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Plato on the psychology of humor


Abstract A reform is needed in the modern account of Plato’s view of humor. Modern scholars have attended mostly to Plato’s negative evaluation of comedy and his emphasis on the malicious and aggressive aspects of humor. In fact, Plato held a more nuanced view of humor and its relation to a person’s character. When enjoyed moderately, the playful, incongruous quality of humor could benefit a philosophic person like Socrates. Scornful and derisive humor, however, serves only to deepen the hasty and overzealous natures of comedians and sophists. Keywords: Plato; Socrates; paidia; incongruity; character; comedy; laughter; philosophy.

Introduction Where humor is concerned, Plato is perhaps best known for his thoroughgoing criticism of comedy.1 Certainly, Plato had good reason to be hard on the comic poets of his day. In The Clouds, the playwright Aristophanes had portrayed Plato’s mentor and idol, Socrates, as a screwball sophist who teaches young men many foolish and even dangerous ideas about religion and politics. Plato tells us in the Apology (18d, 19c) that this portrayal was instrumental in getting Socrates condemned to death on charges of irreligion and corrupting the youth of Athens. If comedy could strike such a terrible blow to philosophy in general and to Plato in particular, it is small wonder that Plato objected to it.
Humor 16–4 (2003), 351–367 0933–1719/03/0016–0351 © Walter de Gruyter

since he or she may come to prefer ridicule over reflection even when dealing with matters of utmost significance. Shelley Plato was well aware that comedy is not simply a political or social phenomenon. by which humor is construed as a form or manifestation of aggression or hostility (see Attardo 1994: 18–19). such as pain and pleasure (Keith-Spiegel 1972: 10). He was certainly critical of humor. like Socrates. In the current literature Plato is credited with holding versions of the following modern theories: 1. and Morreall 1983: 4–5).352 C. That is to say. Consider his response to Hermogenes’ request for etymologies of Dionysus and Aphrodite (Cratylus 406b–c):2 Socrates: Son of Hipponicus. In the dialogs. Yet. In particular. The superiority theory. Plato says a fair amount about laughter and malice and how they are combined when we feel amused about a character being derided on stage or a person being ridiculed in public. by which laughter is brought about by feelings of superiority over another or by elation at another’s misfortune (see Piddington 1963: 152. by which laughter is caused by the experiencing of incompatible emotions or feelings. the . With these facts in mind. and 3. 2. The aggression theory. Keith-Spiegel 1972: 6–7. but also for the person doing the laughing. but was there truly no virtue in humor in Plato’s eyes? The most immediate evidence that Plato saw a positive side to humor comes from his representation of Socrates. The result can be insalubrious not only for the person being laughed at. This perception is reflected in the way that humor scholars cite Plato as the forefather of modern theories of humor that highlight its negative aspects. viewing Plato through the twin spectacles of his comments on comedy and modern theories of humor may present a distorted picture of his take on humor. The ambivalence theory. in his investigations of comedy. modern scholars have understood Plato to have held an entirely negative view of humor as being always deleterious and never virtuous. Plato traces the psychological and physiological mechanisms upon which comedy depends for its effects. Socrates is often presented exercising an incisive sense of humor. There is a serious [spoudaiôs] and also a facetious [paidikôs] explanation of both these names. We even find Socrates praising humor on occasion. and also Freud (1960) and Keith-Spiegel (1972: 5–6). you ask a solemn question.

