Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Vicki K. Janik; Emmanuel S. Nelson | Go to book overview
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human understanding in general. The foundation that the Forms provide for the Socratic vision gives it an underlying sense of security, but since that vision constantly seeks justification by argument, and all arguments prove inadequate, that security is simultaneously undermined. Socratic philosophy is thus characterized by an essential incongruity between fulfillment and shortcoming, between security and risk, between celebration and criticism. In this oscillation and ambivalence, it recalls the comic vision.

Socrates' laughter in the Phaedo is described as "gentle." Any ridiculing laughter is left to his companions. This gentleness arises from Socrates' belief in the true and good foundation of the world, which enables him to manifest a secure and generous spirit. Yet it remains impossible for Socrates to account for a belief in the good and pure because accounting, or giving a logos, can only occur after the commitment to logos and an edifying view of the cosmos has already been made. This results in an incongruous situation similar to what David Hume identified as the "whimsical condition of mankind." The philosopher's "last laugh" in the Phaedo, called forth by the ultimate questions concerning life and death, illuminates this double significance of the human condition especially intensely, simultaneously indicating the paltry and inadequate efforts and results of human words and deeds to grasp the nature of the cosmos and act in harmony with it while, in spite of this acknowledgment, pointing trustfully to the rational and good basis of the world that provides both a standard of judgment and a promise of security for human thought and action.


CRITICAL RECEPTION

The ultimate meditation on the significance of the Socratic life that Plato provides in the Phaedo and that provides the basis for such a great portion of Western thought confirms the comic foolery of the philosopher but shows its profound metaphysical roots. The Socratic and comic visions share a generous spirit and promise of security that is very appealing, but their very workings undercut what they seem to establish. In this incongruous tension between fulfillment and falling short, between having it all and having the rug pulled out from under one, what is left but, as happens periodically during Socrates' last discussion, to laugh?


NOTE
1
Most modern commentators do not follow this line of thought. Although it is not unusual to ascribe a humorous quality to Socrates, it is typically confined to his eccentricities and ironic banter.

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