Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Reconciling Science and Religion

The Clouds is a play primarily concerned with education. Nevertheless, it is a play with a strong moral message and a tragic arc that ends with the reassertion of the gods: Strepsiades shrieks, "Revenge for the injured gods!" as he stones the fleeing sophists (II.i.1506). This religious reassertion is especially intriguing because The Clouds is not a particularly pious play. It is doubtful that even underneath the many layers of satire and gross physical humor—down to where the play's undeniable moral center sits—we will locate a religious or even broadly spiritual motive or lesson. Rather, Aristophanes's comedy seems to be preaching honesty and responsibility: basic secular, or civic, virtues. Nonetheless, Aristophanes leaves his audience with religion. Why?

In the fifth century BCE, around the time when Aristophanes wrote The Clouds, the first stirrings of what today would be considered "scientific theory" were being felt. Anaxagoras, for instance, considered the sun, moon, and stars to be the fiery objects that humans more or less understand them to be today—unseating the prevailing religious notion that the sun, moon, and stars were gods or divine beings. However, atheism was a prosecutable offense in fifth-century Athens, a charge akin to treason. How, therefore, could these new scientific hypotheses be granted the imaginative and theoretical space of consideration when the prevailing religious milieu considered them treasonous, or heresy?

The strangeness of Aristophanes's turn to the gods suggests the awkwardness of this period in intellectual history. His defense or reassertion of the Gods is satirical: a critical examination of the Athenian's illogical, unwavering adherence to their gods. Divine sanctity guards not only divine beings but also the study and criticism of the divine. Aristophanes is suggesting, by considering science with religion in this play, that the two often-conflicting concepts must be equally open to inquiry, to criticism, and even to satire.

The Quest for Proper Education

As mentioned above, The Clouds is a satire that is primarily concerned with education. (In fact, its full title reads: The Clouds, or The School for Sophists.) Aristophanes employs the "Thinkery" (I.i.93) because it represents comically and exactly what he believes a school should not be: dishonest, overly serious, and entirely divorced from the practices and concerns of the real world. Aristophanes is fundamentally a conservative thinker. Fittingly, satire is a conservative form: a comedic genre that draws its punch from hysterical deviations from an agreed-upon and socially condoned standard of values and behavior. Aristophanes would most probably side with Just Argument who, in spite of his lustful distractions, prescribes an educational system based on careful study of classical literature supplemented with a good dose of physical fitness. (Undoubtedly, this is the kind of education that Aristophanes himself enjoyed, although the specifics of biographical detail are unavailable to us.) Just Argument's educational model was respected and well-rounded: both mind and body were exercised to their fullest potential in order to provide a holistic experience.

Aristophanes, however, is never one to settle for less. There are problems with this traditional model and he knows it. This is why he paints Just Argument as a pedophile and why he allows Just Argument to utter such vacuous statements as "Be ashamed when you ought to be ashamed," (I.ii.1013). This last example demonstrates precisely why Aristophanes feels that the traditional model of education needs to be satirized along with the new: Aristophanes believes in the importance of satire and criticism in Athenian society. He believes that decades, even centuries, of not questioning or challenging the authority of the older models have left them stagnant. The circular, vacuous statement above illustrates how, a traditional system left unexamined might lose sight of the convictions and values upon which it was founded.

Educational Playwriting

As mentioned above, Aristophanes is fundamentally a conservative thinker. Fittingly, satire is a conservative form: a comedic genre that draws its punch from hysterical deviations from an agreed-upon and socially condoned standard of values and behavior. Therefore, it is understandable when, in the "parabasis," the Chorus of Clouds digresses from the action of the play to address the audience about playwriting in general and about Aristophanes's career in particular that the Chorus uses the chance to defend Aristophanes's moral aims. Since education itself is the primary concern of this play in particular, the reminder of satire's educative purpose is twice as resonant. The Chorus argues that, without the good and bad examples gleaned from satire, how would the Athenian citizenship know right from wrong?

This "parabasis" serves as both a moral thesis in favor of playwriting as well as a carefully timed defense. Cleon, whom the Chorus of Clouds mentions, is the powerful Athenian politician who, a year or two prior to the original production of The Clouds had taken Aristophanes to court for slandering Athens in the presence of foreign dignitaries. Cleon's court case was in response to Aristophanes's festival-winning play The Babylonians which had been performed at the grand City Dionysia festival to which crowds flocked from far and wide. Aristophanes exploits the venue—an educative satire on education itself—to explain his moral and educative aims and to make his benign intentions crystal clear.

Reconciling Education with Daily Life

As mentioned above, The Clouds is concerned with the question of a proper, moral education. Just Argument seems to offer an appealing curriculum—well-rounded and grounded in practical experience. However, lack of fresh insights have rendered Just Argument's traditions stale, vacuously circular, and out of touch with the current ideas. The alternative to Just Argument is Unjust Argument, and in particular Socrates's school for sophists and other slippery-thinkers. However, as Pheidippides disgustedly gasps early in the play, such sophist-masters and their followers are an unlikely lot: "stuck-up white-faced barefoot characters" (I.i.93) who are so removed from the real actions and transactions of everyday life and the world that they appear floating in a basket above it! Aristophanes dislikes Socrates and the sophists because they are dishonest: their Unjust Arguments are morally as vacuous as Just Argument's morally upright maxims are semantically empty. Also, as the conflicts between the pig-headed pragmatist Strepsiades and the ethereal, esoteric Socrates demonstrate, sophistic learning is necessarily separate from the world. Socrates, at one point, berates Strepsiades for his disinterest in the minutiae of sentence rhythms, but meanwhile all Strepsiades wants out of his education is to learn to keep his money. Aristophanes is a realist: he understands that moral messages are best digested within a comic coating—a fact that demonstrates the inescapability of the funny, grubby, popular world.