Aristophanes’ Clouds were staged in 423 B.C. when Plato was six (if we date his birth in 429 B.C.) or four years old (if we date his birth in 427 B.C.). Approaching the stage, the Clouds sing: ‘Shaking off the rainy cloud (aposeisamenai nephos ombrion) from immortal Form (athanatas ideas), let us see the earth with the far-seeing eye (epidȏmetha têleskopȏi ommati gaian, 288-290).’ What is the ‘immortal Form’ to which the Clouds refer?
The Clouds enter the stage at 326 in the form of women, as we learn at 340-341, for Strepsiades asks Socrates: ‘Tell me what happened to them, if they are truly clouds, that they look like women? The clouds are not like that.’ – Socrates: ‘Tell me then, what do they look like.’ – Strepsiades: ‘They look like outspread flocks of wool, they don’t look like women at all; these have noses.’ – Socrates: ‘Answer me what I shall ask.’ – Strepsiades: ‘So say quickly what you want.’ – Socrates: ‘When you look up, don’t you ever see a cloud that looks like a centaur, or a leopard, or a wolf, or a bull?’ – Strepsiades: ‘I certainly do, but what’s the point?’ – Socrates: ‘They become whatever they wish. Then when they see a wild (agrion) man with long hair and a hairy breast, like the son of Xenophantes, they scoff at his mad passion (tên manian autou) by assuming the form of centaurs.’ – Strepsiades: ‘And if they see Simon who steels from the public funds, what do they do?’ – Socrates: ‘They reveal his nature by transforming themselves immediately into wolves.’ – Strepsiades: ‘That’s it then, that’s why, when they yesterday saw Cleonymus, who threw away his shield in battle, they turned into deer; it was because they saw the greatest coward.’ – Socrates: ‘And now, you see, because they have seen Cleisthenes, they have become women.’ (340-355)
[Theodor Kock notes on agrion that according to Harpocration Aischines (1. 52) called agrious (plural of agrion) men too much enamoured with boys and pederasts; Dover notes that according to a scholiast ‘men exceptionally addicted to pederasty were called agrioi. On tên manian autou Kock notes ‘pederasty’, but Dover notes ‘craze’ rather than ‘perversion’. On centaurs Dover notes that scholiast to ‘Aischines 1. 52 cites ‘centaurs’ as one of the many slang terms for over-enthusiastic pederasts’. On Cleonymus Dover notes: ‘The hapless Kleonymos was alleged to have “thrown away his shield”, sc. in order to run away from battle and save his skin, and was never allowed to forget it: cf. Eq. (Knights) 1372, V. (Wasps) 19, 822, Pax (Peace) 446, 673 ff., Av. (Birds) 290, 1473 ff.’ On Cleisthenes Dover remarks: ‘The stock effeminate of Old Comedy … It appears from Acharnians 117 ff., Eq. 1373 f. and Th. (Thesmophoriazusae) 575 that (no doubt through an endocrine disorder) he found it hard to grow a beard.’ (Th. Kock, Ausgewaehlte Komoedien des Aristophanes, vol. 1, Die Wolken, Berlin 1862; Aristophanes, Clouds, edited with Introduction and Commentary by K. J. Dover, Oxford University Press, 1968)]
Aristophanes presents us here with a caricature of Socrates’ determination to compel his interlocutors to reveal their true nature in the course of his questioning (see e.g. the Apology, where Socrates exposes to view the nature of his accuser Meletus), the Euthydemus in which he exposes to view the sophists Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, the Gorgias, where he exposes to view the sophists Gorgias and his disciple Polus). Yet the varied forms that the Clouds assume at their wish tell us nothing about their ‘immortal form’. Their immortal form is illuminated by Socrates when he presents them as ‘the great goddesses to men of leisure (megalai theai andrasin argois); they give us thought and discourse and intellect (haiper gnȏmên kai dialexin kai noun hêmin parechousin, 316-317).’
The line ‘Shaking off the rainy cloud from immortal Form (athanatas ideas)’ is thus preserved only in the codex Ravennas. All the other codices present the line differently: ‘Shaking off the rainy cloud, by [means of] immortal Forms (athanatais ideais) let us see the earth with the far-seeing eye.’ (Athanatais ideais is in the instrumental dative, this is why I wrote ‘by [means of]’). This view of the immortal Forms appeared to have been conceived by Socrates in answer to Parmenides’ query concerning the relationship between the Forms and the things here on earth. For in his greatest objection against the Forms Parmenides argues that ‘if the Forms are such as we maintain they must be’, God would know only the Forms and nothing in our world, we would know only things in our world and not the Forms (134d9-e6). To this Socrates replied: ‘But this argument seems too astonishing, if someone deprives God of knowledge (Alla mê lian êi thaumastos ho logos, ei tis ton theon aposterêsei tou eidenai, 134e6-7) In the Clouds the divine Clouds perceive the things here on earth by means of the immortal Forms.
