Appendix. Plato’s Self-Disclosures

A Discussion of Gaiser’s Interpretation

The present Appendix is designed to integrate my discussion of Plato’s self-referential statements and their references to Gaiser’s work, which my general Introduction builds upon. It is also intended as a tribute to what I regard as a milestone in Platonic studies.

Four Self-Disclosures

The sequence in which Gaiser (1984) examines Plato’s self-disclosures, i.e. those passages in which Plato seems to allude to his own works, follows the lectures that provided the primary subject matter of the current book. However, I find it more useful to appraise these self-disclosures in accordance with their importance. I shall start, therefore, with the most obvious case, before dealing with the less straightforward ones. [1]

Laws 811b–e and 817b [2]

The clearest instance of self-disclosure is found in the seventh book of the Laws, as Paul Friedländer noticed long ago. [3] At 811a–c we hear that good education needs good writings, but where can one find a good paradigm for the latter? The Athenian has no hesitation: the conversation he has been having with his two interlocutors resembles poetry and bears the signs of divine inspiration (οὐκ ἄνευ τινὸς ἐπιπνοίας θεῶν), thus making an appropriate paradigm. Such speeches should be written down, and any such conversation, either in prose or in verse, can be used as a proper and effective means for the education of young people. Later on, the Athenian engages in an imaginary conversation with prospective playwrights about the ideal city, and famously adopts the persona of a tragic poet, in a passage we have already examined:
τῶν δὲ σπουδαίων, ὥς φασι, τῶν περὶ τραγῳδίαν ἡμῖν ποιητῶν, ἐάν ποτέ τινες αὐτῶν ἡμᾶς ἐλθόντες ἐπανερωτήσωσιν οὑτωσί πως· “Ὦ ξένοι, πότερον φοιτῶμεν ὑμῖν εἰς τὴν πόλιν τε καὶ χώραν ἢ μή, καὶ τὴν ποίησιν φέρωμέν τε καὶ ἄγωμεν, ἢ πῶς ὑμῖν δέδοκται περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα δρᾶν;”—τί οὖν ἂν πρὸς ταῦτα ὀρθῶς ἀποκριναίμεθα τοῖς θείοις ἀνδράσιν; ἐμοὶ μὲν γὰρ δοκεῖ τάδε· “Ὦ ἄριστοι,” φάναι, “τῶν ξένων, ἡμεῖς ἐσμὲν τραγῳδίας αὐτοὶ ποιηταὶ κατὰ δύναμιν ὅτι καλλίστης ἅμα καὶ ἀρίστης· πᾶσα οὖν ἡμῖν ἡ πολιτεία συνέστηκε μίμησις τοῦ καλλίστου καὶ ἀρίστου βίου, ὃ δή φαμεν ἡμεῖς γε ὄντως εἶναι τραγῳδίαν τὴν ἀληθεστάτην. ποιηταὶ μὲν οὖν ὑμεῖς, ποιηταὶ δὲ καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐσμὲν τῶν αὐτῶν, ὑμῖν ἀντίτεχνοί τε καὶ ἀνταγωνισταὶ τοῦ καλλίστου δράματος, ὃ δὴ νόμος ἀληθὴς μόνος ἀποτελεῖν πέφυκεν, ὡς ἡ παρ’ ἡμῶν ἐστιν ἐλπίς.”
And, if any of the serious poets, as they are termed, who write tragedy, come to us and say “O strangers, may we go to your city and country or may we not, and shall we bring with us our poetry, what is your will about these matters?” How shall we answer the divine men? I think that our answer should be as follows: “Best of strangers,” we will say to them, “we also according to our ability are tragic poets, and our tragedy is the best and noblest; for our whole state is an imitation of the best and noblest life, which we affirm to be indeed the very truth of tragedy. You are poets and we are poets, both makers of the same strains, rivals and antagonists in the noblest of dramas, which true law can alone perfect, as our hope is.”
Plato Laws 817a–c, trans. Jowett
From this passage one can deduce that the laws of the city, or rather the Laws as dialogue, are being equated with the finest tragedy, which leads Gaiser to conclude that Plato is here referring to his own work: the dialogues are meant to replace poetry, because they are themselves a kind of poetry (or a poem of sorts). [4]

Phaedrus 274b–279c [5]