Comedy. Conditioned by modern theories of humor. If Socrates. and social phenomenon. has already been sufficiently treated above for present purposes. in this passage. can make a joke. psychological. for the gods too love a joke. To properly revise our view in this matter. However. If we look carefully at Plato’s treatment of humor in the dialogs. Laughter and humor Although he devoted little space to the discussion of it. positive aspects of Plato’s treatment of humor have escaped notice. even virtuous. it will be useful to begin the elucidation of Plato’s theory of humor with a discussion of its physiological . when opposed to an excess of seriousness. Here. Overshadowed by his negative comments on comedy. Rather. This reconstruction allows for a more balanced and accurate picture of Plato’s theory of humor than is yet available. it would be misleading simply to say that Plato held an incongruity theory of humor. Here we are told two things: (1) that Socrates is about to give a facetious answer. There is need of.Plato on the psychology of humor 353 serious [spoudaion] explanation is not to be had from me. we will find that such facetiousness is presented as acceptable. Plato viewed humor as the recognition by the intellect of what modern scholars would call incongruity — the special juxtaposition of incoherent concepts. one obvious social aspect of humor. Plato opposes Socrates’ facetious (paidikôs) behavior to the alternative of serious (spoudaiôs) behavior. Perhaps Plato was merely giving a faithful portrayal of the lively sense of humor of the historical Socrates while holding his nose at the facetious remarks. then humor cannot be completely evil. who is typically the very exemplar of philosophical virtue in Plato’s dialogs. one would think. a revision in the modern scholarship concerning Plato’s view of humor. Plato saw incongruity as only the intellectual component of a complex physiological. there is a clue that such is not the case. and (2) that the gods would approve of such a response. However.3 However. and room for. we need to reconstruct Plato’s own view in light of the description that he gives of it in his writings. but there is no objection to your hearing the facetious [paidikon] one. the coherence of Plato’s own theory has not been appreciated. This paper presents such a reconstruction by showing how Plato linked humor to the basic operations of the human mind (or soul) as he understood them.

we experience a simultaneous mixture of the pain of malice combined with the pleasure of laughter (49a–50a).388e).606c). or incongruity. Laughter is a pleasure that may serve to establish such a state. Such a state frees the intellect from distractions and allows it to get on with its projects. we experience a simultaneous mixture of incompatible feelings. refers to things that are without intrinsic degree . namely laughter. Plato tells us that when we are hungry.4 The explanation for the potentially violent or uncontrollable nature of laughter is given in the Philebus (52c–d) where all violent pleasures are classed with the things that are unlimited. In general. in this case. Plato implies that laughter is good at least insofar as it restores the soul to a healthy condition by balancing out the ill feeling of malice. Laughter and the buffoon In the Philebus (47c–d). By analogy with the case of hunger. Plato’s treatment of laughter provides a pattern that is repeated in his treatment of the intellectual side of humor. when we observe something laughable. then. The distinction between laughter and humor is often elided (Provine 2000). As part of this intimate relationship. So. for example. Similarly. the best bodily condition we can achieve is one in which our pains and pleasures counteract each other. In the Republic (3. is that it can be difficult for people to do in moderation. The problem with laughter. orderly state. namely the pain of an empty stomach combined with the pleasure of contemplating our next meal. lest such displays provoke uncontrolled and debilitating laughter in the young men looking on from the audience. we begin with a review of his theory of laughter. Shelley side. as with eating or drinking. Socrates warns Adimantus that the young men of the ideal city must not be prone to laughter. For ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter his condition provokes a violent reaction (See also the Republic 10. Socrates then suggests a prohibition against the depiction of gods or men overcome by hysterics. leaving our bodies in a kind of calm. as distinct but intimately related. if someone says something ignorant.354 C. Frede (1993: xxxiii–xxix) explains that the unlimited. but Plato generally held laughter and humor. then we experience the pleasure of laughing at him because he has satisfied our malicious and painful desire to see others suffer. To present a clear view of Plato’s theory of humor.

Aristophanes. it is difficult to laugh only enough to restore mind and body to order.620c). The buffoon Thersites is just such a debauched man (Iliad 2. is a bodily pleasure. In other words. the comic playwright who lampooned Socrates. Plato’s view of the intellectual aspect of humor is presented. In other words. neither man seems to know when it is time to stop. The intellect is indispensable for humor because it is the intellect that provides for the recognition of incongruities. like Thersites or Aristophanes. the intellect enables us to recognize when two incompatible concepts or ideas have both been applied to one situation. a result that is exemplified by the buffoon. Laughter. laughter is physiological in the sense of being a bodily function. then. appears to draw a similar rebuke in the Symposium. on the contrary. . It is provoked by the pain generated when others gratify our desire to see them suffer misfortune. as it were.212–43) and Socrates later describes him as having lived the life of an ape (Republic 10. It is problematic because it is always mixed with pain and because it is easily over-indulged. That Plato held such a view of humor may be seen from his consideration of puns in the Cratylus (cf. laughter becomes harmful when it is over-indulged. since there is no yardstick. Having amused themselves and gotten a laugh. there is a close analogy between laughter and humor: Both comprise a mixture of incompatible elements and both may be salutary in moderation but harmful otherwise. by which laughter can be measured. In this section. As a pleasure. However. Ahl 1988 and Brock 1990). This presentation sets the scene for the ensuing discussion of how humor may be healthy or harmful to people depending upon their psychological constitutions. Humor. We recognize the sort of people who habitually over-indulge in laughter as buffoons.Plato on the psychology of humor 355 and therefore cannot be reliably measured. is psychological in the sense that it involves intellectual processes. laughter is salutary insofar as it balances out the pain of malice. Nevertheless. The point of Socrates’ warning to Adimantus — a man prone to indulging his appetites — seems to be that the enjoyment of excessive laughter can lead to a kind of debauchery or gluttony in which laughter is indulged for its own sake. Humor and incongruity In Plato’s view.

