CLOUDS AND INTELLECTUAL THUGGERY
Aristophanes’ cloud is a blatant attack on the sophists and a personal attack on Socrates. The sophists were a class of people who had a revolutionary frame of thought which did not conform to the social norms of their time. They believed in arguing about the validity of everything and using their cunningness and mental prowess to triumph in an argument. Aristophanes’ cloud shows how the teachings of the sophists at the Thoughtery went against common social convention of the time. The play focuses on the activities of the sophists to paint them in their true colors as people who went against social conformity. This essay will discuss the moral inclination of the sophists as well as the various ways in which they used their intellect. It will also discuss why Aristophanes’ cloud is not an attack on the Athenians..
Socrates is depicted in the play as a pagan atheist. When Strepsiades enrolls into the Thoughtery Socrates tells him of the non-existence of god. He backs this claim with evidence that rain comes from the clouds contrary to popular belief by the Athenians that rain indeed came from the gods. This gives a general picture of the sophists as a pagan society who believes in absolutely no deity at all “and to enter communion with the clouds, who are our deities,” says Socrates (p. 171) mocking the religion of the people and likening the clouds to deities. In ancient Athenian society religion was one of the main pillars of life. Being an atheist and doubting the existence of the gods was termed as blasphemy in the highest order. The fact that Socrates and the other members of the Thoughtery believed that the gods did not exist paints them as outcasts. This paints them as a group of people going contrary to the accepted way of life by mainstream society. In other words Socrates and his students were social trouble makers with an aim of disturbing the rather delicate balance of mainstream society. They are portrayed as a group of people with an aim of eroding popular beliefs that were primarily the building blocks of Athenian society. This already paints them as social deviants and outcasts.
In the play Socrates is portrayed as a petty thief. When Strepsiades enrolls himself into the Thoughtery Socrates uses his wit to fleece him of his coat. This is a direct attack on the moral inclination of the sophists and other members of the Thoughtery. This portrays the sophists as intelligent people who use their unique mental prowess and intellectual superiority to their own personal advantage as opposed to using it as a tool for the empowerment and betterment of the greater society. Sophists are here portrayed as people who take advantage of their less enlightened counterparts in society and manipulate situations to their own benefit. It also portrays the sophists as people with moral bankruptcy as far as social conduct is concerned. It was rather immoral for Socrates to fleece Strepsiades of his coat. It was even more immoral in its methodology than it was in its execution. Socrates took advantage of the fact that he was more educated and as such society not only respected him but also afforded him a great deal of fear. This is an act of fraud and can be described as robbery in broad daylight. The fact that the leader of the Thoughtery was the perpetrator of this heinous action paints a picture of the entire sophists also dancing to the same tune and fleecing society of their belongings using their wit. “I’ve got a fraudacius scheme for dodging interest,” says Strepsiades (p.111). Clearly the teachings of Socrates were rubbing off on him as he also began thinking like a fraud.
The sophists are also portrayed as criminals who use their argumentative prowess to get out of predicaments that in normal circumstances would have them sent to jail. When Strepsiades is visited by a debtor he is armed, though to a minimal extent, with elements of the unjust argument. He refuses to question the debtor on the gender of nouns. This is just mental bullying in an attempt to circumvent the law and not pay the debts he is supposed to pay. When the debtor fails to match up to Strepsiades prowess on the matter Strepsiades terms him as ignorant. Apparently a person’s ignorance is sufficient ground to refuse to pay the tremendous debt owed to that person. Strepsiades indeed refuses to agree to the terms of this debtor and appear in court with regard to the issue of the debts he owns. Clearly the Thoughtery was training people to be criminals and equipping them with a clear roadmap on how to get out of a sticky situation. Strepsiades is visited by yet another creditor and applies more of the same tactics to get out of the situation. Strepsiades uses the creditor’s belief in the gods to discredit his mental capabilities and make him feel inferior. He then manipulates the unjust argument to suit his situation such that it helps him dispel any claims of the creditor that his debt has indeed accumulated interest. This is nothing short of criminal and plainly illegal. Based on the teachings of Socrates at the Thoughtery Strepsiades manages to find a way to mentally bully his debtors and get out of a situation that would alternatively land him in court or even worse. This is a direct attack on the sophists. It portrays them as people who use their mental prowess to rise above the law and perform actions as they pleased with a sense of impunity. “All right. I am going to throw you clever bits of cosmological lore; you snap them up,” says Socrates (p.184) referring to how he would teach Strepsiades to win arguments concerning popular beliefs and issues.
The play is not an attack on the Athenians. Even though they are portrayed as ignorant in most cases they appear as victims of circumstances which are tailored by the sophists. The Athenians are portrayed as a religious and highly moral social class of people. They believe in justice and paying for ones mistakes and transgressions. This is evident when the second creditor visited Strepsiades and proceeded to plead with him to pay his debts. The creditor believes in paying debts in due time and this is a reflection of the greater Athenian society and their stand on the matter. “I want to learn oratory. By debts and interest and rapacious creditors I’m assailed and assaulted and stand to lose my property” says Strepsiades (p.240) referring to how he wanted to acquire knowledge to help him get out of his debts.
Clearly the sophists were a class of intelligent people. They could see things differently from the rest of society at their time. They however betrayed their community by using their mental prowess for personal gain. The play attacks the sophists for their conduct and taking advantage of the community while at the same time maintaining the innocence of the Athenians The general teachings of the sophists are inclined to being argumentative and using wit to win arguments. This meant using wit to dispel popular beliefs and social norms. Society back then was not ready for changes as drastic as the concept of justice being relative and an entity that could be manipulated. Society not only misunderstood Socrates and his Thoughtery but also rejected him and if they had full understanding of exactly what it is he was teaching they would have rejected him all the same.