In the post I put yesterday on my blog I argued that Socrates’ distancing himself in the Apology from ‘a Socrates’ (Sȏkratȇ tina) whom the Athenians saw in the comedy of Aristophanes should not prevent us from enjoying his caricature in The Clouds. More can be said about the points I made there.
In The Clouds 193-4 a would be disciple of Socrates, Strepsiades, asks, pointing at Socrates’ disciples he can see at the forecourt of Socrates’ ‘Thinkery’: ‘But why is their anus looking into the heaven?’ The disciple accompanying him replies: ‘It itself on itself (autos kath’ hauton) learns to do astronomy (astronomein didasketai).’ Yesterday I observed: ‘Note the phrase autos kath’ hauton; Aristophanes appears to make fun of the expression with which Socrates in Plato’s dialogues characterizes the Forms. See e.g. Plato’s Symposium where Diotima introduces the young Socrates to the notion of the Beauty auto kath’ hauto ‘itself in itself’ (211b1).’
Most of the past year I was preoccupied with arguing that Plato’s insistence on the historicity of the discussion between a very young Socrates, Zeno, and a very old Parmenides, which he enacted in his Parmenides, ought to be taken seriously. (See ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’ on my website.)
In the dialogue, Socrates asks Zeno: ‘Do you not acknowledge that there exists (ou nomizeis einai) itself in itself (auto kath’ hauto) some Form of similarity (eidos ti homoiotȇtos)?’ (128e6-129a1) With this question the young Socrates introduces his theory of Forms in the Parmenides; Parmenides subjects it to criticism, yet insists that if anyone rejects the Forms, ‘not allowing the Form of each thing to be always the same’ (mȇ eȏn idean tȏn ontȏn hekastou tȇn autȇn aei einai), ‘he will thus utterly destroy the power of philosophic discussion’ (houtȏs tȇn tou dialegesthai dunamin pantapasi diaphtherei, 135c2-3).
In The Clouds Socrates’ Deity, the Clouds, which form the Chorus, enter the stage with the words: ‘Shaking off the rainy cloud (aposeisamenai nephos ombrion) from immortal Form (athanatas ideas), let us view (epidȏmetha) the earth with a far-reaching eye (tȇleskopȏi ommati gaian). (286-290).’
What can the ‘immortal Form’ of the Deity possibly be? The Clouds enter the scene as ‘maidens carrying rain’ (parthenoi ombrophoroi, 299). Strepsiades asks: ‘What happened to them (ti pathousai), if they are truly clouds (eiper nephelai g’ eisin alȇthȏs), that they look like mortal women (thnȇtais eiksasi gunaixin, 340-1)?’ Socrates answers: ‘They become everything they want to’ (gignontai panth’ hoti bulontai, 349). Thus on seeing a man who is stealing from public property: ‘showing his nature (apophainousai tȇn phusin autou), they suddenly became wolves (lukoi exaiphnȇs egenonto, 351-2). ‘Yesterday they saw Cleonymus, the greatest coward who threw away his shield; because of it they became deer’ (elaphoi dia tout’ egenonto, 353-4). – Dover explains in his edition of The Clouds: ‘elaphoi: Proverbislly timid’ – ‘And now (kai nun g’), since they have seen Cleisthenes (hoti Kleisthenȇ eidon), you can see (horais), because of it they became women (dia tout’ egenonto gunaikes, 355).’ – Dover explains: ‘Kleisthenȇ: The stock effeminate of the Old Comedy.’
Obviously, the female form in which the Chorus enters the stage is not the ‘immortal Form’ of the deity. To get a notion of it, we must look at what Socrates says about them: ‘They are the great goddesses (megalai theai) to men of leisure (andrasin argois); they (haiper) give as (hȇmin parechousin) thought (gnȏmȇn), discussion (dialexin), and intellect (kai noun, 316-17)’.
I see Socrates’ view of ‘discussion’ dialexin as a divine gift as particularly important. Firstly, because Parmenides insisted that whoever denies the existence of Forms utterly destroys ‘the power of discussion’ (tȇn tou dialegesthai dunamin); secondly, because Socrates in Phaedrus – which, in harmony with the ancient biographic tradition I view as Plato’s first dialogue, written while Socrates was still alive (see The Lost Plato on my website) – says that all souls that enter the human body must have seen the Forms before entering it, ‘for man must understand (dei gar anthrȏpon sunienai) that which is spoken according to Form (kat’ eidos legomenon), as it comes from many sensations (ek pollȏn ion aisthȇseȏn) gathered together into one by reason (eis hen logismȏi sunairoumenon, 249b’.
This second point gains on importance if we consider the version of the words of the Clouds preserved by all the codices with the exception of the codex Ravennas: athanatais ideais epidȏmetha tȇleskopȏi ommati gaian, which means ‘let us see the earth by means of immortal Forms with the far-reaching eye’. The human souls in the Phaedrus can use speech and understand what is spoken only because of their transcendental memory, that is memory they acquired by directly seeing the Forms prior to entering the human Form, memory that is operative in every speech act. According to this version of the Chorus’ words, Socrates’ Deity views the things on earth directly by means of the immortal Forms.
Aristophanes wrote two versions of The Clouds, and the text we have is a combination of the two. I believe that both versions of the lines 286-290, the Ravennas’ version and the version preserved by the other codices, are authentic, each belonging to a different version of the play. For each version of those lines highlights different aspects of Socrates’ Forms. (See ‘Introduction’ Ch. IX. ‘The two versions of the play’, in Dover’s edition of The Clouds, Oxford University Press 1968.)