Socrates says. but the reason for this description can be seen only by attending to the pun. though the Good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power [dynamei hyperechontos]. Plato describes Glaucon’s response as ludicrous. names that are similar phonetically should also be similar semantically. In view of Cratylus’ principle. Shelley In that dialog. but Socrates would surely agree that these descriptions are incompatible with each other. in the Laws (2. let us consider a pun from the Platonic corpus. Socrates is sympathetic to this view but points out that it does not correspond with the facts (Kahn 1973): There are many Greek names that sound similar but are disparate in meaning.669b–70c) . to the conclusion that Plato accepted Cratylus’ theory as a design principle of language. Plato evidently thought of puns as violations of Cratylus’ theory of the coherence of names and meanings. Socrates explains to Glaucon the metaphysical relationship between the objects of knowledge and the form of the Good: . In one of the most famous passages in the Republic (6. hyperbole can no further go [daimonias hyperbolês]. the surpassing power of the Good should also be a holy hyperbole. A somewhat more general account of humorous incongruity is presented.356 C. Glaucon’s expression daimonias hyperbolês is simply a pun on Socrates’ expression dynamei hyperechontos: These expressions sound similar but have incongruous meanings. arguably. but one that tends to fail as an etymological principle because of an unhappy historical accident. . Heaven save us. In other words. the character Cratylus argues that names and meanings have a coherent relationship (Attardo 1994: 152–153). but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it. albeit briefly. So. the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the Good their being known. and names that are dissimilar phonetically should be dissimilar semantically. in effect. To clarify matters.509b–c). Socrates explains that the confusion between names and sounds results from a confusion in the minds of those who originally created the names (Cratylus 439b–c). that Cratylus’ theory has merit but does not explain the actual state of affairs because it fails to take into account the historical fact that the original givers of names did not understand what they were doing and so did not apply his rule.5 The applicability of both descriptions to the Good is evidently what Glaucon finds so amusing. This discussion leads. . And Glaucon very ludicrously said.

it provides the recognition of incongruous combinations of ideas as well. In modern terms. However. Images that mix appropriate and inappropriate elements are laughable. Unfortunately. the intellect is indispensable for the generation and appreciation of humor. in Plato’s view. spirited. and sex. Each of these images is humorous because each presents incongruous elements as if they belonged together. we continue the analogy with humor and . each of whom is ruled by a different part (9.Plato on the psychology of humor 357 where Plato gives a description of laughable images. He thinks particularly of musicians who set masculine lyrics to feminine tunes or choreographers who have human characters perform the movements of animals. the Athenian Stranger explains.6 The philosopher is ruled by the intellectual part and therefore loves knowledge above all.669c–d). As the intellect provides the understanding of ideas. The appetitive person is ruled by the appetites and loves money above all else because it facilitates his pursuit of food.581c). human artists are regrettably prone to combining incongruous elements in the images they create (2. The Athenian Stranger explains that images of any kind are fashioned well only if they include everything appropriate to what they represent. there are three types of people. We have already used the term buffoon to denote the sort of man who over-indulges in laughter. So. we might think of a story about the warlike Achilles wearing a dress (Metamorphoses 13. this question may be answered by considering how exactly humor affects a person and what sort of persons exhibit the healthy or unhealthy forms of humor. In a pun. namely the intellectual. a crucial question for Plato remains unaddressed: Does an appreciation of humor serve a person well or ill? In parallel with the treatment of laughter above.162ff). Furthermore. Here. Plato argues that the soul consists of three parts. We can see that this account fits nicely with Plato’s account of puns outlined above because Plato considered names to be images of the things named (Cratylus 439a). Humor and psychology In the Republic (4. widely divergent things are presented as if they belong together because of the similarity in their “images” or names. and appetitive parts.435b–42a). drink. The spirited person is ruled by the spirited part and therefore loves honor and victory above all. or of an actor scratching his armpits and hooting like a chimpanzee while eating a banana.

