Comic Ethics: Strepsiades the Comic Bane and Socrates the Comic Antidote

Kirk Shellko

Loyola University, Chicago

This paper contends that Plato's Socrates in Symposium is a corrective to Aristophanes' Strepsiades in Clouds.  Kenneth Dover acknowledges the comic possibilities of Socrates' person in "Socrates in the Clouds" (1971) but ignores philosophically comic aspects of Socrates in Plato.  Martha Nussbaum comments on Strepsiades' amorality in "Aristophanes and Socrates on Learning Practical Wisdom" (1980), but does not see a Platonic Socrates as his corrective.  Terence Irwin separates Socrates' from Plato's thinking, understanding the philosophical argument, but he overlooks dramatic elements in Platonic Ehics (1995).  Christopher Gill in "Dialectic and the dialogue form in late Plato" (2002) understands each dialogue as an independent unit, yet he is averse to cross-referenced interpretation.  This paper makes use of philosophical argument with respect to the drama of Symposium and Clouds in order to recognize Plato's philosophically comic intent.  Both Socrates and Strepsiades represent desire, but in dramatically divergent ways.  Plato asserts, in Symposium, that desire is a longing for good things that leads to a longing for the Good.  This desire is contingent upon knowledge of what makes one eudaimon.  Socrates' and Strepsiades' desires are contingent upon their respective positions between knowledge and ignorance.  Thus, each character represents comic desire/ ignorance, but Socrates is a comic wisdom-seeker, a spoudaiogeloios, whereas Strepsiades is a fool, geloios

In Aristophanes' Clouds Strepsiades desires a perceived good thing that is not good for him, while being unable to comprehend his true desire.  Strepsiades puts his ignorance into action without consideration.  He believes he desires the skill of rhetoric while he truly desires his family's moderation of desires (Jim Kastely "The Clouds: Aristophanic Comedy and Democratic Education"), which itself is simple-minded.  This situation initiates the ruin of his oikos: his happiness is farther away than ever.  In frustration, he burns Socrates' school.  This is the final misdeed of his thorough ignorance.  Thus, his real desire/ good is a change of lifestyle; the perceived desire/ good is a skill that will relieve him of debt.  Were he to become aware of his ignorance and thus expand his understanding, he could become an ethical man (Harry Neumann "On the Comedy of Plato's Aristophanes").  He never comprehends that his desire is misguided and he never obtains the Good that he truly desires: eudaimonia.  He never betters himself, though he had, via Socrates, the opportunity.  Strepsiades is in this sense geloios

Plato's Socrates in his Symposium asserts, via Dotima, that all men desire happiness (205d4) and that men encounter a hierarchy of good things (210e2-212a7).  Each good thing presents men with further knowledge of the Good (211c2-211d1).  Thus, the Good is every man's ultimate desire.  Socrates is aware that he is incapable of obtaining his desire: the Good.  He is, like Strepsiades, geloios, never obtaining his goal, yet, significantly, he continues trying.  His playful ignorance (Euthydemus, Hippias Major, Io, Republic, Symposium) is serious in his pursuit of knowledge.  Thus, Socrates is spoudaiogeloios.  He is the ethical approximation of a happy man and Strepsiades is a fixed mentality that will never learn from its own desire, since he does not possess any understanding of the constitution of that desire.  Strepsiades is the comic bane and Socrates is the comic antidote. 


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