Laughing at Politics: Rethinking Plato’s Republic

[The Guardians] must not be laughter-loving. For ordinarily when anyone abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction. (Republic 388e)

We do not normally think of Plato as a great joker. And yet, terms for laughter, jeering, ridiculousness appear on the whole more often in Plato’s works than in any other ancient author whose works we have, not even excepting Aristophanes. Plato does not employ these terms merely in order to deprecate the activity, as in the cited headnote, but often to show his interlocutors laughing. Rather surprisingly, a disproportionately high share of the laughter occurs in Plato’s Republic.

Of the 53 instances of gelan (to laugh) in Plato’s entire corpus, 7 are in the Republic. Of the 36 appearances of gelôs (laughter), 9 are in the Republic. 1 of Plato’s 4 uses of epigelao (laugh approvingly) is in the Republic. For every 12 times Plato employed the verb katagelao (laugh, jeer at, deride), 1 of them was in his Republic. This great political dialogue also contains the only instances of ekgelan (burst out laughing), prosgelan (smile upon), philogelôs (prone to laughter), and anakankazein (laugh out) in Plato’s writings.

The absurd and comic also occur disproportionately often in the Republic: 34 out of 132 appearances of geloios (laughable, absurd) can be found there; 1 of 2 uses of pangeloios (entirely laughable); 7 out of 47 uses of katagelastos (ridiculous); the only appearance of gelôtopoios (jester); 3 out of 4 uses of gelôtopoiein (buffoon); 1 of 5 uses of skômma (a jest, joke); 1 of 4 uses of ereschêlein (mock); 1 of 2 uses of tôthazein (jeer) — and of 18 instances of words built on the base kômôd- (e.g., kômôdos, a comic), 5 appear in the Republic.

But what is so funny in/about this dialogue? There must be something funny going on, as it were, because in Plato’s timeless work on political justice, the main interlocutors, Cephalus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates all laugh at one time or another, and in some cases, several times.

The occasions of scornful laughter toward the end of the dialogue, when Socrates has seemingly sealed the victory of justice over injustice, call one to laugh at cheaters and the unjust (613c1, d8). But there is actually very little laughing in the last one-third of the text (the fun seems to end at the close of Book Seven, although geloian appears once (620a1) in Book Ten as well as gelôtopoios (620c3) — both in the myth of Er). Far more telling, then, are the occasions of laughter, the ridiculous or absurd within the discussion of mathematics (Book Seven) in respect to the education of the guardians. Here we see Socrates frequently appeal to a sort of argumentum ad absurdum whereby he disqualifies certain absurd (literally, laughable) possibilities and arrives at answers that accord better with common sense. Several passages (529d8, e8, 530a2, 531a5) show rather clearly that Socrates occasionally equates what is laughable with what is untrue. On such occasions we translate geloios, laughable, as “absurd. ”

I believe that one of the main reasons that there is so much laughter in the Republic is because there is so much absurdity within the discussions there. Cephalus, as we shall see, laughs at the outset of the discussion itself, while Thrasymachus laughs at Socrates’ manipulations of that discussion. Some parts of the talks are explicitly referred to as funny and some conclusions as absurd. But more subtly, I think Plato gives some indications to us, readers and interpreters of the dialogue, that there are several places in his text that he is simply not being serious. Bearing this in mind, what I attempt to do in this essay is to give a reading of the text that pays especial attention to the appearance of laughter and the laughable, and thus to determine how this may force us to reconsider how the text is traditionally (i. e. rather solemnly) interpreted.

The first mention of laughter in the dialogue occurs early on (330d9), when Cephalus explains to Socrates the concerns of aged men, and that although they may laugh at, or laugh down (katagelan), tales of the afterlife, something about the punishments meted out there tends to nag at them. Cephalus will thus go off for the sacred rites rather than sit around with Socrates and debate justice — Cephalus goes off laughing (hos gelasas, 331d9).

