Plato's Two Comic Apologies of Socrates: Comedy and Laughter in the "Symposium" and "Phaedo"

Dissertation, State University of New York at Stony Brook (1994)
The dissertation argues for understanding Plato's Symposium and Phaedo as two comic apologies of Socrates. It demonstrates how the two dialogues supplement the Platonic Apology by defending Socrates' life as a philosopher with an intimate comic portrait of him. By drawing substantial parallels between the nature of comedy and Socratic philosophy, the dissertation shows the comedy and laughter that appear in these two dialogues to be essential to the understanding of Socrates and his philosophy. ;Chapter 1 establishes a background for the dissertation's argument by discussing the place of the comic in the Platonic dialogues and by surveying the chief theories of laughter, humor, and comedy. It then establishes a working definition of comedy that is appropriate to the Symposium and Phaedo by utilizing the incongruity theory of humor. Comedy and Socratic philosophy are both shown to be characterized by an ambivalence between such positive aspects as fulfillment and security and such negative ones as exposure and shortcomings. ;The Symposium is interpreted as Plato's answer in kind to the comic challenge posed to Socrates by Aristophanes in his play Clouds. The dialogue is shown to conform to the essentials of comedy in theme, plot, and character portrayal. The dissertation finds Aristophanes' speech and actions to have been created by Plato as a criticism of the comic poet's outlook. The various indications in the dialogue that Socrates is triumphant are shown to be of both comic and philosophical significance, and to effect Socrates' "outcomicking" of the comic poet Aristophanes. ;The dissertation concludes by arguing that the Phaedo's incongruity-inspired laughter reveals the ambivalence at the heart of the Socratic enterprise. Socratic philosophy is shown to lead simultaneously to regarding the world as a secure place capable of significant fulfillments and as a place characterized by shortcomings and scepticism. This ambivalence is taken to express the very nature of Socrates' life and philosophy
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