Dover in the ‘Introduction’ to his edition of The Clouds refers to ‘the experiment reported in 148 ff.’ as a particularly potent indication that Aristophanes’ Socrates has very little in common with the historical Socrates. So let me present the experiment as Aristophanes presents it in his comedy, in lines 144-153.
Disciple: ‘Recently, Socrates asked Chairephon (anȇret’ arti Chairephȏnta Sȏkratȇs, 144) how many of its own feet [i.e. of flea-feet] would a flea jump (psullan hoposous halloito tous hautȇs podas, 145); for having bitten Chairephon’s eyebrow (dakousa gar tou Chairephȏntos tȇn ophrun, 146) it jumped on Socrates’ head (epi tȇn kephalȇn tȇn Sȏkratous aphȇlato, 147).’ – Strepsiades: ‘How then did he measure it (pȏs dȇta diemetrȇse)?’ – Disc. ‘Most cleverly (dexiȏtata, 148). Having melted wax, then taking the flea (kȇron diatȇxas, eita tȇn psullan labȏn, 149) he dipped in the wax its feet (enebapsen es ton kȇron autȇs tȏ pode, 150) and when she then cooled down, Persian shoes were grown around its feet (kaita psucheisȇi periephusan Persikai, 151). Having taken them off, he measured the space (tautas apolusas anemetrei to chȏrion, 152).’ – Str.: ‘By the Heaven’s King, what a subtlety of thought (ȏ Zeu basileu tȇs leptotȇtos tȏn phrenȏn, 153).’
Dover reflects: ‘We have very little evidence for experimentation in fifth-century science, but it should not be underrated … This is a case where it is appropriate to remind ourselves that comic caricature must be caricature of something, and when we recall the scale of artistic experiment which characterized the fifth century it seems prudent to accept the implications of 148 ff., including the fact that Strepsiades says, on hearing that Socrates had asked Chairephon how far a flea jumped, not “And did Chairephon know?” But “How then did he measure it?” – not, perhaps, the question which a real Strepsiades would have asked, but revealing in its implication. There was probably much more scientific experiment in the fifth century than a cursory acquaintance with the fragments of the Presocratics might suggest.’ (Dover, xl)
Dover appears to have missed the passage in Xenophon’s Symposium in which ‘the flea jump measured in flea-feet’ figures as part of a Syracusan’s attempt to discomfort Socrates. Callias invited the Syracusan to entertain his guests at the banquet, but the company appeared to have no time for him, for the symposiasts amused themselves under the guidance of Socrates: ‘The Syracusan, seeing that with such conversation going on the banqueters were paying no attention to his show, but were enjoying one another’s company, said spitefully to Socrates, “Socrates, are you the one nick-named the ‘Thinker’ (Ara su, ȏ Sȏkrates, ho phrontistȇs epikaloumenos)?” – Socrates: “Well, isn’t that preferable to being called the ‘Thoughtless’?” – Syracusan: “Yes, if it were not that you are supposed to be a thinker on celestial subjects (Ei mȇ ge edokeis tȏn meteȏrȏn phrontistȇs einai).” – Socrates: “Do you know anything more celestial than the gods (Oistha oun meteȏroteron ti tȏn theȏn)?” – Syr.: “No; but that is not what people say you are concerned with, but rather with the most unbeneficial things (All ou ma Di’ ou toutȏn se legousin epimeleisthai, alla tȏn anȏphelestatȏn).” – Soc.: “Even in that case (Oukoun kai houtȏs an), it would still be the gods that are my concern (theȏn epimeloiȇn); for raining from above (anȏthen men ge huontes) they are beneficial (ȏphelousin), and from above (anȏthen de) they give light (phȏs parechousin). If the pun is strained (ei de psuchra legȏ), you are to blame (su aitios) for giving me trouble (pragmata moi parechȏn).” – Syr.: “Well, let that pass (Tauta men ea). But tell me (all’ eipe moi) the distance between us in flea’s feet (posous psullȇs podas emou apecheis); for people say that your geometry includes such measurements as that (tauta gar se phasi geȏmetrein).”’ (VI. 6-8)
[With the exception of the ‘pun’, the translation is O. J. Todd’s. Todd in his translation attempted ‘to reproduce Socrates’ bad logic and worse pun’; in my view it did not work, and I am not sure he understood the pun. Socrates takes the Syracusan anȏphelestatȏn ‘most unbeneficial’ as anȏ ȏphelestatȏn ‘above – most beneficial’. Socrates pointed to rain and light as ta meteȏra, which come from above, are most beneficial, and can be viewed as given by gods, to deflect the Syracusan’s attempt to paint him as an atheist.]
