It’s Anniversary Month here at Balladeer’s Blog! Here’s my second review of an Ancient Greek Comedy from back in the year 2011. FOR BACKGROUND INFORMATION IF YOU MISSED MY FIRST POST ON ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE:

the cloudsThe Clouds was written by Aristophanes around 423 BCE and next to Lysistrata, which I examined last week, is the Big A’s most- discussed satire, mostly because of its lampooning of the philosopher Socrates, a contemporary of Aristophanes. Many modern readers, who have been programmed to sneeringly “deconstruct”  old works of art rather than understand them, love to regard this comedy with hostility. They accuse Aristophanes of being “anti – intellectual” for subjecting Socrates in particular and the Sophist philosophers in general to the same satirical criticism that every other aspect of Athenian society was subjected to in comic plays.

There are many arguments I can use to refute this claim, and  I’ll present them below following my synopsis of the play itself. To provide just a brief argument right now since you may be curious, let me remind everyone that Shakespeare is famous for the line about killing all the lawyers, but I’ve never met one rational person who thinks that line means Shakespeare was seriously proposing the execution of all lawyers or the elimination of the law and/or the  judiciary system. By the same token I hardly think Aristophanes was railing against every form of education or intellectual inquiry. More on this controversy, including the trial of Socrates, below. 


the clouds picIn the ancient Greek democracy Athenian citizens were expected to represent themselves in court in both criminal and civil proceedings.

Since juries are the same no matter what the time period a guilty person who was a good speaker could get acquitted while an innocent person who was an inept speaker could get found guilty.

Conversely, since there were no public prosecutors, citizens could charge their fellow Athenians with crimes and if they were skilled enough at speaking they could railroad an innocent person. Many Athenian citizens who faced a court date would pay some of the “streetcorner” Sophist philosophers to teach them rhetorical skills to make them better prepared for their appearance in court.

The Sophists were often criticized in the same way that we criticize lawyers today, because the Sophists believed in using elaborate rhetorical games to win arguments without regard to any moral or ethical considerations. Our modern words “sophisticated” and “sophistries” (especially appropriate to The Clouds) come from the same root word.  

Strepsiades, a mature Athenian, is being hounded for the gambling debts run up by his son Pheidippedes, who loves to bet on horseraces but nearly always loses. Strepsiades has no intention of paying the creditors, even though as the teenager’s father he’s bound to by Athenian law.

To this end, he seeks out the philosopher Socrates to teach him rhetorical gamesmanship, or, as we might say today “legal mumbo jumbo” so that he can win the court case being brought by his son’s creditors.

During his stay with Socrates he is exposed to many other strands of philosophical thought at the time, all presented in extreme fashion for humor’s sake. Proving hopelessly immune to all Socrates’ attempts at educating him, Strepsiades sends his son Pheidippides to Socrates in his place. Pheidippides emerges from Socrates’ school as a masterful Sophist, quite capable of “proving” that wrong is right. But will all turn out as Strepsiades hoped?


Strepsiades is having a hard time sleeping since he’s worried about the astronomical debts he owes because of the racehorses his son buys and/or bets on. His sleeplessness is aggravated by the fact that he’s also being bitten by bedbugs plus feels various aches and pains. The various discomforts that he is feeling are all part of a comedy set piece caricaturing the symptoms of the plague that swept through Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

The plague would cause fevers, diahrrea, and the loss of some extremities, like a few fingers or toes or ears or, for men, the loss of their genitals. This entire sketch is a very black-humored piece, sort of like Bocaccio’s Decameron and its “whistling through the graveyard” jokes set during a much later plague.  

Pheidippides awakens following some jokes made from the fact that he is even talking about horseracing in his sleep, though some jokes imply that a few of his mumbled remarks are really about “riding” various female acquaintances but his father is just too dense to get it. Strepsiades and Pheidippides argue about the state of their finances and ponder various dishonest means of evading their debts, including faking a catastrophe like a fire.

This scene is a comedy set piece in which Strepsiades represents the late Athenian ruler Pericles and Pheidippides represents Pericles’ political protege and male lover Alcibiades. The plotting about finances and deception parody a much-discussed political scandal surrounding the late Pericles and his acolyte Alcibiades. The two were accused of a great deal of financial hanky- panky when Pericles was running Athens and some paranoid parties even accused Pericles of embroiling Athens in the war with the Spartan Alliance strictly to help hide his plundering of the public treasury during the confusion. I get a huge kick out of the thought that there were conspiracy kooks back then actually asking “Did Pericles LIHOP or MIHOP?”  (If you don’t get it see my explanation below) 

After exhausting a myriad of far-fetched schemes which parallel scandals involving the Great Man and his lover, Strepsiades decides the only way to avoid paying the money he and his son rightfully owe is to send Pheidippides to one of the Sophist philosophers to learn rhetorical gamesmanship so he can hoodwink the jury into letting them off without paying a dime. (Or a drachma, if you prefer)

