Socrates asks Strepsiades: ‘Well then, will you cease recognizing any god except those we worship (allo ti dȇt’ oun nomieis ȇdȇ theon oudena plȇn haper hȇmeis, 423), ‘the Chaos here, the Clouds, and the tongue, these three (to Chaos touti [on the margin of my Oxford text I wrote on touti: ‘Socrates points to the surrounding air’, probably Starkie’s note], kai tas Nephelas, kai tȇn glȏttan, tria tauti, 424)?’ – Strepsiades: ‘I would not even talk to the others at all, even if I met them (oud’ an dialechtheiȇn g’ atechnȏs tois allois oud’ an apantȏn, 425), I would make them no burning sacrifices, no drink-offerings, I would not bring on any frankincense (oud’ an thusaim’, oud an speisaim’ oud’ epitheiȇn libanȏton, 426).’– The Chorus of the Clouds: ‘Tell us now what we are to do for you, be brave, for you won’t fail to get it (lege nun hȇmin ho ti soi drȏmen tharrȏn, hȏs ouk atuchȇseis, 427), for you honour us, and admire us, and desire to become skilled and clever (hȇmas timȏn kai thaumazȏn kai zȇtȏn dexios einai, 428 [‘skilled and clever’ stands for dexios: ‘on the right hand or side’, ‘dexterous’]).’ – Strepsiades: ‘O mistresses, what I want from you is this very small thing (ȏ despoinai deomai toinun humȏn touti panu micron, 429), to beat all the Greeks in speaking, to be the best of them by a hundred stades [stadion [a race-course’] (tȏn Hellȇnȏn einai me legein hekaton stadioisin ariston, 430). – Chorus: ‘But you will get this from us, so that from now on (all’ estai soi touto par’ hȇmȏn, hȏste to loipon g’ apo toudi, 431) in the people’s assembly nobody will win more motions than you (en tȏi dȇmȏi gnȏmas oudeis nikȇsei pleionas ȇ su, 432).’
Is there anything in Xenophon and/or Plato that might justify the confidence of the Clouds that Socrates, their devotee, could turn talented men into excellent, politically effective orators?
Xenophon says that Critias and Alcibiades ‘were eager to control everything (boulomenȏ te panta di heautȏn prattesthai) and outstrip every rival in notoriety (kai pantȏn onomatostatȏ genesthai). They knew that Socrates (ȇidesan de Sȏkratȇ) … in argument could do whatever he liked with any disputant (tois de dialegomenois autȏi pasi chrȏmenon en tois logois hopȏs bouloito) … is it to be supposed that these two men (poteron tis autȏ phȇi) wanted to adopt the simple life of Socrates (tou biou tou Sȏkratous epithumȇsante kai tȇs sȏphrosunȇs hȇn ekeinos eichen), and with this object in view sought his society (orexasthai tȇs homilias autou)? Did they not rather think (ȇ nomisante) that associating with him (ei homilȇsaitȇn ekeinȏi) they would attain the utmost proficiency (genesthai an hikanȏtatȏ) in speech (legein te) and action (kai prattein)? … Their conduct betrayed their purpose (dȇlȏ d’ egenesthȇn ex hȏn epraxatȇn); for as soon as (hȏs gar tachista) they thought themselves superior to their fellow-disciples (kreittone tȏn sungignomenȏn hȇgȇsasthȇn einai) they sprang away from Socrates (euthus apopȇdȇsante Sȏkratous) and took to politics (eprattetȇn ta politika); it was for political ends that they had wanted Socrates (hȏnper heneka tou Sȏkratous ȏrechthȇtȇn).’ (Memorabilia I. ii. 14-16, tr. Marchant)
In the Protagoras Plato displays Socrates’ rhetorical skills in a discussion on virtue in which is involved Protagoras, arguably the greatest sophist of all times, and marginally other great sophists of those days, Prodicus and Hippias, as well as Alcibiades and Critias. When I speak of Socrates’ rhetorical skills, I speak of rhetoric in the sense Socrates understood it as ‘the art of influencing of the mind by means of words (psuchagȏgia tis dia logȏn), not only in courts of law (ou monon en dikastȇriois) and other public gatherings (kai hosoi alloi dȇmosioi sullogoi), but in private places also (alla kai en tois idiois)’. (Plato, Phaedrus 261a7-9, tr. Hackforth) The essential part of this art was the ability to make the same thing appear to the same people now just, now unjust, now good, now the reverse of good, now having this property, now the opposite property, at will. In the Protagoras Socrates began by contending that virtue could not be taught and ended by contending that virtue is knowledge, and that it therefore can be taught.
