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.”
Socrates lived in Athens but did not believe in democracy. He thought that since there were always going to be more dumb people than smart people, the demogogues would always prevail. The word means: “people leader” in Greek. One of Socrates’ favorite students was Alcilbiades, who conspired to overthrow the Athenian democracy and replace it with a short-lived oligarchy. Socrates was a scapegoat and they never meant to kill him, only expel him or get a confession of his crimes. One of his crimes seems to have been misusing their religion. The most important ceremony was the walk to Eleusis and partaking of the kykeon, a sacrament mired in confusion. No one was allowed to talk about this in public, so the trial skirted around this issue. Rather than admit wrongdoing, Socrates preferred to take his own life, being over 70 and having achieved everything he wanted in life.