Nothing clouds the fact that “The Clouds” is a play by the playwright Aristophanes. What may be more nebulous is how he and those acting on stage play with language. (Many a critic has conjectured that Aristophanes’s intention in writing the play is to talk back at Socrates for talking so sharply about how allegedly harmful the language of the playwright is. Plato, therefore, trying to straighten out what Socrates really said, spent his life writing dialogues also to straighten out language. Plato’s Socrates, for example, makes the claim that the masses are mindless when they participate as the audience members when they would do so much better to be more grounded, in their city-states, by following a philosopher-king. Plato’s Socrates also blames this play of Aristophanes for inappropriately lampooning and unfairly caricaturing him, to the point where he needed to offer his famous Defense, his Apology.) The play is making fun of Socrates who’d made fun of the playwrights such as Aristophanes. To listen to Aristophanes’s actor’s Socrates is, rather obviously then, to put oneself in a rather precarious position of being mindless. Ha! Knowing the risks, then, let’s enter the clouds.
Socrates: You want to know the truth about the gods, what they really are? (βούλει τὰ θεῖα πράγματ’ εἰδέναι σαφῶς, ἅττ’ ἐστὶν ὀρθῶς;)
Strepsiades: By God I do, if it’s possible. (νὴ Δί’, εἴπερ ἐστί γε.)
Socrates: And to enter into communion with the Clouds, who are our deities? (καὶ συγγενέσθαι ταῖς Νεφέλαισιν εἰς λόγους, ταῖς ἡμετέραισι δαίμοσιν;)
No Greek would think of worshipping the clouds; they are ‘goddesses’ suitable only for the comic Thinkery of Socrates, who teaches men how to obscure reality by making it as changeable and evanescent as the clouds.
But notice what the Greek audience is thinking!
The word συγγενέσθαι, which Henderson renders “into communion with,” is a Greek euphemism for “having sex with.”
And the Clouds? ταῖς Νεφέλαισιν? Well, they are goddesses, females of the heavens.
Then that word λόγος is the word that’s often used for the word “word.” It’s a rather slippery concept, what women and sophists and playwrights and actors used for rhetoric. Was Helen persuaded by the logos to leave the Greek men behind for the foreigners? asks the sophist Gorgias in his Praise of Helen. And in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the author has the sophist calling himself a rhetorician. So Aristotle studies under Plato and invents syl-logi-sms and logic to straighten out all of the curvy slipperiness of logos.
And finally of course, the Greek audience hears δαίμοσιν. Readers of the New Testament get these “divinities” translated into English as “demons,” nasty spirits, with forceful powers and the ability to possess those who pay them mind.
There’s more to the story, more in The Clouds, of course. It’s mean to be comic. Things with language aren’t always what they seem, so it seems. You can’t control clouds either.