The Clouds (Nephelai) is a comedy written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes lampooning the sophists and the intellectual trends of late fifth-century Athens. Although it took last place in the comic festival Aristophanes entered it in, it is one of his most famous works because it offers a highly unusual portrayal of Socrates. Many also find the play to be quite funny as an irreverent satire of pretentious academia.
Aristophanes re-wrote the play after its initial failure, inserting an interlude into the middle of the action in which the playwright himself takes the stage and chastizes the audience for their poor sense of humor. Thus the play can also be regarded as one of the first instances of self-referential or post-modern literature.
The play opens with a citizen of Athens, Strepsiades (whose name means "Twister"), bemoaning the addiction of Pheidippides, his pretty-boy son, to horse-racing, which has put him into deep debt. He recalls his own humble upbringing on a farm and curses his marriage to an aristocratic city woman, whose wealth he believes is responsible for spoiling his son. Pheidippides refuses to get a job, so Strepsiades decides to go to Socrates' Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn rhetoric so he can talk his way out of having to pay his debts.
Socrates takes Strepsiades into the Thinkery, which is populated by starving students and pedantic scoundrels. After demonstrating a few of his patently absurd "discoveries" (for instance, the legspan of a flea, or the reason why flies fart) the great philosopher explains to him that the god "Vortex" has replaced Zeus, and that the Clouds (a chorus of insubstantial heavenly creatures) are the true arbiters of learning.
Upon learning this, Strepsiades tells his son what he has learned and encourages him to study under Socrates as well. Pheidippides arrives at the Thinkery, and two figures stage a debate (apparently modelled on a cock fight) designed to demonstrate the superiority of the new versus the old style of learning. One goes by the name Kreittôn (Right, Correct, Stronger), and the other goes by the name Êttôn (Wrong, Incorrect, Weaker). These names are a direct reference to Protagoras's statement that a good rhetorician was able to make the weaker argument seem the stronger; a statement seen as one of the key beliefs of the sophists. As the debate gets set up, the audience learns that there are two types of logic taught at the Thinkery. One is the traditional, philosophical education, and the other is the new, sophistic, rhetorical education. Right explains that Pheidippides ought to study the traditional way as it is more moral and manly. Wrong refutes him, using some very twisty logic that winds up (in true Greek comedic fashion), insulting the entire audience in attendance.
Pheidippides agrees to study the new logic at the Thinkery. Shortly afterward, Strepsiades learns that the Clouds actually exist to teach mortals a lesson in humility. They have in fact been masquerading as goddesses of philosophy to reveal the airy and pretentious nature of academic learning and sophistic rhetoric: "We are," proclaims their leader,
Dejected, Strepsiades goes to speak to his son and asks him what he has learned. Pheidippides has found a loophole that will let escape from their debts, but in the process he has imbibed new and revolutionary ideas that cause him to lose all respect for his father. The boy calmly proceeds to demonstrate the philosophical principles that show how it is morally acceptable for a son to beat his father. Strepsiades takes this in stride, but when Phedippides also begins to speak of beating his mother, the old man finally becomes fed up with the new-fangled learning of Socrates and, after consulting with a statue of Apollo, he seizes a torch, climbs on to the rafters of the Phrontisterion, and sets it on fire. In the play's final scene, Socrates and his bedraggled students comically choke on smoke and ash.
Despite its brilliance as a work of comic drama, which is almost universally agreed upon, The Clouds has acquired an ambivalent reputation. Some believe it was responsible for stirring up civic dissension against Socrates that may have contributed to his execution. The play's portrayal of Socrates as a greedy sophist runs contrary to every other account of his career: while he did teach philosophy and rhetoric to his students, he never took money for his teaching, and he frequently derided the sophists for their disingenuous arguments and lack of moral scruple. What Aristophanes intended by confounding Socrates with the sophists is perhaps impossible to determine now. However, the references to the play that Socrates made during his trial suggest that he was not greatly offended by The Clouds (he is reported to have obligingly stood for the audience and waved at close of the play's first performance). Furthermore, Plato's Symposium, written after Clouds but possibly a purely fictional narrative, shows Aristophanes and Socrates quite amiably drinking together and speaking as friends.