Pierre Destrée

Title : Plato on comic emotions


In a famous passage of the Philebus, Plato defends the idea that the emotion of phthnos (whether one understands this as ‘malice’ or ‘envy’) is what causes our laughter in comedy and, more generally, when we mock people. One main consequence of that analysis is this: since phthonos is a morally condemnable emotion, laughter that is caused by such an emotion is therefore condemnable as well. But in his Dialogues, Plato himself makes an extensive usage of laughter and mockery, which obviously serves as a philosophical tool; in this case, one cannot suppose that laughing at people should be considered immoral. So what kind of emotion would have to be at stake in Plato’s own usage of laughter?

One possible interpretation may be the following. In the Laws (935d-936b), Plato admits laughter under the condition it is not malicious, or more generally aggressive (there the word used is thumos, “anger”); and in the Nic. Ethics, Aristotle goes as far as recommending the virtue of eutrapelia (“having the sense of humour”) for social gatherings, which should be non-aggressive. Thus, the most natural way of interpreting Plato’s own usage of laughter would be along these lines: Socrates might be supposed to be nicely teasing his interlocutors without any malice, anger, or aggressiveness. This interpretation, though, cannot be right: very often, Socrates mocks his interlocutors in a rather harsh way, if not directly, at least in the eyes of the audience that is present around (see among others Ion, Hippias or Philebus, who are cruelly ridiculed without noticing it).

I propose reconstructing what Plato’s explanation might have been from what Aristotle says about the emotion of indignation. In the Nic. Ethics, constrasting ‘indignation’ (nemesis) with phthonos and epicharekakia (Schadenfreude), Aristotle presents indignation as the painful emotion we feel when facing a situation where a person does not merit his or her bad fate (1108a35-b6). In the Rhetoric (1386b25-28), Aristotle adds that the person who rightly feels indignant takes pleasure in seeing a criminal chastised. Aristotle never explicitly correlates ‘indignation’ with laughter, nor does Plato, but since indignation is presented as the virtuous equivalent of the immoral phthonos, one may easily conclude that indignation is the emotion that corresponds to a virtuous laughter at someone who merits his or her bad fate. And indeed, this is, I submit, what Plato wants us his readers to feel when Socrates makes fun of his opponents: that we feel indignant towards Socrates’ opponents, which should help us disregard and dismiss their (false) views.