Polemarchus, defending his father Cephalus’ common-sense definition of justice, says “It is just to render to each his due” (331e). Of course, Polemarchus thus leaves out the requirement of his father that truth must be told — for Cephalus had said that justice is “to tell the truth and return what one has received” (331c). While the conclusion of the discussion between Socrates and Polemarchus is that no wise man could have meant by justice to render to each his due, to benefit friends and harm enemies, perhaps more important are the following two unjustified premises used: (a) justice is the virtue of men; and, (b) the just is the good (335c, d).

But what evidence supports the two premises, or perhaps they are axiomatic? Whether indeed worthy to be accepted or not, the scene is prepared for the entrance of one character who flatly rejects these premises, at least initially. The preparation occurs through Socrates’ jesting jingoism — since Socrates and Polemarchus have uncovered that in no case is it just to harm anyone, they will take up arms (machoumetha) against anyone who tries to defend the erroneous definition of justice, and Polemarchus declares himself ready to do battle (maches) along with Socrates. This machoumetha and maches prepare the entry of Thrasymachus (335e, 336b).

Thrasymachus is the next to laugh. He does so derisively and sardonically (337a2), pointing out the irony of Socrates. He formulates his definition thus: “I posit that the just is no other than the advantage of the stronger. ” When Socrates misapprehends his meaning, Thrasymachus calls Socrates a fool, cad, or buffoon (338d). Thrasymachus says injustice when consummate is prudent and good, and the unjust man gains power over all, overreaching, seeking — as Hobbes would later say of all of us — power after power. But here is where Socrates trips him up. Overreaching, is it not in some way unnatural? At least, the physician will not over-prescribe medicines, but only moderately, if he will achieve health; the musician will not over-tune his lyre, but harmoniously, if he wants to produce beautiful music. Excellence seems to consist of moderation and harmony, not overreaching. Thus it will be the just man, who does not overreach, who is using good judgment, is prudent and good, and not the unjust man, overreaching.

While Socrates would call justice both choiceworthy in itself and for its fruits, Glaucon raises the challenge that the multitude see justice rather as an evil, but one which is necessary to bear for the rewards it brings. Thrasymachus had himself suggested this, and Glaucon intends to take up this position — but Glaucon will leave aside the issue of rewards, of the consequences of justice; rather, he will seek to learn what potency and effect justice and injustice have in the soul. Glaucon will, then, praise injustice and undermine justice, desirous to hear Socrates rush to the defense of justice, to hear an encomium on justice.

Glaucon begins claiming that the nature of justice is merely a convention, a means by which the many weak can prevent suffering injustice at the hands of real men, while all agree that it is good to commit injustice but bad to suffer it. Indeed, the fable of the magic ring of Gyges shows that anyone who could do injustice with impunity would certainly do so — a just man with a magic ring would do the same deeds as an unjust man. Either type — just or unjust — would make use of his special condition to have sex with whomever he wanted, to kill whomsoever he pleased, and in short to be equal to a god among men. It becomes clear that anyone with the means to be so unjust would laugh (gelan) when he heard justice praised (366c2).

Socrates, with Adeimantes’ help, begins to design a city in his great quest to discover the nature of justice and uncover its inherent superiority to injustice. The construction of this city depends on a curious premise: our natures are not alike but are different, the upshot of which is that one man is naturally fitted for one task, another for another. Having divided all labor and duties and so on, Socrates and Adeimantus regard the city as complete and then wonder where justice and injustice are to be found in it. But Glaucon breaks in to object to the city; it lacks relishes, it’s only fit for pigs (372c-d).

Socrates thought the city already described to be true and healthy, but since their project is to uncover the origin of justice and injustice, it is just as well to construct a luxurious city, what Socrates calls a “fevered, ” or phlegmatic, city. Here come in immoderation, power seeking, and ultimately war. War and protection of the city require a suitable body of citizens fit for the task, and these are called the guardians. Now, the guardians must not be laughter-loving, or prone to laughter (philogelôtas), since violent laughter (ischurôi gelôti) provokes too strong a reaction (388e). These proclamations force us to think back to the first Book of Cephalus’ leaving to perform the sacred rites, laughingly (hos gelasas, 331d).

