Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Plato's Illusion of Authority

Plato’s theory of humor seems incomplete in that it only focuses on the attacking humor associated with the superiority model. Humor for Socrates is based on the speaker’s assumed superiority over his target group. Comedy is an exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Because of this definition, Plato, through Socrates’ voice, condemns humor as being constantly tied to malice because it focuses on the shortcomings and failures of others, particularly friends. Plato also seems to view humor as simply an exposition of the “ridiculous” rather than the use of a variety of methods that produce laughter.

In contrast, Kierkegaard focuses on contradiction as the basis of humor. Because of this, Kierkegaard removes some of the guilt and moral fault that Plato associates with humor. Kierkegaard emphasizes how comedy is “painless contradiction,” whereas tragedy is “suffering contradiction.” Comedy, he says, is painless because it points to a way out. Even satire, which by its nature points out faults and causes internal dissonance in the reader, is directed at reform, somehow showing the reader the way back to happiness. In contrast, Kierkegaard asserts that tragedy despairs for an escape, leading to the decline of a character.

If Plato’s theory is so incomplete in comparison with Kierkegaard’s, why does the dialogue seem so convincing and logical on first read? The answer lies in the question itself: Plato’s theory is convincing because it is written in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue allows Plato to confirm Socrates’ assertions without giving any reason why they are true. For example, one might dispute the fact that all ignorance is vice and stupidity, as Socrates asserts in the dialogue. However, the insertion of Protarchus’ affirmations throughout the dialogue gives the reader little time to ponder the legitimacy of certain ideas that Socrates articulates. The affirmations give Socrates an authority that he might not deserve.

It also seems at times that Protarchus may simply be agreeing with Socrates for fear of being humiliated by the venerable philosopher. This relation itself, if read a certain way, may show itself to be humorous. Protarchus, not knowing what the wise man is saying, goes along with it in order to appear wise, whereas questioning may lead to actual wisdom, agreement only perpetuates the ignorance and stupidity that Socrates himself condemns, setting up the comic contradiction put forth by Kierkegaard. In his theory of humor, Plato inadvertently employs the theory that Kierkegaard purports years later.

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