The conclusion to the Phaedrus is a notorious battlefield. According to Socrates, no true philosopher would confide his “serious” thoughts to written works, since writings are intrinsically non-serious. Written logoi are a lifeless image (eidôlon) of authentic speech, and, in order to drive home his point Socrates resorts to a celebrated agricultural simile: a serious farmer would never entrust his most precious seeds to the so-called “gardens of Adonis,” which grow quickly, but produce nothing substantial; on the contrary, he follows the longer process of proper agriculture. [6] From this perspective, writing is assimilated to the ephemeral gardens of Adonis, whereas true philosophy is like serious agriculture, in that the seeds sown in the pupil’s soul will result in vigorous and solid growth. [7] Once detached from their “father,” moreover, written logoi are not able to defend themselves, and are exposed to the abuse of all kinds of people, who may be incapable of understanding them properly. [8] As is well known, this is one of the most discussed passages in the entire Platonic corpus; does Socrates’ critique of written work affect Plato’s dialogues as well? This is not the place to revive an endless debate. Suffice it to say that Gaiser advances two important arguments that strongly suggest an affirmative answer. [9] Namely, that Plato’s dialogues, at least to some extent, are indeed affected by Socrates’ critique:
  • That Plato’s Phaedrus could in fact, like the writings referred to by Socrates, end up in the hands of careless people is a very likely possibility, given that Plato’s intended audience is the general public. Whether or not we believe that Plato’s authorial self-effacement is meant as a preemptive move against such risks, Socrates does not make any exception: all written works are exposed to this danger.
  • Socrates’ description of written works as a playful activity partially offsets his critique. Of course, oral speech is superior; nevertheless, playing with written words is a beautiful game. Such a game is the hallmark of a noble man, who, in his old age, can look at his written offspring with moderate pride. Remarkably, the end of the Phaedrus is announced by Socrates’ comment that he and Phaedrus “have played enough” (278b), which, once again, gives the whole discussion a self-referential air. [10]
  • Proper writing is described as the activity of a man who knows and who is able to “mythologize” (muthologein) about the good and the just (276e). As Gaiser remarks, this brings to mind the contents of the dialogues: the Republic, for example, is undoubtedly devoted to the good and the just. We may add two important details overlooked by Gaiser: Socrates’ arguments in the Republic are repeatedly described as a form of mythology, [11] and the presence of myth, according to the Phaedo, is the defining quality of poetry (see below).
All in all, the Phaedrus, by referring to good writing (i.e. to Plato’s dialogues) as a playful activity, introduces the notion of literature as lusus, and, of course, gives us important indications as to how we should approach Plato’s works. [12]

Symposium 212c–233d [13]

Gaiser deals with two passages from the Symposium. The first, discussed in detail in Chapter 3, contains the well-known comparison of Socrates to a statuette representing Silenus: once opened, the ugly, ridiculous statuette will reveal divine images within. [14] Such is Socrates, and such, especially, are his logoi. Commenting on this passage, Gaiser puts forth a series of arguments suggesting that Alcibiades’ words have metaliterary implications. Here is a list of those that strike me as being the most convincing:
  • According to Alcibiades, the twofold nature of Socrates’ logoi is maintained, even when his words are reported by other speakers (or by secondary narrators): the Symposium is clearly a narration of a narration of Socrates’ words.
  • Alcibiades’ own speech is ridiculous and elicits the laughter of his companions, but at the same time it gives us the most detailed portrait we have of Socrates. Thus, his words, combining the serious with the jocular, are likely to have a self-referential quality.
  • Plato’s dialogues are, for the most part, nothing less than sokratikoi logoi, the name given them as early as Aristotle’s Poetics. Thus, Socrates’ words are, in a sense, Plato’s works.
Gaiser’s second passage concerns the dialogue’s very last scene. In a somewhat mysterious manner, the Symposium ends with an argument about drama. Socrates forces his sleepy companions (only Aristophanes the comedian and Agathon the tragic poet are still awake) to admit that, contrary to contemporary conventions, a true poet should be able to compose both comedy and tragedy. This sounds like an analogue to Socrates’ twofold speeches, which combine a ridiculous manner with serious content. Like other scholars, [15] Gaiser suggests that the “true poet” alluded to in the Symposium’s final scene is none other than Plato. However, Gaiser goes further in noting that this “true poetry,” combining the serious and the ridiculous, corresponds rather neatly to the twofold nature of Socrates’ words (alias Plato’s works). Moreover, the Symposium singles out Socrates as the best speaker of the company, who easily prevails over such poets and rhetors as Agathon, Aristophanes, Pausanias, and Phaedrus. Consequently, Socrates’ words and Plato’s works are implicitly presented as a superior form of poetry, incorporating and superseding all previous genres. [16]

Phaedo 60c–61b [17]

