Clouds vs. The Apology
In Aristophanes’ Clouds and in Plato’s Apology we see extensive fictional representations of the historical figure, Socrates, who left us no literary works under his own name. When comparing these two representations, readers often assume, as a result of the nature of the comedic genre, that Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates is exaggerated and fallacious. On the other hand, Plato’s account is often taken more seriously as a result of the philosophical genre and the respected reputation Plato has as wildly influential thinker in Western culture.
Nevertheless, there are more congruencies between the two representations than one would initially think. I’ll discuss some similarities between the two works that gives specific portrayals of the mystery that is Socrates. First and foremost, I must point out the obvious but main difference between these two works; Plato’s Apology is a philosophical dialogue while Aristophanes’s Clouds is a comedy. For this reason, we can say that purpose of each is very is different.
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The first is a work of serious philosophy while the second is a work of entertainment intended to make people laugh, usually by poking fun at people.
Second, in terms of characterization, Plato paints a picture of Socrates, as a philosopher to the end, that is, a person who truly lives a life of the pursuit of truth. In addition, Plato’s view of Socrates is filled with courage, a person who is unafraid of death. In the work, a number of citizens from Athens accuse him of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods. Of course, Socrates disagrees. In fact, Socrates states that he is doing the city of Athens a great benefit by questioning things. In light of this, Plato portrays Socrates as one who is persecuted unjustly.
In Aristophanes’s Clouds, Socrates is seen as the worst kind of sophist; he is the head of the Thinkery. Aristophanes says that Socrates is the one who can make the weaker argument stronger and the stronger argument weaker. He is not seen as a student of philosophy and truth, but a confused thinker whose feet never touch the ground. In “Clouds,” by Aristophanes, and “Apology,” by Plato, Socrates is portrayed in completely different ways. In “Clouds,” Aristophanes attempts to ridicule Socrates and his followers, the Sophists.
In his play, Aristophanes demonstrates that Socrates is corrupting the young men of Athens, and he uses satire to exaggerate many of the teachings brought forth by Socrates. Plato, who was a dedicated follower of Socrates, painted his mentor in a very positive light. Although most of the “apology” is actually a speech given by Socrates, we can assume that Plato had an interest to spin the story in a way that would favor Socrates, and the depiction was radically different from that of Aristophanes. In both works, excellent arguments and points attempt to prove the character and moral integrity of Socrates.
In Clouds Aristophanes attempted to ridicule Socrates and his followers with satire, and the work was never meant to be taken as a serious representation of his life. It was, however, a strong political statement, and it influenced and encouraged the public of Athens to sentence Socrates to death. In “Apology,” Plato writes the speech given by Socrates and we can assume that it is not far from the truth. There is no satire in The Apology and it was intended as a speech to spare a person’s life rather than a play to inform and entertain. Aristophanes describes the “Thinkery,” which young men join in order to get an alternative education.
This “Thinkery” is radically different from a traditional Athenian school. Socrates, who is in charge of the school, encourages his students to look differently upon the world. Socrates suggests that the Gods do not exist, and he teaches his followers to be materialistic and corrupt instead of honest and humble. Strepsiades, who is the main character in the play, decides that he can avoid paying his debts by joining the Sophists and learning how to argue using convincing rhetoric. He is convinced that the teachings are powerful enough to convince anybody of anything, even if his point is completely illogical or dishonest.
This argument is called the “worse argument,” and the play focuses on this speech tactic. In the play, Strepsiades decides that his son can learn the “worse argument” and use it to free Strepsiades of his debts: “So if you could learn this Worse Argument for me, then all these debts I owe on our account I wouldn’t have to pay, not even a penny! ” (Aristophanes I. 116-118). Aristophanes is suggesting, in a comical way, that Socrates would support such immorality, and that he would be willing to teach the “worse argument” solely for this purpose.
Socrates spends much of his time thinking of ridiculous theories and playing with words. Most of the topics he mentions are absurd and do not show the sophistication that Socrates claims to strive for. Also, Socrates seems very sure of his arguments despite the fact that he has no real evidence to prove them: “Clouds fill up with lots of water, then they’re forced to move about, sagging suddenly with rain, then getting heavier perforce, collide with one another, breaking up and making crashing sounds” (Aristophanes IV. 375-380).
Whenever Strepsiades is confused or disagrees with the words of Socrates, he is quickly attacked and ridiculed. Socrates is portrayed as an arrogant, “all-knowing,” and rude old man who is turning the younger generation into a bunch of corrupt, selfish, and egotistical men who have no respect for the elderly or for the traditional ways of thinking. Towards the end of the play, Aristophanes illustrates an argument between the “better argument” and the “worse argument,” and he demonstrates the fact that both of them have very serious flaws.
“Worse argument,” however, is represented as much more powerful and damaging to society: “Worse argument: ‘He can have it; whatever his line, I’ll shoot him down with phrases fine, concepts novel and though sublime” (Aristophanes IX 941-943). Although it is a comedy, Aristophanes still gets the point across about Socrates. After viewing such a play, it is difficult not to see Socrates in a different, more negative light. The overall depiction of Socrates in this play is very self-serving, brash, inconsiderate, ignorant, and morally reprehensible.
In The Apology, Plato suggests that the real Socrates is a man very different from the man depicted in Clouds. In The Apology, Socrates stands in front of an Athenian jury after he is charged by Meletus with corrupting the young. Socrates may be facing a sentence of death, and he does his best to persuade the jury that he is not guilty of the accusations against him, and that Meletus accuses him for his own selfish purposes. Socrates also mentions that it is very narrow minded and thoughtless to use “clouds” in any serious decisions.
Socrates tells us, “Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others. You have seen this yourself in the comedy of Aristophanes, a Socrates swinging about there, saying he was walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing at all” (Plato 23).
By explaining that it would be irrational to make such an important decision based on a play, Socrates attempts to disassociate himself with the Socrates of “clouds. ” Socrates gives an excellent speech justifying his actions and attempts to free himself of the chargers against him. He supports his argument with many excellent points and makes himself seem free of any wrongdoing. He speaks about honesty and truth, highlighting it as the most important principle by which he lives by.
He tells the jury that if he was in fact guilty of corrupting the young, he would have many more accusers: “If I corrupt some young men and have corrupted others, then surely some of them who have grown older and realized that I gave them bad advice when they were young should now themselves come up here and accuse me and avenge themselves” (Plato 36). Socrates states, however, that the public has been generally pleased with this existence, and that Meletus is the only many who holds a grudge against him.
Socrates then attempts to dismiss the accusation of not believing in the gods. In his affidavit, Meletus states that Socrates does not believe in the gods. Socrates disputes this and explains that he does believe in the gods, and that Meletus has used faulty logic to make such an accusation: “Then since I do believe in spirits, as you admit, if spirits are gods, that is what I mean when I say you speak in riddles and in jest, as you state that I do not believe in gods and then again that I do since I do believe in spirits” (Plato 30).
In this instance, Socrates uses logic that somewhat reminds us of “clouds,” but in this case, his ideas are much more consistent and are not based on some sort of ridiculous premise. With this argument, Socrates proves himself a truly wise and intelligent man who can pinpoint a specific issue and think deeply about it in a very sophisticated way. In this representation, Socrates is very much unlike the Socrates character in
Clouds. Aristophanes and Plato paint two very different portraits of Socrates. While Aristophanes uses comedy and satire to ridicule Socrates and his teachings, Plato writes The Apology in a way that depicts Socrates as a modest, wise, considerate, and honest hero. Given that both authors had their own biases and political motivations, it is safe to assume that the truth about Socrates lies somewhere in the middle.