The discussion on knowledge Socrates opens as follows: ‘Come now (Ithi dȇ moi), Protagoras (ȏ Prȏtagora), uncover me this part of your mind as well (kai tode tȇs dianoias apokalupson}; how do you stand as regards knowledge (pȏs echeis pros epistȇmȇn)? … do you think that it is something fine (ȇ kalon ti einai hȇ epistȇmȇ) which can rule a man (kai hoion archein tou anthrȏpou), and that if someone knows (kai eanper gignȏskȇi tis) what is good and bad (t’agatha kai ta kaka), he would never be conquered (mȇ an kratȇthȇnai) by anything (hupo mȇdenos) so as to do other (hȏste all’ atta prattein) than what knowledge bids him (ȇ h’an epistȇmȇ keleuȇi)? In fact, that intelligence is a sufficient safeguard (all’ hikanȇn einai tȇn phronȇsin boȇthein) for a man (tȏi anthrȏpȏi)?’ – Protagoras: ‘My opinion is (Kai dokei) indeed as you say (hȏsper su legeis), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates), and moreover (kai hama) it would be an especial disgrace to me above all men (eiper tȏi allȏi, aischron esti kai emoi) not to maintain that wisdom and knowledge is the mightiest of human things (sophian kai epistȇmȇn mȇ ouchi pantȏn kratiston phanai einai tȏn anthrȏpinȏn pragmatȏn).’(352a8-d3, tr. C. C. W. Taylor).
By accepting Socrates’ view of knowledge Protagoras made it possible for Socrates to prove to him that not only ‘wisdom’ (sophia), ‘soundness of mind’ (sȏphrosunȇ), ‘justice’ (dikaiosunȇ), and ‘holiness’ (hosiotȇs) are four different names for one and the same thing (epi heni pragmati, 349b3), but that courage as well is identical with wisdom and knowledge, so that virtue (aretȇ) is one: ‘Wisdom (hȇ sophia ara) about what is to be feared (tȏn deinȏn) and what isn’t (kai mȇ deinȏn) is courage (andreia estin), since it is the opposite (enantia ousa) of error about that (tȇi toutȏn amathiai, 360d4-5, tr. Taylor).’ It is undoubtedly this Socratic concept of virtue that fascinated not only Alcibiades and Critias, but Theramenes, Charmides, Charicles and other members of the Thirty. When Lysias says in Against Eratosthenes that ‘when the Thirty (epeidȇ de hoi triakonta) were established in the government (eis tȇn archȇn katestȇsan), declaring (phaskontes) that the city must be purged of the unjust men (chrȇnai tȏn adikȏn katharan poiȇsai tȇn polin) and the rest of citizens (kai tous loipous politas) inclined to virtue and justice (ep’ aretȇn kai dikaiosunȇn trapesthai, XII. 5),’ it was the Socratic ideal of virtue they intended to promote. That’s why Plato expected that they ‘would administer the State by leading it out of an unjust way of life into a just way (ek tinos adikou biou epi dikaion tropon agontas dioikȇsein tȇn polin, Plato, Seventh Letter, 324d4-5, tr. Bury)’. But as Plato says in the Seventh Letter, all went badly wrong, and the Thirty ‘within a short time (en chronȏi oligȏi) caused men to look back on the former government as a golden age (chruson apodeixantas tȇn emprosthen politeian, 324d7-8)’. – This was a danger inherent in the Socratic project of turning his fellow-citizens to virtue, and Aristophanes appears to have detected it very early.
The promise of the Clouds, announced in solemn anapests, to make Strepsiades the best orator among the Greeks should have resulted in a burst of laughter. For the promise was made against the background of the opening scene – in which the audience saw Strepsiades turning and tossing in his bed, oppressed by his mounting debts, dreading the approaching day when the repayments were due, thinking up the scheme of sending his son to the ‘thinkery of wise souls’ even the names of whom he did not know, then going there himself when his son refused to do so – and the intervening scenes in which the only interest of Strepsiades was to avoid paying his debts. The actor playing Strepsiades presumably paused, expecting the laughter to come, before correcting the wrong impression the Clouds got about him: ‘Proposing great motions is not the thing for me, this is not what I wish (mȇ moi ge legein gnȏmas megalas, ou gar toutȏn epithumȏ, 433), but to twist the court-judgments for the sake of me and give my creditors the slip (all’ hos’ emautȏi strepsodikȇsai kai tous chrȇstas diolisthein, 434).
If the expected laughter came, it presumably was not as strong as Aristophanes hoped for; he seems to have overestimated the capacity of the Athenians to appreciate the humorous side of Socrates with his head in the Clouds. In the parabasis [‘In ancient Greek comedy, a part sung by the chorus, addressed to the audience in the poet’s name, and unconnected with the action of the drama’ SOED.] to the second edition of the Clouds Aristophanes bitterly complains that the audience allowed his comedy to be beaten by vulgar competitors (hup’ andrȏn phortikȏn, 524): ‘Especially when in it, compared to my other comedies, is the greatest wisdom (kai tautȇn sophȏtat’ echein tȏn emȏn kȏmȏidiȏn, 522) … this then I hold against you (taut’ oun humin memphomai, 525), the wise ones (tois sophois, 526).
[In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates introduces the view that the virtue cannot be taught with the words: ‘I say, as do the rest of the Greeks, that the Athenians are wise (egȏ gar Athȇnaious, hȏsper hoi alloi Hellȇnes, phȇmi sophous einai).’]