Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies argued that Aristophanes must be rejected as a source of evidence concerning the historical Socrates, since his ‘evidence was rejected by Socrates himself, in the Apology’. (Popper, op. cit. p. 307). K. J. Dover, one of the greatest classical scholars of the second half of the 20th century, ‘proved’ in the ‘Introduction’ and notes to his edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds that Aristophanes’ caricature has very little to do with the historical Socrates.
I owe much both to Dover’s detailed analysis of Aristophanes’ text and to his attempt to prove that ‘most of the elements in Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates can be identified either as general characteristics of the sophists or as conspicuous characteristics of some contemporary intellectuals’. (Dover, op. cit. p. xl.) For all Dover’s arguments are based on the text of Aristophanes, and his arguments can be refuted only by a deeper reflection on the text of Aristophanes and its relation to Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socrates.
According to Dover, Socrates and his disciples in The Clouds ‘rely for a living on stealing other people’s clothes (179, 497, 856 ff.)‘. (Dover, p. xxxiv) So let us take Dover’s first reference, line 179. To understand it, we must take it in a broader context. Socrates’ disciple tells Strepsiades – a newcomer who wants to become a disciple of Socrates – some anecdotes about his teacher. The ‘stealing’ Dover refers to is displayed in lines 175-184: Disciple: ‘Yesterday we had no supper.’ – Strepsiades: ‘Well, what did he manage to do about your food?’ – Disciple: ‘’He spread fine ashes on the table (kata tȇs trapezȇs katapasas leptȇn tephran), he bent a spit, then taking it as a compass (kampsas obeliskon eita diabȇtȇn labȏn), from the wrestling-school he snatched away the cloak’ (ek tȇs palaistras thoimation hupheileto). – Strepsiades: ‘Why do we then admire that Thales? (ti dȇth’ ekeinon ton Thalȇ thaumazomen) Open, open the Thinkery to me, go on (anoig’ anoig’ anusas to phrontistȇrion) and show me Socrates as quickly as possible (kai deixon hȏs tachista moi ton Sȏkratȇ), for I am eager to learn, but open the door! (mathȇtiȏ gar, all’ anoige tȇn thuran).’
Concerning line 177, Dover explains: ‘It is ash he sprinkles, for instead of dinner the students are to have a geometry lesson … The ancients often drew their diagrams … in the dust or sand on the ground, or, as here, on a table.’
On line 179 ek tȇs palaistras Dover notes: ‘It is tolerably clear that the purpose of stealing the himation [‘the cloak’] is to sell it and buy food. The point may be simply that Socrates’ high minded diversion of the students’ interest from their empty bellies to the abstraction of geometry did not last long, and he had recourse to the crudest remedy … The stealing of clothes and property from baths, wrestling-schools, and gymnasia was a well-known category of crime, severely punished. Socrates later in the play makes Strepsiades part with his clothes and the idea of Socrates as a surreptitious thief of vessels at a party appears in Eupolis fr. 361.’
There can be little doubt that Strepsiades took the story as a proof that Socrates with his ingenuity would help him get out of his debts without paying his creditors. When Socrates asks him at 486 whether a capacity to learn is in his nature (enesti dȇta manthanein en tȇi phusei), Strepsiades answers: ‘I am not good at speeches, but I can defraud’ (legein men ouk enest’, aposterein d’ eni, 487). But his ‘Why do we then admire that Thales?’ points in a very different direction as well. Aristophanes throughout the play expressed important insights into Socrates’ activities and the way of his thinking in a twisted way through Strepsiades; he chose his name accordingly.
Concerning the name of Strepsiades, Dover explains: ‘Aristophanes’ choice of name for his “hero” is determined by the desperate straits to which the old man is reduced by his heavy debts; he “tosses and turns” (36 strephei) at night, he wants to “twist” impending lawsuits to avoid paying these depts. (434 strepsodikȇsai).’ (xxv) What Dover missed was Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates “twisted” through the eyes and expectations of Steepsiades.
But what has Strepsiades’ reference to Thales, which indicates that the story intended to display Socrates’ excellence in geometry, to do with Socrates’ ‘snatching the cloak from the wrestling-school’? No doubt, the story has been misunderstood and viewed in the way Dover takes it, ever since The Clouds was staged. This is why Plato sheds light on it in The Theaetetus, which is staged in a gymnasium, at which Socrates stops on his way to the office of the King Archon to face the charges raised against him by Meletus, i. e. just a few weeks before Socrates’ trial and death. In the gymnasium Socrates meets Theodorus, an expert in geometry, and strips him naked. Theodorus complains: ‘It isn’t easy to avoid saying something when one’s sitting with you, Socrates. I was talking nonsense just now, when I claimed that you’d let me keep my clothes on and not make me take them off … you seem to me to act a part more like that of Antaeus [a famous robber]: you don’t let go of anyone who comes up to you until you’ve forced him to take his clothes off and wrestle with you in an argument.’ (169a-b, tr. McDowell) In the light of The Theaetetus alone, the connection between Socrates’ brilliance in geometry and his ‘snatching the cloak from the wrestling-school’ becomes obvious; Socrates showed the sophists assembled there that they were wanting in their learning.
