Plato was one of the great ironists of the ancient world and, in fact, bequeathed to the rest of literary culture the notion of literary irony. What is Platonic irony? Why does it enrich one’s reading of Plato? Why should we be aware of his use of irony and satire?
Admittedly, Platonic irony is more visible to realize if one has a knowledge of ancient Greek. However, careful and studious readings of good vernacular translations will also show the visible signs of the use of irony. Irony is the use of language to convey the true meaning of what is being discussed.
The target of ironic satire in Plato is generally the sophists. I will highlight a few examples of Platonic irony for us.
Thrasymachus’ name, in Greek, means fierce warrior or savage fighter. And Thrasymachus is depicted as a fierce and savage animal. When he is first introduced in the Republic, Thrasymachus is coiled up in a bush ready to pounce like an ambushing predatory beast. In fact, when Thrasymachus enters the conversation, Plato, through Socrates, states that he hurled himself like a lion about to devour Socrates. Additionally, in the conversations between Socrates and Thrasymachus, Thrasymachus’ use of language is equally warlike and savage. Socrates’ speech is eloquent and rational.
Another example of name-irony in the Republic is Glaucon. Glaucon’s name in Greek means “grey-eyed,” which is an allusion to an owl. (More specifically, probably the Owl of Athena.) Owls are traditionally interpreted as wise animals. We see this through folktale literature. There is always a “wise owl” character in folktales that personify animals. Glaucon’s name, which any reader of Plato’s dialogues would have recognized, implies wisdom.
However, throughout the dialogue, Glaucon’s speeches are the antithesis of wisdom. Glaucon’s wisdom is no wisdom at all. The true wise man is Socrates and not Glaucon. This now has a comedic effect given Glaucon’s name and what it is meant to signify. Instead, Glaucon’s name signifies the opposite of its meaning: Hence the irony attached to Glaucon’s name implying wisdom yet his discoursing with Socrates producing anything but wisdom for the reader and audience.
Plato’s use of irony with names and depictions is to show that the sophists, despite their claims to wisdom, are unwise. Hence the irony of the sophists. They are the supposed wise men of Athens. Yet, they say nothing wise at all in the dialogues.
Sticking with the theme of comedy from irony, Platonic irony also merges with the literary device of “comic equivalence.” This comes out most poetically in Symposium. Comic equivalence is displayed by Aristophanes—who was an enemy of Socrates and, by tutelage extension, Plato. Aristophanes was a famous playwright. A dramatist. His elaboration on the birth of Eros, desiring love stemming from a lacking, in the world is dramatic and impassioned because love is dramatic and passionate like Aristophanes’ speech.
However, Plato’s satirization of Aristophanes also shows comic equivalence. Through comedic irony truth is expressed in Aristophanes’ speech. Hence why it is ironic. Aristophanes’ speech begins after he has recovered from hiccups and is overly dramatic and certainly not right, in the particular, that it was Zeus’ tearing asunder the human which causes him to seek after his lost half—his “soul mate.” There is truth to what Aristophanes is saying, however, about love being an attempt to find wholeness. For all the drama attached to Aristophanes’ speech, it is Aristophanes, not the other philosophers prior to him, who stumbles upon a truth about love in the world and why love seeks unity and wholeness. In fact, when you read the speeches of the Symposium carefully you will realize that the poets are the ones who each provide partial truth before Socrates’ famous speech about Diotima. Aristophanes’ absurd and comical speech reports the truth that Eros comes from a lacking while Agathon’s speech (another comic playwright) speaks of the truth that Eros seeks the Good and the Beautiful (though does not possess it as he claimed and Socrates’ cross-examination exposes).
This is an important thing to recognize when reading Plato, especially Plato’s criticism of the poets in Republic. Plato advocates, throughout his corpus, the proper imitation of the Forms to form our nature in the process of becoming a manifested reflection of the Forms. Many of the philosophers of Plato’s day were far from the truth—as evidenced by the fact that all the philosophers, sans Socrates, in Symposium, have an understanding or presentation of Eros which will lead to the dissipation of Eros. The philosophers know not what they speak of (something that is readily apparent in Plato’s works). It is the poets, however, who glimpse truth—but not the whole truth. Because they lack the proper understanding, though they do get Eros right in some respects, their inability to articulate in coherent and understandable and relatable manner—something to imitation—is the problem of the poets. There’s a double irony in the contrasts with the philosophers and poets in that the poets are superior to the philosophers (the sophists) but are depicted, like in Symposium, in an absurd and foolish way.
Plato was undoubtedly a master of irony. But Plato’s irony also has a mean-spirited bent to it. Plato’s satirization of his opponents, who convey truth out of their irony—truth via negation as with the sophists in Republic or truth via comedy as in Symposium—is done out of a certain malevolent intent. Aristophanes is depicted as crazy, but in his craziness, he stumbles upon truth like the equivalent of the “mad scientist” of today’s ironic comedic trope. The sophists are depicted a crass, conceited, and unwise—the truth about reality comes via negativa. What is wisdom? What the sophists are not. What is comic equivalence? The insane Aristophanes who has stumbled upon truth though he doesn’t know it because he is caught up in the drama of myth.
Being able to read the irony in Plato’s dialogues makes Plato’s works richer. It also exposes, or opens, new levels of intertextual interpretation and penetration which make the texts richer.
*I have published an 8,000-word commentary on Plato’s use of satire and irony to expose the savagery of the sophists in The Republic. You can read it here: “Savagery, Irony, and Satire in Plato’s Republic,” VoegelinView, 17 January 2018.