Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Aristophanes' "The Clouds" (drama, satire, free): Outarguing the creditors

An illustration of the drama titled The Clouds by Aristophanes, from a 16th century engraving. Picture shows Strepsiades, his son Phidippides, and SocratesWhile following an online discussion of Arthur Clarke's "A Slight Case of Sunstroke" (that features a variation of Archimedes' "Burning Glass" apparatus), I came across a related quotation from this drama:

"If you were condemned to pay five talents, how would you manage to quash that verdict? Tell me."

"I have found a very clever way to annul that conviction... Have you ever seen a beautiful, transparent stone at the druggists', with which you may kindle fire?"

"You mean a crystal lens."

"Well, now if I placed myself with this stone in the sun and a long way off from the clerk, while he was writing out the conviction, I could make all the wax, upon which the words were written, melt."

That was what made me look it up. Its science fictional content is negligible - what little there is by way of references to physical phenomena & contrivances is said only in jest. But it's a good read anyway. At times hilarious, other times merely funny, but sometimes draggy too.

It lampoons Socrates mercilessly. Only other references I've seen to Socrates are in Plato's works, & Plato is very sympathetic to him.

There is a very dark angle to this play too. According to Wikipedia, "Plato appears to have considered The Clouds a contributing factor in Socrates' trial and execution in 399 BC. There is some support for his opinion even in the modern age."

Story summary.

To fend off creditors at court, Strepsiades wants his son Phidippides enrolled at the Thoughtery run by Socrates - so he can learn the art of "false" arguments: "It seems they have two courses of reasoning, the true and the false, and that, thanks to the false, the worst law-suits can be gained. If then you learn this science, which is false, I shall not have to pay an obolus of all the debts I have contracted on your account."

Some quotes.

  1. 'Lately, a flea bit Chaerephon on the brow and then from there sprang on to the head of Socrates. Socrates asked Chaerephon, "How many times the length of its legs does a flea jump?'

    'And how ever did he go about measuring it?'

    'He melted some wax, seized the flea and dipped its two feet in the wax, which, when cooled, left them shod with true Persian slippers. These he took off and with them measured the distance.'
  2. "May the gods shield me from possessing great eloquence! That's not what I want. I want to be able to turn bad law-suits to my own advantage and to slip through the fingers of my creditors."
  3. "Have you any memory?"

    "That depends: if anything is owed me, my memory is excellent, but if I owe, alas! I have none whatever."
  4. "Tell me, if I purchased a Thessalian witch, I could make the moon descend during the night and shut it, like a mirror, into a round box and there keep it carefully.... "

    "How would you gain by that?"

    "How? why, if the moon did not rise, I would have no interest to pay."

    "Why so?"

    "Because money is lent by the month."

See also.

  1. Vishnu Sharma's "Kaulik and the Princess": I think the only other story I've posted on from BC era, & more clearly science fictional; otherwise unrelated. This one has original in Sanskrit (but an online English translation is available).

Fact sheet.

First published: "423 BC at the City Dionysia". Modern translations are based on an incomplete revision of original in manuscript form some time between 420-417 BC.
Rating: B.
Download full text of English translation from original Greek (by Daniel C Stevenson?) from The Internet Classics Archive.