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.
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.