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  • The Pleasures of the Comic and of Socratic Inquiry:Aporetic Reflections on Philebus 48A–50B
  • Mitchell Miller

. . . and what sort of man am I? One of those who would be pleased to be refuted, should he say something untrue.

Socrates, at Gorgias 458a

At Apology 33c, Socrates asks his jurors what seems a rhetorical question: "Why then do some people enjoy spending considerable time in my company? You have heard why, gentlemen of the jury; I have told you the whole truth. They enjoy hearing those questioned who think they are wise but are not. And indeed this is not unpleasant."1

Don't Socrates' words reach well beyond their immediate context, setting off bells of recognition for readers of Plato's Socratic dialogues? Plato often has Socrates acknowledge the attentive bystanders present at his elenctic conversations; he refers as well, indirectly, to us, only the latest of the many generations who have listened in by reading. We, too, have "spent considerable time in [Socrates'] company," "enjoying" the imagined dramatic spectacles in which he has shown Euthyphro and Hippias and Ion and Agathon and so many other pretenders to wisdom that, in truth, they "are not [wise]." As the sheer fact of our numbers and this "considerable time" attest, this has, indeed, been "not unpleasant"—quite the contrary.

How should we explain this "pleasure"? What is it, on the one hand, [End Page 263] in the spectacle of Socrates' refutations, on the other, in us, that makes reading the Socratic dialogues so distinctively "pleasant" an experience? The answer is not obvious, so it is initially very welcome when, in the Philebus at 48a–50b, Socrates himself appears to offer an explanation. At first sight, his characterization of the joy we take in the sight of "the laughable" (, 48c4) on the comic stage seems to fit the basic scene presented in many of the Socratic dialogues. There are two keys, he explains to Protarchus, to what makes a character "laughable." The first is the character's "ignorance" ( 48c2), specifically, the self-ignorance of thinking that he possesses "goods" that he lacks. Socrates distinguishes kinds of self-ignorance by differentiating these goods into wealth, impressive physique, and virtue, and among the virtues, he singles out wisdom (48c–49a).

The second key is the character's "weakness" (, 49b7), that is, his lack of the social power that would enable him to avenge himself against laughter. Such power, Socrates observes, makes a man's ignorance and conceit "harmful even to his neighbors"; he becomes "fearful and dangerous" (49b–c). Socrates seems to allude to personae like the self-certain Oedipus of the early scenes of Oedipus Tyrannus or, again, like Creon in Antigone. These are powerful figures whose mistaken presumption of their own wisdom leads them to injure the city and to mistake any opposing counsel for treachery and personal attack. But the weak man—one who is our social equal—poses no such danger. Let him "puff himself up" (49a) with the false conceit that he is rich or handsome or wise and then be exposed in his lack of self-knowledge, and that—"the laughable"—is merely funny, the stuff of good comic theatre.

Needless to say, none of the Socratic dialogues are merely comedies. Even a text with as rich a comic current as the Euthyphro is given the darkness of tragedy by the ironies of its place and time. But granting this, doesn't Socrates' analysis of "the laughable" fit very nicely many of his encounters in the dialogues? The interlocutors are almost all Socrates' equals, either as his fellow citizens or as visitors from out of town who, however eminent, speak with him on the level ground of guest and host; hence they meet the criterion of the "weakness" that lets a character be laughable rather than fearful. More importantly, all think themselves wise in one way or another, and all, brought up short by Socrates' questions, are shown that they are not. Few, of course, accept this disclosure, but their various efforts at resistance—ranging from an obtuse refusal to recognize the implications of their own positions (e.g., Euthyphro, Ion, Hippias) to outbursts of defensive disbelief (e...


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