When we realize that the anecdote about the flea-jump measured in flea-feet refers to the historical Socrates, Dover’s attempt to view it as ‘evidence for experimentation in fifth-century science’ becomes untenable. It is a thought experiment that reflects on Protagoras’ dictum ‘man is the measure of all things’ (pantȏn chrȇmatȏn metron anthrȏpon einai). If we measure in thought the flea-jump in flea-feet, the flea fills us with wonder.
In The Theaetetus, when after a few puzzling problems highlighted by Socrates Theaetetus avers ‘it’s quite extraordinary what wonder I feel (huperphuȏs hȏs thaumazȏ)’, Socrates is delighted: ‘The feeling of wonder is very characteristic of a philosopher (mala gar philosophou touto to pathos, to thaumazein); philosophy has no other starting-point (ou gar allȇ archȇ philosophias ȇ hautȇ), and the man who said Iris was the daughter of Thaumas (ho tȇn Irin Thaumantos ekgonon phȇsas) seems to have been doing his genealogy not at all badly.’ (155c-d, tr. John McDowell)
In The Clouds (Nephelai), after hearing the introductory anecdote about the flea-jump measured in flea-feet, Strepsiades is filled with admiration – not of the flea, but of Socrates and Chairephon: ‘By the Heaven’s King, what a subtlety of thought.’ But it is only after the story of Socrates ‘snatching the cloak from the wrestling-school’, which points to Socrates’ capacity to strip his interlocutors and view them as they are ‘naked’ (for this see the preceding post on my blog), that Strepsiades gives proper verbal expression to his wonder: ‘‘Why do we then admire that Thales? (ti dȇth’ ekeinon ton Thalȇ thaumazomen).
Viewing Iris as the daughter of Thaumas, Socrates identified Iris with philosophy. (Iris is a deified rainbow, it connects the heaven and earth, it is the messenger of gods. In The Cratylus Socrates connects her with eirein ‘to speak’, ‘for she is a messenger’, 408b4-5). Aristophanes appears to have been well acquainted with this. In his Birds (staged in 414 B.C., eleven years after the staging of Nephelai, The Clouds) ‘all people were imitating Socrates’ (hapantes anthrȏpoi tote esȏkratoun, 1281-2); to escape, two Athenians built a city of birds; since it was all ‘built out of clouds (ek tȏn nephelȏn) and of regions high above (kai tȏn meteȏrȏn chȏriȏn), all airified (chaunon ti panu), they called it City-in-the-Clouds (Nephelokokkugian, 817-19). Iris was passing through Nephelokokkugia; asked through which gates she entered the city, she replied: ‘I don’t know, by Zeus (ouk oida ma Di’ egȏge), through which gates (kata poias pulas, 1210).’ – Pisthetairos (one of the two founders of the city): ‘Have you heard her (ȇkousas autȇs), how ironical she is (hoion eirȏneuetai)?’ – Aristophanes appears to have been well aware of Socrates’ not-knowing, and of its connection to irony.