Socrates and Adeimantus practically prohibit laughter in the city, at least among the guardians, and fill it with lies and the manipulations of myths, then move along to the banishment of songs and singers, but at this point Glaucon interrupts, laughing (epigelasas, 388e) — he is not a party to all of these decisions. Indeed, Glaucon’s luxurious city has been purged by Socrates and Adeimantus, who anyway had taken no objection to the city of pigs. But the latter two carry on, and put the scalpel to the subject of music, then discuss gymnastics and lay down the full education of the guardian class.

Like the Presidium of Soviet states, Socrates’ city needs a permanent overseer. Under this body we contrive various tests to determine whether the guardians are truly guardians in their soul, or mere workers — and then comes the idea of a noble lie, a lie to keep order in the city. In addition to the lies, the guardians will live in common as the Spartans did. They will have no intercourse with jewels and jewelers since, as according to the noble lie, their gold and silver is within. With the factors contributing to corruption removed, there is less likelyhood for corruption — otherwise stated, justice depends on removing the opportunity for injustice. By living in common, all can be completely, clearly seen. But is this not the polar opposite of Gyges’ magic ring?

Now, it is interesting to note that after the discussion of education, a harmonious and right — if not perfect — education, we shift to self-interest, noble-lies, and potential tyranny. It is clear, then, that education is not sufficient to form a just city; there must be some tales about human nature, if not a very change in it. Socrates and Glaucon agreed that putting certain people, the chronic evil-natured, to death would best serve the ends of the city, despite the tentative conclusion in the first Book that the just man would harm no one. So what is happening in this city?

I see essentially two possibilities of interpretation of this ideal city of Socrates. One would be that taken by Popper, that Plato is an enemy of “open societies, ” that he undervalues our liberal world’s core conceptions of freedom, equality, right to life, etc., that he is an elitist advocating Stalinist government, and so on. And, of course, if the city Socrates constructs were meant in earnest then we could not disagree with Popper — at any rate we know that Plato’s era was one of elitism (even in its democracy), rejection of freedom (slavery), tyrannical government was not unusual, etc. However, the key supposition according to this interpretation is that Socrates is in earnest.

The second possibility, the correct one I believe, is to understand the many contradictions and twists of the argument in the construction of the city to show that Socrates is not entirely serious. This is of course not to say that the Republic is not a serious text — it is one of the most serious precisely because it jests about certain points: we might say that Plato shows us what would be the result of trying to change human nature the extent required to develop an entirely just city; it is ridiculous. Here then we uncover the reason that so much attention is paid to laughter. Some of the moves that Socrates makes while constructing the “ideal city” are designed to amuse — consider in this light the discussion of the dog’s philosophical nature.

The ridiculousness is best seen in the several contradictions — as, for example, in the fact that with Thrasymachus Socrates wanted to bring out other faces of human life not reducible to the political while in the constructed city all sides, private or public, of human life are subsumed under the political. But there is one fundamental contradiction which shows this best. This is that Plato could in no way be understood to advocate a city wherein the possibility of a Socrates is precluded. However, the ideal city of the text is just such a city. This is essentially the reason for the frequency of laughter in the text.

If this can be discerned as early as the third of ten books, it is difficult to understand why Plato should carry on constructing the city for so long? Consider the Statesman: The divisions in the dialogue, already too tedious, lead to a more tedious speech by the Stranger on the length at which he speaks, followed by ever more divisions. Still there are highly philosophically important passages and episodes in the Statesman, there is no question about that. And the same is obviously true for the Republic. At the same time, the farcical passages of these and other dialogues are equally informative. As the Statesman demonstrates, philosophy cannot be done with a meter-stick. And of course Plato could have established this — as he does, for example, in the Meno — in a couple of pages. Similarly, and in a word, the Republic shows through its long and laughable quest for the ideal city that an ideal city is impossible — perfect, absolute justice is at any rate not humanly possible. Thus the recurrent motif of laughter; see, inter alia, 331d, 388e, 398c, 451b2, 452b5, 457b3, 473c.

