Friday, September 6, 2019


John Lombardini, The Politics of Socratic Humor. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. Pp. ix, 284. ISBN 9780520291034. $95.00.

Reviewed by James V. Morrison, Centre College (

Version at BMCR home site

In The Politics of Socratic Humor, Lombardini argues that Socratic humor does not have one particular meaning or goal; rather its nature and goals are "contested" (a favorite word) in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. While Halliwell has noted the existence of such a debate, Lombardini wishes to present an "actual reconstruction of that debate," with an emphasis on Socratic irony and the political implications of its practice.1 Lombardini makes clear that he is not seeking to learn about the historical Socrates, only "how the legacy of Socratic humor developed," especially after Socrates' death (11). The five main chapters explore how Socrates' use of humor is presented, defended, and criticized in Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic philosophers, especially the Cynics.

Chapter One, "Aristophanes and Socratic Mockery," begins with a discussion about how elite orators must present themselves as ordinary citizens, as friendly to the dēmos, and as aware that they are held accountable by the dēmos. As Aristophanes presents him in the Clouds, Socrates—quite differently from such orators—uses mockery to show his intellectual superiority over his fellow citizens (such as Strepsiades); indeed, Socrates' intellectualism poses a threat to democratic authority in Athens. The danger is represented dramatically by what Strepsiades learns from Socrates: he comes to view his creditors as "unfit to hold him accountable for his actions," based on their lack of knowledge that he now possesses (37). Indeed, Strepsiades' attitude of "intellectual superiority and arrogance" (37) and his "disdain for ordinary citizens" (all learned from Socrates) call into question the competence of Athenian citizens to run their government (39). The "ideological foundations of Athenian democratic practice" are under attack (46). It is in large part this supposed danger Socrates poses to Athenian citizens and democracy itself which motivates Plato and Xenophon to respond. Socratic irony, as it appears in Plato and Xenophon, becomes a "technique for mitigating the anxieties that [Socrates'] superiority might raise" (184).

Chapter Two, "Plato and Socratic Eirōneia," is the longest chapter and the most intricate. Along with varieties of irony, there are many modern theories concerning which type of irony Plato's Socrates employs (reviewed at 51-2). Lombardini notes that only Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Alcibiades accuse Socrates of speaking and acting with eirōneia. According to Thrasymachus and Callicles, Socrates' goal is to seek rhetorical advantage and dominance over his interlocutors, yet all three figures are shown by Plato to be "unreliable witnesses to Socrates' supposed eirōneia" (76). Instead, Lombardini argues that in the Platonic dialogues Socrates engages in "solipsistic irony." Here Lombardini follows Ferrari who, describing this type of irony, says "the ironist 'pulls one over' on his interlocutor for his own amusement" (55).2 That is, the interlocutor does not need to be aware of Socrates' irony; the primary audience is the ironist himself (52). Since this is a specific type of irony, Lombardini avoids the translation "irony" for eirōneia; rather he adopts the practice of Lane who distinguishes between "the ironist, who attempts to convey what is not said, and the eirōn who attempts to conceal what is not said" (61-2).3 Lombardini's interesting conclusion is that the "nature and purpose of Socratic irony" will vary, since it depends on Socrates' relationship with his interlocutor and his audience (85).

As noted above, there is a political dimension to Plato's portrayal of Socratic irony, which is shaped by "the suspicion that the Socratic practice of humor carried with it antidemocratic implications" (52). In fact, Plato seems to have presented Socratic humor in such an ambiguous and challenging manner that it has "the potential both to exacerbate the anxieties surrounding equality and inequality within democratic Athens, and to make it a site of productive tension where those anxieties can be interrogated and negotiated" (92).4 It is perhaps no surprise that it is impossible to pin Plato (and Plato's Socrates) down. For example, as Lombardini remarks in the conclusion, "Socrates' interpretation of the Delphic oracle simultaneously asserts and downplays his intellectual superiority" (181).

In Chapter Three, "Xenophon, Socratic Mockery, and Socratic Irony," Lombardini notes that rather than the solipsistic irony found in Plato, Xenophon's Socrates employs a more direct, ironic mockery as an "effective paedagogical tool" (96). Socrates' goal is to lead his interlocutor to recognize his (the interlocutor's) own ignorance "without forcing the interlocutor to acknowledge his ignorance publicly" (113). In this way, Socrates might even "inspire them to acquire the knowledge they need" in order to truly live up to their reputations (116). Like Plato, Xenophon is concerned with the charge that Socrates mocked and ridiculed his fellow citizens and the democratic institutions of Athens, but Lombardini maintains that Xenophon's Socrates "downplays" rather than "flaunts" his superiority (127) with the goal of being useful to those with whom he engages. Here, too, Socrates' approach is fitted to each particular individual and ranges from a "gentle and somewhat transparent form of irony to outright mockery," depending upon how resistant his interlocutor may be in recognizing his own ignorance (121).

