Socrates and Aristophanes
The relationship between Socrates and Aristophanes is a controversial issue. Aristophanes’ Clouds, first performed in 423 BCE, i.e. in Socrates’ time of great fame, have come down to us; and so has Plato’s testimony.
In Clouds the naive and uneducated Strepsiades, hounded by debts, resorts to the famous “sophist” Socrates and begs him to allow him into his school, in order for him to learn tricks that would rid him of his creditors for a fee. Socrates accepts him, introduces him to the new gods in which he has to believe (Chaos, Clouds and Tongue) and promises him that copious practice will render him able not only to change the minds of his creditors, but also to prevail in the assembly (the ecclesia) and succeed in every aspect of social life. Strepsiades, in spite of Socrates’ teachings, is finally led to disaster.
It is clear that for Aristophanes Socrates is no different than the Sophists. This view is strongly criticised by Plato in his Apology of Socrates, where Aristophanes is named as the one actually bringing the charges against Socrates. However, in Plato’s Symposium Aristophanes is presented as a friend of Socrates’, he delivers a truly impressive encomium to love and is the one who remains awake until the next morning while discussing with Socrates.
Distinguishing Socrates from the Sophists is for Plato an issue of fundamental importance. The Platonic philosopher (the Socrates of the dialogues) claims the role of social reformer and educator, a role traditionally held by the poets but also claimed by the orators and the Sophists during the fifth century BCE. The average Athenian, however, represented by Aristophanes and his spectators, does not perceive the difference as evident at all. In their eyes Socrates is a typical example of the new sophoi that flooded Athens during the age of Pericles, and therefore serves justly as an object of satire.