and appetitive persons deals with incongruity. What. is there in humor for a philosophic person to legitimately enjoy? Plato gives us at least two responses. He compares their procedure to pulling a stool from under someone who is about to sit down in order to laugh as that person sprawls on the ground. In other words. humor depends upon images that combine elements that do not properly belong together. Shelley examine how each of the philosophic.358 C. When we have understood how humor participates in the psychology of different sorts of people. is that they tend to perpetuate confusion — that is. different kinds of people find different sorts of things funny.7 This lesson seems to be the import of Socrates’ remark in the Cratylus (406c) that the gods love a joke. Obviously. The love of knowledge is compatible with an appreciation of humor because humor alerts the philosophic person to a confusion in thinking. then. The philosophic person We have seen that. Socrates reiterates that. we are apt to mistake such confused images for an accurate picture of reality. Humor can thus be an aid in philosophical inquiry. not merely as it appears. That is. his sense of humor alerts the philosopher to the presence of confusions. However. after death. according to Plato. The enjoyment of humor for good or ill is dictated by what sort of person is doing the enjoying. Socrates points out that the screwball debaters Euthydemus and Dionysodorus have befuddled their victims simply by conflating two senses of the word learn. a philosopher would not indulge in such a puerile stunt. This problem of funny and confusing images occurs with more gravity in the Phaedo (115c–e) when Socrates himself laughs — for the only time in Plato’s dialogs — at Crito’s question about how they should bury Socrates after he has been executed. A philosophic person seeks to eliminate confusion and understand reality as it truly is. his soul will have departed and thus nothing essential to Socrates will remain (115d–e): . spirited. He may then enjoy the prospect of clearing the confusion up. we will have achieved a reasonably complete understanding of Plato’s view of humor. In the Euthydemus (277d–8c). First. Plato argues. a philosopher still needs a sense of humor so that he does not perpetrate a similar sort of prank on himself through a confused usage of words in speech or thought. The main problem with such images. they recognize and enjoy the fact that language throws ambiguities into the path of inquiry. but one such sense of humor is healthy whereas the others are unhealthy.

Each goes by the same name. a distinctly unhealthy result in Plato’s view. the humor of a philosopher is a cultivated form of his youthful playfulness (paidia). young men exhibit playfulness in their delight in humorous wordplay. the statement that “Socrates is being buried” is a misstatement because it confuses the body of Socrates with his soul. my dear friend Crito. The use of humor to signal the need for clarification shows that Glaucon is being patient in the face of a difficult line of inquiry. however. Believe me. a philosophic person may enjoy humor because. but depart and be gone. as if something dreadful were happening to me. In addition to alerting him to a potentially harmful confusion. . That is. where it will serve them well in the manner indicated above. packing and unpacking incongruous readings of sentences in speech (Philebus 15d–e. Such playfulness is regularly associated with both humor and the potential for intellectual achievement in Plato’s dialogs. Socrates himself finds this confusion funny and then cautions against letting the joke stand unclarified. Laws 2. they also have a bad effect upon the soul.658d). or from saying at the funeral that it is Socrates whom he his laying out or carrying to the grave or burying. are especially playful and exhibit a great fondness for comedy as a result (Republic 3. youths can learn to moderate and preserve this playfulness into adulthood. although he does find Socrates’ description of the Good to be confusing. it is often noted. So. Glaucon’s joke is not meant to silence Socrates but to request clarification or review. Glaucon’s pun is not ridicule directed against the obscurity of Socrates’ assertion. but they are very different things in Socrates’ view. Also. That will help Crito to bear it more easily. It is a signal that. the playfulness of youth yields to excessive seriousness. In certain respects. see also the Republic 7. This attitude is evident in Glaucon’s response to Socrates’ difficult description of the Good (mentioned previously). he is willing to explore it. usually in the pursuit of money or power as will be seen shortly. . misstatements are not merely jarring in their immediate context. This incident indicates how humor and philosophy can exist harmoniously within the same person.539b–c). If given proper philosophical training. when ambiguities do crop up. it helps him to persevere in the search for truth. Persevering in this confusion of body and soul is likely to prompt the overthrow of reason in favor of immoderate grief or dread. and keep him from being distressed on my account when he sees my body being burned or buried.397d. When educated by ignorant teachers.Plato on the psychology of humor 359 .8 . Young men. when I am dead I shall not stay.