In the Phaedo we learn that Socrates, on the last day of his life, had second thoughts about mousikê. A recurrent dream had long been urging him to practice mousikê, something he had always understood to be an invitation to continue his untiring research, philosophia being the highest form of mousikê (a Platonic leitmotiv, as we know). On the eve of his death, however, Socrates suspects that the dream might have a more literal meaning: the god wants him to practice mousikê in the literal sense, which is why Socrates tries his hand at poetry while in prison. He works on a hymn to Apollo and tries to put some of Aesop’s tales into verse. Gaiser points out two important facts:
  • Socrates’ first mention of Aesop (59a) recalls passage b) from the Symposium, in that Socrates refers to the strange mixture of pleasure and pain he felt from the relief of being released from his chains. The two feelings, he observes, always go hand in hand, and one of Aesop’s tales on the subject might have been inspired by his envisaging a two-masked creature: the mask of pain necessarily follows that of pleasure, and vice versa. This also reminds one of the discussion of tragedy and comedy in the Philebus (47d–50a), where both genres are said to always involve a mixture of pleasure and pain.
  • Socrates explicitly affirms that poetry, qua poetry, involves muthos, which is its hallmark and defining quality. Socrates himself, however, is not muthologikos, i.e. he is not able to create myths. This is why he merely puts Aesop’s tales to verse, thereby utilizing a set of easily accessible, ready-made myths. Nevertheless, the Phaedo itself contains new myths (one thinks of the Apollonian swan song mentioned at 84e–85b, and, in particular, the eschatological myth that concludes the dialogue) and may be construed as a kind of hymn to Apollo. Moreover, Plato is certainly muthologikos, and, being muthologikos, he is most certainly a poet, according to Socrates’ (i.e. Plato’s own) definition.
Gaiser concludes that Socrates’ poetic efforts should be read, therefore, as an allusion to Plato himself as a “philosophical poet,” whose ambition is to engage with the most venerable tradition of Greek poetry. [18]

A Possible Objection

The cumulative force of the above four instances of “self-disclosure” is considerable, but therein lies a possible problem: prima facie Plato’s self-disclosures may look confusingly disparate, even though it would be easy (and by no means implausible) to account for such a variety in the light of the dialogues’ changing contexts, as I shall do in the case of the Laws. In the Symposium, on the other hand, they are an unprecedented form of drama combining comedy and tragedy. Yet only the former seems to play a role in the Phaedrus, where Socrates emphasizes the jocular nature of writing. Then again, in the Phaedo, we are confronted with a hymn. And if that were not enough, the other passages Gaiser discusses in his introduction suggest that the dialogues can be a form of both incantation (epôidê) and purification (katharsis). In other words, the landscape looks overly complicated. Unless we are prepared to think of Plato as a Protean flip-flopper, a better explanation is needed. And this is all the more necessary if one discards, as I do, chronological solutions to Plato’s alleged, or apparent, contradictions. [19]
One has to realize above all that Plato’s idea of poetic genres was different from our own (and from that of Alexandrian scholars, for that matter). Genres began to be perceived as rigid categories only when the social circumstances that gave them birth began to change, and when literature (as a bookish activity) came to replace poetry (as a social and largely oral phenomenon). [20] Ever since Havelock’s studies, it has been generally accepted that Plato was a transitional author coming somewhere between the world of oral poetry and written literature. [21] This explains why the notion of genres is a very fluid one in Plato’s dialogues and why it reflects a number of points of view. In the Republic, for example, Plato puts forward the pioneering distinction between mimêsis and diêgêsis, but, at the same time, treats Homer and the tragedians as belonging in the same category. [22] Another example is lyric poetry: there was no such notion in archaic Greece, and Genette has famously argued that the very idea of lyric poetry is absent in both Plato and Aristotle. [23]
Part of the problem, then, lies in the fact that we tend to see as distinct categories a number of poetic phenomena that Plato would have considered, if not coincident, to be by and large overlapping. One should never forget that the basic classification of poetry in the Greek world was based on a binary opposition between praise and blame, something that is likely to have originated in Indo-European poetry and remains a fundamental criterion in Aristotle’s Poetics. [24] Even more importantly, Plato ridicules the likes of Evenus of Paros, who developed more articulated distinctions. [25] Bearing this in mind, we can now try to form a clear idea of the generic distinctions that can be found throughout the whole corpus.
