Plato on the Ridiculous and Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a fairly ridiculous human being. Though he has somehow managed to inspire admiration in many, even some of his supporters concede that he isn’t especially admirable, and many of his detractors apparently agree that he is not merely a bad person and unfit for public office, but positively absurd, a laughingstock of the sort we more readily expect from political satire than from political reality, perhaps all the more ridiculous for being real rather than fictional. Such, at least, we might infer from the frequency with which social media users and some traditional media outlets subject Trump to ridicule and present him as an object of derision and mockery. Admittedly, politicians in general, and especially presidents, are always easy targets for humor and satire, and the most successful comedians can find a way to make almost anything funny. In some conservative circles Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were — and in some, still are — laughed at with tedious regularity, and it may not be that Trump is made fun of more than they were, or by more people, but simply more often by people I happen to pay attention to. Even so, Trump gets made fun of. A lot. This worries me.

In some ordinary, imprecise sense of the word, I find Donald Trump ridiculous. What I don’t find him is funny, in any way, someone who inspires laughter of any kind. I share what some readers will no doubt regard as the Standard Liberal Elitist Disdain for Trump; pick a widely held complaint about Trump, and I probably at least sympathize with it. So my inability to laugh at him is not an expression of any kind of respect for the man or his office. I simply can’t laugh at him, or at any of the many discussions or representations of him designed to make me laugh at him, from Alec Baldwin’s caricatures to the latest post on my Facebook feed. This isn’t because I’m a generally humorless guy; anybody who knows me well will probably tell you that I’m at least occasionally too silly. It’s that I don’t think I should laugh at him. More than that, I don’t think you should either. I don’t think anyone should. Insofar as something that is ridiculous is something worth laughing at in a contemptuous, dismissive way, I don’t find Donald Trump ridiculous.

Plato explains why.

In the Philebus, Plato’s Socrates sketches out what looks at first sight to be a rudimentary theory of comedy as a genre of dramatic poetry centered around what he calls ‘the ridiculous’ (to geloion in Greek). Taken as a theory of comedy, it doesn’t seem very good, even when we remember that the genres of comedy that Plato was familiar with — what scholars now call Old and Middle Comedy — were quite different from much of what we think of today as comedy. What Socrates says in the Philebus seems to leave out an awful lot of what is distinctive and important about the comedy that Plato knew, at least so far as we can judge from the extant plays of Aristophanes and the surviving fragments and testimonia of other comic plays. This is hardly a surprise, though, because Socrates is not really focused on comedy, but on the ridiculous, whether in comedic drama or in life. What he says about the ridiculous has therefore sometimes been taken as a rudimentary theory of humor. Here too, though, the theory seems unimpressive. If Plato was trying to give us a general theory of what makes people laugh, he wasn’t very successful, because what he says about the ridiculous doesn’t seem true of everything that people find funny. I’m not convinced that’s what he was trying to do, but that’s irrelevant for my present purposes. Whatever Plato was trying to do, what the Socrates of the Philebus says about the ridiculous presents an insight into at least one important kind of thing that makes us laugh, and perhaps one important kind of laughter.

The context of the dialogue’s discussion of the ridiculous is Socrates’ attempt to persuade a young man named Protarchus — and, indirectly, the dialogue’s namesake himself — that some pleasures are ‘impure’ because they are ‘mixed’ with pains. As but one example, he fastens upon malicious laughter, which he takes to involve pain of a sort because it is directed at people we dislike, and yet is plainly pleasant insofar as we enjoy laughing. What we laugh at in such cases, he thinks, is the ridiculous, which is something that we find manifested in people of a specific sort.

Socrates: The ridiculous is, in a word, a sort of vice that gets its name from a certain disposition. Of the whole of vice, it is the condition opposite to the one described by the inscription at Delphi.

Protarchus: You mean “know yourself,” Socrates?

Socrates: That’s right. So the opposite of that would be not to know oneself at all.

