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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  23 affection that ultimately makes him subservient to their desires; and, finally, the Gorgias presents a vision of Athenian democracy where no one, neither the dêmos nor the politicians, can be said to exert genuine political agency. 86 All of these examples, both philological and literary, suggest that Plato’s relationship to comic poetry and laughter is much more ambiguous than the critiques encountered in the Republic might seem to admit. Thus, in order to better understand Plato’s use of laughter along these dimensions, it is necessary to move beyond the Republic and turn to the discussion of laughter presented in the Philebus. In contrast to the Republic, Socrates’ conception of laughter in the Philebus does not center on forms of laughter that emanate from the opinions of the many. Rather, Socrates identifies the laughable with ignorance. Yet, it is not just any type of ignorance that warrants laughter, but rather, one that is intimately connected with ignorance of oneself – hence, as Socrates explains, the laughable derives its name from a type of disposition that stands in direct opposition to Delphic exhortation to ‘Know thyself.’ 87 More specifically, this self-ignorance can manifest itself in three distinct forms: self-ignorance with respect to money and other possessions (48e1-2), self-ignorance with respect to one’s physical attributes (48e4-6), and lastly, self-ignorance with respect to one’s virtue (and, as an important subset of this type of self-ignorance, with respect to wisdom; 48e8-49a2). It is the third form of self-ignorance that Socrates identifies as most pervasive, leading people to have false pretensions about their knowledge. Viewed from the standpoint of the conception of laughter articulated in the Philebus, Plato’s ‘entanglement’ with Attic Old Comedy, along with his other uses of laughter, becomes more explicable. The type of laughter articulated in the Philebus does not rely on the opinions of the many for its articulation; rather, it relies on a perceived incongruity between a person’s actual attributes and his or her inflated sense of self. Hence, Plato’s use of laughter indicates a respect for laughter’s transformative power, provided that such laughter is employed in a critical fashion, one that seeks to expose pretension, especially in the realm of knowledge. For example, when Socrates claims, in the Gorgias, that rhetoric is nothing other than a form of flattery, akin to the ‘art’ of cookery, his definition is a direct challenge to the claim of men like Gorgias that rhetoric entails knowledge of what is just and unjust, as well as a critique of the so-called power orators actually exercise within democratic politics. It is a form of laughter insofar as it paints Gorgias, and men like him, as self-ignorant with respect to their craft and its power. Moreover, it is a technique of criticism that Plato borrows explicitly from the genre of Attic Old Comedy. Finally, the conception of laughter in the Philebus points us toward a third, philosophical dimension of laughter, in addition to the philological and literary dimensions discussed above. The identification of the laughable with self-ignorance intimately connects the laughable to the very project of Socratic philosophizing itself. As Socrates explains in the Apology, his life-long quest to understand the Delphic Oracle’s utterance concerning his personal wisdom led him to investigate the claims of all those who were reputed to be wise (tôn dokountôn sophôn), thinking that he might be able to refute the oracle by discovering someone who was in fact wiser than he. In his 86 There are a number of similar parallels between other Aristophanic comedies and Platonic dialogues. For example, there is significant thematic overlap between the Frogs and Symposium, as well as between the Birds and Republic (as a whole), the Assemblywomen and Republic V, and Wasps and Republic VIII-IX. Unfortunately, a comprehensive discussion of all these examples of intertextuality is impossible within the scope of this paper. 87 48c6-9. Estin dê ponêria men tis to kephalaion, hekseôs tinos epiklên legomenê; tês d’ au pasês ponêrias esti tounantion pathos ekhon ê to legomenon hupo tôn en Delphois grammatôn.

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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affection that ultimately makes him subservient to their desires; and, finally, the Gorgias presents a vision of
Athenian democracy where no one, neither the dêmos nor the politicians, can be said to exert genuine political
agency.
86
All of these examples, both philological and literary, suggest that Plato’s relationship to comic poetry and
laughter is much more ambiguous than the critiques encountered in the Republic might seem to admit. Thus, in
order to better understand Plato’s use of laughter along these dimensions, it is necessary to move beyond the
Republic and turn to the discussion of laughter presented in the Philebus. In contrast to the Republic, Socrates’
conception of laughter in the Philebus does not center on forms of laughter that emanate from the opinions of the
many. Rather, Socrates identifies the laughable with ignorance. Yet, it is not just any type of ignorance that
warrants laughter, but rather, one that is intimately connected with ignorance of oneself – hence, as Socrates
explains, the laughable derives its name from a type of disposition that stands in direct opposition to Delphic
exhortation to ‘Know thyself.’
87
More specifically, this self-ignorance can manifest itself in three distinct forms:
self-ignorance with respect to money and other possessions (48e1-2), self-ignorance with respect to one’s physical
attributes (48e4-6), and lastly, self-ignorance with respect to one’s virtue (and, as an important subset of this type of
self-ignorance, with respect to wisdom; 48e8-49a2). It is the third form of self-ignorance that Socrates identifies as
most pervasive, leading people to have false pretensions about their knowledge.
Viewed from the standpoint of the conception of laughter articulated in the Philebus, Plato’s
‘entanglement’ with Attic Old Comedy, along with his other uses of laughter, becomes more explicable. The type of
laughter articulated in the Philebus does not rely on the opinions of the many for its articulation; rather, it relies on a
perceived incongruity between a person’s actual attributes and his or her inflated sense of self. Hence, Plato’s use of
laughter indicates a respect for laughter’s transformative power, provided that such laughter is employed in a critical
fashion, one that seeks to expose pretension, especially in the realm of knowledge. For example, when Socrates
claims, in the Gorgias, that rhetoric is nothing other than a form of flattery, akin to the ‘art’ of cookery, his
definition is a direct challenge to the claim of men like Gorgias that rhetoric entails knowledge of what is just and
unjust, as well as a critique of the so-called power orators actually exercise within democratic politics. It is a form
of laughter insofar as it paints Gorgias, and men like him, as self-ignorant with respect to their craft and its power.
Moreover, it is a technique of criticism that Plato borrows explicitly from the genre of Attic Old Comedy.
Finally, the conception of laughter in the Philebus points us toward a third, philosophical dimension of
laughter, in addition to the philological and literary dimensions discussed above. The identification of the laughable
with self-ignorance intimately connects the laughable to the very project of Socratic philosophizing itself. As
Socrates explains in the Apology, his life-long quest to understand the Delphic Oracle’s utterance concerning his
personal wisdom led him to investigate the claims of all those who were reputed to be wise (tôn dokountôn sophôn),
thinking that he might be able to refute the oracle by discovering someone who was in fact wiser than he. In his
86
There are a number of similar parallels between other Aristophanic comedies and Platonic dialogues. For
example, there is significant thematic overlap between the Frogs and Symposium, as well as between the Birds and
Republic (as a whole), the Assemblywomen and Republic V, and Wasps and Republic VIII-IX. Unfortunately, a
comprehensive discussion of all these examples of intertextuality is impossible within the scope of this paper.
87
48c6-9. Estin dê ponêria men tis to kephalaion, hekseôs tinos epiklên legomenê; tês d’ au pasês ponêrias esti
tounantion pathos ekhon ê to legomenon hupo tôn en Delphois grammatôn.


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