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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  21 Indeed, the passage from book V cited above implicitly acknowledges the existence of a type of laughter that is not governed by the doksai of the many. Moreover, such laughter, I would argue is made manifest in the various forms of laughter found within the Platonic dialogues. If we look closely at the Platonic dialogues, we can see laughter being employed in a number of interesting ways that would appear, at first glance, to contradict the critique of laughter that is advanced in the Republic. First, on the philological level, the use of geloios (laughable) and its related terms, katagelastos and gelaô, is extremely widespread. 76 In fact, the terms are deployed throughout a wide range of Plato’s dialogues, and are particularly prevalent in the Theaetetus, Phaedo, Symposium, Phaedrus, Protagoras, Euthydemus, Hippias Major, Republic, and Laws. In all of these cases, geloios and its related terms are deployed in a set of related ways: Socrates himself or his arguments appear laughable to his interlocutors; Socrates fears that his own arguments might appear laughable; Socrates views the arguments of his interlocutors as laughable. In all of these cases, laughter reflects an uncertainty in the philosophical progression of the dialogue, one that both invites and permits the dialogue’s interlocutors and readers to reflect on the soundness of the arguments advanced. On a literary level, perhaps the most obvious example is Plato’s representation of Socratic irony. In contrast to the original sense of the Greek word eirôneia as ‘dissembling,’ Socratic irony involves not simply deception, but the more subtle practice saying something other than what one means. 77 As such, Socratic irony functions to represent Socrates himself as a puzzle, both to his interlocutors and to the readers of the Platonic dialogues, by creating a mask without ever revealing what, if anything, is being masked. 78 As a species of the comic, Socratic irony unsettles those who are subject to it, forcing his interlocutors to question exactly what it is that Socrates means when he speaks ironically. For example, when Socrates either self-depreciatingly disavows his own knowledge, or, conversely, praises the knowledge of others, we are left wondering whether Socrates is attempting to conceal his own knowledge from his interlocutors or subtly mocking the pretensions his interlocutors have to knowledge of their own. In either case, we are left wondering, along with many of Socrates’ interlocutors, whether he is being serious or joking. Yet, Plato’s use of laughter on the literary level is not confined to the portrayal of Socratic irony. Closer attention to the literary dimensions of the Platonic dialogues reveals a profound engagement with the genre of Attic Old Comedy and its comic techniques and tropes. Despite the critique of comedy in the Republic, these engagements suggest that found the genre of Attic Old Comedy “congenial to his own project.” 79 In the Protagoras, for example, there is a strong parallel between Plato’s depiction of the sophists at the house of Callias and the chorus 76 A TLG search for geloios and its related terms in the Platonic corpus yielded 339 occurrences. The breakdown for the particular works listed below are as follows: Theaetetus, 23; Phaedo, 12; Symposium, 21; Phaedrus, 11; Protagoras, 14; Euthydemus, 19; Hippias Major, 17; Republic, 68; Laws, 37. One of the interesting facts about this breakdown is that the works that prominently employ these terms are distributed throughout the ‘early’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’ dialogues. 77 Nehamas (1998), p. 50. Nehamas, rightly, takes issue with Vlastos’ conception of ‘complex irony’, which, drawing on the theories of Cicero and Quintillian, understands irony of saying the opposite of what one means. For Nehamas, ‘complex irony’ is at once too simple and formulaic to capture the phenomenon of Socratic irony, which ultimately entails the (either successful or unsuccessful) concealment of what Socrates means. 78 Ibid, p. 67. 79 Nightingale (1995), p. 187.

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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21
Indeed, the passage from book V cited above implicitly acknowledges the existence of a type of laughter
that is not governed by the doksai of the many. Moreover, such laughter, I would argue is made manifest in the
various forms of laughter found within the Platonic dialogues. If we look closely at the Platonic dialogues, we can
see laughter being employed in a number of interesting ways that would appear, at first glance, to contradict the
critique of laughter that is advanced in the Republic. First, on the philological level, the use of geloios (laughable)
and its related terms, katagelastos and gelaô, is extremely widespread.
76
In fact, the terms are deployed throughout
a wide range of Plato’s dialogues, and are particularly prevalent in the Theaetetus, Phaedo, Symposium, Phaedrus,
Protagoras, Euthydemus, Hippias Major, Republic, and Laws. In all of these cases, geloios and its related terms are
deployed in a set of related ways: Socrates himself or his arguments appear laughable to his interlocutors; Socrates
fears that his own arguments might appear laughable; Socrates views the arguments of his interlocutors as laughable.
In all of these cases, laughter reflects an uncertainty in the philosophical progression of the dialogue, one that both
invites and permits the dialogue’s interlocutors and readers to reflect on the soundness of the arguments advanced.
On a literary level, perhaps the most obvious example is Plato’s representation of Socratic irony. In
contrast to the original sense of the Greek word eirôneia as ‘dissembling,’ Socratic irony involves not simply
deception, but the more subtle practice saying something other than what one means.
77
As such, Socratic irony
functions to represent Socrates himself as a puzzle, both to his interlocutors and to the readers of the Platonic
dialogues, by creating a mask without ever revealing what, if anything, is being masked.
78
As a species of the
comic, Socratic irony unsettles those who are subject to it, forcing his interlocutors to question exactly what it is that
Socrates means when he speaks ironically. For example, when Socrates either self-depreciatingly disavows his own
knowledge, or, conversely, praises the knowledge of others, we are left wondering whether Socrates is attempting to
conceal his own knowledge from his interlocutors or subtly mocking the pretensions his interlocutors have to
knowledge of their own. In either case, we are left wondering, along with many of Socrates’ interlocutors, whether
he is being serious or joking.
Yet, Plato’s use of laughter on the literary level is not confined to the portrayal of Socratic irony. Closer
attention to the literary dimensions of the Platonic dialogues reveals a profound engagement with the genre of Attic
Old Comedy and its comic techniques and tropes. Despite the critique of comedy in the Republic, these
engagements suggest that found the genre of Attic Old Comedy “congenial to his own project.”
79
In the Protagoras,
for example, there is a strong parallel between Plato’s depiction of the sophists at the house of Callias and the chorus
76
A TLG search for geloios and its related terms in the Platonic corpus yielded 339 occurrences. The breakdown
for the particular works listed below are as follows: Theaetetus, 23; Phaedo, 12; Symposium, 21; Phaedrus, 11;
Protagoras
, 14; Euthydemus, 19; Hippias Major, 17; Republic, 68; Laws, 37. One of the interesting facts about this
breakdown is that the works that prominently employ these terms are distributed throughout the ‘early’, ‘middle’,
and ‘late’ dialogues.
77
Nehamas (1998), p. 50. Nehamas, rightly, takes issue with Vlastos’ conception of ‘complex irony’, which,
drawing on the theories of Cicero and Quintillian, understands irony of saying the opposite of what one means. For
Nehamas, ‘complex irony’ is at once too simple and formulaic to capture the phenomenon of Socratic irony, which
ultimately entails the (either successful or unsuccessful) concealment of what Socrates means.
78
Ibid, p. 67.
79
Nightingale (1995), p. 187.


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