Thursday, 15 October 2015

Aristophanes' Clouds - A nail in Socrates' Coffin or just an Athenian youthquake?


Aristophanes' Clouds, performed in at the City Dionysia in 423 BCE, focusses on taking the rise out of the local intellectual trends in Athens of the day, chiefly the Sophists, the itinerant self-appointed teachers who gave lessons in a wide range of subjects, notoriously for a fee, who had started to attract the young men of the city in search of a quick training in rhetoric and how to manipulate any argument good or bad to their advantage and win over any opponent in the law courts or the agora in debates.

But there are other themes throughout the play that for me take centre stage, the long interchange between Superior Argument and Inferior Argument (or Stronger and Weaker Argument), which, despite gaudy jesters garb, poking fun at the intellectual debates of the day, is really about the generational conflict resulting from a drift of the city youth to the feet of these provocative new, controversial thinkers, sons versus fathers, old ways versus new, the village green preservation society bemoaning the new-fangled threatening changes afoot, cold showers versus wild sex fuelled wine binges (doubtless in the 5th C equivalent of transparent chiffon chitons!)…’you get my drift man’…as a bearded Athenian hipster might have intoned to his fuming parent as he bunked school for the nearest sophists soapbox.  Impiety debates ripple under the surface of the text, breaking forth into extremes such as faux(?) hymns to the gods (l. 533-574 and l.593-613) or at the other end of the spectrum, where Pheidippides, the wayward son proclaims, ‘There is no Zeus, Young Vortex reigns and has kicked Zeus out!’ (l.1471-2), repeating the very phrase his father uses against him in a display of intergenerational verbal cross-dressing (1.811-34); the world gone mad indeed!

But how on earth does Socrates, father of dialectic, almost daemon like in his moral purity, get lumped in with these crazy world inverting ‘charlatans’ suspended in a basket, a ridiculous buffoon posing as a meteorologically obsessed anti-deus ex-machina? He has been mentioned in other plays and must have been at least a known figure if not well known by this time by the theatre going populace at least..he was an associate of the ill-starred Alcibiades and it was more likely to have been that fact which eventually led to his trial and execution rather than any result of Aristophanes play. Moreover, Socrates condemnation took place well after the performance of the Clouds..almost a generation later and so it seems even less likely that a play which came third in the Dionysia of 423 would be preying on the minds of the jurors at his trial in 399 BCE. In short Aristophanes was funny but didn’t really seem to pull that much weight in political circles…he had little to no effect on the political decisions affecting the War (431-404 BC) or in swinging public opinion against the chicanery of Cleon, the corrupt Athenian general and one of the playwright’s favourite targets of his satirical invective.

I have been reading the 1930 Loeb Translation by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, which although quite lively on the whole, is an uneven affair, with much of the biblical radiation through so typical of the era to wade through (Thee, Thou, Thine, quotha get the picture), so invariably the rude bits are glossed over or bowdlerised or just erased altogether, some of the passages don’t make a whole lot of sense, despite being a relatively faithful translation. This doesn’t help a play which in the form we have is already a rehashed and slightly unbalanced work with elements of Old Comedy, Tragedy and what seem to be pure random experimentation with meter and style.  This seems to be the rewrite after the play failed to get a prize, which could explain the Clouds addressing the audience and taking them to task for failing to sufficiently praise and reward the play and recognise the genius of its creator with its hindsight fuelled remonstrations, pleas and finally threats, notably to ruin crops – the former job of the usurped Gods.

For all its uneven outgrowths, the play still has timeless appeal due to its themes of New versus Old, the perennial war of ideas and mores…and some clever interplay between the human and meta-human characters. This is probably why it is one of the easier entry points to the appreciation of Aristophanes, less in-jokes, less localised flavour and a move away from the strictly political to a more free flowing banter between the new and disturbing ideas in the air in Fifth century Athens during a relatively peaceful interlude during the Peloponnesian War – the Peace of Nicias in 421. It’s interesting to note that the play was written and performed when Aristophanes (446-386 BCE) was only he almost definitely had first-hand experience of his generations’ turbulent fascination with the new modes of thought fashion and attitudes whirl-winding through Athens in the wake of the upheaval of interregional conflict. Clouds stands as a mirror to the war of ideas that erupted in the wake of societal breakdown engendered by the horrors of war. Bizarre shades of Vietnam and Haight-Ashbury!

There is a lot more to discuss about this play which I hope to go over with you when we next meet – until then….Gnothe Seauton!



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