Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates. Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle). At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.
Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask. When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance. Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted. On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions. We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.
Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,
I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.
We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato. The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made. Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates. His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors. After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead. Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.
The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education. The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier. The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly. To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy. As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.
“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions. We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books. On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education. At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints. The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman. Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates. More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach. The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.
In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy. This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.