Head in the Clouds

Socrates Ephesus frescoWith its clever comments on current politics and societal trends, as well as its delight in putting caricatures of celebrities onstage, Athenian Old Comedy can be regarded as The Simpsons of its day. In one of the few extant plays, Aristophanes’s The Clouds (first performed in 423 BC), the philosopher Socrates is the main target of ridicule. When a stupid farmer visits his ‘Think Tank’ in order to learn how to lie persuasively, Socrates descends from above in a basket, where he had been examining the sun and the ether. As it turns out, the famous thinker lives with his head in the clouds, wasting most of his time on such trivialities as measuring how far a flee can jump in flee-feet and why a gnat produces a buzzing sound. More serious, however, is that he denies the existence of the gods and undermines traditional values with his faulty rhetoric.

In 399 BC, a court would condemn Socrates to death for impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth – two of the main accusations levelled against him in the Clouds. It is small wonder, then, that Plato held Aristophanes in part responsible for the philosopher’s downfall.

Literature

• Kenneth Dover, Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford 1968)
• Kenneth McLeish, The Theatre of Aristophanes (London 1980)
• Thomas Brickhouse & Nicholas Smith, Socrates on Trial (Oxford 1989)
• Douglas MacDowell, ‘Clouds’, in: Idem, Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays (2nd edition; Oxford – New York 1996) 113-149

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