Just finished a Straussian ritual, Aristophanes’ “Clouds:” Preliminary Notes on the Limits of Comedy

1. Consideration of comedians: they use laughter to make everything ridiculous. The good things, while made ridiculous, still are essentially good and cannot be dismissed. They are necessary no matter how much we laugh. The bad things, made ridiculous, fall away quickly. All comedians – including those who believe all is spin, such as Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert – think they are defending the truest, perhaps the oldest goods in practicing their art well.

2. A more sophisticated consideration of comedy comes about in “The Birth of Tragedy” when Nietzsche associates Socrates with the comic. Strauss on Nietzsche’s “Socrates:”

“He [Socrates] is the prototype of the rationalist and therefore of the optimist, for optimism is not merely the belief that the world is the best possible world, but also the belief that the world can become the best of all imaginable worlds, or that the evils that belong to the best possible world can be rendered harmless by knowledge: thinking can not only fully understand being, but can even correct it….

Rationalism is optimism, since it is the belief that reason’s power is unlimited and essentially beneficent…. Rationalism is optimism, since the belief in causes depends on the belief in ends, or since rationalism presupposes the belief in the initial or final supremacy of the good. The full and ultimate consequences of the change effected or represented by Socrates appear only in the contemporary West: in the belief in universal enlightenment and therewith in the earthly happiness of all within a universal state, in utilitarianism, liberalism, democracy, pacifism and socialism.”

– Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, p. 7

We must keep in mind that Strauss is only sticking to Nietzsche’s surface here for a purpose. Strauss is putting us in the Aristophanean position of defending the ancestral and seeing Socrates from that viewpoint. Socrates is not Rousseau, and the latter half of the quote is pure Rousseau. Moreover, we have noted from Natural Right and History the truer teaching – reason cannot correct “being.” The whole of being is itself beyond being; reason’s ability to merely apprehend “what is” in all cases is dubious.

However, I bring up this more sophisticated view of the “comic” to make the point that comedy, in appealing to what is “common sense,” begins with the ancestral but is beholden to reason as progress without knowing it. “Common sense” can be concerned with immediate effectiveness, after all. This is an enormous problem because people who love wisdom or are very rational – people who can see 10 steps ahead of everyone else – are not necessarily embraced by the comic. The comic only embraces rationality as optimism: it confuses the two and misses that reasonable people can sometimes see problems the rest dismiss as paranoid ravings.

3. The plot of Aristophanes’ “Clouds” is simple enough: a father, Strepsiades, is of moderate means and is going broke. His son, Pheidippides, is using all the family money to become a superior horseman. These lavish tastes stem from the merger of old and new Athens – Strepsiades didn’t have much money but married rich, and his wife instilled lavish tastes in the son.

So what Strepsiades wants to do is get Pheidippides to go to Socrates and learn sophistry, i.e. the “unjust speech.” With that he can win any lawsuit against creditors and can go back to his son wasting tons of cash and himself, well, sitting around farting (I kid you not. Aristophanes uses this sort of joke every other line). He goes to Socrates’ thinkery himself and runs into new deities Socrates introduces – “the Clouds.” The “Clouds” promise Strepsiades quite a bit if he listens to Socrates, and even give Socrates a hint or two about how to deal with his new pupil. He almost becomes decent enough to defend himself, but doesn’t have the natural ability. Socrates expels him but the Clouds get him to enroll Pheidippides and Pheidippides learns the unjust speech. The father holds a feast for the son but they argue about the pious things; needless to say, son is a lot less pious having worked with Socrates, and beats his father up after the verbal exchange becomes heated. Father encounters the Clouds again and learns from the Clouds that his initial want of injustice brought this on. He turns to piety of a regular sort, and in this turning, decides to burn Socrates’ “thinkery.” This he does, and the god Hermes appears to drive him to expel Socrates and his disciples even from the theater.

4. The structure of the play is very complex – Aristophanes is featured himself as a character, the Clouds are selective in what they tell and don’t tell the audience and other actors. It is possible to get a reading of the play that is very sympathetic to Socrates.

5. I am not in the mood for such a reading. While eros unites all comically in the Symposium, where Aristophanes and Socrates seven years after this play was performed don’t seem to hate each other, the ending of this play is absolutely brutal. The god Hermes condones arson and encourages violence against Socrates and his followers, and Strepsiades, an unthinking brute who was more than willing to treat creditors like dirt when he thought his son could win any lawsuit, is given not a “last laugh” but a rather serious role in the polity. His piety is good enough to get Athens horsemen it will need for war, and makes him useful to the city’s higher purpose of throwing the distracting and unnecessary out.

Aristophanes comes before us as a character in the midst of the play to declare his wisdom; he too is a devotee of the Clouds, who can mimic everything. Only: Socrates believes the Clouds to be a stand-in for human reason – imitation is the province of the imagination and refers back to the uniquely human. Aristophanes sees the Clouds as genuinely divine and claims to be a disciple of Dionysus, the god of wine, himself.

It’s hard to see how Socrates isn’t correct in this debate: how on earth are the Clouds gods? Strauss notes that the Clouds want to be gods that don’t wander, but find a home. They want to reside in Athens. Socrates is their only devotee, but a flawed one. His willingness to consider them divine stems from a rejection of divinity in any traditional sense. What Socrates doesn’t see is that reason is a tool for divine, not just human, purposes. The Clouds may reduce to reason, but it isn’t human reason exclusively – the Clouds are everywhere, and are literally above man.

The Olympian Gods and the city that bears the name of the goddess of wisdom have a stake in the Clouds. Reason can never divorce entirely from “common sense” for Aristophanes. If you look unhealthy, you must be unhealthy – Socrates’ gauntness doesn’t reflect moderation as much as hubris: he thinks himself beyond the human.

But we’ve seen above that “common sense” can be fatally flawed: it doesn’t even realize its own grounding. And fathers, wanting the best for their sons, can end up throwing away years of tradition that might help the city as a whole. Strepsiades is an arsonist at the end of the drama; his pious revelation is just as destructive to the city as the sophist that Socrates is purported to be. Except that it wasn’t Socrates who came into the thinkery asking if he would teach injustice.

Point is, Aristophanes is between a rock and a hard place in defending his comic art. He wants to defend all the good things the city wants at once – wealth, martial virtue, reason/superior speech, piety. Guess what? No matter how much awareness your play may show as to the tensions between those things, even the exaggerated, poorly represented Socrates is in a better position to address the issue of the good. He’s at least honest about the things that aren’t compatible with each other.

So the question we’re left with is: Does human reason, which allows actual apprehension of the good, require a “beating up” of one’s own father? How radical is the questioning of “common sense?” The Platonic and Xenophontic Socrates, the one that would never teach an unjust speech or hold “clouds” to be responsible for all phenomena, keeps the critique very radical. That much Aristophanes got right; what he missed is why it is essential to not give up on lines of questioning. People are going to ask questions about authority no matter what, and it is when they don’t have any questions one has to wonder: either they’re frittering their money away on luxuries like horses, not caring for the debt. Or maybe they’re perpetually at war, with their neighbors and other cities. Finally, if they have no questions, maybe they’re in the most dangerous state of all, thinking they know everything when they can’t even articulate what they believe.

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