When Bertrand Russell wrote the History of Western Philosophy, he could still write that Socrates ‘was unquestionably a well-known figure in Athens, since Aristophanes caricatured him in The Clouds.’ (p. 89) This changed with Popper, who in The Open Society and its Enemies promoted the principle that ‘Plato’s evidence is the only first-rate evidence available to us’: ‘Burnet has applied this principle to Xenophon; but we must apply it also to Aristophanes, whose evidence was rejected by Socrates himself, in the Apology’. Popper goes on to say: ‘The Socrates of the Apology very impressively repeats three times (18b-c; 19c-d; 23d) that he is not interested in natural philosophy.’ Reflecting on the use made by Burnet and Taylor [Taylor was the only important disciple and adherent of Burnet] of Aristophanes’ evidence, Popper says: ‘They hold that Aristophanes’ jests would be pointless if Socrates had not been a natural philosopher. But it so happens that Socrates (I always assume, with Burnet and Taylor, that the Apology is historical) foresaw this very argument. In his apology, he warned his judges against this very interpretation of Aristophanes, insisting most earnestly that he had neither little nor much to do with natural philosophy, but simply nothing at all. Socrates felt as if he were fighting against shadows in this matter, against the shadows of the past; but we can now say that he was also fighting the shadows of the future.’ (Op. cit. n. 56 on Chapter 10, pp. 307-8)
Socrates says in the Apology that he has no part in ‘knowledge’ which the natural philosophers claim to possess. Distancing himself from the caricature of ‘a Socrates’ (Sȏkratȇ tina), whom the Athenians saw in the comedy of Aristophanes (en tȇi Aristophanous kȏmȏidiai) ‘carried there around (ekei peripheromenon) and saying that he walks on air (phaskonta te aerobatein), and talking a lot of other nonsense (kai allȇn pollȇn phluarian pluarounta), about things of which I do not know either much or little (hȏn egȏ ouden oute mega oute mikron peri epaiȏ)’, Socrates insists: ‘not that I mean to speak disparagingly of this kind of knowledge (kai ouch hȏs atimazȏn legȏ tȇn toiautȇn epistȇmȇn), if someone has wisdom concerning such things (ei tis peri tȏn toioutȏn sophos estin) … But I have no part in these things (alla gar emoi toutȏn ouden metestin).’ (19c2-8).
With this in mind, let us look at The Clouds. Strepsiades, the ‘Twister’, as his name says, enters the courtyard in front of Socrates’ ‘Thinkery’ (phrontistȇrion). He points at men he can see there looking in the earth and asks why they are doing it (ti pot’ es tȇn gȇn blepousi houtoii). The disciple of Socrates, who let Strepsiades in, answers: ‘They search into the things down under the earth’ (zȇtousi houtoi ta kata gȇs). – Str.: ‘And what are doing these men, bending right down?’ – Disc.: ‘They gape about in Erebos under the Tartaros.’ – Str. ‘But why their anus is looking into the heaven? (ti dȇth’ ho prȏktos es ton ouranon blepei)’ (Dover notes on line 193 in his edition of The Clouds: 'prȏktos is "anus", not "buttocks", and the superficial resemblance between anus and eye makes blepei ['looks'] more vivid.') – Disc. ‘It itself on itself learns to do astronomy (autos kath’ hauton astronomein didasketai).’ (Ar. Cl. 187-194) – 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). – After thus being forcefully reminded of Socrates, the disciple turns to his fellow disciples who are engaged in the study of natural philosophy: ‘But get in that you are not caught by Him (all’ eisith’, hina mȇ ‘keinos humin epituchȇi, 195)!’ – Obviously, studying natural philosophy, the disciples were doing something Socrates did not approve of.
Xenophon may help us to understand this point, where he says that Socrates recommended his followers ‘to make themselves familiar with astronomy, but only so far as to be able to find the time of night, month and year, in order to use reliable evidence when planning a journey by land or sea, or setting the watch, and in all other affairs that are done in the night or month or year, by distinguishing the times and seasons aforesaid. This knowledge, again, was easily to be had from night hunters and pilots and others who made it their business to know such things. But he strongly deprecated studying astronomy so far as to include the knowledge of bodies revolving in different courses, and of planets and comets, and wearing oneself out with the calculation of their distance from the earth, their periods of revolution and the causes of these. Of such researches, again he said that he could not see what useful purpose they served. He had indeed attended lectures on these subjects too; but these again, he said, were enough to occupy a lifetime to the complete exclusion of many useful studies.’ (Xen. Mem. IV. vii. 4-5)
Let me yet bring in the scene to which Socrates refers in the Apology: ‘a Socrates carried there around and saying that he walks on air’ (19c3). Strepsiades asks Socrates, who is hanging in a basket in the air, what he is doing. Socrates: ‘I walk in the air and think about the Sun (aerobatȏ kai periphronȏ ton hȇlion)’. – Str.: ‘So you look down upon the gods from the basket? (epeit’ apo tarrou tous theus huperphroneis)’ (224-226) Dover notes on periphronȏ in line 225: ‘Socrates means “think about”.’ On huperphroneis in line 226 Dover notes: ‘Strepsiades treats Socrates as physically above the divine beings who are the object of his study … huperphronein has something of the flavour of perioran, “regard as unimportant”, and huperphronein is always “be proud” or “despise”. The English “look down on” is a suitable translation here.’
Here we can see with what prescience Socrates in the Apology began by defending himself against the old charges raised against him: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer; a meddler who searches into things under the earth and in heaven,’ which the judges could see in Aristophanes’ comedy (Pl. Ap. 19b-c). His accuser Meletus acts in the Apology exactly like Strepsiades, the Twister, acted in The Clouds. When Meletus claims that Socrates is an atheist, the latter asks: ‘Why do you say these things (hina ti tauta legeis), Meletus? So, I believe that neither the sun nor moon are gods? (oude hȇlion uode selȇnȇn ara nomizȏ theous einai)’ – Meletus: ‘I assure you, judges, that he does not: for he says that the sun is stone (epei ton men hȇlion lithon phȇsin einai), and the moon earth (tȇn de selȇnȇn gȇn).’ – Socrates: ‘Do you think that you are accusing Anaxagoras (Anaxagorou oiei katȇgorein)?’ (26c-d)
Reading Apology 26c-d against the background of Socrates’ observations about the Sun in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, as he refutes Anaxagoras’ views about the Sun (for this see the last paragraph in my preceding post on ‘Socrates in Plato and Xenophon’), we can better appreciate the corresponding scene in Aristophanes’ comedy with Socrates’ ‘I think about the Sun’.