Attic comedy is the literary genre of the fifth century BCE that, on grounds of form, is closest to the Platonic dialogue.

Aristotle’s testimony

Aristotle in the Poetics classifies the Socratic dialogues under poetry, more specifically under comic poetry along with the “mimes” of Sophron and Xenarchus (1447b9-10). Aristotle’s position on this issue is not axiological, but descriptive. According to Aristotle the Socratic dialogues, in terms of form, need to be classified under poetry, irrespective of the value one may ascribe to them. This is because, although they are not metrical texts, they are imitations of actions [mimeseis prakseon] and imitation is the distinguishing feature of poetry (1447a15, b14). Hence, what Aristotle is claiming is that the Platonic dialogues, since they bring on stage (that is, imitate) persons who act and converse, belong to the genre of poetry and are closely related to comedy.

Platonic dialogue and Attic comedy

To a modern reader the Platonic dialogue equally is and is not a work of drama. On one hand, there is the liveliness of dramatic representation, but on the other there is a high level of typification and one-sided emphasis on dialectical exchange of arguments. The ancient reader, nonetheless, being familiar with dramatic poetry, would have fewer reservations about grouping the Platonic dialogues with other types of poetry, especially along comic poetry.

We do not know of comedy’s precise origins. Its subject matter may have initially drawn inspiration from mythology; yet at the end of the fifth century BCE, with Cratinus, Eupolis and Aristophanes the heroes are either ordinary people, representative types of members of Athenian society, or well-known and important protagonists of political and cultural life: Cleon, Hyperbolus, Lamachus, Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides. The Platonic dialogues have similar protagonists: famous Sophists and philosophers, renowned politicians and poets, distinguished young Athenians full of promise, as well as a series of made-up figures appearing as representatives of professional and cognitive skills (Ion, Euthyphro, Callicles, Eleatic and Athenian guests, Timaeus, Philebus).

As shown by Cornford [1972], typification is the key feature of Attic comedy. Its protagonists, even when they are historical individuals, are transformed into “types”, into masks, they are not determined by their individual traits. What is important is that the Athenian audience was utterly familiar with this transformation.

The key feature of the Platonic dialogues is the persistence on the exchange of arguments between two people who are competing for possession of the truth. A similar “agon” is detected at the core of Aristophanic comedy. The protagonists of comedy, who similarly to Plato’s dialogues are invariably only two, compete by offering epideictic speeches and arguments in a contest of speeches [agonas logon] in front of the Chorus and the spectators. In the end, just like in a Platonic dialogue, one is victorious and the other is defeated.

The agon in the Platonic dialogues brings the discourse of philosophy, represented by Socrates, in confrontation with rival discourses: the discourse of rhetoric, of Sophists, of politics, of poetry and myth. Plato manages to incorporate “foreign voices” in his own text and to have them converse with philosophy. This technique is systematically used in Attic comedy as well. Its protagonists, representing different groups of views, classes, tribes and interests, carry out on stage a “contest of public voices”.

It is known that philosophy, in its sophistical and Socratic variation, has served as a popular topic of comedy. Apart from the Clouds, we know of three other plays starring Socrates and the Sophists and we have every reason to assume that there must have been many more. Willamowitz had already noted the relation between Plato’s Protagoras and Eupolis’ Flatterers. This comedy by Eupolis is not extant, yet we know that it took place in Callias’s house, it ridiculed the famous Sophists and the group of fawners hanging around them. Plato’s dialogue, whose amusing character and theatricality has been noted before, revisits the same setting, yet with the introduction of Socrates against the “Chorus” (Protagoras 315b) of the Sophists and their supporters. Couldn’t the Protagoras be considered then as Plato’s reply in deed to Eupolis? Scholars have detected in Plato’s texts more indirect references to well-known comedies: the Gorgias seems to be in dialogue with Aristophanes’ Knights and the 5th book of the Republic with Assemblywomen.

Plato on Aristophanes

Plato’s position on comedy, and especially on Aristophanes, entails contradictions. In the Apology Aristophanes is identified as the real accuser of Socrates, whereas in the Symposium he is presented as a friend of his, he delivers a truly impressive encomium to love and is the one who remains awake until the next morning while discussing with Socrates.

In the Republic comedy is driven out of the ideal city due to its inherent mimetic nature and its detrimental effect on morality (394b ff, 606c). In the later dialogue Philebus, however, Plato dedicates a lengthy analysis on the nature of the ridiculous and the comic (48a-503), and in the Laws it is claimed that one must watch comedies and know comedy in order to remain wise (816e). In contrast to tragedy, which remains excluded from Magnesia, some comic plays could be allowed, provided naturally that they are staged by slaves or paid foreigners (816e).

In the Apology we come across the strange phenomenon that, while the actual people bringing charges against Socrates are Meletus and Anytus, Socrates begins his defence by replying not to them, but to the Aristophanes of the Clouds. Yet would anybody facing the heavy charge of impiety address the Athenian court, soon after the Thirty Tyrants’ fall, and choose to show that Aristophanes slandered him by not distinguishing him from the Sophists? Plato’s Apology wishes to convince us that in Socrates the Athenians condemned philosophy itself.

Plato’s entire corpus is a composition attempting to show that philosophy is a new and subversive kind of discourse, capable of transforming society and the human soul. Plato’s philosopher claims the role of social reformer and educator, a role traditionally held by poets and also claimed during the fifth century BCE by orators and Sophists. In light of this project, clearly distinguishing Socrates from the Sophists is of fundamental importance for Plato. Nevertheless, the average Athenian, represented by Aristophanes and the comic poets, this difference was far from clearly evident. In their eyes Socrates (or Protagoras) are a typical example of the young sophoi that swarmed in Pericles’ Athens.

How could this new understanding of philosophy find expression in the written word? Plato’s choice is the Socratic dialogue. This new literary genre has special advantages. It is accessible to a wide audience, to the Athenian people who were already used to lively exchange of arguments; it is complex and, like comedy, able to incorporate “foreign voices” and juxtapose them to philosophy. Thus conceived, it is evident that it offers Plato an excellent agonistic tool, since his own intentions are polemical.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Goldhill, S. The Poet’s Voice. Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature. Cambridge, 1991.
  • Henderson, J. "The Demos and the Comic Competition." Zeitlin, F.I. , Winkler, J.J. eds. Nothing to do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in its Social Context. Princeton, 1990.
  • Nightingale, A.W. Genres in Dialogue, Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Cambridge, 1995.
  • Zeitlin, F.I. , Winkler, J.J. eds. Nothing to do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in its Social Context.. Princeton, 1990..
  • Strauss, L. Socrates and Aristophanes. New York, 1966.
  • Von Willamowitz-Moellendorff, U.,. Platon 1. Berlin, 1920.
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