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Comedy as Self-Forgetting: Implications for Sallis’s Reading of Plato’s Cratylus
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I know of nothing that has caused me to dream more on Plato’s secrecy and his sphinx nature than the happily preserved petit fait that under the pillow of his deathbed there was found no “Bible,” nothing Egyptian, Pythagorean, or Platonic—but a volume of Aristophanes. How could even a Plato have endured life—a Greek life to which he said No—without an Aristophanes?

friedrich nietzsche

Diogenes Laertius reports that Plato was reputed to have been so “well regulated”(kosmiois) as never once to have been seen to “laugh excessively” (gelôn huperagan . . . kômikôn).1 Nietzsche describes Plato as so humorless as to be positively “boring” (1968, 117). John Sallis not only ascribes to this notoriously solemn philosopher a sense of humor but reads one of his most inscrutable dialogues—the Cratylus—as a comedy. There are plenty of reasons to find this surprising, not the least of which come from the dialogues themselves, where comedy is named twice as playing a role in Socratess’s condemnation (Apology 18d, 19c), where it seems to describe the Shadenfreude of the malicious person (Philebus 48c), or where it is simply equated with what is stupid or bad (Republic 452d). But Sallis not only interprets the Cratylus comedically; he attributes to comedy a positive philosophical role. I am not seeking here to defend why one ought to read the Cratylus in this way; I am, instead, hoping to illuminate the philosophical consequences of doing so. If Plato does use comedy for positive effect in the dialogues, what, in other words, have we missed by historically reading him as a sourpuss? More specifically, what does Sallis’s reading of the Cratylus illuminate about the dialogue and the question central to it concerning the relationship of humans to logos?

Comedy in the Cratylus, as Sallis claims in Being and Logos, is a self-forgetting. It exposes incongruities between speech and deed, or between what we say and what it is that we are doing by saying it. The self-forgetting is what papers over this incongruity and allows us hubristically to believe ourselves to be better than we are. By exposing this incongruity within ourselves, however, comedy also offers us positive potential. If Sallis is right about comedy being a self-forgetting, then comedy would seem also to present us with the opportunity to remember ourselves, to rectify the incongruity, and, potentially, to know ourselves, a philosophical task of the utmost seriousness and profundity. But how is it that comedy facilitates the fulfillment of the Delphic imperative, and what is revealed by the use of comedy in the Cratylus? Or to ask Sallis’s question about comedy in regards to itself, What does reading comedy in the Cratylus as a self-forgetting illuminate in regards to the possibility of self-knowledge?

Not only does comedy in the Cratylus reveal humanity’s inextricable bond to logos, as Sallis contends, but I will argue that it also shows our hubristic pretensions to exceed such limits. Hermogenes and Cratylus both present hubristic philosophical positions that render them incapable of dialogue with each other, and hence, they require Socrates’s mediation. It is by depicting a distinct lack of measure, as is evident in Hermogenes and Cratylus, that comedy enables us to know ourselves as beings who are necessarily limited to logos, to inaccuracy, and to error. The self-knowledge that comedy makes possible, in other words, prompts us to recognize our own ignorance and shortcomings and scale our claims back accordingly. The humility resulting from this stems from the recognition that, to some extent, we always remain the papered-over incongruity, the lack of self-identical presence, because names and, more broadly, logos, however arbitrary and inaccurate, are all that we have.

A brief look at another approach to the Cratylus may help differentiate just what is so unique about Sallis’s reading of it. According to David Sedley, the enigmatic character of the Cratylus is due to the lengthy series of far-fetched etymologies that constitutes a considerable portion of the dialogue.2 The main response to these today is to treat them as some form of satire on someone or something.3...

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