By way of summary, we can say that Gaiser’s thesis is that Plato looked upon his own work as a form of poetry, which could take the general form of either enchantment or purification—or, more specifically, be construed as tragedy (Laws), as a mixture of tragedy and comedy (Symposium), as a hymn (Phaedo), or even as a jocular activity consisting in playful muthologia (Phaedrus). In Plato’s dialogues, humnos refers to a variety of poems, or, as we moderns would say, genres. In his detailed study, Roberto Velardi has shown that the usage of humnos and its cognates in the dialogues is (as one would expect) very fluid. [26] At times the term seems to indicate a rather specific category of poems composed in honor of the gods, [27] though examples of this are not numerous and are curiously confined to the Republic and the Laws-Epinomis (i.e. to ideal as opposed to real cities on the whole). [28] On other occasions, the term is used for poems or speeches devoted to men (as opposed to gods) and can indicate very different genres, including tragedy, prose, and epic. [29] None of this, however, is surprising, given that Plato often uses the term(s) poet/poetry for prose compositions, [30] and, in the Republic, goes so far as to define poetry as a form of rhetoric “dressed up” in a beautiful fashion. [31]
The Phaedo’s self-disclosure, then, does not contradict those found in the Laws or in the Symposium, because the term humnos is general enough to accommodate tragedy as well. Or perhaps I should say, it comprises that kind of purified, pious tragedy, which, according to the Laws, coincides ultimately with philosophical discourse. In fact, the only consistent antinomy one finds throughout the dialogues is that between eulogy and blame. Both are fiercely criticized from a factual and historical point of view, and yet both discourses, if properly reformed, are admitted to a place in Plato’s ideal cities. They are also crucial to Plato’s own poetic fabric: comic and tragic elements, in different combinations and proportions, are a crucial subtext in much Platonic writing. From this point of view, it should be noted that the Phaedo, when referring to poetry, touches on Aesop’s tales and on a hymn to Apollo. Aesop was, of course, a popular comic figure who closely resembled Socrates himself: he was notoriously ugly, and yet, just like Socrates, his unprepossessing appearance concealed a divine wisdom. Recent scholarship has led to the fascinating discovery that Socrates’ trial, as depicted by Plato in the Apology, incorporates various elements of Aesop’s biography, which makes the parallel an arresting one. [32]
Thus, in conclusion, the Phaedo features a twofold self-disclosure, both serious and comic, which clearly echoes the Symposium. At the same time, it also tallies with the Phaedrus: there too, the jocular activity of writing is tantamount to the narration of myths (muthologia), and (as we have seen) the presence of myth is precisely the hallmark of poetry according to the Phaedo. In the Phaedrus, moreover, the writer’s “game” is viewed favorably as a more dignified activity compared with sympotic pleasure, not to mention the fact that Socrates’ “palinode” in the Phaedrus—itself another self-disclosure—is crucially described as “a jocular and mythological hymn.” [33] In short, Plato’s self-disclosures are connected by a network of multiple links.
By now, the “Protean” variety of Plato’s self-disclosures should appear far less confusing. The Phaedo, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium, though bearing different labels, constitute a fairly unified viewpoint. Plato refers to his dialogues as a new kind of poetry made up of a peculiar blend of serious and jocular elements, and this twofold nature is a close reflection of the twofold nature of Plato’s principal protagonist, Socrates, himself. Yet we still have to explain why the Laws, though not in contradiction with the other passages Gaiser discusses, is focused exclusively on tragedy, i.e. on the serious side of Plato’s own meta-poetic self-characterization. [34] One does not have to look far for the answer however, for this is the one dialogue in the whole corpus that does not feature Socrates as a character. Accordingly, the uncharacteristically dogmatic dialogue lacks the peculiar mixture of serious and jocular that is the distinguishing characteristic of Socrates, [35] the daemonic man who combines physical ugliness with sublime wisdom. [36]

