The following passage is an analysis I wrote for a political theory class. At the time we were reading many works surrounding Socrates, such as Plato’s Apology, and Aristophanes’s Clouds (the latter of which the following passage is about). The following passage is analyzing a passage from Clouds in which Socrates and one of the other main characters Aristophanes discuss a flaw within the Greek language at the time having to do with the gendering of specific nouns. An example of the flaw that is explained within the passage is with the word chicken, which in Greek is gendered to be male, but is often used with referring to both roosters and hens. However, what is important about this lesson that is being discussed it what it reveals both about Socrates and about Strepsiades.
Gender? I Barely Even Know Her
During the lifetime of philosopher Socrates, there were many people within Athens who spoke out against him, and the ideas he attempted to spread through the city. One such person was the comedic playwright Aristophanes who wrote the Clouds, a play in which he uses the scenario of Socrates taking on an older and stubborn student Strepsiades as a form of commentary on both Socrates, and the society of Athens at the time. Within one passage of the piece from line 656 through line 695, Socrates attempts to teach his student Strepsiades the importance of learning how to correctly gender words within the Greek language. Although this is at first appearance a subject of little importance, it allows Aristophanes to portray Socrates’ belief system, as well as make his own beliefs on Athenian society known.
The first key takeaway from the passage is that it demonstrates Strepsiades’s reluctance to learn anything that does not hold clear importance to him. Throughout the Clouds it is demonstrated that Strepsiades has come to the thinkery for purely utilitarian reasons: he wishes to learn to speak so that he may repay those he is indebted to, and he believes that any learning that will not help him to achieve that goal he should not undertake. Yet, in the eyes of Socrates, the very same subjects which Strepsiades deems unimportant are the most important, as he is learning for the sake of learning. This is why, when Strepsiades questions on why he is being taught how to form gendered words, Socrates’s response is, “For nothing, by Zeus!” (Aristophanes 693). In a literal sense, Strepsiades was learning how to correctly gender words for no reason that would be important to him, hence he is learning it for nothing. Yet Socrates is still teaching him this concept, not because of the utilitarian use of it, but rather because he deems it to be valuable to Strepsiades’ learning. Learning how to correctly use and form gendered words is one of the most basic concepts Socrates believes is important within language, and therefore where Strepsiades’ education must start. It is Strepsiades’ inability to realize the importance of learning something without a utilitarian purpose that results in him being kicked out of the Thinkery.
The second reason this passage is important is that it highlights a belief Socrates, and perhaps even Aristophanes, has about Athenian society: that it is flawed. Greek is a language that, like many others, has genders prescribed to words. In some cases, such as in the cases of animals or names within specific declensions, the gender of the word being used may not match the gender of what is being described. Such is the case, as Socrates describes, for the word chicken in greek; often female chickens would be referred to as alektor, a word with a masculine ending (Aristophanes 666). Socrates is pointing out what he believes to be an inherent flaw within the Greek language: the misuse of genders within certain vocabulary. However, this phenomenon is used as an allusion to a bigger issue within Athenian society: the Athenian people are not infallible. Earlier within the play, On line 367, this is almost explicitly, as Socrates mocks the Athenian gods that Strepsiades believes in: “What Zeus! Don’t babble. Zeus doesn’t exist” (Aristophanes 367). Socrates is using the language of Athens to call attention to a clear flaw within the language that he has noticed and believes he can fix. Although the other problems he has brought to attention within the Athenian way of life may be more difficult both to comprehend and to solve, by using the example of language, Socrates is able to prove that, on some level, there are issues within Athenian society that must be addressed.
Lastly, it is important to note that while Aristophanes was not a fan of Socrates in any way, that does not mean he fully agreed with the people or societal norms of Athens at the time. Rather he falls somewhere in between the two extremes, which is demonstrated by his critique of both Athens (portrayed by the character Strepsiades) as being too utilitarian and only involved with what can provide use, and Socrates as too philosophical and uninterested in anything of any use. While it is made evident within the ending of the Clouds that Aristophanes believes the people of Athens to be closer to the correct way of living than Socrates, this should not underplay the importance within Aristophanes’ critique of Athens. This is an important idea within the Clouds as it is mirrored by the passage that has just been analyzed. Similar to Socrates, Aristophanes believes that there are inherent flaws within Athenian society and wishes to make light of them, albeit in a comedic manner. Just as Socrates saw issues within the language being used in Athens, Aristophanes wishes to illuminate the flaws within the values of the people themselves.
Aristophanes. Clouds. Texts of Socrates. Trans. Thomas West and Grace West. Cornell University Press, 1998. Lines 656-695.
I’m sharing this as a sample of my writing because I believe it shows my interpretive and analytical skills within the writing. This reading by Aristophanes is one that was full of deeper meaning and underlying ideas that added to the piece overall, and through the passage I worked to show the deeper meaning and how it changed and added to what was being said outright within the text.