Aristophanes “Clouds” & the case against philosophy

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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16 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    If you look at the two extremes, there are two types of Philosophy Degrees.

    The first is the highest, and best, type of degree. It is a Classical Education. The student graduates knowing a little bit of Greek, a little bit of Latin, and maybe a little bit of two or three other languages. They certainly know how to sit down with a text and translation dictionary and translate it. More importantly, they know how to sit down with any native-language text and read it and then analyze it. They know when they encounter a significant fallacy, they know when they encounter something that just smells fishy and know when they ought to find more information… and they know when they have sufficient to reach a working assumption and move on from the paralysis that comes from “maybe just read another book” syndrome.

    They are classically trained to think… which means that they have been trained to be trainable. There are many degrees that are, effectively, vocational training. Philosphy degrees, ideally, communicate that one is a high quality tabula rosa who can fit in any niche and excel and quite regularly be kicked up the chain a ways.

    That’s the good extreme. The bad extreme is that philosophy is yet another bullshit degree full of Underwater Basket Weaving courses. Just ingratiate yourself with the prof, write a paper that parrots what s/he said at the front of the class, walk away with a B. After you get your degree, find out that you have no skills and have to stay on at Starbucks.

    This is the bad extreme… but it also applies to many, if not most, undergrad degrees in the Arts. English, Art History, you all know the ones I’m talking about. After years of hearing people say “just get the piece of paper, it doesn’t matter what the degree is in, the important thing is that the piece of paper is a *SIGNAL*”, we’re reaping the whirlwind of a ton of folks with signals rather than educations.

    I’m sure that most of the folks out there who got “real” degrees resent the heck out the folks who got degrees in Children’s Literature. (At work, the guy who has a degree in Math has a running joke where he asks me “seriously, what can you do with a degree in Philosophy?” when we sit down and start digging in the lab.)

    The Clouds just demonstrates that the “seriously, what can you do with a degree in Philosophy?” running joke has been running for millennia.

    When we read the Greeks, we read the best and the brightest and, truly, the Fathers of our entire civilization while, at the time, they had to put up with the oceans of crappy thinkers (It’s like we’re listening to the Joan Armatradings of their day because those are the only recordings that survived while they were inundated minute by minute with Ke$has) and that would inspire (indeed, demand!) plays like The Clouds.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, Yeah, they had to put up with both lousy philosophers and the fact that most people don’t really enjoy sitting around, thinking through problems. When I was reading some of the pre-Socratics, it stood out that they complained about ‘the mass of average people’ as much as Socrates does- well, and some grad students I’ve known.

      I do think that higher education is what you make of it. Just about anywhere you have to be self-motivated. A lot of these canonical texts I’m reading now are ones I never had to read in university but always wanted to. I remember we used to joke about a prof who taught Literary Modernism because she complained in just about every seminar that nobody reads Proust anymore… but never assigned any Proust! I agree that À la recherche du temps perdu is the best novel I’ve ever read; but I had to go read it on my own.

      I was thinking about this topic recently because someone mentioned in one of these threads an important pre-Socratic philosopher and I felt guilty because I hadn’t read him. I rectified the situation, but I wondered if the guilt isn’t a normal part of my job. I don’t think normal people feel guilty about things like that.Report

  2. Paul B says:

    The Socrates of the Clouds is definitely an unfair (though hilarious) stand-in for the stereotypical philosopher, but the difference between him and the Sophists might not have been as clear-cut as Plato makes it out to be. In Xenophon’s Apology, unlike Plato’s, Socrates doesn’t deny taking on students and is pretty equivocal about accepting payment from them.

    But the Socrates we know from the early dialogues sure seems more concerned with uncovering the truth than with shoring up specious arguments, so when he does engage in a little sophistry (the slippery definition of philos in the Lysis comes to mind) maybe we’re more inclined to chalk it up to genuine confusion rather than some ulterior motive we take for granted with his contemporaries.

    And FWIW the New Yorker has a good, if breezy, defense of the liberal arts this week. Just in time for my 5-year reunion, too!Report

  3. Oroboros says:

    @Jaybird, before I took my first college course I tracked down my instructor and asked So what can I do with a Creative Writing degree?

    He laughed and answered: Your diploma and a quarter will get you a spot on a New York subway vent.

    I took that seriously. I was there for the education. I quit after getting it, just four credits shy of the actual diploma. I was close to a minor in Philosophy and really like your posts, Rufus!Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Oroboros says:

      @Oroboros, your professor obviously had tenure!Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Oroboros says:

      @Oroboros, I’ve been irritated by this response all day.

      I will tell a story about what my professor told us. He said that, periodically, a parent (inevitably a father) says “yeah, but what in the hell can you do with a Philosophy degree?”

      And the prof told us that his answer is always “S/he’ll be a happy wo/man.”

