Aristophanes “Clouds” & the case against philosophy
Socrates brings up Aristophanes’s play The Clouds during his trial in order to respond to its unflattering portrayal of him, which was both well received and unfair. Apparently, it was too well received since the play’s charges were repeated in the criminal trial; but, of course it was unfair; satire is seldom fair. Comedy pokes lighthearted fun at its characters, but satire pokes sharp objects at them.
The play, first performed in 423, is addressed to the contemporary Athenian audience, which was expected to get the in-jokes. Any “timelessness” is unintentional, although certain criticisms of philosophy and educators seem to be perennial. The story as such, involves an Athenian father, Strepsiades, mired in debt thanks to his profligate son and wife, who heads to a “Think-shop of sages souls”, so that its philosophers, who specialize in clouding men’s minds and deceiving them, can teach him to outwit his creditors.
The head of the pack is Socrates, which is unfair since the play is an attack on the sophists, who Socrates also quarreled with. Aristophanes criticizes the sophist argument that laws and moral imperatives are man-made and therefore can be rewritten, which he thinks will lead to all sorts of social ills. However, his case isn’t entirely convincing for a modern audience, since it hinges on us preserving belief in the now dead gods of Olympus. Very few of us believe in Apollo any longer; and yet, moral imperatives seem to have mostly survived his death.
When Strepiades arrives at the think shop, the students praise Socrates’s wisdom with stories that read like an unintentional parody of Plato (who hasn’t yet written anything): Socrates figured out how many of its own feet a flea can jump by making one wear wax slippers, he has shown how a gnat farts; now he’s suspended in a basket gazing at the sun; philosophy majors can take some comfort in the fact that jokes about the frivolity of their profession date back to at least 423 BCE. It’s interesting that philosophers, who spend their time thinking about some of the most difficult and arguably important questions of human life, are so often thought to worry about things slight and insignificant. Certainly the profession has had its moments of pedantry, but I’ve yet to find a text about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
Accusations of frivolity might stem from the lack of physical activity involved; even watching an accountant work is more action packed than watching most philosophers do philosophy. I remember hearing a brilliant thinker’s description of his working day, which included several hours spent lying on a couch in a quiet room thinking through questions. A passing onlooker could be excused for thinking he was a bum. Contemporary scholars at least “produce” books; Socrates didn’t even like writing.
But, neither was Socrates a sophist, and he did not charge money to learn philosophy, an apparently important issue, since it was a focus of the trial and this play. Nor did the real sophists lobby for abolishing the gods and, instead, worshipping clouds that befog men’s minds! Finally, I’m not sure any of them really wanted Bad Logic to defeat Right Logic- both of whom appear as characters in the play and argue with one another. Satire often indulges in poetic license for malicious effect. Al Gore could probably care less about manbearpig.
Also with satire, we’re not supposed to sympathize with its targets the way we do with other comedies. We don’t watch South Park and sympathize with Al Gore. Here, the philosophers are ridiculous and malicious: they fully intend to undermine honesty, a foundational value in society, and reap the rewards of social collapse. Some rewards are sexual: Right Logic claims that the philosophers undermine the education of children in order to groom them for pederasty. If this was a familiar belief about philosophers, it’s worth wondering if it was the subtext to Socrates’s charge of corrupting the youth. And remember that even he saw pedagogy as having a sustained erotic component that was simply prevented from becoming carnal. The student should love the teacher, but not vice-versa.
It’s also interesting that Aristophanes believes social norms and piety are what keep us from screwing each other over. The plan backfires for Strepsiades in the end because his son learns from the philosophers and now has good arguments to justify beating him up! Everyone screws each other over in the play. Aristophanes seems to think the gods are the only think keeping us from being more beastly than we are. Many of the Athenian plays suggest this. In Greek myth, the sacred regulates the social.
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. Academics might find some of these charges familiar. And notice that Socrates has similar gripes about poets; there’s a real struggle going on in Athens over the education of young people.
It continues today. In fact, philosophers are having a tough time of it as of late. Most rely on universities, many of which are cutting back or eliminating their philosophy departments. The most recent: Middlesex University in Britain decided to eradicate their world-renowned philosophy department, prompting calls for a boycott; administrators said the decision was purely financial. Philosophy attracts few majors, especially compared to more lucrative pursuits, and doesn’t draw as much outside funding.
Besides, students are clamoring for job training. College-aged kids have always been warned about wasting too much time and money “finding themselves”, or more accurately, trying to figure out what sort of life they’d like to live. These warnings have only grown more intense with the recession and the sort of famine mentality it inspires. The students worry, understandably, about their (economic) future and less “career-oriented” disciplines suffer accordingly. It’s all perfectly reasonable, although it’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for harried 18 year olds whose perfectionist parents have them worrying about the state of their resume.
At one time, universities served a culturally conservative function in society; accordingly, they felt that that studies like philosophy: slow and patient thinking about large and abstract questions of life- are in themselves worthwhile and that society has a responsibility to preserve them as legitimate endeavors. In recent years though they have largely discarded this role, and in doing so, have likely abandoned whatever prestige they had left. Conservatives would, hypothetically, be horrified to see things like philosophy, literature, and history disappear in society, but they seem entirely too invested emotionally in the collapse of “liberal academia” to make much noise about it.
What bothers me isn’t watching universities sell out whole areas of intellectual life for short term material gain, which I’ve come to expect; it’s what terrible business sense it is to whittle back your ‘product line’ to a handful of ‘big sellers’, and thus alienate the rest of your customers. We’ve already seen US auto makers tell anyone who wasn’t interested in an SUV to “buy Japanese”; that worked out great. Similarly, Hollywood must have discovered that young men between the ages of 14-32 watch more movies than anyone else, because they now make only a few films per year aimed at women or adults. So, universities follow suit in telling the students who don’t want to major in business, engineering, pre-med, or law that they can piss off. This will make economic sense, provided that the culture never changes again.
But, of course, it always does. Slow, patient thinking about hard and abstract questions might have lost its appeal for young people, but that’s not to say that the next generation won’t rebel against this one, as have all generations thus far. Recently, at a party, a young woman said to me, out of the blue: “You know, I’m really sick of how shallow and unserious everything is now.” Me too. I find it impossible to be a cultural pessimist though because I can’t imagine the next generation won’t rebel against the trivial, hollow, bullshit that’s charmed my generation. And given the seeming disintegration of American corporations, cultural institutions, and government via incompetence and greed, it’s hard to believe that the appeal of slow, patient thinking won’t make a comeback.
Then, finally, we can get back to studying gnat farts.