Reductio ad Duo: Plato’s Seriocomic Poetry

The generic markers that feature in Plato’s self-disclosures prove, therefore, to be consistent on the whole. Nevertheless, one must still account for Gaiser’s more general categories: purification (katharsis) and enchantment (epôidê). As I have mentioned, these are two different, if complementary, modes of Plato’s philosophy. But how do they relate to Plato’s more specific self-disclosures? The answer is a relatively easy one, since Plato’s various self-conscious moments can now be placed into two general categories: the jocular and the serious. It is my contention that purification and incantation can be broadly associated with the jocular and the serious, respectively. That “enchanting” is a basically “serious” procedure should not be controversial: the very usage of epôidê in the dialogues points to a focused state of mind, and the similarity between incantation on the one hand and tragedy or hymn on the other (that is, the serious side of Plato’s self-disclosures) is obvious enough. [37] Thus, in what follows, my focus will be on the other, less obvious association of purification and the jocular.
Socratic elenchus can result in an entertaining spectacle, as Socrates plainly states in the Apology: young people experience pleasure in listening to him refuting his pompous interlocutors (χαίρουσιν ἀκούοντες, 23b). It is surely no accident, then, that the aporetic dialogues, in which Socrates demolishes various people’s claims to knowledge and often deflates their egos in the process, are the richest in humor and comic elements. By contrast, fully “constructive” or dogmatic dialogues such as the Laws are much less entertaining, and it is not surprising that Socrates does not star in this dialogue, which is the one instance of Platonic self-disclosure where there are no jocular elements. [38]
One strategy to prove the basically jocular nature of Socratic elenchus might be to search the elenctic dialogues for comic elements. A thorough examination would reveal that comedy—even as a deliberate emulation of Aristophanes and other playwrights—is a very important ingredient in these dialogues. [39] This would require another book, however, so it might be better to follow a shorter, more theoretical path. With this in mind, we shall take a close look at the well-known passage from the Sophist, which, it is generally agreed, describes the effects of Socratic refutation: [40]
{ΞΕ.} Τί δὲ δὴ τῷ τῆς διδασκαλικῆς ἄρα μέρει τῷ τοῦτο ἀπαλλάττοντι λεκτέον; […] Τὸ μὲν ἀρχαιοπρεπές τι πάτριον, ᾧ πρὸς τοὺς ὑεῖς μάλιστ’ ἐχρῶντό τε καὶ ἔτι πολλοὶ χρῶνται τὰ νῦν, ὅταν αὐτοῖς ἐξαμαρτάνωσί τι, τὰ μὲν χαλεπαίνοντες, τὰ δὲ μαλθακωτέρως παραμυθούμενοι· τὸ δ’ οὖν σύμπαν αὐτὸ ὀρθότατα εἴποι τις ἂν νουθετητικήν. […] Τὸ δέ γε, εἴξασί τινες αὖ λόγον ἑαυτοῖς δόντες ἡγήσασθαι πᾶσαν ἀκούσιον ἀμαθίαν εἶναι, καὶ μαθεῖν οὐδέν ποτ’ ἂν ἐθέλειν τὸν οἰόμενον εἶναι σοφὸν τούτων ὧν οἴοιτο πέρι δεινὸς εἶναι, μετὰ δὲ πολλοῦ πόνου τὸ νουθετητικὸν εἶδος τῆς παιδείας σμικρὸν ἀνύτειν. […] Τῷ τοι ταύτης τῆς δόξης ἐπὶ ἐκβολὴν ἄλλῳ τρόπῳ στέλλονται […] Διερωτῶσιν ὧν ἂν οἴηταί τίς τι πέρι λέγειν λέγων μηδέν· εἶθ’ ἅτε πλανωμένων τὰς δόξας ῥᾳδίως ἐξετάζουσι, καὶ συνάγοντες δὴ τοῖς λόγοις εἰς ταὐτὸν τιθέασι παρ’ ἀλλήλας, τιθέντες δὲ ἐπιδεικνύουσιν αὐτὰς αὑταῖς ἅμα περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πρὸς τὰ αὐτὰ κατὰ ταὐτὰ ἐναντίας. οἱ δ’ ὁρῶντες ἑαυτοῖς μὲν χαλεπαίνουσι, πρὸς δὲ τοὺς ἄλλους ἡμεροῦνται, καὶ τούτῳ δὴ τῷ τρόπῳ τῶν περὶ αὑτοὺς μεγάλων καὶ σκληρῶν δοξῶν ἀπαλλάττονται πασῶν [τε] ἀπαλλαγῶν ἀκούειν τε ἡδίστην καὶ τῷ πάσχοντι βεβαιότατα γιγνομένην. νομίζοντες γάρ, ὦ παῖ φίλε, οἱ καθαίροντες αὐτούς, ὥσπερ οἱ περὶ τὰ σώματα ἰατροὶ νενομίκασι μὴ πρότερον ἂν τῆς προσφερομένης τροφῆς ἀπολαύειν δύνασθαι σῶμα, πρὶν ἂν τὰ ἐμποδίζοντα ἐντός τις ἐκβάλῃ, ταὐτὸν καὶ περὶ ψυχῆς διενοήθησαν ἐκεῖνοι, μὴ πρότερον αὐτὴν ἕξειν τῶν προσφερομένων μαθημάτων ὄνησιν, πρὶν ἂν ἐλέγχων τις τὸν ἐλεγχόμενον εἰς αἰσχύνην καταστήσας, τὰς τοῖς μαθήμασιν ἐμποδίους δόξας ἐξελών, καθαρὸν ἀποφήνῃ καὶ ταῦτα ἡγούμενον ἅπερ οἶδεν εἰδέναι μόνα, πλείω δὲ μή. […] Διὰ ταῦτα δὴ πάντα ἡμῖν, ὦ Θεαίτητε, καὶ τὸν ἔλεγχον λεκτέον ὡς ἄρα μεγίστη καὶ κυριωτάτη τῶν καθάρσεών ἐστι.