      To some degree, the point of a classical education (which ought to include “creative writing”) is to achieve some measure of self-discovery and personal growth. Ideally you will demonstrate middle-class values to employers… but, for the student, one should ask what one wants:

      Do you want job training? Go to a vocational school.
      Do you want career training? Get an MBA or an engineering degree.
      Do you want to become a Classically Educated Gentleperson like the best of the Brahmin before you dating all the way back to, yes, The Greeks? Then get a Classical Education.

      And *THAT* is what your professor ought to have said to you.Report

      • Oroboros in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, I vaguely recall he did go on to talk about a variety of the other benefits I’d get out of the degree, and I should give him a little more credit for the fact that I didn’t go change my major. I don’t recall his specific words of advice now, but I wasn’t really expecting much of an answer in terms of a career either.

        He was a Greek, coincidentally, and overtly political in his views during the Native American Literature course I took from him later. By then my own politics tended toward the progressive end and I liked him.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, We’ve got a friend who works the typical parental dream job- she orders products for a big clothing company and makes a lot of money. I think she’s on her third house because she keeps moving up in size and market. Anyway, she’s sort of annoying. But I’m pretty sure her degree is in Medieval Literature with a minor in rec and leisure.

        I tell undergrads that a lot of companies just want to know that you could put in the work and finish a four-year degree. Lots of people can’t.Report

  4. sam says:

    Back to Aristophanes. He was an interesting case for Plato. The story is that when Dion of Syracuse wrote and asked Plato what the Athenians were like, Plato sent him the plays of Aristophanes. And though Plato seems to have blamed the poet for the travails of Socrates, he also seems to have had warm spot in his heart for the old curmudgeon. His affection for Aristophanes stemmed, I think, from Aristophanes’s ability to describe the foibles of Athenian democracy. Moreover, in the Symposium, it is only Aristophanes’s speech that Socrates thinks worthy of response. Plato’s sense of humor is on display there, and his sense of irony. The participants are paired lovers (except for Aristophanes and Socrates) and each gives a speech on love that is at odds with the speech given by his lover — i.e., when it comes to love, nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about. Except for Aristophanes. Not that Plato for a moment believed the myth, but the idea behind the myth, that in searching for love, we’re all searching from some kind of completion did resonate with him. But the Aristophanic completion is carnal, and Socrates will argue that this is really a faux completion, an base imitation of the true completion of the soul. But for Plato, I think, the human sexual comedy required a poet for adequate description, and there was no better candidate for this than the greatest of the comic poets.Report

    • Paul B in reply to sam says:


      Good point about Plato and Aristophanes sharing anti-democratic affinities. Plato must have hated Aristophanes’ bête noire Cleon, but I don’t remember hearing about him in the dialogues. And in the Frogs, Aristophanes shares Plato’s ambivalence towards Alcibiades — partly hopeful that he would step up and fulfill his destiny as a natural aristocrat, but mostly just terrified of his potential for demagoguery.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to sam says:

      @sam, Yeah, they both seem to have a similar conservative streak. I kept thinking, okay Socrates wouldn’t think these critiques were fair when aimed at himself; aim them at the poets and he’d be right there with you!Report

  5. sam says:

    “The Clouds just demonstrates that the “seriously, what can you do with a degree in Philosophy?” running joke has been running for millennia.”

    Oh, and that reminds me of the story about Thales. Thales, we all know, is said to have been the first philosopher. Everything is water, he said. And because he thought that everything was water, he paid attention to rainfall, and was able to predict when there would be a bumper crop of olives. So, on the basis of his observations, he bought up or rented a ton of olive presses and made a killing in the olive oil market. (Modern equivalent, I guess, would be Carl Ichan, who majored in philosophy in college. I recall a 60 Minutes segment on him, when the reviewer showed him his senior thesis, on the philosophy of language — Austin? Wittgenstein? I forget which. The interviewer asked which was harder, the thesis or his financial adventures? Ichan didn’t hesitate, the thesis, he said.)Report

  6. Dan O. says:

    About this:
    “So Aristophanes accuses philosophers of charging young people money, corrupting them, leading them into impiety and sexual vice, undermining society through dishonest teaching, coaching them to lie, pursuing trivial and esoteric knowledge, and being arrogantly against those around them. ”

    As a philosopher and ex-academic, this is still exactly right. Except, unfortunately, for the part about sexual vice. Of course, philosophy graduate students don’t get paid, they receive a stipend for the privilege of learning, while teaching 5 sections of introductory classes. All in preparation for a career as an itinerant worker, scraping by without respect, and encouraged to contribute a tight article to a jargon-filled lawyerly tome filled with other indistinguishably tight articles by young philosophers, or unimaginatively recycled drivel from older prestigious philosophers. All, of course, the result of an impartial, blind review process.Report