who calls Socrates “little snotty nose” instead of answering a question from him (Republic 1. but it strongly suggests that his ridiculers would be acting prematurely. Having shown how. that is. we must now see how humor can be unhealthy in other sorts of people. Socrates does tell us that such people look to the wrong “pattern of absurdity” (Republic 5.441e–2b). those people would “pluck the unripe fruit of laughter. Poets provide another good example (Laws 7. we saw that humor presents pitfalls for the disordered person. his intellect rules his appetites and combative spirit (Republic 4. he cannot give a thought to anything but the day’s takings. who pray for wealth. which leaves a man not a moment of leisure to attend to anything beyond his personal fortunes. that is. in laughing at this proposal. The connection between haste and scornful humor also appears in the Republic (5.831c–e). the Athenian stranger argues that the haste of the appetitive person arises from the passion for wealth. In other persons. He adds that. are truly ridiculous since obtaining it would simply reinforce their avarice and corrupt their souls still further. the philosophic person is naturally just because he has an ordered soul. The typical appetitive person loves money because the more money he can get. in Plato’s view. Any study or pursuit that tends to that result everyone sets himself eagerly to learn and practice. In this section. So long as a citizen’s whole soul is wrapped up in these. humor can be healthy and virtuous in the preeminently intellectual person. we examine how humor figures in the soul of a person ruled by his appetites. Shelley The appetitive person In Plato’s view. Kings and tyrants are prime examples of appetitive people (Theaetetus 174e).801a–b): the Athenian Stranger tells us that poets. the more food. In the last section. meaning that these people are unjust due to their disordered souls.452d–e). Think of Thrasymachus. who was unclear on what would become of Socrates after his execution.360 C. the appetitive or spirited parts rule over the intellect. such as Crito.” The term unripe is not explained in the passage.457b) where Socrates notes that many people would laugh at his proposal to allow the female guardians of the ideal city to train naked like the males (a common practice in classical Greece). In the Laws (8. meaning that they see incongruity in . the tyrannical man of appetites. in haste. and sex he will have. The lust for money induces a reckless hastiness that manifests itself in the tendency to ridicule or scorn.343a). all others are laughed to scorn. drink.

the combative spirit rules and drives him to value honor and victory over others above all else. The spirited person In a spirited person. he is most sensitive to the incongruity of activities that yield no profit. This trait is accompanied by ill humor and contrasts directly with the playfulness of the philosophic person. But. her priorities are misplaced since. Certainly. she kept her eyes on the road. and ridicule to obtain money. Assuming that everyone is as concupiscent as he. there is an incongruity in seeing such an erudite man make such an apparently simple misstep. Socrates says flatly that we laugh at people who are in some sense weaker than we are. above all other empirical occupations. since he so ardently hastens to worsen and not improve his own soul. the intellect is ruled by the appetites. thus confirming that humor may accompany the feeling of superiority. observing the stars is far preferable to observing the ground. In the Philebus (49b). However. deceit. In particular. this psychological disorder gives rise to an unhealthy trait. although such a person is able to recognize incongruities. The Thracian slave who laughs at the philosopher Thales (Theaetetus 174a–175b) provides a simple example. unlike him. Socrates explains that.Plato on the psychology of humor 361 women acting like men only because they have never bothered to think through the philosophical rationale suggesting that this practice would be a good one. the appetitive person himself is manifestly ridiculous in the eyes of the philosopher. As in appetitive persons. In the appetitive person. according to Plato. She evidently thought herself superior to him because. In the Theaetetus (172c–e). the appetitive person is disposed to ridicule the philosophic person because the latter labors hard without much material gain. philosophers are willing to take their time in the pursuit of truth. whereas professional speakers employ debating tricks. This contrast with the philosophic person affirms the disordered nature of the appetitive person and the ridicule that his disorder drives him to exercise. Thales was observed by the woman as he fell into a ditch while walking about in the evening to observe the stars. he allows himself no time to consider whether he is real or merely apparent. Plato contrasts the hastiness of the appetitive person with the leisurely but tenacious nature of the philosophic person. Astronomy. namely excessive seriousness (spoudês). is mostly likely . Thus.

