on rhetoric to present the sophists as laughably literal: the notion of "suspending one's judgment" becomes literally, physically realized by Socrates who enters dangling in mid- air.
Many of the theories that Aristophanes parodies and attributes to Socrates and his school were current intellectual trends circulating in Athens. Alan Sommerstein, in his introduction to The Clouds in the Penguin Classics edition, divides the "new education" into the four constituent elements, "atheism, scientific inquiry and speculation, rhetoric, and the new morality" (Penguin, 1973). Many of these trends actually had their roots in other scientists and philosophers of that era, such as Anaxagoras, Hippon, Diogenes, Protagoras, and Gorgias. Anaxagoras redefined cosmology and astronomy by suggesting that the sun, moon, and stars were physical and not divine bodies. He also redefined meteorology according to these terms, positing the theory of thunder and rain that Socrates espouses, that weather is a matter of clouds and cloud collisions, not divine intervention. Hippon's belief that all matter is made up of the two essential elements, water and fire, is parodied when Strepsiades speaks of the sky as "one of those round things [i.e. baking covers] you use to bake bread" (I.i.93). Diogenes's theories on the importance of air and aerie intelligence are evident in Socrates's emphasis on the clear- headedness of "suspended" thinking, especially when he arrives in mid-air. Protagoras espoused agnosticism, or doubt about the existence of the gods, which Aristophanes herein inflates into pure atheism, or outright denial of the gods. Finally, Gorgias pioneered the rhetorical training, based on legal speechifying, that stressed presentation over content, superficial slickness over moral rectitude. As noted, this rhetorical approach is the overall target of the play's satire.
Therefore, Aristophanes's Socrates is undoubtedly a composite philosopher: a character and not an exact biographical sketch. It is in the best interest of the play to consolidate all of the theories and practices into one figure, and Socrates was the most familiar, accessible figure from philosophy, and a local Athenian to boot. Plato, in his Apology goes to great lengths to refute Aristophanes's portrait of Socrates from The Clouds, stating that the image of Socrates as "a clever man who was a thinker about the things up above, investigated everything that was underground, and made the worse argument the better" (18b-d) was purely an invention of "a comic poet"(18b-d): Aristophanes. Plato denies that, as Aristophanes suggests, Socrates charged fees for his school, preferring to cast Socrates's interactions with the youth of Athens as informal discussions, not lectures or lessons.
However, scholars, such as Sommerstein, now conjecture that it is possible that Socrates's possessed more of an interest in natural sciences than Plato would be comfortable admitting. Also, while Socrates may not have charged set fees for his interactions with disciples, undoubtedly he reaped material benefits from his students in the form of presents and meals. Finally, Plato agrees that Socrates liked to question and test many basic presumptions the Athenians had: skepticism was his defining methodology. Sommerstein characterizes the difference between the Platonic and Aristophanic Socrates as one who "refutes statements which are apparently true [versus one who] refutes statements which are actually true" (Penguin, 1973). Aristophanes's choice to inflate this skepticism to outright absurdity is a matter of dramatic necessity, of comic caricature.
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