The Theaetetus is not the only dialogue in which Plato’s Socrates deprives his interlocutors of their clothes. In The Charmides Chaerephon and others praise Charmides’ bodily beauty, but Socrates wants to see his soul; and so he must strip him in the process of his questioning him (154e). In The Alcibiades Socrates expresses his fear that Alcibiades is going to be corrupted by the people of Athens (mȇ diaphtharȇis hupo tou Athȇnaiȏn dȇmou); for the people of Athens show their beautiful face (euprosȏpos gar ho dȇmos), but one must see the people stripped (all’ apodunta chrȇ auton theasasthai, 132a). In The Protagoras Socrates exhorts Protagoras: ‘Come now, uncover me your chest and your back and let me see them … uncover for me this part of your mind as well; how do you stand as regards knowledge?’ (352a-b, tr. C. C. W. Taylor)
And as to Socrates’ expert knowledge in geometry? In The Theaetetus Socrates avows that he learns geometry from Theodorus and from others, whom he believes that they understand anything about it (145c-d). In The Meno Socrates explains his theory of Recollection to Meno by asking one of Meno’s slaves questions about the size of a square the area of which is double the size of the original square. He helps him to find the solution by drawing the square in the sand (82a-85c). In The Phaedo we learn from Cebes that Socrates used to demonstrate his theory of Recollection by taking people to geometrical diagrams, and by asking them questions concerning them (73a-b).
In Aristophanes’ Clouds the theme of ‘stripping the cloak’ is a unifying theme throughout the play. Strepsiades must take off his cloak as he enters Socrates’ school, ‘for only the naked may enter’ (gumnous eisienai nomizetai, 498). Unteachable, Strepsiades leaves the school and tells his son: ‘I straightway forgot everything that was taught to me.’ His son Pheidippides asks: ‘Then, that’s the reason you’ve lost your cloak?’ – Strepsiades: ‘I’ve not lost it, but I’ve thought it away (all’ ouk apolȏlek’, alla katapephrontika, 856-7).’ I’ve thought it away’ – katapephrontika – renders the meaning of the Socratic stripping. (Incidentally, this is the place to which Dover refers in his third and last instance to show that Aristophanes’ Socrates ‘relied for his living on stealing other people’s clothes’; the second instance was Socrates’ insistence on Strepsiades’ stripping his cloak as he entered the school (498).) Strepsiades knew only too well what Socrates’ ‘stripping’ of his cloak was all about, and, for the moment, he appeared reconciled to having been ‘stripped’ by Socrates. But at the end of the comedy Aristophanes shows that stripping was what hurt Strepsiades most. Setting Socrates’ Thinkery on fire, he proclaims himself to be the one ‘whose cloak you took away’ (ekeinos houper thoimation eilȇphate, 1498).
Let me reflect on the problem Dover noted concerning ‘the wrestling-school’ and ‘the cloak’ (thoimation, i.e. to himation). In his note on line 179 Dover says: ‘The real problem lies in the definite articles: “the wrestling-school” (there were many at Athens) and “the himation” … The Platonic Socrates frequented wrestling-schools, but they belong to a way of life alien to that of the Aristophanic Socrates … Possibly “he stole his himation from the wrestling-school” was a colloquial expression meaning “he’s not to be trusted” or “he hasn’t a penny to his name”, and the joke lies in the incorporation of such an expression in an actual narrative. Another possibility is a malicious story already told against Socrates and known to Aristophanes.’
If we reflect on the importance of ‘stripping’ of Socrates’ interlocutors in the wrestling-schools of Athens in Plato’s dialogues, especially in The Theaetetus, and on the central role the ‘snatching’ of ‘the cloak’ from the wrestling-school and on ‘stripping’ Strepsiades of his cloak plays in The Clouds, the definite article used in these two interrelated cases shows that Socrates’ stripping his interlocutors became notorious in Athens.
In support of his claim that Aristophanes’ Socrates relied for a living on stealing, Dover refers to fragment 361 of Eupolis, where ‘Socrates steals an oenochoe at a party’. Dover maintains that this ‘simply suggests that the presentation of Socrates in comedy was internally consistent’ (xlvii).
I agree with Dover that the fragment of Eupolis says something important about the way Socrates was presented in comedy. Oenochoe was ‘a vessel for taking wine from the mixing-bowl and pouring it into the cups’ (Liddell & Scott). Xenophon tells a story in his Symposium that may shed light on Eupolis fr. 361. A jester at the banquet performed his clownish dance and said: ‘Here is a proof that my style of dancing, also, gives excellent exercise; it has certainly given me a thirst; so let the servant fill me up the big goblet.’ – ‘Certainly,’ replied Callias; ‘and the same for us, for we are thirsty.’ –Socrates interposed: ‘Well, gentlemen, so far as drinking is concerned, you have my hearty approval; for wine does of truth “moisten the soul” and lull our griefs to sleep just as the mandragora does with men, at the same time awakening kindly feelings as oil quickens a flame. However, I suspect that men’s bodies fare the same as those of plants that grow in the ground. When God gives the plants water in floods to drink, they cannot stand up straight or let the breezes blow through them; but when they drink only as much as they enjoy, they grow up very straight and tall and come to full and abundant fruitage. So it is with us. If we pour ourselves immense draughts, it will be no long time before both our bodies and our minds reel, and we shall not be able even to draw breath, much less to speak sensibly; but if the servants frequently “besprinkle” us with small cups, we shall thus not be driven on by the wine to a state of intoxication, but instead shall be brought by its gentle persuasion to a more sportive mood.’ (II. 23-26, tr. O. J. Todd)
Eupolis’ ‘Socrates steals oenochoe at a party’ could be taken as a comic portrayal of Socrates at the symposium given by Callias in 421 B. C. (that is two years after the staging of Aristophanes’ Clouds) in honour of his beloved Autolycus’ victory in the pancratium; instead of pouring the wine into the guests’ cups with oenochoe, the servants had to use small cups for doing so. The fragment of Eupolis can be taken as a confirmation of the historicity of Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates in his Symposium, while Xenophon’s Symposium helps us understand Eupolis’ comic presentation of Socrates.