is that the . then the situation is reversed.362 C. if he chose to demand the death penalty. The exemplar. you realize that you would not know what to do. it is really the Thracian woman who is ridiculous for priding herself on studying the road instead of the heavens. is the orator Callicles who tells Socrates ominously (Gorgias 486a–c): If anyone should seize you or any others like you and drag you off to prison. The real incongruity.517a). it is the spirited person who is the truly clumsy one. In other words. Socrates demonstrates this reversal in his description of how a legal eagle (such as Callicles) would fare in discussing philosophical matters (Theaetetus 175c–d):9 . Shelley to lead us to a grasp of how the world truly is (Timaeus 47c). . par excellence. But philosophers see the rhetoricians as the ridiculous ones since rhetoricians attempt to dispense justice without being able to give a defensible account of what justice is. that he is potentially just such “an utterly mean and rascally accuser” and clearly relishes the prospect of laying Socrates low through ridicule. [the rhetorician] will be laughed at. even with an utterly mean and rascally accuser. rhetoricians attend only to single instances of justice or injustice — who did what to whom and what retribution is called for. So. and when you came before the court. as can be seen when the philosopher engages him in dialectical discussion. . Of course. Lost and dismayed and stammering. . . The most typical example of a spirited person is the rhetorician who seeks victory in the law courts. . then. when that small. you would be put to death. shrewd. claiming you are guilty when you are not. Callicles already demonstrated. they seek truth instead of triumph. not by maidservants or the uneducated — they will not see what is happening — but by everyone whose breeding has been the antithesis of a slave’s. legal mind has to render an account [of justice]. perhaps unwittingly. once again. The spirited man’s desire for this ultimate victory over the philosopher is reiterated in the Republic (7. without a word to say. where Socrates explains that philosophers only appear to be ridiculously clumsy in disputation because. but would reel to and fro and gape openmouthed. Philosophers are unconcerned with this sort of bickering and appear ridiculous to rhetoricians for this reason. Such a person is notorious in Plato’s writings for constantly rehashing the stereotype of the clumsy philosopher to win arguments against philosophic persons (see Nightingale 1995: 178–80).

they see humor only in the failure of attempts to achieve or preserve honor and distinction. For Plato. it inevitably has . Conclusion The modern view of Plato’s treatment of humor is informed largely by his critical judgment of comedy and the natural desire to compare Plato’s treatment to current theories of humor.Plato on the psychology of humor 363 legal oratory that the spirited person spouts in pursuit of courtroom victories and feels to be so elegant is really just confused nonsense — and that is truly funny. In the spirited person. Thus. their humor amounts to mere invective. it does leave us with a fractured picture of Plato’s thinking on the subject of humor. Those people who indulge in it are reduced by it to the condition of beasts. Since humor arises from the confusion of ideas in the intellect. ambivalence. Spirited persons are able to recognize incongruities but. Although this approach to Plato does not produce explicit mistakes. and aggression theories of humor. humor is not something that can be treated in isolation. The temptation to respond in kind to angry ridicule is underlined in the Republic (7. In the latter forum. Humor in earnest — essentially insults and name calling — is described as an angry passion provoked by disputation. such playfulness is recommended to the philosophic person in the Philebus (30e) as a relief from an excess of seriousness. whether plain or dressed up for the law courts. because of their over-serious dispositions.536a–c) where Socrates himself nearly falls into it after recalling all the ridicule to which spirited people routinely subject philosophy. That excessive seriousness causes the spirited person’s tendency to ridicule is confirmed in the Laws (11. both in the street and in the theater. of course. In contrast. reeling and gaping openmouthed. they attack philosophic persons by trotting out the stereotype of the clumsy philosopher. As a result. such immoderate love of distinction is humorous because the prize is not worthy of the zeal with which it is pursued. the desire for honor and victory rules the intellect. In the eyes of the philosopher.396e). we could also add the incongruity theory to this list. In view of the comments made above. Furthermore. humor in jest is laudable. a point to which we will return shortly. modern humor scholars tend to say of Plato that he held versions of the superiority.934d–6b). where Socrates draws a distinction between humor in earnest (spoudês) and humor in jest (paidia) (see also the Republic 3.

