Aristophanes was the Neil Simon of ancient Greece, famous for writing comedies lampooning the historical figures of his day. Students of theater and classics read at least one of his plays during freshman year.
Dr. Carl Ruck introduced the idea of Socrates being a stoner, as evidenced by The Clouds, Aristophanes’ parody of the famous philospher. Plato felt this play contributed to the climate of mistrust that resulted in Socrates being put on trial for corrupting youth and introducing new deities, a trial that condemned him to death.
Since I’d never heard mention of a cannabis connection to Socrates, I had to revisit the play to check it out for myself. Initially, Socrates flies in from above seated in a basket that apparently has the magic ability to float as if suspended from a balloon.
“I’d never come up with a single celestial idea if I didn’t suspend my mind up high,” explains Socrates. Whenever he needs creative inspiration, he calls on his clouds to gather around him.
“They’re the only deities we have—the rest is just so much hocus pocus,” he explains. “They’re heavenly clouds, goddesses for lazy men—from them we get our thought, our powers of speech, our comprehension, our gift for fantasy and endless talk, our power to strike responsive chords in speech and then rebut opponent’s arguments.”
After being introduced to these clouds, Strepsiades says: “….having heard their voice, my soul is aflutter and already desires to argue trivialities and quibble obsessively about smoke (kapnos).”
So are the clouds of Aristophanes really a sly reference to clouds of marijuana smoke? It seems not only possible, but likely. Aristophanes was a conservative, or maybe he just made fun of new ideas because his audience was conservative, but he seems to have used the phrase “man of smoke” in several plays as a put-down. Usually, it’s translated as “one who talks big but delivers little,” but after hearing Dr. Ruck’s interpretation, I have to wonder if “man of smoke” wasn’t Aristophanes’ version of “stupid stoner.”