Be this as it may, the modern reader delights in the fact that early in the fourth Book the city is complete. What remains, then, is to find justice in the city, in order to determine, as was the original task, whether the just life is more choiceworthy than the unjust. Socrates begins by begging the question, just as he did in Book One with Thrasymachus: he states that if the city they have created is good, then wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice should be found there; but the very question was whether justice is good.

Justice, it turns out, has been tumbling about at their feet all along, and they were laughable or ludicrous not to see it (katagelastos, 432d9): it is found in the early axiom (from 370b) in the construction of the city that our natures are not alike but different, and that one man is naturally fit for one task while another for another. Justice is grounded in our being by nature different, in some being naturally superior, in a person’s activity being fit to his nature. But if justice in the city is each performing his natural task, what would it be in the individual? For, it was to answer this question that Socrates and his friends turned toward the city — the soul writ large — in the first place. Justice in the soul, as in the city, is for each part to perform its task — is for the naturally superior, in this case reason, to rule.

To determine whether the just life is inherently choiceworthy also requires determining what injustice is, or where it is to be found in the city and consequently the soul. In the city it would obviously amount to civil war, and just so in the soul: if justice is a sort of health or natural harmony among the parts of the soul, then injustice would be disease, just as civil war is the city’s greatest disease.

The last step would be to determine whether it is better to be just or unjust, even supposing that others think the just man unjust, etc. — that is, the original question sparked by Thrasymachus and supported by the ring of Gyges and Glaucon and Adeimantus’ other arguments must now be faced. Glaucon, however, thinks it laughable, ridiculous or “absurd” (geloios, 445a5), and Socrates agrees that “it is absurd” (445b6) to take the final step — with justice established as the soul’s health and injustice as a sickness of soul, what need is there to develop further how the just life is the more choiceworthy? Nevertheless, Socrates presses forward.

But before Socrates can execute what should be the final step of the argument, there is an insurrection among the interlocutors, forcing Socrates to digress, to flesh out what he had earlier hinted about having property, wives, and children in common in the ideal city. The discussion provokes much talk of laughter and ridiculousness (451b2, 452b5, 457b3), primarily but not exclusively due to the idea that the women would exercise in the nude along with men. Glaucon laughs (gelasas, 451b2) at Socrates’ trepidation, just after Socrates says he hesitates to speak not for fear of being laughed at (gelôta, 451a1), but for fear of being in error. This coed gymnastics solves the problem of sexual union, toward which all are compelled by innate necessity — what Glaucon calls erotic, as opposed to geometric, necessity, adding that this necessity is keener and more potent to persuade and constrain the many (458d).

But there can be no promiscuity, rulers will not suffer such disorder, and so marriages must be arranged; the people will be bred like dogs or cocks. For this, the rulers will have to make considerable use of falsehoods and deception, eugenics will be practiced, the offspring of the inferior will be murdered secretly and disposed of, all to maintain purity (460c). Incest must be avoided, so certain mathematics will be employed to avoid any man procreating with any woman to whom he is closely related — but what of erotic versus geometric necessity? Do we run the risk of sex, the more potent of the two, riding roughshod over math leading to a polis of incest, a Sodom? However that be, the interlocutors agree to destroy any child born of incest — unless the Delphic oracle happens to approve of the union.