Socrates’ altercation with the entertainer from Syracuse in Xenophon’s Symposium takes us to Plato’s Apology: ‘And first, I have to reply to the older charges and to my first accusers … telling of one Socrates, a wise man (hȏs estin tis Sȏkratȇs sophos anȇr), who speculated about the heavens above (ta te meteȏra phrontistȇs) … what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes.’ (18a, 18b, 19c; tr. Jowett) And it takes us to Aristophanes’ Clouds where Strepsiades encounters Socrates hanging in the air: ‘Tell me first, I beg you, what are you doing (prȏton men ho ti drais antibolȏ kateipe moi)?’ – Socrates: ‘I walk in the air and think about the Sun (aerobatȏ kai periphronȏ ton hȇlion) … I would never (ou gar an pote) have rightly discovered (exȇuron orthȏs) the celestial matters (ta meteȏra pragmata) (224-226) had I not hung up (ei mȇ kremasas) my thought (to noȇma) and intermixed my subtle intellect (kai tȇn phrontida leptȇn katameixas) in the similar air (es ton homoion aera).’ (224-230)
Socrates’ explanation given to Strepsiades in The Clouds appears to reflect on his thinking concerning celestial matters represented by Plato in The Cratylus: ‘The name of Zeus is really like a sentence, which is divided into two parts, for some call him Zena, and use the one half, and others who use the other half call him Dia; the two together signify the nature of the God, and the business of a name, as we were saying, is to express the nature. For there is none who is more author of life to us and to all, than the king and the lord of all. Wherefore we are right in calling him Zena and Dia, which are one name, although divided, meaning the God through whom all creatures always have life (di’ hon zȇn aei pasi tois zȏsin huparchei). There is an irreverence, at first sight, in calling him son of Cronos (who is a proverb for stupidity), and we might rather expect Zeus to be the child of a mighty intellect. Which is the fact; for this is the meaning of his father’s name: Kronos quasi Koros (koreȏ to sweep), not in the sense of a youth, but signifying to katharon kai akȇraton tou nou, the pure and inviolate mind (sc. apo tou korein). He, as we are informed by tradition, was begotten by Uranus, rightly so called (apo tou horan anȏ) from looking upwards; which, as philosophers tell us, is the way to have a pure mind, and the name Uranus is therefore correct.’ (396a1-c3, tr. Jowett.)
Jowett wrestles manfully and well with this difficult passage, but his translation of the last sentence obfuscates its relevance to our understanding of Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates. For Jowett’s ‘philosophers’ stands for Socrates’ meteȏrologoi. So let me try: ‘And the looking upwards (hȇ de au es to anȏ opsis) is beautifully named “heavenly” (kalȏs echei touto to onoma kaleisthai ‘ourania’), viewing the things on high (horȏsa ta anȏ), from where (hothen dȇ), say the experts in things on high, the pure intellect is derived (kai phasin ton katharon noun paragignesthai hoi meteȏrologoi).
Socrates’ thinking about gods and celestial matters in The Cratylus are related to Socrates’ musing about the charge raised against him by Meletus in Plato’s Euthyphro. Euthyphro, an expert in religious matters, is about to accuse his father of manslaughter; he is convinced that in doing so he simply follows prominent divine examples: ‘For do not men acknowledge Zeus as the best and most righteous of gods? – and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus) for a similar reason, in a nameless manner.’ – Socrates: ‘May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I am charged with impiety – that I cannot away with these stories about the gods? That, I suppose is where people think I go wrong.’ (Pl. Euthyphro 5e5-6a9, tr. Jowett; Jowett’s ‘he too had punished his own father (Uranus) in a nameless manner’ stands for Eutyphro’s k’akeinon ge au ton hautou patera ektemein di hetera toiauta, i.e. ‘and he too for similar reasons castrated his father’.) In the end Socrates with his questioning, rooted in his philosophic not-knowing, succeeded in undermining Euthyphro’s self-assurance; instead of entering the King’s office to press the charges against his father, Euthyphro hastened away, promissing to meet Socrates again to discuss these matters (15e). (Diogenes Laertius says in his ‘Life of Socrates’: ‘When Euthyphro had indicted his father for manslaughter, Socrates, after some conversation with him on piety, diverted him from his purpose’ (II. 29).) Enthused by his discussion with Euthyphro – ‘for from the early morning I was long with him and gave him my ear (heȏthen gar polla autȏi sunȇ kai pareichon ta ȏta, 396d5-6) – Socrates in The Cratylus embarked on his contemplation of the names of Zeus, Cronos, and Uranus.