Aristophanes revised the Clouds, and our text is composed of both versions (see Dover on ‘The two versions of the play’, op. cit. p. lxxx). I suggest that both the cod. Ravenna’s version and the version of the other codices are authentic, belonging to different versions of the play.
There is a passage in Plato’s Republic that appears to refer to Clouds 340-355. Socrates says to Adeimantus: ‘Do you think that God is a magician (ara goêta ton theon oiei einai) and likely to appear by design now in one form, and now in another (kai hoion ex epiboulês phantazesthai allote en allais ideais) – sometimes undergoing change himself by transforming his form into many shapes (tote men auton gignomenon allattonta to hautou eidos eis pollas morphas), sometimes deceiving us (tote de hêmas apatȏnta) and making us think such things about himself (kai poiunta peri hautou toiauta dokein); or is he simple (ê haploun te einai), and most unlikely to step out of his Form (kai pantȏn hêkista tês heautou ideas ekbainein)?’– Adeimantus: ‘I can’t say without thinking about it (Ouk echȏ nun ge houtȏs eipein.’ – Socrates: ‘And what about this (Ti de tode)? Is it not necessary (ouk anankê), that if anything were to step out of its form (eiper ti existaito tês hautou ideas), it would have to transform itself by itself (ê auto huph’ heautou methistasthai) or be transformed by something else (ê hup’ allou)?‘ – Adeimantus: ‘Necessarily (Anankê)’. – Socrates: ‘The things that are at their best, do they not get least altered or discomposed by something else (Oukoun hupo men allou ta arista echonta hêkista alloioutai te kai kineitai)? Thus a body by food and drink and toil (hoion sȏma hupo sitiȏn te kai potȏn kai ponȏn), and all plants (kai pan phuton) by sun-heat (hupo heilêseȏn), and winds (te kai anemȏn), and other such afflictions (kai tȏn toioutȏn pathêmatȏn), doesn’t the healthiest and strongest change the least (ou to hugiestaton kai ischurotaton hêkista alloioutai)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘How could it be otherwise (Pȏs d’ou)?’ – Socrates: ‘The bravest and wisest soul, wouldn’t an infliction from outside least derange and alter it (Psuchên de ou tên andreiotatên kai phronimȏtatên hêkist’ an ti exȏthen pathos taraxeien te kai alloiȏseien)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Yes (Nai)’ – Socrates: ‘And presumably even all composite things (Kai mên pou kai ta ge suntheta panta), furniture, houses, and garments (skeuê te kai oikodomêmata kai amphiesmata), on the same principle (kata ton auton logon), those that are well made (ta eu eirgasmena) and in good state (kai eu echonta) are least altered by time and other incidents (hupo chronou te kai tȏn allȏn pathêmatȏn hêkista alloioutai).’ – Adeimantus: ‘This is so (Esti dê tauta).’ – Socrates: ‘Then everything that is in a good state (Pan dê to kalȏs echon), be it by nature, by art, or by both (ê phusei ê technêi ê amphoterois), is changed the least by something else (elachistên metabolên hup’ allou endechetai). ’ – Adeimantus: ‘It seems so (Eoiken).’ – Socrates: ‘But God (Alla mên theos ge) and all that is God’s (kai ta tou theou) is in every way in the best state (pantêi arista echei).’ – Adeimantus: ‘How could it not to be so (Pȏs d’ ou)?’ – Socrates: ‘In this way then (Tautêi men dê) God would be least likely to get many forms (hêkista an pollas morphas ischoi ho theos).’ – Adeimantus: ‘Least likely (Hêkista dêta).’ – Socrates: ‘But would he change and alter himself by himself (All’ ara autos hauton metaballoi kai alloioi)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Clearly so, if he does change (Dêlon hoti, eiper alloioutai).’ – Socrates: ‘Does he then change himself for the better and fairer (Poteron oun epi to beltion te kai kallion metaballei heauton), or for the worse and more unsightly (ê epi to cheiron kai aischion heautou)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Necessarily for the worse (Anankê epi to cheiron), if he changes (eiper alloioutai), for we won’t suppose that God is deficient in beauty or excellence (ou gar pou endea phêsomen ton theon kallous ê arêtes einai).’ – Socrates: ‘You are right (Orthotata legeis). And if this is so (kai houtȏs echontos), do you think that anyone (dokei an tis soi) would willingly make oneself worse in any way (hekȏn hauton cheirȏ poiein hopêioun), either from among Gods or men (ê theȏn ê anthrȏpȏn)?’ – Adeimantus: ‘Impossible (Adunaton).’ – Socrates: ‘So it is impossible for God to wish to change himself (adunaton ara kai theȏi ethelein hauton alloioun), but as it seems (all’ hȏs eoike), being most beautiful and most accomplished (kallistos kai aristos ȏn), as far as possible (eis to dunaton) each of them always stays simply in his own form (hekastos autȏn menei aei haplȏs en têi hautou morphêi). (380d1-381c9)
The Clouds must have prompted Socrates to get engaged in discussions of this kind.