Comedy does not have to only be for laughs; through exaggeration and bringing buried criticisms to the forefront, it can also be a means of social examination and critique. Aristophanes’ The Clouds does precisely that. Through sarcasm and exaggeration, Aristophanes criticizes Socrates’ philosophy and philosophical following by putting Socrates on his stage (and the world’s stage) for open examination and critique.
The stage for Aristophanes was particularly useful for criticism because it demands exaggeration. In order to reach the full audience, details and aspects of the stage needed to be blown out of proportion. Voices needed to be raised. Masks and makeup had to exaggerate features of the actors. Props needed to be larger than usual. This exaggeration and bringing details to the forefront provides the perfect setting for a critique of society. It is a setting where details of persons and ideas can similarly be exaggerated and placed on the forefront for criticism without seeming overblown and inflated.
Comedy is especially useful because it allows the criticisms to be made public under the shield of humor. One can make a scathing criticism and hide it under the rubric of ‘just kidding,’ thus leaving the criticism out in the open, but protecting the critic. With this in mind, Aristophanes begins his criticism of Socrates by placing his main character Strepsiades in Socrates’ world of philosophy.
Outside of Socrates’ school (or as Aristophanes puts it, the Thinkery), Strepsiades approaches one of Socrates’ students. After knocking on the door, the student gets angry with Strepsiades because the loudness of Strepsiades “precipitated the abortion of a discovery” (117). This ‘discovery’ included the length of (and method of determining) the leap of a flea and the origin of the gnat’s hum (gas). He then points out how Socrates had recently had a thought aborted by a lizard and gives an account of how Socrates remedy for their lack of food for dinner.
Already, Aristophanes has thrown out criticisms of Socrates philosophy. The abortion of a discovery is a mockery of Socrates as the self-proclaimed mid-wife philosopher who aids his students in getting pregnant with and giving birth to ideas, raising questions of the validity and appropriateness of such an analogy. The flea and gnat, though an exaggeration, make certain criticisms of Socrates’ endeavors. Aristophanes is showing that, not only does Socrates’ philosophy investigate small and inconsequential things (fleas and gnats), his methods of ascertaining such knowledge are impractical or impossible (making wax slippers with the feet of fleas suitable for measurement, and knowing the intestinal anatomy of a gnat)
Socrates is so caught up in himself and his thinking, that he is ignorant of the practical aspects of life – in focusing his attention on the moon’s orbit, he fails to notice the “lizard on the roof [that] shitted right in his face!” (119). Finally, Socrates’ students are so enamored with him that they accept everything he says and does as brilliance without even giving second thought to the rationality or possible stupidity of it. According to the student, Socrates solved their lack of food for dinner by “sprinkl[ing] a little ash on the table, ben[ding] round a skewer to serve as a pair of compasses, and then…whipp[ing] somebody’s coat while they were wrestling” (119). Because Strepsiades and the student accept Socrates’ wisdom a priori, they immediately accept such a ludicrous response as brilliant without question.
This exaggeration and even contradiction of Socrates continues throughout the play: from the “Economy [of] one man, two jobs” (120, a contradiction of the one person-one job essentialism of the Republic) to the Argument for avoiding debt and being able “to win any case at all” (159). In all of these, Aristophanes is able to use his rhetoric of comedy to bring criticisms of Socrates into the open social forum; while at the same disassociating and protecting himself from them. This same technique is continued today through comedies from Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show to animations such as The Simpsons and