Philosophy leads to father-Beating: Or, why all parents should read Aristophanes’ Clouds
Of course, this all sounds rather silly. “Philosophizing,” popularly understood, does not register as a problem in liberal democracies. We live in and foster open societies where at least some would have it that questioning is a civic duty. Unsurprisingly, over time, we have developed a blind spot to the ill effects the ceaseless investigation into the nature of things—the activity of true philosophers—can bring about. Thankfully we have Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates, to remind us where philosophy leads: father-beating.
The Clouds, written 24 years before Athens put Socrates to death for corrupting the youth and not believing in the Gods, is a general, albeit exaggerated lampoon of the philosophic life. It revolves around Strepsiades, a man deeply in debt on account of his wastrel son, Pheidippides, who spends his days collecting expensive horses. But Strepsiades has a plan. He’s heard tell of a special school, the “thinkery,” where Socrates and his students spend the day learning how to make the “weaker argument appear the stronger” and staring at the heavens. Strepsiades plots that if Pheidippides can learn this special argumentative skill, he will be able to hoodwink his creditors. Pheidippides, of course, is too lazy to receive instruction of any kind, so Strepsiades enrolls on his own.
The scenes he encounters in the thinkery are some of the funniest in the Western Canon. He beholds one student trying to measure the distance a flea can jump by putting wax on its feet; another, trying to ascertain whether gnats buzz through their mouth or rear. All, including Socrates, exist in manifold poverty, seemingly too busy with natural investigations to notice their poor, emaciated condition. Strepsiades also learns that the traditional gods of Athens, at least in the thinkery, have been replaced by the Clouds (who play the chorus). Socrates and his students, heads in the proverbial clouds (or in the rear of gnats) could not be more removed from the earthly concerns of Athens.
It quickly becomes evident that Strepsiades does not have the countenance for the philosophic life practiced at the thinkery. He exasperates the otherwise unflappable Socrates with his stupidity, and is ejected. Returning home after having glimpsed—though not understood—the wonders of the school, Strepsiades enjoins his son to enroll in his stead. Pheidippides, initially apprehensive, transforms into a willing pupil after witnessing a debate between the walking personifications of Just speech and Unjust speech, who happen to be roaming the grounds of the academy. Crucially, Unjust speech puts on a finer display, thereby demonstrating to the impressionable young man a peculiar lesson about the nature of justice. Just like his father, he also is taught that the gods of Athens do not exist. In their place, Socrates provides a materialistic account of nature—the impersonal vortex—which is the cause of all phenomena on earth.
When he returns home, Strepsiades meets with a son transformed, a perfect philosophic product from the thinkery, thinking him to be a most useful instrument in evading his debts. But soon, the men get into an argument over poetry. The father takes the side of the ancient poets. The son, after learning from Socrates that tradition is baseless, takes the side of the modern poets. The argument ends with Pheidippides beating his father.
Father-beating, then as now, was illegal in Athens. But Pheidippides, armed with his new dialectical skills, convinces his father it is just by nature for the wise to punish the unwise or, in this case, a son to punish his father. The ancestral counts for nothing in Pheidippides’ new understanding of the world. Unmoored by custom, positive law and fear of punishment from the gods, his fealty lies only with Socrates and the thinkery. As Pheidippides puts it, “How pleasant it is to consort with novel and shrewd matters and to be able to look down on established laws!” And as Strepsiades realizes too late, “Oh me! What derangement! How mad I was, when I even threw out the Gods because of Socrates.” Unable to match wits with his son, the desperate and, by this time, very angry Strepsiades burns down the thinkery.
This, in broad outline, is the plot of the Clouds. But what’s the deeper meaning? Far from a simple farcical account of the philosophic life, the play is a warning from Aristophanes to Socrates on the precarious position the philosopher is in relation to the city. The Socrates we find in the Clouds is at once the same and different from the historical Socrates. He is similar insofar as his relentless quest to understand the nature of things goes; but he is dissimilar in that the historical Socrates seemed to have pivoted from natural investigations to political philosophy early in life. Moreover, and in contradistinction to his portrayal in the Clouds, Socrates held the Sophists (personified here by Unjust speech) in contempt. Put another way, we have in the Clouds a buffoonish characterization of philosophy. And Aristophanes knew this.
But what Aristophanes also realized, and what, I think, he was hoping to indicate to Socrates, was that sooner or later Athens would grow wary of the Gadfly’s ability to charm the city’s leading young men toward a life devoted to contemplation; a life that takes them not only away from the practical concerns, but one that potentially undercuts the civic edifices upon which societies are built – a life that teaches, in essence, father-beating. The Clouds draws this into sharp relief through the transformation of the hitherto conventional Pheidippides into an irreverent youth.
Decades after the production of this play, the historical Socrates was, as we know, put to death on charges resembling something very close to what Strepsiades blames him for in the Clouds. The question then becomes why Socrates ignored Aristophanes’ warning. Just like this play, it is worth pondering.
Image by pixy_nook