Compare the portrayals of Socrates in Plato's Apology and Aristophanes' Clouds.

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Plato's "Apology" and Aristophanes' The Clouds do certainly present two deeply contrasting and opposing portrayals of Socrates. It is worth remembering that when Socrates was put on trial, it was on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. "Apology" was largely a response against those charges and a defense of Socrates's character and teaching. Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates paints a very different picture. In Aristophanes, Socrates is first and foremost a sophist.

The sophists were rhetorical teachers of Classical Greece. Theirs was a quite popular profession in Athens (which should not be surprising, given the nature of Athenian democracy), but they tend to be understood as intellectual mercenaries of a sort, who encouraged the use of rhetorical tricks and flourishes solely for the purpose of winning, rather than for upholding any moral or intellectual integrity. Plato often depicts Socrates in opposition to the Sophists. For Plato, Socrates utilizes his rhetorical and intellectual gifts in the service of truth and moral improvement. In Aristophanes, however, Socrates is a sophist in that mercenary sense, teaching argumentation that actively undermines traditional morality.

In The Clouds, Socrates is presented as morally corrosive, and when reading this play, it is worth wondering the degree to which Aristophanes' depiction might have influenced public opinion against Socrates and may even have played a role in advancing those charges. For Plato, on the other hand, Socrates is driven both by moral principle as well as by a kind of divine intuition. He is not an intellectual mercenary. Quite on the contrary, he is a true moral teacher.

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We can safely say that Socrates generated a great deal of controversy in Athens, to the extent that the state eventually executed him.

Aristophanes in his Clouds and Plato in his Apology show two opposite views of Socrates. In The Clouds, Aristophanes makes fun of Socrates for studying pointless subjects. He shows Socrates supported by the Clouds, a group of goddesses that patronize thinkers. He depicts Socrates spending his time hauled up closer to the sky in a basket while inventing such items as a tiny unit of measurement to ascertain how far fleas jump. His philosophical enterprise is revealed as socially disruptive, leading sons to beat fathers. He is portrayed as a ridiculous, troublemaking figure.

Plato, in contrast, portrays Socrates as in the right when he faces his accusers and defends himself against charges that he has corrupted the youth of Athens and turned them away from the old gods. Here, it is Socrates who shows the foolishness of those putting him on trial, and he defends himself with dignity and wisdom, using simple language rather than sophisticated philosophical jargon. He refuses to compromise his integrity to save his life and thus becomes a figure of admiration.  

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Both Plato and Aristophanes were personally acquainted with Socrates. Even though Plato was a philosopher and Aristophanes a comic playwright, both were equally concerned about the excesses of the Athenian democracy and its habits of electing violent demagogues with little qualification for leadership beyond an ability to appeal to the worst and most violent emotions of the electorate. Both Plato and Aristophanes saw sophism and moral relativism as contributing to senseless wars and political injustice. The main difference is that Aristophanes saw Socrates as part of the problem and Plato saw Socrates as part of the solution.

In both the works of both authors, Socrates is portrayed as a radical figure who questions many established systems of belief and argues against easy certainties. He is also portrayed as considerably poorer than many of the young aristocrats who flock around him, and he trains his followers in a certain type of verbal agility. In the work of Aristophanes, however, Socrates is portrayed as running an actual school, just like the sophists; in the works of Plato he is simply conversing freely with people around Athens. 

Aristophanes's Socrates is portrayed as more interested in the physical world and matters such as astronomy, while Plato's is more concerned with ethics and epistemology. Plato tends to portray Socrates more favorably, while Aristophanes, being a comic playwright, makes fun of Socrates.

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This is a good question. Let me make two points.

First, these two works are different genres. Plato's Apology is a philosophical dialogue. Aristophanes's Clouds is a comedy. In light of this, we can say that purpose of each is very is different. The first is a work of serious philosophy. The second is a work of entertainment intended to make people laugh, usually by poking fun at people.

Second, in terms of characterization, Plato paints a picture of Socrates, as a philosopher to the end, that is, a person who truly lives a life of the pursuit of truth. In addition, Plato's view of Socrates is filled with courage, a person who is unafraid of death. In the work, a number of citizens from Athens accuse him of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods. Of course, Socrates disagrees. In fact, Socrates states that he is doing the city of Athens a great benefit by questioning things. In light of this, Plato portrays Socrates as one who is persecuted unjustly.

Socrates's companions want to break him out of jail, but he would not do so, because as a philosopher he honors the law and is unafraid of death. So, we see a unjust sentence, courageous death, and the fruit of philosophy.

In Aristophanes's Clouds, Socrates is seen as the worst kind of sophist; he is the head of the Thinkery. Aristophanes says that Socrates is the one who can make the weaker argument stronger and the stronger argument weaker. He is not seen as a student of philosophy and truth, but a confused thinker whose feet never touch the ground.

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