What name, then, shall be given to the sort of instruction which gets rid of this [ignorant stupidity]? […] There is the time-honored mode which our fathers commonly practised towards their sons, and which is still adopted by many—either of roughly reproving their errors, or of gently advising them; which varieties may be correctly included under the general term of admonition […] But whereas some appear to have arrived at the conclusion that all ignorance is involuntary, and that no one who thinks himself wise is willing to learn any of those things in which he is conscious of his own cleverness, and that the admonitory sort of instruction gives much trouble and does little good […] Accordingly, they set to work to eradicate the spirit of conceit in another way […] They cross-examine a man’s words, when he thinks that he is saying something and is really saying nothing, and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they then collect by the dialectical process, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect. He, seeing this, is angry with himself, and grows gentle towards others, and thus is entirely delivered from great prejudices and harsh notions, in a way which is most amusing to the hearer, and produces the most lasting good effect on the person who is the subject of the operation. For as the physician considers that the body will receive no benefit from taking food until the internal obstacles have been removed, so the purifier of the soul is conscious that his patient will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty; he must be purged of his prejudices first and made to think that he knows only what he knows, and no more […] For all these reasons, Theaetetus, we must admit that refutation is the greatest and chiefest of purifications.
Plato Sophist 229c–230d, trans. Jowett
This passage confirms the idea that Plato conceived of philosophical discourse as a two-stage process, whereby the individual must first be purified before more constructive “food for the soul” can be administered. It is the second stage that corresponds to the “serious” side of Plato’s self-disclosure, whereas the first reflects the jocular. The very description in the Sophist bears this out: refutation is “most amusing to the hearer.”
The form of “amusement” referred to in the Sophist fits other descriptions of Socrates’ elenctic procedures perfectly. [41] That this is an intrinsically comic form of pleasure will become evident in the light of the Philebus’ concise theory of comedy. [42] It is well to remember that Socratic elenchos, according to the Sophist, results in the purification from conceit and apparent knowledge (δοκεῖν εἰδέναι). What is interesting for my present discussion is that it is precisely conceit and apparent knowledge (δοξοσοφία) that is singled out in the Philebus as the source of comic laughter (49a–50e). [43] Even more importantly, comic laughter is not limited to the stage but encompasses “the whole comedy and tragedy of life” (50b), as is plainly stated a few lines later. Socratic purification, in short, can be construed as something intrinsically comic, and this squares well with the jocular character of many elenctic dialogues.
Plato’s dialogues are implicitly conceived as an unprecedented form of poetry mixing the serious with the ridiculous: a projection, in other words, of the exceptionally twofold nature of Socrates. As Alcibiades quite clearly states, not only is Socrates simultaneously ridiculous and sublime, but, more importantly, so are the Socratic logoi—that is, Plato’s dialogues.


