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Arethusa 29.3 (1996) 363-388

The Rhetoric of Authenticity in Plato's Hippias Major

Jacques Antoine Duvoisin

Bakhtin's remarks on the generic proximity of the Socratic dialogues to the novel are a reminder of the fact that the Platonic dialogues are philosophical narratives. 1 The significance of this fact is not diminished by Parmenides' earlier exploration of the possibility of a philosophical narrative in the epic register. With Plato, philosophy moves into a new narrative register, working through a domestic landscape that would become characteristic of Middle and New Comedy. We leave behind the standard imagery of epic heroism: the chariot, the journey, and the mysterious warning of the goddess. Plato's Socrates introduces us to the world of the pot and the ladle, the craftsman and the merchant, but also the maiden of ambiguous circumstances, the wayward son, and the negligent father. The serio-comic [spoudogeloion] affiliation is not an accidental feature of Platonic philosophizing that can be attributed to a passing fashion or restricted to a "Socratic" period in Plato's early development. Above all, it is not merely a literary accident in an otherwise theoretically organized text. As Bakhtin points out, the recognizable generic conventions of comedy, the popularizing effect of vulgar speech and, above all, laughter, are precisely what make the sober scientific posture of philosophical theory possible (25):

Socratic laughter (reduced to irony) and Socratic degradations (an entire system of metaphors and comparisons borrowed from the lower spheres of life--from tradespeople, from everyday life, etc.) bring the world closer [End Page 363] and familiarize it in order to investigate it fearlessly and freely.

The comic element of the narrative told by the dialogues decisively shapes what we take to be philosophically significant in them. The dialectical method itself, with its insistence on analogizing "the lower spheres of life," constantly returns philosophical reflection to the recognizable motifs of comedy. Nor is it merely the content of the analogies which links dialectic to comedy. The assumption that a system of metaphors can be dialectically constructed, that an apparently limitless series of analogical substitutions is always available to test the validity of philosophical reflection, is itself comic. More precisely, when we run up against the limits of the dialectical series--as so often happens in the aporetic dialogues--and the failure of this assumption becomes apparent, the project of philosophical reflection shows itself to be essentially comic.

Philosophical narrative forces philosophy to confront all that is inauthentic in it. The very fact that the Platonic dialogues tell a story at all calls into question the traditional emphasis on the results of philosophical reflection by focusing attention on the approach to such insights, on the context in which reflection is undertaken, and on all the scenery along the way. But the dialectical impetus toward comedy ensures that the narrative emphasis of the dialogues highlights the failures of theoretical reflection rather than its successes. The act of telling the story anticipates the failure of the event it is intended to narrate. For generic reasons, we might say, philosophy cannot tell the tale in which the authority of knowledge is achieved. However, it is able to devote considerable attention to describing the predicament of knowledge in its inauthentic moments, when someone is shown not to know what he was presumed to know. Inauthenticity is central to philosophical comedy in linguistic terms as well, since dialectic employs "inauthentic" language, i.e., metaphor, but also because the larger narrative is organized around specific metaphors and other assorted figures of speech. The intrusion of metaphor and related forms of inauthenticity--whether understood in linguistic, epistemological, or ultimately in philological terms--into these philosophical texts responds to a strictly generic necessity.

But if the comic structure of the dialogues draws the action away from "heroic" depictions of achieved philosophical knowledge and toward the ignoble failure of reflection, comedy also requires that there be a happy ending. In true comic form, the dialogues must show that even though we [End Page 364] are denied the knowledge we thought crucial, what we end up with is somehow better and...


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