Aristophanes, Atheism, Rhetoric, and Iconoclasm: A Review of “Clouds”

Aristophanes’ comedy, Clouds, is a humorous send-up of ancient Greek rationalism, science, atheism, and lawyerly sophistry, as supposedly represented by Socrates and the philosophical and sophistic schools of Athens. Aristophanes portrays Greek intellectuals as an arrogant class of effete and pasty skinned unbelievers. Except for their skills in rhetoric, which help them get around the law and rip people off, their knowledge is of little worldly or practical value. In other words, their heads are figuratively in the clouds (hence the play’s title). Clouds  is funny in places, but also disturbing in its anti-intellectualism and nostalgia for marshal virtues and doubt-free theism. If Aristophanes were alive today, he might be a caustic, and very conservative, Republican (or even a Fascist). For all this, his play has an undeniably contemporary feel in its critiques of rhetoric, and makes a good primer for reflection on the nihilistic and shameless uses of argumentation (as when oil company representatives engage in blatant sophistries to cast doubt on global warming). But when, at the end of the play, the lead character (Strepsiades) gleefully burns down the school of Socrates, one is sobered by the reactionary nature of the play. The ending reminds one of humanity’s long and tragic history of genocide and iconoclasm (the destroying of a rival ideology’s texts, idols, symbols, or buildings). The ending of Aristophanes’ play clearly suggests that the killing of an entire class of people in his society would be a positive development. It is not without reason that Plato famously attributed Socrates’ death, at least in part, to the popular prejudice generated against him by Aristophanes’ Clouds. In short, Aristophanes’ play is thought-provoking, funny, and sobering. It’s an easy read and, even after 2500 years, still relevant.

Here’s an Amazon link to an English translation of the play:

http://www.amazon.com/Aristophanes-Translated-Introduction-Classical-Library/dp/0941051242/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Aristophanes, Atheism, Rhetoric, and Iconoclasm: A Review of “Clouds”

  1. Menander says:

    Dearest Santi,

    As fellow Athenian comic playwrights, we think you have taken a rather too literal approach the play and the ideas and opinions expressed within. Your description of Aristophanes as ‘caustic…very conservative, [and] Republican (or even a Fascist)’ seems unlikely. Firstly, the views expressed by his characters cannot be assumed to be his own. Whilst he may have had conservative views (scholars debate this), his mockery of the Sophistic movement in this play may just have been a populist move. He needed to win the support of the audience, who were probably not fans of the elite and pompous nature of Socrates and his followers (remember they approved his execution) and so he may have pandered to their views. His audience was primarily comprised of average Athenians, who were unlikely to have been greatly educated. Intellectualism, atheism and the like just isn’t that funny, especially to such a demographic. Secondly, the characters whom express these conservative opinions are not exactly painted in the best light. Strepsiades is not a character that the audience would have looked up to and his son is a greedy fool. It is a farce and a satire. If you were well-known you were mocked; for example, did you know that nearly every contemporary politician featured in his works?

    When looked at as a whole, Aristophanes’ body of work shows him to be an astute social commentator and one whose views are very difficult to pin down.

    In conclusion: Don’t you go callin’ Aristophanes a fascist. (http://i.imgur.com/qzLo9.gif)

    We hope that in the four years since writing this blog post you have re-evaluated your views.

    Sincerely,

    Pherecrates and Menander.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I think you’re straw-manning me a bit. I used the phrase, “he might be” a Republican if he were alive today. I left myself an escape hatch that you then closed on my nose.

      Guessing about an author’s state of mind when writing is always tricky, isn’t it? But it’s still fun to play. As Paul de Man famously noted in another context, there’s really no way to decide whether it’s best to read Yeats’ last line of his poem, “Among School Children,” figuratively (as a rhetorical question) or literally (as a puzzle of the relation of a referent to its sign). Here’s the line: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

      How we decide on the meaning governs the interpretation of the rest of the poem. But how do we decide? And how much trickier is it with an ancient author like Aristophanes? Here are the lines immediately preceding Yeats’ last line. Notice that they don’t help:

      O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
      Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
      O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
      How can we know the dancer from the dance?

      In other words, is this meant to be answered by the reader with, “We can’t know the dancer from the dance; beauty is the whole; is one. Ah, so! How satisfying is Yeats’s poetic climax! And it makes sense of the whole poem.” Or is this meant to be an open and aporetic question, with the reader saying, “I’m puzzled. What is the relation of the referent (the dancer) to its sign (the dance pointing to it)? What, for that matter, is the self that acts and is pointed to? Show me that self apart from its signs. This is that? Really? This is what? Is that all it is?”

      Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

      And is what we notice in things coming from ourselves—from our imaginations—or are they really out there in the world?

      How can we know the dancer apart from the interpretation? What do we highlight and make important?

      —Santi : )

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