By Dustin Anderson, drama student
While pondering Aristophanes’ Clouds, I got to thinking about the relationship between Socrates, whose Sophist underlings are the subject of the play’s parody, and the Worse Argument, who exists only to blast his Better counterpart into pieces. When we tried to decide on a way to costume the actors in this play, my group had trouble with Worse Argument, because we didn’t know to what extent we wanted to differentiate him from Socrates and the Sophists. Do Socrates and his Argument represent the same philosophy, or two closely linked philosophies, or different things entirely? It’s quite hard to tell.
In the context of the debate between the two Arguments, Worse Argument certainly appears to align closely with the Sophists. In bashing the Better Argument, he shows the same disdain for the old order that Socrates does when he rejects the existence of the traditional gods. He calls tradition “antiquated rubbish, full of crickets and prehistoric rites, moldy tunes and sacred oxen!” (982) and he takes all the traditionally insulting terms as compliments. He’s also like Socrates in his preference for deploying “fancy principles” (896) in his debates. He wins his arguments by zooming in on picky details and making logical-sounding arguments that don’t actually mean much. When the Better and Worse arguments are placed side-by-side, there’s no question that Socrates’ school of thought would tend to agree with the Worse.
But something isn’t quite right. Worse Argument’s mode of operation is “to take cases that are worse but nevertheless to win them” (1043). He doesn’t care which side he’s on, really; he just wants to win whatever debate is put in front of him (heaven forbid he ever end up in an argument against himself). Socrates, meanwhile, concerns himself (at least nominally) with the acquisition of truth. He throws out the old beliefs, but in their place he substitutes his own hierarchy of logical truths. When he’s teaching Strepsiades, he tells him, “I’m going to throw you clever bits of cosmological lore; you snap them up” (490). Rather than rejecting everything and allowing a state of academic anarchy to reign, he decides that certain things are true and convinces others that he’s right. His persuasion is supposedly accomplished through “arguments irrefutable” (368), a sharp contrast with Worse Argument’s assertion that any argument can be blasted to pieces.
It’s also interesting to note that Socrates keeps both the Better and Worse arguments in his Thinkery. Is the Better Argument just there to look silly next to his newfangled counterpart? Quite possibly, but perhaps Socrates does actually see value somewhere in it.
On top of the aforementioned distinctions, Worse Argument and Socrates seem to concern themselves with different spheres of life entirely. Socrates’ students are described as pale eggheads who don’t do anything but study and aren’t even allowed outside the school. Worse Argument, in his tirade, sings of “young women, games of chance, good eating, drink and laughter. Why live a life at all if you’re deprived of all these pleasures?” (1074). The pupils in the Thinkery partake in none of these pleasures: they don’t have time for anything but analyzing the world. And Worse Argument doesn’t concern himself with science, really; he would rather just discredit morals and customs.
In light of this, I think Worse Argument’s ultimate purpose in Clouds is to illuminate another aspect of the new wave of thinking that was threatening traditional paradigms at the time of the play’s writing. Socrates and Worse Argument are somewhat distinct from one another idea-wise, but they represent two facets of the same overarching philosophical way of thinking. Socrates stands for the revolution of academic thought, in which old beliefs are called into question and “logic,” if you can call it that, is the ruling principle. The Worse Argument represents the degrading of traditional morals in society, not entirely related but certainly not distinct from the shifts in academic thought. By including the Argument in the play, Aristophanes expands the scope of the dialogue he’s trying to promote, so that it includes broader societal questions in addition to the academic ones.