The Chorus of Clouds are an intriguing group. As a chorus, they speak directly to the audience and act as Aristophanes's mouthpiece. As a chorus in a tragi-comedy, they represent the "nemesis," the rectifying, necessary evil that brings the tragic hero to due punishment: the prescience necessary to fulfill this particular plot function lends them an eerie air of superiority and distance, akin to gods. However, Socrates speaks of them in the most basic of terms as the pockets of water and energy that cause rain: dumb, fluffy meteorological phenomena that, at their best, inspire cloud-gazing hippies and, at their worst, do nothing more than lend thunder its ill-digested rumble. This latter definition is especially interesting when you consider that it is the Chorus of Clouds that gives the play its primary name. The Clouds lend the satire their name because they represent, to Athenian idiom, what we today would call "hot air": The Clouds are symbols of the intellectual fluff that Socrates is teaching his students. Clouds in the sky look big and substantial, but in fact they are mere clumps of thin vapor—a fact that the new scientific advances were beginning to appreciate. Likewise, Unjust Argument is full of pomp and intellect—an imposing figure until you realize that his debates are mere snatches of important-sounding trivia that have no real, honest use.
If the curriculum of Socrates's school was judged by the introductory impression Strepsiades receives speaking with the Student, one might think the master-sophist studied entomology and not philosophy! From the introductory anecdotes about fleas' feet to the digestive play-by-play of gnats, tales from the Thinkery share an obsessive focus on insects, especially tiny insects whose presence suggests the absence of proper hygiene. Much of Aristophanes's project tries to render the curriculum of the school as vividly and as humorously as possible: instead of boring his audience by inventing hopelessly ethereal and abstract theories, he uses physical humor—insect humor—to illustrate the pettiness and unsuitability of their research. The insects suggest triviality because of their size. Insects, with their tiny bodies, recall the meaningless trivia that Unjust Argument presents to cross- examine Just Argument: our modern idiom preserves the term "nit-picking" to suggest someone who is overly fastidious, grossly and inappropriately attentive to detail in the way that Aristophanes suggests the sophists are.
The Flea-Ridden Bed
Like the symbol of the insect, the symbol of the flea-ridden bed suggests the futility, grossness, and triviality of sophistic pursuits. The loony sophist Socrates considers the bed "appropriate" or "conducive" to good, creative thought. The flea-ridden bed recalls the "nit-picking" critique of sophistic argument and it also connotes laziness and sloppiness. A flea-ridden bed is sloppy because it is unclean and suggests how unhealthy the sophists' disregard of worldly matters was: unhealthy to the point of causing physical pain and damage. Not only is sophistic argument hard on the listeners; it is torturously hard and painful on the bodies and psyches of its practitioners, warping them with its cruel and unusual demands. Also, the bed is traditionally a symbol of sloth: a bed is not somewhere you go to work hard at anything, but rather a place you go to relax and not work. Therefore, being called to do hard work in bed is at root perverse.