This dissertation is a study of parody in Plato’s dialogues. In it I argue that parody is not merely a literary, aesthetic, or rhetorical feature of his texts, but a part of his philosophical program and pedagogy. Plato humorously represents the ideas of other intellectuals to show the reader things about them which they might not have seen before such as their hidden assumptions and unintended consequences.
In the Introduction I contrast my position with that which sees Plato’s philosophy as equivalent to some number of doctrines or philosophical positions. Often we try to square what Socrates is saying with what we think Plato believes, instead of seeing that what he says is actually a critical parody of someone else’s views. Here I situate my argument within larger schools of Platonic interpretation and discuss the history and theory of parody. In Chapter One I argue that we can better understand Plato’s use of parody by looking at his dramatic predecessor, Aristophanes. The comic playwright not only humorously represents and subjects to criticism many of the same ideas and habits of thought and speech Plato does, but he too does so in order to educate his audience. He uses humor and the (mis)representation of parody to paradoxically show them the truth. In Chapter Two I analyze Agathon’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, arguing that it serves as a parody of the views of the sophist Gorgias. This recognition allows the reader to see that Agathon’s eros is actually an external, physical, compelling force, something not apparent on the surface of his encomium. It is this underlying assumption about desire that Plato is exposing through the humor of parody. In Chapter Three I show that the theory of music education in the Republic is not representative of Plato’s views, but a parody of the theories of Damon, an intellectual in Pericles’ inner circle. Plato is showing his readers what happens when one adopts Damon’s ideas which, like Gorgias’, rest on materialist principles. In Chapter Four, I argue that Socrates’ etymological demonstration in the Cratylus, far from harboring Plato’s theory of language, is actually a parody of contemporary views about words. In this dialogue, Plato shows how one’s ideas about language go hand in hand with a metaphysics and ethics. He uses parody to show what a materialist view of language means for one’s conception of virtue, reality, and the self.