In a modern adaptation (as opposed to an outright translation) of The Clouds I would present this as Strepsiades wanting to send his son to Law School to learn lawyer’s shyster tricks. To gloss over the brief period Pheidippides actually spends as a student of Socrates you could use this dialogue exchange:  STREPSIADES: How long will it take to teach my son to be a full-fledged lawyer?       SOCRATES: Three years of hard work and intensive study.     STREP: How about just the part where he learns how to  hoodwink a jury into abetting a massive miscarriage of justice?          SOC: Oh, two weeks, tops!        At any rate, Pheidippides refuses to cooperate, saying it would keep him away from the stables and the racetrack for too long.  

Strepsiades agrees to become a student of Socrates instead and enrolls at the great philospher’s “Thinkery” (Phrontisterion). Socrates, ironically enough, wasn’t technically a Sophist philosopher, but he was the most well known of the “street corner” philosophers that the Sophists were most identified with by the public at large, so he made a perfect figure for Aristophanes’ satirical composite of those controversial philosophers.  

As Strepsiades struggles to be educated, only a few of the ideas trotted out for ridicule are truly Socrates’. Most of them come from the proper Sophist philosophers like Protagoras, Gorgios, Prodicos, Anaxagoras, Diagoras and Thrasymachus. Not that this scene was all dry intellectual humor. There were earthy jokes sprinkled in, like when the Sophist predilection for studying and analyzing even the smallest objects is parodied. This parody takes the form of Socrates being involved in an intense study to determine if bugs express their flatulence through their anuses like humans or through their mouths. Further discussion involves the alleged poetic “meter” of the flatulence and what impact this study may have on the emerging Sophistic theories about poetry and music.  

Eventually Strepsiades is given up as a hopeless student, especially at the rhetoric he came to the Thinkery to learn. Some translators of The Clouds claim Strepsiades is simply presented as too stupid to learn what Socrates is trying to teach him, other translators insist the middle-aged Athenian is presented as too steeped in common sense to adapt to the intellectual dishonesty that Sophist philosophy required (according to the viewpoint expressed in this comedy).  

The clouds, presented in this play as the embodiment of the natural science that the Sophists figuratively “worship”, are appealed to for advice and they suggest that Pheidippides be brought to the Thinkery in his father’s place.

Pheidippides is literally dragged kicking and screaming to replace his father as Socrates’ pupil. The young man’s “education” proceeds amid the usual jokes about homosexual sex as Socrates is depicted leering over the young, supposedly attractive Pheidippides. Your average ancient Greek comedy contained more anal sex jokes than an entire season of Will And Grace reruns. Hey, remember, people, there’s a reason anal sex is called “Greek” the same way oral sex is called “French”.

Two figures called Worse Argument and Better Argument (or other, similar names in other translations) demonstrate how the students at the Thinkery are taught to use the rhetorical tricks and intellectual obfuscation of the Sophists to twist logic and make the Worse Argument appear the better. (Another thing that we accuse lawyers of doing today). This extended bit is a comic set piece parodying Protagoras’ Doctrine of the Two Logics while simultaneously taking swipes at as many current events and fashionable Sophistic trends as Aristophanes could squeeze in.

At last, Pheidippides’ schooling is complete and Socrates presents him to Strepsiades outside the Thinkery. Pheidippides demonstrates his new rhetorical skills to his father by distorting many of the precepts of Solon the Lawgiver (my fellow Greek comedy geeks will know all about this but it would bore newcomers to the subject so I’ll skip over this sketch). Strepsiades and his son party back at their home while waiting for the creditors to come and get their money.

The first creditor to arrive is Pasias, a real-life Athenian figure, notorious for his boozing and his easygoing nature which made him an easy mark for people wanting to cheat or trick him out of his money. Presenting a popular and sympathetic figure like Pasias as one of the creditors shows Aristophanes’ skill at storytelling. He uses Pasias to make his point that these are true debts that Strepsiades and his son are trying to evade. This would remind the audience that what the pair are attempting is dishonest, just in case the audience was identifying with them too much after spending the bulk of the play with them. 

At any rate Strepsiades tells Pasias he won’t pay him, and Pasias goes off to fetch the authorities. The next creditor appears and it is the famous gambler Amynias. He is depicted as just having been in a chariot wreck, presumably a joke about an incident that has not come down to us. Strepsiades refuses to pay him, too and he goes off like Pasias. Strepsiades soon learns what a monster Pheidippides has become, however, when he begins beating him during an argument, then proceeds to use all the rhetorical tricks he’s learned at the Thinkery to “prove” that he is perfectly justified in beating his father any time he wishes.

