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Exposing the Secrets of the Moon in Aristophanes’ Clouds and Lucian’s Icaromenippus

Jenni Glaser

Bryn Mawr College

Scholars have seen the influence of Old Comedy on Lucian’s work, but not the extent and significance of his engagement with Aristophanes’s Clouds in the Icaromenippus. Karen Ní Mheallaigh calls the moon in both the Icaromenippus and the True Histories a multigeneric mirror of the second sophistic imagination, and James Brusuelas notes parallels between the moon’s speech in Clouds and in the Icaromenippus, but neither has realized the full extent of the moon’s role. In the Icaromenippus, Lucian closely follows the thematic material of Clouds. Lucian observed a preoccupation with the moon in Clouds, and therefore chose the moon as his anchor to tie the two works together. With the character of Socrates at the center, Clouds is the harshest satire of philosophy we have from Aristophanes, which lends itself to Lucian’s own satiric program. In this paper, I will argue that through the figure of the moon, Lucian channels all the vitriol of Aristophanes’ invective against philosophy–in his eyes–into his own work.

The Icaromenippus, which begins with Menippus’ desire to learn the ways of the universe from the philosophers, like Clouds, ends in threats to rain fire and destruction on them all for their hypocrisy and scorn of the gods. There are many similarities between Strepsiades’ and Menippus’ quests and frustrations, none more clear than when Menippus reaches the moon on his journey and meets Empedocles. Menippus’ interaction with him mimics Strepsiades’ first meeting with Socrates in a number of ways. Menippus asks Empedocles what he is doing there, and he says: “ἐν τῇ σελήνῃ κατοικῶ ἀεροβατῶν...” (Ic. 13.17-18). The same word, ἀεροβατῶ is what Socrates uses when asked what he is doing in the air (Nu. 225). Next, Menippus meets the moon herself, a living character in both works. In Clouds, the chorus gives a message from the moon to the audience, while in the Icaromenippus, the moon begs Menippus to report her grievance to the gods.

Finally, at the end of the play, Strepsiades stands on the roof of the burning Thinkery and throws Socrates’ own words back at him: “ἀεροβατῶ καὶ περιφρονῶ τὸν ἥλιον” (Nu. 1503). He then berates Socrates for contemplating the moon: “τί... τοὺς θεοὺς ὑβρίζετε, καὶ τῆς σελήνης ἐσκοπεῖσθε τὴν ἕδραν;” (Nu. 1506-7) This conjunction of examining the moon and dishonoring the gods becomes a by-word for all that Socrates is condemned for in the play: for replacing the Olympian gods with natural gods of his own creation, and more.

Brusuelas writes off the moon’s complaints, the centerpiece of both works because Aristophanes’ moon complains about Athenians while Lucian’s complains about hypocritical philosophers. What he, and other scholars have not seen is that Aristophanes’ moon is pointing out hypocrisy too, all of Clouds is concerned with philosophers, and Socrates is condemned for his sophistic overreach through his examinations of the moon. The moon’s appearance is striking, but the moon-imagery is visible from the very first page of both works, and acts as a symbol of Aristophanes’–and Lucian’s–philosophical polemic.

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Greek Comedy

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