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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  19 doksasei) about whether the things he makes are good (kallos) or bad (ponêrian)” (602a8-9). 74 Rather, he will imitate whatever appears good to the ignorant masses (tois pollois te kai mêden eidosin; 602b3), and in this way, be thought of as speaking extremely well about various subjects in front of those who are likewise ignorant (601a4- b4). 75 From this perspective, Socrates is now able to offer a deeper critique of poetry than the one presented in books II and III. From the idea that the poets are ignorant of the truth, he argues that imitative poetry necessarily appeals to the appetitive part of the soul. In so doing, it “arouses and nourishes this element in the soul and, by making it strong, destroys the rational one – just as someone in a city who makes wicked people strong, by handing the city over to them, ruins the better ones” (605b2-5). In gratifying and strengthening the appetitive part of the soul, poetry helps to create, by analogy, a bad constitution within the soul of its audience. Moreover, the corrupting effects of poetry are not confined to the ‘lower’ elements of society; rather, it has the power to corrupt all but the very few best individuals. Poetry nurtures and waters the appetitive desires that should be dried up through a proper education focusing on reason and good habits, and has the power to charm even those who are aware of its enchanting power. To allow imitative poetry free rein in Kallipolis, then, would be tantamount to dethroning the philosopher-kings, and hence, to removing reason from its rightful place in the well-ordered regime. While the majority of Plato’s critique of poetry in the Republic is directed against tragic poetry, there are a number of moments in the dialogue that make clear that the critique is meant to apply to comic poetry, and the types of laughter it elicits, as well. In book X, Socrates makes this connection explicit in discussing how laughter, and especially communal laughter, can move us in ways that are decidedly against our better judgment. As Socrates explains “if there are jokes you would be ashamed to tell yourself, but that you very much enjoy when you hear them imitated in a comedy or even in private, and that you don’t hate as something bad, aren’t you doing the same thing as with the things you pity? For the element in you that wanted to tell the jokes, but which you held back by means of reason because you were afraid of being reputed a buffoon, you now release; and having made it strong in that way, you have been led unawares into becoming a comedian in your own life” (606c2-9). In other words, viewing acts of comic mimêsis - seeing others make jokes that we know to be shameful – can be just as disruptive of the type of psychic harmony that constitutes justice in the soul as tragic poetry. Just as tragic scenes or mourning and lamentation lead us to sympathize with individuals who engage in these shameful acts, strengthening the natural appetite within us that desires such actions, ultimately weakening our ability to avoid them, comic poetry, through the vehicle of laughter, has the power to nurture and strengthen the appetitive part of our souls. 74 In this respect, the argument against poetry advanced in book X of the Republic is markedly distinct from the discussions of poetry found in the Apology, Ion, and Phaedrus. In these three works, Socrates criticizes does not criticize the poets for failing to say wise things; rather, he attributes the source of their wise utterances not to their actual possession of wisdom, but to divine inspiration. As such, they are unable to given an account of the wise things they say. 75 It should be noted that this argument against poetry bears a particular affinity to the arguments Socrates’ levels against rhetoric in the Gorgias. There, Socrates asserts that an orator would only be more persuasive about a matter concerning health amongst those who do not know (458e3-459c2). Later in the dialogue, Socrates makes an explicit connection between oratory and poetry, culminating in the assertion that poetry is a type of oratory (502b1-d8). These arguments will be discussed in fuller detail in Chapter 4.

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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doksasei) about whether the things he makes are good (kallos) or bad (ponêrian)” (602a8-9).
74
Rather, he will
imitate whatever appears good to the ignorant masses (tois pollois te kai mêden eidosin; 602b3), and in this way, be
thought of as speaking extremely well about various subjects in front of those who are likewise ignorant (601a4-
b4).
75
From this perspective, Socrates is now able to offer a deeper critique of poetry than the one presented in
books II and III. From the idea that the poets are ignorant of the truth, he argues that imitative poetry necessarily
appeals to the appetitive part of the soul. In so doing, it “arouses and nourishes this element in the soul and, by
making it strong, destroys the rational one – just as someone in a city who makes wicked people strong, by handing
the city over to them, ruins the better ones” (605b2-5). In gratifying and strengthening the appetitive part of the
soul, poetry helps to create, by analogy, a bad constitution within the soul of its audience. Moreover, the corrupting
effects of poetry are not confined to the ‘lower’ elements of society; rather, it has the power to corrupt all but the
very few best individuals. Poetry nurtures and waters the appetitive desires that should be dried up through a proper
education focusing on reason and good habits, and has the power to charm even those who are aware of its
enchanting power. To allow imitative poetry free rein in Kallipolis, then, would be tantamount to dethroning the
philosopher-kings, and hence, to removing reason from its rightful place in the well-ordered regime.
While the majority of Plato’s critique of poetry in the Republic is directed against tragic poetry, there are a
number of moments in the dialogue that make clear that the critique is meant to apply to comic poetry, and the types
of laughter it elicits, as well. In book X, Socrates makes this connection explicit in discussing how laughter, and
especially communal laughter, can move us in ways that are decidedly against our better judgment. As Socrates
explains “if there are jokes you would be ashamed to tell yourself, but that you very much enjoy when you hear
them imitated in a comedy or even in private, and that you don’t hate as something bad, aren’t you doing the same
thing as with the things you pity? For the element in you that wanted to tell the jokes, but which you held back by
means of reason because you were afraid of being reputed a buffoon, you now release; and having made it strong in
that way, you have been led unawares into becoming a comedian in your own life” (606c2-9). In other words,
viewing acts of comic mimêsis - seeing others make jokes that we know to be shameful – can be just as disruptive of
the type of psychic harmony that constitutes justice in the soul as tragic poetry. Just as tragic scenes or mourning
and lamentation lead us to sympathize with individuals who engage in these shameful acts, strengthening the natural
appetite within us that desires such actions, ultimately weakening our ability to avoid them, comic poetry, through
the vehicle of laughter, has the power to nurture and strengthen the appetitive part of our souls.
74
In this respect, the argument against poetry advanced in book X of the Republic is markedly distinct from the
discussions of poetry found in the Apology, Ion, and Phaedrus. In these three works, Socrates criticizes does not
criticize the poets for failing to say wise things; rather, he attributes the source of their wise utterances not to their
actual possession of wisdom, but to divine inspiration. As such, they are unable to given an account of the wise
things they say.
75
It should be noted that this argument against poetry bears a particular affinity to the arguments Socrates’ levels
against rhetoric in the Gorgias. There, Socrates asserts that an orator would only be more persuasive about a matter
concerning health amongst those who do not know (458e3-459c2). Later in the dialogue, Socrates makes an explicit
connection between oratory and poetry, culminating in the assertion that poetry is a type of oratory (502b1-d8).
These arguments will be discussed in fuller detail in Chapter 4.


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