Socrates hesitates to say how he thinks the polis could come in any way near to realization, because he knows that his notion would meet with laughter and incredulousness (ekgelôn kai adoxiai, 473c). The answer is of course that philosophers must become kings or that the present rulers must take to philosophy — in no other way could the present city in speech ever come close to realization and see the light of the sun. Glaucon thinks laughter and incredulousness not accurate to describe the reaction the many would have to this suggestion; rather, Socrates would be scorned and flouted, and suffer dreadful deeds (474a). Socrates, in attempting to defend himself, clarifies and fleshes out his suggestion. It is in this context that the ideas or forms are discussed, and it is the apprehension and contemplation of these forms, eternal and unchanging, that is the mark of distinction for the philosopher.

Adeimantus is the next to poke fun while discussing the issue of philosophers becoming rulers. Socrates says to Adeimantus, “You are making fun of me after driving me into an impasse of argument” (skôptein, 487e8). Whether or not philosophers should rule, it would be nearly impossible to persuade the multitude to accept the rule of philosophers, and impossible to persuade philosophers to rule. In line with these predicaments, Socrates explains through the allegory of the sun, the famous divided line, and the simile of the cave not only the true nature of the philosopher — and, incidentally, why he would not condescend to rule — but also the true nature of the multitude (about whom it is laughable or ridiculous (katagelan, 493e1) to believe they would accept philosophers as their rulers), unwitting spelunkers, and situates these ‘natures’ within the fabric of nature herself, which springs out of the Good, or perhaps the Idea of the Good.

Again, it is mentioned several times that he who would propose philosophers as kings would be justly laughed at or ridiculed (katagelôimetha, 499c5). Even Socrates’ attempt to detail these thoughts in relation to the good runs the risk of making him a laughing-stock (gelôta, 506d9), and forces Glaucon to let out ludicrous appeals to Apollo (geloiôs, 509c1).

While Book Seven opens with the description of the cave, of how much laughter he who had left the cave would provoke upon his return (geloios, 517a3), and how he too would laugh at those within (gelôi, gelan, katagelastos, gelôs, 517d6, 518a8, b4-5), or in other words with weighty evidence that the philosopher would never willingly rule, the book concludes by the suggestion that the just city may in fact be possible if (i) philosophers are compelled to rule, (ii) the education of future rulers is strictly regimented and orientated toward the correct goals, war hand in hand with contemplation of the ideas, etc., and, (iii) if — as the Book closes — all citizens over the age of ten are banished from the city so that the founders of the city can get to work creating the truly just city out of a given one. There is, in short, a great tension visible between what Socrates tells us about the only truly just man, the philosopher, and the just city — a city employing lies, deceit, killing, and so forth. At one point, Socrates states that he “forgot that they were jesting, ” and that he has made himself ridiculous — though trying to avoid bringing a great flood of laughs or ridicule upon philosophy — speaking with too great intensity (gelôta, 536b7-8, c1).

Book Eight picks up where the conversation digressed at the opening of Book Five. Intriguingly, the laughing and ludicrousness and absurdity basically end here. There are few further mentions of related terms, perhaps the most interesting being that where Socrates describes the tyrant as having “smiled” at everyone early in his career. I believe that the joking ends because the subject changes in a very broad or general way from the ideal city to actual regimes. Perhaps real politics is nothing to laugh at?

But whether or not the lull in laughter may be used as gauge for a rise in earnestness — and to determine this would double the length of this essay — it is certainly common-sensical to see heightened concentrations of instances of laughter as indications of comic material, such as exaggeration, jest, and irony. Justice in the Republic always remains axiomatic; at least in the first seven books, it always sneaks in as a stated premise, and does not appear as a conclusion arrived at. The effort to prove the inherent choiceworthyness of justice within the parameters set down by Glaucon and Adeimantus is as impossible as the effort to construct an ideal, perfectly just city. The ideal city constructed under Socrates’ lead is not only a tyranny of lies and deception, eugenics and murder, a Bradburian/Orwellian nightmare, it is even more significantly (for Plato’s concern), one where a Socrates would be a priori impossible. The development of such a city, then, could not have been Plato’s teaching, and the fact that everyone in the dialogue laughs gives us a strong hint that even Plato regarded the project as absurd.


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