Will I feed on wisdom like a dog? A parable of sorts

Modern applicability in ancient society is a dicy proposition, in my opinion. This is not to say the ancient should be ignored when it comes to understanding what it means to be human, but taking political, social, or cultural lessons usually results in mangling one or both. The cultures are vastly different, the technology is changed, and so on. This goes doubly when making a relatively superficial reference, such as the Thucydides Trap. With that caveat aside, whenever I see attacks on higher education I think of Aristophanes’ Clouds, produced in 423 BCE.

The play opens with Strepsiades, an average Joe, whose own habits and those of his son, Pheidippides, mean that he has debt that he either doesn’t want to or cannot pay.[1] To make matters worse, he has lost several court cases and now the creditors want to confiscate his property. Strepsiades is in a bind, but has heard about the power of sophistry, which appears in Aristotle as making the weaker argument stronger (Rhetoric 1402a23-5).[2] So Strepsiades says to his son “If one gives them silver, these men teach one how to be victorious with words, whether just or unjust [οὕτοι διδάσκουσ᾽, ἀργύριον ἤν τις διδῷ, λέγοντα νικᾶν καὶ δίκαια κἄδικα. 98-9]. With such power, he believes that he will be able to win the court cases and escape from debt. Pheidippides isn’t so sure, describing the scholars as pale-faced (akin to the Spartan prisoners), country-less wanderers. Nevertheless, Strepsiades makes his way to the school of Socrates, known in the play as the Thinkery:

“Open up the Thinkery! Quickly now! Show me Socrates! I want to learn! Throw open the doors!” [ἄνοιγ᾽ἄνοιγ᾽ἀνύσας τὸ φροντιστήριον, καὶ δεῖξον ὡς τάχιστά μοι τὸν Σωκράτη. μαθητιῶ γάρ, ἀλλ᾽ ἄνοιγε τὴν θύραν. 181-3].

Strepsiades is immediately appalled at the wide range of “studies” that are taking place inside, most of which have no bearing whatsoever on his current predicament. For instance, when they show him Athens on a map, he doesn’t believe them because he can’t see the juries in session.

The play goes on and includes a debate between “Unjust Argument” and “Just Argument” about who rules Athens [Unjust Argument does] and what is proper education, and Pheidippides undergoes a radical transformation, which, in turn, challenges the family structure. The vision of society in Clouds is conservative and modest, despite an exchange about whether there is any virtue in modesty or chastity with a dig at the sexual prowess of Achilles’ father Peleus. Debt remains an issue throughout the play, but it turns out that this newfangled education only resolves the issue to a point, while offering new complications.

I should note that this is very much caricature. The historical Socrates actually had a good reputation as a soldier and could hardly be counted among the pale-faced vagrants corrupting the young people, at least at this juncture, though the play shows that the reputation that would eventually cost him his life had already begun to develop.

As is frequently mentioned with reference to Aristophanes, his entire purpose is to win first prize in a theatrical competition, so the play is naturally layered with jokes ranging from the vulgar to the esoteric. Aristophanes’ plays tend to be conservative and, the war plays particularly, follow a somewhat predictable pattern: appearance of a problem (frequently: the war and its consequences), emergence of a comic hero or heroine who can resolve the problem, hijinks, party to celebrate the return to the peaceful days and old social order. Along the way there are layers of jokes, and, possibly, crowd interaction.

However, Clouds is peculiar in a couple of ways, showing a bitter, sour meanness that run contrary to most of his other plays. First, there is a famous choral scene in which the leader–often thought to be Aristophanes himself–breaks the fourth wall and directly berates the crowd for their support of Cleon and for having censured Aristophanes for mocking him in an earlier, now lost, play. Cleon, sometimes characterized as the bloodiest man in Athens, is a frequent target of Aristophanes, but not directly in Clouds, so the passage stands out.[3] The second difference is in the resolution to the play. Instead of the traditional euphoric conclusion, the disillusioned learners swarm the Thinkery with torches, determined to burn it to the ground. The conclusion, in particular, has a bitter edge to it, so it is perhaps not a surprise that the play did not win.

The core problem of Clouds is the intersection of debt and education. Aristophanes implies that a traditional education would keep one from falling into debt in the first place and is derisive of these new, weird forms of learning. Strepsiades isn’t interested in those, but is clearly willing to spend money on education, provided that there is a material gain for himself.[4] When the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t offer a monetary reward or seems to be potentially “subversive,” it is condemned as at best frivolous, at worst dangerous.[5]

[As Strepsiades sets fire to the Thinkery]
Student A: What are you doing, mister? [ἄνθρωπε, τί ποιεῖς;]

Strepsiades: What am I doing?! What else than subtly-discoursing the support beams of this house? [ὅ τι ποιῶ; τί δ᾽ ἄλλο γ᾽ἤ διαλεπτολογοῦμαι ταῖς δοκοῖς τῆς οἰκίας;]
[1495-7]


[1] Strepsiades’ name means, roughly, Debtdodger.
[2] Technically, Aristotle is preserving the advertising slogan of an early teacher, Protagoras.
[3] What we have is actually a revised version, so it is possible that something like this passage was added later.
[4] There is a conflation of types of education in Aristophanes’ depictions, with Strepsiades thinking that he is going to get an education from Zeno, Gorgias or Isocrates, but instead stumbles into natural scientists like Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. All forms of new learning are linked under the banner of Socrates.
[5] The cost of college makes the monetary reward ever more of a pressing concern, if only for practical reasons, but that is a topic for another post.

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