I’m sure I can’t be the first to notice the ways in which Plato’s Protagoras is framed as a response to Aristophanes’ Clouds, but I’m not aware of any previous discussion of the connections I have in mind.
It’s old news, of course, that many of Plato’s dialogues, including the Protagoras (along with, e.g., the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Hippias Major, and Sophist) are devoted to distinguishing Socrates’ approach to inquiry and debate from that of the Sophists, and to that extent may be viewed as responding to what Plato saw as a Socrates/Sophist conflation in the Clouds.
But I have in mind a more specific set of dramatic parallels:
|Aristophanes’ Clouds||Plato’s Protagoras|
|Before daylight, an agitated Strepsiades rouses Pheidippides from slumber and tries to interest him in going to hear Socrates at the Thinkatorium. (Neph. 1-98)||Before daylight, an agitated Hippocrates rouses Socrates from slumber and tries to interest him in going to hear Protagoras at the salon of Kallias. (Prot. 310b-311a)|
|Strepsiades leads off by complaining about runaway slaves. (Neph. 5-7)||Hippocrates leads off by complaining about a runaway slave. (Prot. 310c)|
|Pheidippides inquires more precisely who Socrates and his associates are, and expresses concern at the possible malign effect of Socrates’ teaching on his pupils. (Neph. 99-125; cf. 1105-1114)||Socrates inquires more precisely who Protagoras and his associates are, and expresses concern at the possible malign effect of Protagoras’s teaching on his pupils. (Prot. 311b-314b)|
|Strepsiades proceeds to the Thinkatorium, knocks on the door, and is initially rebuffed on the grounds of not being a pupil; but Strepsiades explains that he has come to be a pupil, and so he is admitted. (Neph. 126-143)||Socrates and Hippocrates proceed to Kallias’s salon, knock on the door, and are initially rebuffed on the grounds of being more sophists; but Socrates explains that they are not sophists, and so they are admitted. (Prot. 314c-314e)|
|Once within the Thinkatorium, Strepsiades sees Socrates and various other scholars, who are humorously described in mock-epic terms. (Neph. 181-221)||Once within Kallias’s salon, Socrates sees Protagoras, Hippias, Prodicus, and various other scholars, who are humorously described in mock-epic terms. (Prot. 314e-316a)|
|Socrates, perched in a hanging basket, holds forth on astronomy and physics. (Neph. 218-227)||Hippias, perched on a high seat, holds forth on astronomy and physics. (Prot. 315c)|
|Strepsiades in the Thinkatorium is depicted as bundled up in blankets. (Neph. 633-790)||Prodicus in Kallias’s salon is depicted as bundled up in blankets. (Prot. 315d)|
|The dramatic chorus of Clouds enters from the two wings of the stage in response to Socrates’ summons. (Neph. 263-290)||Protagoras’s followers are described as being like a dramatic chorus splitting into two wings to follow him as he turns. (Prot. 314c-e)|
|Socrates (who in real life never denied believing in the gods) gives a lengthy account of how the gods are not needed to explain natural phenomena. (Neph. 365-426.)||Protagoras (who in real life did deny believing in the gods) gives a lengthy account invoking the gods to explain moral and social phenomena. (Prot. 320c-328d)|
|Strepsiades wants to learn the expertise that will enable him to get away with wronging others. (Neph. 112-118, 429-434.)||Protagoras explains how humans learn the expertise that enables them to refrain from wronging one another. (Prot. 320c-328d)|
|The Clouds explain the practical benefits of the instruction that Strepsiades can expect to receive. (Neph. 435-475)||Protagoras explains the practical benefits of the instruction that Hippocrates can expect to receive. (Prot. 318a-319a)|
|Socrates makes a bunch of humourously picky distinctions about word usage (Neph. 558-692), as will Pheidippides later (Neph. 1178-1184).||Prodicus makes a bunch of humourously picky distinctions about word usage (Prot.337a-c), which Socrates subsequently parodies (e.g., at Prot. 341a-b and 358a-b).|
|Strepsiades is described as being too forgetful to be able to respond appropriately to Socrates. (Neph. 129-130, 783-790)||Socrates is described as being too forgetful to be able to respond appropriately to Protagoras. (Prot. 334c-d)|
|Just Argument’s long speech in defense of conventional morality (Neph. 961-1023) is countered by an equally long, humourously sophistical speech on virtue by Unjust Argument. (Neph. 1036-1082)||Protagoras’s long speech in defense of conventional morality (Prot. 320c-328d) is countered by an equally long, humourously sophistical speech on virtue by Socrates. (Prot. 342a-347a)|
|Pheidippides offers a plainly sophistical interpretation of Solon’s wording. (Neph. 1185-1200)||Socrates offers a plainly sophistical interpretation of Simonides’ wording. (Prot. (340b-347a)|
|The debate ends with Just Argument reluctantly deciding to switch sides. (Neph. 1101-1104)||The discussion ends with Socrates pointing out that he and Protagoras have inadvertently switched sides. (Prot. 361a-c)|
Two further points:
1. Why does Plato choose this otherwise unattested Hippocrates as Socrates’ initial interlocutor, if not because he has an aristocratically “horsey” name, and in the Clouds Strepsiades comments explicitly (Neph. 60-66) on the meaning and origin of his initial interlocutor Pheidippides’ likewise “horsey” name? (And Socrates in the Protagoras likewise comments (Prot. 311b) on the significance of Hippocrates’ name, though in connection with its being shared with the more famous medical writer Hippocrates rather than in connection with its equine connotation.)
2. Kallias’s porter, overhearing Socrates’ conversation through the door, mistakes him for a sophist (Prot. 314c-e). This is significant, because it parallels the way that, from Plato’s standpoint, anyone who takes Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates at face value (possibly including Aristophanes himself) is in effect taking Socrates to be a sophist on the basis of overhearing him through a closed door, i.e., on the basis of inadequate evidence. And Plato puts such people in their place by making the porter who embodies this error, not only a slave but a eunuch.
P.S. – For what it’s worth, there are also a few interesting parallels between Plato’s Protagoras and his Crito (which, while taking place later, may well have been written earlier):
- Like the Protagoras, the Crito begins (44c-e) with a pre-dawn visitor who enthusiastically urges Socrates to accompany him on an errand of whose merits Socrates is skeptical.
- Just as Hippocrates is willing to spend not only his own money but that of his friends to accomplish this errand (Prot. 310e, 313b), Crito urges Socrates to allow his friends’ money to be spent on his behalf (Cri. 45a-b).
- And just as Protagoras advises Socrates not to pay attention to the opinions of the many because they form their judgments at random (Prot. 353a), Socrates offers Crito the same advice for the same reason (Cri. 44c-e).
- Finally, both dialogues have as a central theme (Prot. 321d-324d; Cri. 50a-52d) the question of what sort of behaviour on the part of individuals is necessary for cities and communities to survive.