Fart Jokes Are Dangerous: Aristophanes’ “The Clouds”

So, when people think of “The Great Books” or “The Classics” they tend to think of philosophy and tragedy and tend to forget that there is comedy in there too. And the ancient Greeks laughed at the same things that we did.

If Hollywood is truly out of ideas and feels the need to remake even recent movies such as “Ghost Busters,” then maybe it ought to go back a little further and look at the ancient Greeks for inspiration.

“The Clouds” was a play produced in 423 B.C. that was written by Aristophanes. It is about a man, Strepsiades, whose son thinks of nothing but horse and chariot racing, with the result that Strepsiades is racing towards the poorhouse.

So, he decides to go to Socrates school to learn how to use rhetoric to argue his way out of his debts. When he arrives, he learns that the “rump is the trumpet to the gnats” along with various other things about winds and clouds and how the belly can thunder as loud as they.

Strepsiades does not turn out to be so good a student when it comes to logic and rhetoric, however, so Socrates kicks him out. Then Strepsiades sends his son to the school.

Through the course of the play we learn that Socrates’ school will teach students to make Wrong Logic, who appears as a character in the play, appear stronger than Right Logic, another character. He says there are no Gods, and convinces Strepsiades of the same, and leads Strepsiades’ son, Pheidippides to abuse his parents.

We’ve heard these charges before in the Apology. This is what Socrates was accused of: corrupting the youth, teaching atheism, and making the weak argument appear the stronger. Except that “The Clouds” was produced in 423 B.C., well before Socrates’ trial. The Oxford Classical Dictionary says that Aristophanes knew Socrates personally and this play may have contributed to popular opinions about Socrates.

Comedy can be a dangerous thing, as one of my former professors told me.

The play is funny, if you can read through the translation. The translation in the set is somewhat stilted to modern ears. But I think it is still funny if you think about what it is saying. I give the creators of the set credit for sandwiching this in between reading different selections of Plato, because it helps us realize that Socrates was a real guy and not the perfect being in the dialogs.

Maybe now is the time for an Aristophanes revival. It’s been a few thousand years, so it won’t seem as repetitious as remaking movies from 20 years ago. Jack Black as Socrates? It might be funnier than you think.

Next Time: The Women Stand Firm Against War, and The Men Stand Firmer – The Lysistrata


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