So.) To a spirited person. whose intellect is preeminent over his appetites and high spirits. The latter. his concern for the ethical side of humor is worthy of our emulation. a situation is humorous if it decreases rather than increases someone else’s opportunity for material gain. this picture of humor emerges most clearly from Plato’s portrayal of Socrates and his detractors. Plato shows that he does not object to people having a sense of humor. Each sort of person enjoys a different kind of incongruity. even if he is mistaken. Through his portrayal of Socrates’ humor. moreover. depending upon the state of his soul. of which humor is a manifestation. To a philosophic person. leading to excessively appetitive or spirited adults. we cannot comprehensively answer the question What is humor in Plato’s view? without also answering the question What good is humor in his view? In Plato’s view. Plato argued that the playfulness of youths (paidia). if the situation decreases his own opportunity for material gain. Shelley important philosophical implications. humor has significant ethical implications since a person’s sense of humor conditions the health of his soul. a person’s sense of humor is a kind of window on his soul. Consequently. To an appetitive person. then it is tragic. Amusement at conceptual difficulties indicates that a person has a just. Scorn or vituperation at the apparent failings of others indicates that a person has an unjust. humor can play a part in cultivating a just disposition. consider an example from the Philebus (30e). ordered soul. humor arises from the confusion of incoherent ideas in the intellect. humor is an alarm bell that draws attention to some conceptual difficulty. disordered soul. As for the appropriate occurrence of humor in intellectual inquiry. Failure to cultivate the playfulness of the young results in its overthrow by excessive seriousness (spoudês). In addition to signifying the order of the soul. Plato’s view in this regard is appealing. in which Socrates obtains an answer from Protarchus on one issue (order is always caused by reason) by quizzing him on another apparently unrelated one (the cosmos was ordered by an intelligent mind): . humor means that someone else has lost honor or power when he might have gained or preserved it. He may then enjoy the prospect of clearing it up. In particular. In the Platonic dialogs. should be cultivated in their education so that they might become philosophic people upon maturity. but only to their hasty or zealous misuse of it to cut off philosophic inquiry. (Of course. resort to ridiculing him with versions of the old clumsy wise man stereotype. and vice versa. unable or unwilling to answer Socrates thoughtfully.364 C.

we are not in an ideal world and so humor. Socrates: Well. Protarchus. See Tessitore (1994). though indeed I hadn’t realized you had given it. In the Timaeus. which leads to more confusion. Plato’s theory of psychology is a moving target. which just makes Glaucon’s response sound like nonsense. 6. he allows that this kind of humor is at least sometimes acceptable. we will not go far wrong in adhering to the tripartite scheme. i. In an ideal world. Socrates’ behavior here indicates two things. Nevertheless. Brock (1990).Plato on the psychology of humor 365 [Socrates asks Protarchus if he has now grasped the resolution to their first inquiry through the resolution of the second.e. which dominates most of Plato’s writings on the soul. see Raskin (1985) and Attardo (1994). there would be no confusion and therefore no disorder and no humor. University of Waterloo Notes Correspondence address: cam_shelley@yahoo. 5. Plato seems to present many more parts to the soul. However. On the modern incongruity theory. Thus. as is evident from Shorey’s translation (above). when exercised moderately. I grasp it completely. This confusion leads to disorder. can aid us in our efforts to sort things out. This pun has been routinely missed. that it is a rhetorical appeal to mystery. On Plato’s treatment of comedy. Finally. Perhaps Plato illustrates the debilitating effects of such side-splitting laughter to induce the reader to frown upon it. he acknowledges the humor in addressing one topic by talking about a seemingly unrelated one. Humor is simply a symptom of the regrettable fact that we are often confused in our thinking. associated with different internal organs. even conducive. Second. and Nightingale (1995: 172–192). Plato breaks this rule himself in the Laches (183c–184c) where he relates a farcical sea battle that leaves two crews of combatants rolling on their decks. First. 3..] Protarchus: Yes. He does not present humor as a thing to be pursued for its own sake. helplessly hysterical. as scholars are well aware. to philosophic ends. Plato was very critical of humor. sometimes playfulness is a relief from 1. see Greene (1920). 4. All translations quoted in this paper come from the collection made by Hamilton and Cairns (1963) unless otherwise noted. the overhaul of our understanding of Plato should not be exaggerated. 2. Ferber (1993) argues that Glaucon takes Socrates’ description of the Good as a dirty joke. Burkert (1985: 325) states that Glaucon’s joke is an indication from Plato that his doctrine of the Good is not sensibly expressible. .