[ back ] 1. I will omit Gaiser’s discussion of Ion 541e–542a (Gaiser 1984:111–115), since he himself is very cautious on the subject and admits that his argument involves much speculation.
[ back ] 2. Gaiser 1984:107–111.
[ back ] 3. See Friedländer 1930:623, and cf. Cameron 1978.
[ back ] 4. Sauvé Meyer 2011 argues that the Athenian’s mention of tragedy in the Laws does not point to an equation between tragedy and Plato’s dialogues, but is limited to the legislative discourse per se: “the text of our passage makes it clear that it is not the philosopher but the legislator who lays claim to the title of tragedian,” so that the truest tragedy should be identified with “the body of legislation being devised for the city of Magnesia” (Sauvé Meyer 2011:388). If that were so, however, the Athenian’s reference to “divine inspiration” as a crucial factor in the discussion as a whole would make little sense. Moreover, a comparison with the passage from Lycurgus (Against Leocrates 103) further clarifies the issue: in themselves, laws are certainly different from poetry; whereas the Laws, just like poetry as described by Lycurgus, are superior in that they depict human life.
[ back ] 5. Gaiser 1984:77–101.
[ back ] 6. 276a–e. Detienne’s reading (1972, Chapter 5) remains a stimulating classic on Adonis’ gardens. Ballériaux 1987 provides a very useful discussion of the ways in which the Phaedrus suggests that Plato is both the serious farmer (i.e. devotes himself to oral dialectics) and the ephemeral gardener Adonis (i.e. the author of the dialogues). See now Grilli 2013.
[ back ] 7. 276e–277a. Cf. A. Nightingale’s discussion as outlined in the Introduction to the current volume.
[ back ] 8. 275d–e.
[ back ] 9. The arguments put forth in Werner 2012:198–227 are very similar to those of Gaiser.
[ back ] 10. Arguably through a comic formula recognizable as such. See Pedrique 2012.
[ back ] 11. 378c and 501e. See Murray 1999.
[ back ] 12. I find the following words of Elizabeth Asmis particularly lucid and illuminating: “if they [the writers] know the truth about what they composed, and can defend what they wrote by speaking about it, while showing that what they wrote is worthless, then they deserve the name of ‘philosopher’ rather than the name that corresponds to their compositions—that is, ‘speechwriter,’ ‘poet,’ or ‘lawgiver’ (278b–e). Plato’s own dialogues may be regarded as attempts to exemplify this use of language. We may call them poetry as a tribute to Plato’s literary skill. But from Plato’s point of view it would be more accurate to regard them as adumbrations or ‘semblances’ of how all sorts of language—poetic, political, legal, and the rest—may be transformed into philosophical discourse” (Asmis 1992:360).
[ back ] 13. Gaiser 1984:55–76.
[ back ] 14. Symposium 215a–d (Socrates) and 221d–222a (Socrates’ logoi). I discuss the reliability of Alcibiades’ speech in Chapter 3 (page 97n3).
[ back ] 15. E.g. Clay 1975. I draw attention to Adrados 1969, an important but rarely cited study in Spanish. Adrados argues that the end of the Symposium entails “una consideración del Teatro en bloque, como opuesto a la Filosofía, inferior a ella desde luego, pero esencialmente semejante en cuanto está bajo el patrocinio del mismo eros” (Adrados 1969:4). According to Mader 1977: “Die Herleitung des Symposion—Schlusses aus dem Dialogganzen hat ergeben, dass das Entscheidende an der platonischen Dialogfigur Sokrates, dem daimon, die Überwindung und Vermittlung der Gegensätze geloion/spoudaion, paidia/spoude, doxa/aletheia ist” (Mader 1977:78). “Die Identität von Tragödie und Komödie erweist sich an den platonischen Schriften, und zwar in dem Sinne, dass diese beide zugleich sind ‘Antitragödie’ und ‘Metakomödie’ ” (Mader 1977:79).
[ back ] 16. Belfiore summarizes the point: “In the Symposium … Plato represents the poetic tradition about love as being inadequate. The first five speakers’ use of quotations and allusions suggests that those who rely on the poets without questioning them are lacking in understanding. Socrates, on the other hand, is represented throughout the dialogue as directly challenging the poetic tradition. He famously wins a victory over the poets at the end of the Symposium, when he forces Agathon and Aristophanes to agree that the same person knows how to make both comedy and tragedy, and then puts both poets to bed” (Belfiore 2011:172). Cf. also Clay 2000:64 and Bacon 1959.
[ back ] 17. Gaiser 1984:114–115.
[ back ] 18. Cf. my own discussion in the (prior) Conclusion to the current volume.
[ back ] 19. In Capra and Martinelli 2011, a sustained case is made against the tripartite chronology, and, more generally, against evolution as an interpretative paradigm. Our knowledge of Plato’s dialogues ultimately depends on an Academic edition, which must have included the dialogues in their final and revised form. A number of sources—Dionysius of Halicarnassus The Arrangement of Words 25.32, Quintilian Institutes of Oratory 8.6.64–65, Diogenes Laertius 3.37, and Anonymous Commentary on the Theaetetus (CPF III.9 = P. Berol. inv. 9782) col. 3.28–49—inform us that Plato kept revising his dialogues throughout his lifetime. (On the subject of revision, cf. Thesleff 1982 and Capra 2003.) It has been argued that Plato’s dialogues were not available by the booksellers at the time Plato directed the Academy: see Lucarini 2010–2011:350, with added bibliography. This perceptive, well-documented article also demonstrates that Aristophanes of Byzantium’s trilogies were based on a preexistent tetralogic edition of the Academy, which was also the basis for the medieval tradition.
[ back ] 20. See Rossi 1971 for a classic discussion of the phenomenon. Rossi’s seminal theory was the subject of a 2011 conference and is now published in a monographic issue of the “Seminari romani di cultura classica” (1.2, 2012).
[ back ] 21. The work of Havelock (1963) proved to be hugely influential. However, he underestimated the diffusion of literacy (cf. e.g. Harvey 1966) and argued that Plato was to all extent and purposes a supporter of writing against orality. This thesis is, of course, untenable, since it is contradicted by many explicit statements in the Platonic corpus. (Cf. e.g. Adkins 1980 reviewing Havelock 1978, and Werner 2012:204–206. Usener 1994 provides a careful examination of all passages involving reading in the corpus of Plato and Isocrates.)
