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As mentioned earlier, the Socrates that Aristophanes presents is a composite of several current philosophers and sophists, such as Anaxagoras, Diogenes, Protagoras, Hippon, Korax, and Gorgias. Therefore, Socrates is as much of a "personification" as Just Argument and Unjust Argument. Socrates represents the heights to which esoteric intellect can reach: literally, with his arrival in a mid-air balloon-basket, and figuratively, with his delight in and cultivation of various overly intellectual mumbo-jumbo. Socrates, who is the foil of the buffoon Strepsiades, can discourse voluminously on everything from flea's feet to meteorology, and yet, perhaps most interestingly, the play chronicles what can best be described as his fall from lofty eloquence to abuse- laden frustration. When Strepsiades arrives at his school, Socrates radiates pseudo-scientific rationality and calm. He explains the slipperiest of his theories, from the harmful effects of terrestrial water on one's intellect to the mechanics of cloud-borne thunder, with a tone of purpose and mastery. Although the audience is surely laughing at this master of the esoteric from the get-go, it is only later when the effort expended in trying to teach the impossible Strepsiades have exhausted him that he becomes an irritated, short- tempered bully who seems only capable of sputtering and bemoaning his luck at having such a stubborn pupil.
Although Strepsiades diminishes Socrates's fluent eloquence with his pestering inability to learn, Socrates is still quite capable of instructing Pheidippides, Strepsiades's son, in the dangerous art of persuasion. The violence that Pheidippides spouts to Strepsiades (and then liberally applies about the face and neck!) is a direct result of his training at Socrates's hands: the fist that struck Strepsiades had Socrates's "fingerprints" all over them. Therefore, although Strepsiades reduces Socrates to gasping disbelief and although the audience chuckles at Socrates's extravagance throughout, Socrates is still very much a dangerous and potent figure. Indeed the level of absurdity that Socrates is granted only suggests how much of a threat Aristophanes considered the "new education" to represent. The laws of satire dictate that the greatest target must earn the most extravagant, absurd characterization, lest the audience disregard or miss them as a potential evil that needs to be addressed and rectified.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Clouds!