Chapter Four, "Aristotle, Eutrapelia, and Socratic Eirōneia," begins by seeking to answer the question: Did Aristotle see any positive side to Socrates' irony? Lombardini's answer: Only in the limited situation of the magnanimous individual interacting with his social inferiors. Given that the social virtues "ought to govern our everyday interactions with others" (Nic. Eth. 4.6-8) (139), as an alternative to Socrates' irony, Aristotle endorses a different quality, eutrapelia ("wittiness" or, as Aristotle describes it in the Rhetoric, "educated hubris"). From Aristotle's point of view, eutrapelia not only avoids the vice of deception found in irony, but it encompasses the "positive value of laughter [which] lies in its ability to serve as a medium for critical engagement with friends, enemies, and strangers with whom we disagree" (146). In the context of reciprocated friendship, the virtue of eutrapelia "demands both an ability to use laughter and joking to educate others, and an ability to be educated by the laughter and joking of others" (187).

To make his case, Lombardini surveys the Aristotelian corpus (beyond the Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric, and Politics, he explores the Eudemian Ethics, and the Magna Moralia). In addition, he explores other Greek authors to set a context for understanding Aristotle's true meaning of eutrapelia which, beyond "wittiness," includes versatility and flexibility (we find its opposite, dustrapelos, applied to Sophocles' Ajax).

Chapter Five, "Socratic Humor in the Hellenistic Period," touches briefly on the Stoics (who do not view Socrates as an eirōn) and the Epicureans (who prefer frank, direct speech to the intricacies of irony), and then focuses on the Cynics. Here, too, we find variation. In contrast to the eirōneia of Plato's or Xenophon's Socrates, Lucian's Demonax uses a direct, caustic, and sometimes abusive sort of humor which is more in keeping with the Cynics' stress on parrhēsia or open, freely spoken discourse (171), while Diogenes' humor serves to shock his audience into recognizing the conventionality of various beliefs and social practices (174). Still, Lombardini believes the Cynics' practice of humor—if not ironic—has a sort of "Socratic pedigree" (177), due to its seriocomic purpose.

Lombardini makes the points of his argument quite accessible with an overview at the end of the introductory chapter (19-25) and clear introductions for each chapter (there are some unnecessary repetitions, e.g. Xenophon Memorabilia 1.2.9, first quoted at p. 3, is repeated on p. 14; also the Diogenes anecdote at p. 186 is repeated from p. 175). Lombardini bases his arguments very tightly on the primary texts and offers close readings of passages in Greek (e. g., 232 n. 25). All of the Greek is transliterated.

Lombardini is up-to-date and well versed in the scholarly literature as he engages with Ober, Vlastos, Halliwell, and many others (his bibliography runs to 25 pages).5 He also incorporates a good deal of German and especially French scholarship (e.g. Dorion and Narcy).6 His footnotes often offer valuable overviews of the scholarly literature (e.g. on three interpretations of how Xenophon is using Cyrus, see 222-3 n. 17).

There are very few typos: "form or irony" should read "form of irony" (83); "with the same coyness" is missing "with" (84); 216 n. 77 has an extra comma.

In his "Conclusion," Lombardini reminds the reader of his goal to set the practice of Socratic humor "against the backdrop of a set of Athenian democratic practices", which include an egalitarian distribution of power and collective decision-making (179). He has persuasively reconstructed the debate that "revolved around how to place the Socratic practice of humor within the context of democratic Athens" (183). Lombardini, however, does not feel that he has said the last word on this topic. He closes the entire book with the hope that he has "provide[d] a new starting point for thinking about Socratic humor," both in ancient Athenian democracy and its legacy today (190). I would say that he succeeds admirably in doing so.


1.   On S. Halliwell, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2008), see Lombardini's note at 193-4 n. 25.
2.   G. R. F. Ferrari, "Socratic Irony as Pretence," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 34 (2008), 1-33.
3.   M. Lane, "The Evolution of Eirōneia in Classical Greek Texts: Why Socratic Eirōneia Is Not Socratic Irony," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 31 (2006), 49-83.
4.   Against Clay, Lombardini argues that this ambiguity must be retained "as a means of critically evaluating the practice of philosophy" (216-17 n. 87). See D. Clay, Platonic Questions: Dialogues with the Silent Philosopher (Penn State University Press, 2000) and M. McCoy, Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
5.   On Halliwell, see n. 1 above. Lombardini makes extensive use of various works by Ober and Vlastos, though the most significant seem to be J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton University Press, 1989) and G. Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
6.   Again, multiple works by Dorion and Narcy are cited, in particular, L.-A. Dorion, Socrate (Presses Universitaires de France, 2004) and L'autre Socrate: Études sur le écrits socratiques de Xénophon (Belles Lettres, 2013), and M. Narcy, Le philosophe et son double: Un commentaire de "l'Euthydème" de Platon (Vrin, 1984).

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