What is the calumny which my enemies are spreading against me? It would run somewhat in this fashion: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, who meddles with inquiries into things beneath the earth, and in heaven, and who “makes the worse appear the better reason” and who teaches others these same things. That is what they say, and in the Comedy of Aristophanes you yourself saw a man called Socrates swinging around in a basket and saying that he walked the air, and talking a great deal of nonsense about matter of which I understand nothing, either more or less… But the fact is, not one of these stories is true.
Plato, Apology, tr. F.J. Church
The ‘Comedy of Aristophanes’ to which Socrates, standing trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety, is The Clouds. In it, Strepsiades (or ‘Twister’, in the sense of a swiveller and a cheat rather than a cyclone, although Aristophanes wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for a joke about passing wind) asks Socrates to teach him and his playboy, horse-mad son Pheidippides the new Sophist method of logic, in order to win court cases and swindle people. Since this is a comedy, his plot backfires. Pheidippides learns the ‘Wrong’ sort of logic all too well: he ‘proposes to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt the philosophical propriety of beating my father’, and for an encore: ‘I’ll horsewhip Mother’.
Aristophanes’ humour lies not in characterisation (as in Shakespeare) or in the carefully orchestrated clockwork mechanism of farce, in which situation piles on top of situation, but in its giddy exuberance and the way in which he plays with ideas. His plays feature a sex strike to stop war (Lysistrata), a competition between two dead poets (The Frogs), and the tragedian Euripides gatecrashing a women-only festival in drag (The Thesmophoriazusae, or, for those not fond of Attic tongue-twisters, The Poet and the Women). He mixes scatological and obscene jokes (masturbation and swollen pricks abound, thunder is the ‘infinite farting’ of the heavens) with highbrow literary parody (one dizzy scene features the effete Amynias, who lithps fustian phrases from the fourth-rate tragedian Karkinos) and comic set-pieces of warped logic, and for good measure, insults the audience (all of whom are buggers). Aristophanes stands at the head of a line of comedy which includes Rabelais, Offenbach, Gilbert and Sullivan, Monty Python and The Simpsons.
Aristophanes’ target here is Sophistry, the ‘new philosophy’ of Socrates. His satire is one of the best explosions of intellectual humbuggery and charlatanism in literature; it stands in the worthy company of Swift’s Lagado (with its mad scientists who insert a bellows up a dog’s fundament and are startled when the creature dies of explosive diarrhoea) and Frederick Crews (who subjects the unfortunate Winnie-the-Pooh to all the vicissitudes of half-baked psychoanalysis and twentieth century critical theory). Brilliantly, Aristophanes engages with Sophistry in order to attack it. Not only do Socrates and Pheidippides make sophistic arguments, but the very method of the play—‘picking up the points his “opponents” make and expand[ing] on them, usually trying to show that they have ridiculous consequences, or conflict with something else that they have already said’ (Philosophy for Dummies, 42)—is Socratic. But is the target worthy of the satire?
In many ways, The Clouds is a problematic play. Aristophanes’ standpoint is essentially conservative and moralistic. Society is threatened by godless new ideas, and we need to go back to proper traditional values. The play then is like a brilliant episode of The Simpsons, written by Mary Whitehouse of abominable memory (or for American readers, Rush Limbaugh). Aristophanes’ argument is that Old (or “Right”) Education is better than New (or “Wrong”) Education. To a modern, non-fourth century Athenian audience, there is little appealing about “Right”, which proclaims its moral rectitude and its intellectual rightness without proof (while drooling over adolescent boys).
The wrongness of “Wrong” is more complex. Many of the ‘crimes’ for which Socrates is satirised here are not those of the real man, but of earlier philosophers: Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Gorgias. Nor are those crimes culpable in our eyes: ‘atheism, scientific inquiry and speculation, rhetoric, and the new morality’ (Sommerstein 107). To Aristophanes, however, scientific inquiry is dangerous because it raises worrying ideas about the nature of the gods. Do the Olympian gods even exist, or should one worship the Clouds, Chaos and Bamboozle, or nobody at all? Is the sun the flaming chariot of Phoebus Apollo, or is it a stone?
However, Aristophanes was right in attacking sophistry. Intellectual hornswoggling, double-dealing, and cozening should be roundly challenged. They may be entertaining; when taken in jest, there is no offence i’ the world, but when not taken in jest, they poison. They make trying to find truth as difficult, elusive and as dangerous—and as intellectually slippery—as trying to grasp a bar of soap in a bath full of electric eels.
– Nick Fuller