[ back ] 22. Cf. Republic 595c, 598d, 605c, 607a (and cf. e.g. Isocrates To Nicocles 48–49). See Herrington 1985:213–215. On the other hand, Halliwell 2002a argues persuasively that Plato is the one ancient author who saw tragedy as a form of Weltanschauung.
[ back ] 23. Genette 1979. In my view, this is only partially true, for in some ways the Phaedrus “invents” lyric poetry against the background of epic, though this does not mean that the same distinction can be found in dialogues other than the Phaedrus (cf. Beecroft 2010:146). Still, we may regard the Phaedrus as a brilliant thought experiment aimed at serving the purposes of that specific dialogue.
[ back ] 24. See Gentili 2006, Chapter 8. The opposition is crucial to Nagy’s discussion of the hero in Greek poetry (1990). For a recent discussion, cf. West 2007:63–70.
[ back ] 25. Phaedrus 267a.
[ back ] 26. Velardi 1991. Cf. also Regali 2012 (particularly 34–37), who notes a more specialized usage: at times, humnos designates Plato’s attempts to correct and integrate the poetic tradition (see Symposium 193c–d and Phaedrus 265b–c).
[ back ] 27. Notably Republic 607a and Laws 709a–c.
[ back ] 28. “Delle 56 occorrenze del semantema nel corpus delle sue opere soltanto 10, comprese quelle già citate di Resp. 10, 607a4 e Leg. 3, 700b2; d7, sono le attestazioni alle quali può essere attribuito il significato specifico di ‘discorso rivolto alla divinità per celebrarla e per implorare la sua benevolenza verso gli uomini,’ nel quale, cioè, la divinità sia contemporaneamente destinataria e argomento del canto: Leg. 7, 812c5; 822c5; 11, 931b6; 12, 960c4; Resp. 2, 372b7 (con riferimento ad inni simposiali); Epin. 980b1; b8” (Velardi 1991:218–219). Cf. also Giuliano 2005:118–129.
[ back ] 29. The Timaeus-Critias is conceptualized as a hymn, which amounts to another example of self-disclosure (unnoticed by Gaiser). See Capra 2010a and Regali 2012, in particular 32–39.
[ back ] 30. This is particularly obvious in the Phaedrus, which features a number of passages where poiêtês and its cognates are unambiguously referred to prose writers: cf. 234e, 236d, 258a, 258b, 278e. At the same time, as if to confirm Plato’s fluid, non-technical usage of poetry-related terminology, at 258d Socrates contrasts poiêtês with idiôtês, the former signifying poet as opposed to prose writer (ἐν μέτρῳ ὡς ποιητὴς ἢ ἄνευ μέτρου ὡς ἰδιώτης.). Cf. also 257a.
[ back ] 31. Cf. e.g. Republic 603a, with Murrray 2005 (on personification). A similar point is made in the Gorgias (502c).
[ back ] 32. Chvatík 2001, Compton 2006:154–165, Kurke 2006, Clayton 2008. Given that Aesop’s bios might have been a major influence on Aristophanes’ Wasps (see Schirru 2009), this is not altogether improbable. Schauer and Merkle 1992 add the important detail that “Platons Hinweis auf Äsop impliziert eine Kritik an dessen mangelnder Todesbereitschafft” (96).
[ back ] 33. 265c μυθικόν τινα ὕμνον προσεπαίσαμεν.
[ back ] 34. The emphasis on poetry’s serious side may also be due to the fact that the Laws discusses a reformed city. In comparison with “minor pedagogy,” Plato’s “major pedagogy” (i.e. the kind of poetry to be implemented in reformed cities; cf. my Conclusion) tends to be emphatically “serious,” which explains why the Republic, too, points to hymns (i.e. serious poetry) as the appropriate kind of poetry for the Kallipolis.
[ back ] 35. I stress the word peculiar because in other respects the notion of playfulness is crucial in the Laws, in that for Plato paideia, could not be conceived of without paidia (see Jouët-Pastré 2006). Moreover, Mouze 1998 rightly points out that “c’est à l’interieur du genre divertissant que la tragédie est comprise comme sérieuse” (99, cf. Statesman 288c).
[ back ] 36. With her usual perceptiveness, Elizabeth Asmis remarks that: “One does not want to leave the last word on poetry to the Laws, where Plato reduces the poet once more to a servant of the law-maker. The old Athenian who has replaced Socrates as Plato’s chief spokesman suggests that the discussion that he and his companions have had about the laws is a kind of ‘poetry’: it is, indeed, the most suitable of all poems and prose works for children to hear and teachers to approve (811c–e). In this rivalry with the poets, the lawmakers will surely lose if we appoint as judge the Socrates of the Phaedrus” (Asmis 1992:361).
[ back ] 37. epôidê and tragôidia are both cognates of ôide, “song.”
[ back ] 38. The Laws is also notable because of the paramount importance it confers on the idea of enchantment (see Panno 2007 and cf. the conclusion to the current chapter). This, I believe, strengthens the hypothesis that epôidê corresponds to the “serious” and constructive moment of philosophical discourse, whereas katharsis stands for the (predominantly jocular) Socratic elenchus. Of course, a number of dialogues feature both a pars destruens and a pars construens, and the Symposium, the Phaedo, and the Phaedrus clearly belong to this ambiguous group. Unsurprisingly then, the relevant instances of self-disclosure feature both the serious and the jocular.
[ back ] 39. See Capra 2001, with further bibliography. More recent work includes Beltrametti 2004, Trivigno 2009, and Buarque 2011.
[ back ] 40. See e.g. Cornford 1935:181 and Kerferd 1986:24–25. The passage is too long to quote in its unabridged form.
[ back ] 41. In the Apology, Socrates says that young people take pleasure in listening to Socrates question and refute conceited people. This is emphatically confirmed by Callicles in the Gorgias, when he tells us that Socrates’ refutation of Gorgias and Polus was the most entertaining (funniest?) exchange he had ever witnessed. See Apology 23c, 33b–c and Gorgias 458d.
[ back ] 42. Cf. Cerasuolo 1980 and Munteanu 2011:95–97.
[ back ] 43. And provided this does not happen at the expense of one’s friends, in which case it is labeled as a form of envy, resulting in a mixture of pleasure and pain.