Brace and Company.. 63–123. and also at the colloquium of the Department of Philosophy.” (R. 28 November 1997. University of Waterloo. Walter 1985 [1977] Greek Religion. Attardo. 5. Rafael 1993 “da sagte Glaukon in sehr lächerlichem Ton . The Symposium is an example of such an education session for adults. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 31. J. Burkert. 9 July 1997. Cambridge. . 1920 The spirit of comedy in Plato. Ferber. Frederick 1988 Ars est caelare artem [Art in puns and anagrams engraved].671b–c). Note also that ignorant and over-serious adults cannot be educated without the moderate consumption of alcohol. Hamilton. Earlier versions were also presented at the International Society for Humor Studies Conference. 211–212. Salvatore 1994 Linguistic Theories of Humor. 39–50.33). M. Cooper. On Puns: The Foundation of Letters. Shelley 7. Aristotle gives a similar assessment of puns in On Sophistical Refutations (1.366 C. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. to restore their disused playfulness. 9. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. In Culler. Thanks to Joe Novak for comments on an earlier draft of this paper. University of Central Oklahoma. Oxford: Clarendon. References Ahl. Greene.) 1963 Plato: The Collected Dialogues Including the Letters. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.. 8. 2nd ed. Freud. New York: Harcourt. Thanks also to the Perseus Project for its helpful research tools. Roger 1990 Plato and comedy. see Cooper (1922: 224–39) . vol. 509c1–2): Ein obzöner Witz Platos? Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 75 (2). E. See also Socrates’ remarks on the political speechwriter in the Euthydemus (306c). W. C. Sigmund 1960 [1905] Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Frede. (Bollingen series LXXI). Brock. Princeton: Princeton University Press. at least until the immoderately drunk Alcibiades arrives at the party. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. . MA: Harvard University Press. Edith and Huntington Cairns (eds. Dorothea 1993 Plato: Philebus. Lane 1992 An Aristotlean Theory of Comedy with an Adaptation of the “Poetics” and a Translation of the “Tractacus Coislinianus”. . In Craik. under the guidance of a philosophically trained teacher (Laws 2. Owls to Athens: Essays on Classical Subjects Presented to Sir Kenneth Dover. New York: Norton.

. J. Charles H. 1973 Language and ontology in the Cratylus. 1994 Courage and comedy in Plato’s Laches. In Goldstein. Robert R.. Provine. and P. Andrea W. Exegesis and Argument: Studies in Greek Philosophy Presented to Gregory Vlastos. Piddington. chapter 8. Reidel. A. . Morreall. E. The Journal of Politics 56 (1). New York: Gamut Press Inc. B. M. Dordrecht: D.. McGhee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995 Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Nightingale. the Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Comp. E. In Lee. P. John 1983 Taking Laughter Seriously. A. Mourelatos.V. 115–133. Rorty. Keith-Spiegel. New York: Academic Press. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2000 Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. R. 152–176. 1963 The Psychology of Laughter: A Study in Social Adaptation. H. Patricia 1972 Early conceptions of humor: Varieties and issues. D. Tessitore. Assen. Raskin. Victor 1985 Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (Synthese Language Library 24). and R. N. New York: Viking. The Psychology of Humor: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Issues.Plato on the psychology of humor 367 Kahn.


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