Plato's Laughter

Socrates as Satyr and Comical Hero

By Sonja Madeleine Tanner

Subjects: Ancient Greek Philosophy, Philosophy, Classics, Literature, Philosophy Of Literature
Series: SUNY series in Ancient Greek Philosophy
Paperback : 9781438467368, 264 pages, July 2018
Hardcover : 9781438467375, 264 pages, December 2017

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Table of contents



The Superiority Theory of Laughter
Playful and Consequential Laughter
The Incongruity Theory of Laughter
The Breakdown

1. The Apology of Socrates: Is Socrates a Comical Hero?

The Comical Apology
Socrates and the Homeric Hero
Socrates and the Traits of Comical Heroes
Humanity as Laughable and Self-Directed Laughter

2. The Laches’s Comical Structure and “The Refined Thinkers Who Are Really Poor”

The Laches’s Comical Structure
Lysimachus as a Comical Figure
Nicias as a Comical Figure
Stesilaus as a Comical Figure
Laches as a Comical Figure
Courage, Laughter, and Self-Knowledge

3. Tumbling Down To Earth: Laughter, Limitation, and Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Charmides

Laughter on the Bench
Tragic and Comic Laughter
Socratic Versus Critian Sophrosyne: Theory and Practice

4. Naming the Nameless: Logos, Laughter, and Self-Forgetting

Laughter and Logos in the Cratylus
Laughter and False Speaking in the Euthydemus
Logos and the Satirical

5. Bawdy Politics: Satyrical Laughter and Self-Knowledge in the Symposium

Aristophanes’s Hiccups
Socrates as Satyr

Conclusion Poneria, Self-Knowledge, and Comical, Platonic Optimism

Works Consulted

Counters the long-standing, solemn interpretation of Plato’s dialogues with one centered on the philosophical and pedagogical significance of Socrates as a comic figure.


Plato was described as a boor and it was said that he never laughed out loud. Yet his dialogues abound with puns, jokes, and humor. Sonja Madeleine Tanner argues that in Plato's dialogues Socrates plays a comical hero who draws heavily from the tradition of comedy in ancient Greece, but also reforms laughter to be applicable to all persons and truly shaming to none. Socrates introduces a form of self-reflective laughter that encourages, rather than stifles, philosophical inquiry. Laughter in the dialogues—both explicit and implied—suggests a view of human nature as incongruous with ourselves, simultaneously falling short of, and superseding, our own capacities. What emerges is a picture of human nature that bears a striking resemblance to Socrates' own, laughable depiction, one inspired by Dionysus, but one that remains ultimately intractable. The book analyzes specific instances of laughter and the comical from the Apology, Laches, Charmides, Cratylus, Euthydemus, and the Symposium to support this, and to further elucidate the philosophical consequences of recognizing Plato's laughter.

Sonja Madeleine Tanner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and the author of In Praise of Plato's Poetic Imagination.