He also announces his plans to beat his mother using the same double-talking justifications. Scared by all of this, Strepsiades blames Socrates and his Thinkery for what his son has become. He and his servant Xanthias go and set fire to the Thinkery, flushing out all the Sophists, whom they drive off as a chastened Strepsiades admits he will pay his debts after all.       


* The clouds play the role of the chorus in this comedy and offer the usual commentary on the dramatic proceedings. (Remember the saying “like a Greek chorus?” Think of the fictional depiction of Che Guevarra in the musical Evita) The Sophists were often accused of overemphasizing the natural world and Aristophanes’ depiction of the clouds as their figurative “deities” is a joke that is difficult to convey to modern audiences. 

Some of the Sophists taught that the sun was really a heated stone, and this is one of the teachings that Aristophanes puts in the mouth of Socrates as the composite of Sophist philosophers. Unfortunately, some people back then were as foolish as people today who can’t distinguish between entertainment and reality, and the notion of Socrates being one of the philosophers who taught that the sun was a heated rock lodged itself permanently in the public’s perception. It was even one of the charges (I repeat ONE of the charges) brought against Socrates at his trial. Teaching that the sun was a heated rock is not accurate of course, but it represented a nice first step away from religious superstition and toward a more rational attempt at explaining natural phenomena.

 The reason this teaching was so dangerous is, of course, that if you were teaching that the sun was a heated rock you were saying it was NOT the chariot of the sun god and was therefore an offense against the gods. (Insert my usual remark about how much contempt I feel toward religious mania)

This whole affair has led many frantic people in the academic world to accuse Aristophanes of complicity in Socrates’ death. This is foolish in my opinion because: 1. Many of the ancient Greek comic playwrights wrote comedies satirizing the Sophists, not just Aristophanes, and 2. By the time of Socrates’ sham trial he had made so many powerful enemies that his death sentence was a foregone conclusion. It would have made no difference at all if Aristophanes had never put the controversial lines in Socrates’ mouth. The great philosopher could have been charged with stealing chickens at that point and his influential adversaries would have made sure it stuck. 

* Another argument against the current criticism seeing The Clouds as “proof” that Aristophanes was anti- “intellectual” is the fact that Socrates himself did not view this comedy as an attack, but simply as a comedy doing what comedies do – taking concepts to their extremes for the sake of humor. “I am twitted in the theater as I would be at a dinner party”, was, according to Plutarch, Socrates’ own public comment on the satirical treatment he received in The Clouds.

 And besides, any and all figures were fair game in ancient Greek comedies, EVEN THE GODS THEMSELVES. The comedies performed in the Theater of Dionysus in Athens were the only arena in which disrespect for the gods was permitted. Dionysus, the wine -god, was also the patron god of comedy and tragedy and the Dionysia was the main festival at which the comedies were performed. The incumbent priest of Dionysus had a priority seat for the performance of the comedies and a statue of Dionysus was in attendance as well, even during the many comedies in which he himself was the butt of jokes. Now THAT’S the kind of god I could relate to, one capable of laughing at himself! Anyway, if the gods were fair game for ridicule, then so were the Sophists, and it’s ridiculous to present The Clouds as an assault on the concept of intellectual inquiry.       

* The Sophists were not the only philosophical school of thought in ancient Greece that lives on in our language. The Cynics, the Hedonists, the Epicureans and the Skeptics were all fields of intellectual thought back then, when philosophy in the Western World was in its infancy, and those eponymous concepts we take for granted were considered pioneering in the 400’s BCE.

* The “Did Pericles LIHOP” or MIHOP” joke refers to the way imbecilic conspiracy freaks (who remind me of religious nuts in a lot of ways) push the notion that the horrific Bush administration knew the 9-11 attacks were coming and either “Let It Happen On Purpose” (LIHOP) or outrightly staged the attacks themselves, hence “Made It Happen On Purpose” (MIHOP)

* The plague that swept Athens in the 400’s BCE is still a mystery. Many theories are put forth regarding the exact nature of the plague. The Athenians themselves attributed the spread of the plague to bed-bugs, which is why the caricature of plague symptoms immediately follows Strepsiades being bitten by those bugs. Personally, my theory is that in reality the plague was probably spread by the ancient Greek tendency to carry their spending money in their mouths to foil thieves in the shoulder-to-shoulder bustle of the cities. Using such germ-laden coins as currency would account for the epidemic proportions the disease reached better than bed-bugs.

* The version of The Clouds that has come down to us is not the original. Aristophanes was disappointed that the comedy took 3rd prize instead of 1st prize and rewrote the ending and possibly a few other parts. A great deal of academic argument goes on over which parts of the play are revisions.

As promised I have plenty of source books examining the fragmentary plays of the other ancient Greek comedians, and next time I will present one of them.


© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



Filed under Ancient Greek Comedy

7 responses to “THE CLOUDS (C 423 B.C.): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

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