Protarchus: Of course.

Socrates: Now try, Protarchus, to divide this thing into three.

Protarchus: How? I sure can’t do it.

Socrates: Are you saying, then, that I should make this division now?

Protarchus: Yes. I’m even begging you to tell me.

Socrates: Well, isn’t it necessary that, of people who do not know themselves, each suffers from this condition in one of three ways?

Protarchus: How?

Socrates: First, with respect to money, believing that he is wealthier than he really is.

Protarchus: There are certainly many people who suffer from this condition.

Socrates: And there are more who think that they are stronger, more beautiful, and more outstanding in all bodily attributes than they really are.

Protarchus: Certainly.

Socrates: But by far the most, I think, are mistaken in the third way, about the things in their souls, believing that they are superior in virtue, even though they aren’t.

Protarchus: You’ve got that right.

Socrates: And of the virtues, isn’t it wisdom that most of them make claim to in all sorts of ways, though they are filled up with strife and the false appearance of wisdom?

Protarchus: How not?

Socrates: So one would speak correctly if he said that this sort of condition is altogether bad?

Protarchus: Definitely.

Socrates: Now, this must be divided further in two, Protarchus, if we are going to get a view of childish malice and thereby behold its bizarre mixture of pleasure and pain. “So how do we divide it,” you say? All those who foolishly have this false belief about themselves must, like all human beings, fall into two groups, those who have strength and power and those who have the opposite, I think.

Protarchus: Necessarily.

Socrates: Divide them, then, in that way: if you claim that those who have this false belief but are weak and unable to avenge themselves when they are laughed are ridiculous, you’ll speak the truth, and you’ll give yourself the most correct account if you call those who are able to avenge themselves and are strong frightening and hateful. For the ignorance of strong people is hateful and ugly, since both the ignorance itself and its imitations are harmful to those who get close to them, while weak ignorance, as far as we’re concerned, has the rank and nature of the ridiculous.

(Philebus 48c6-49c5, translation mine)

We laugh maliciously or contemptuously, Socrates thinks, at people who think that they are outstandingly good in some respect, but really aren’t. We can see why he supposes that this kind of laughter is a product of malice of a sort when we consider that we don’t always find such lack of self-knowledge funny at all, and occasionally even find it sad or troubling. If your good friend, or a fictional character that you like, thinks that she has a lot more money than she does, or thinks that she’s a world class athlete when she’s not, or thinks that she has the natural aptitude and cultivated skill to become a first-rate physicist when she can’t even get a C in calculus, you’re not likely to laugh at her, and especially not in a contemptuous or spiteful way; you’re more likely to pity her, or worry about her. By contrast, if someone you dislike for some reason holds these kinds of false beliefs about himself, you’re more likely to laugh at his foolish ignorance of himself. Plausibly, whether or not we find self-ignorance ridiculous depends on whether we think it’s culpable: we scoff at people when we think that they should know better, not when we think that their ignorance is no fault of their own (Socrates perhaps gestures in this direction when he describes these people as ‘foolishly’ having false beliefs about themselves).

We laugh at ridiculous people, it seems, just because they’re ridiculous, but by connecting this laughter with ‘malice,’ Socrates suggests more than that. The Greek word translated as ‘malice’ is phthonos, also sometimes translated as ‘envy.’ Neither translation is very good, but ‘envy’ is positively misleading. Like envy, phthonos is a kind of ill-will that manifests itself in our being displeased by a person’s successes. But unlike envy, phthonos does not require that the object of my ill-will have something that I do not have and wish I did. More importantly, phthonos is expressed not only in pain at other people’s successes, but also in pleasure at their failures. Socrates seems to suppose that self-ignorance itself is among the failures that inspire the pleasure of laughter, but presumably he also means to include any failures that are due to self-ignorance, and perhaps even misfortunes not due to it but accruing to someone who suffers from it. Hence we laugh at the guy who thinks he is impressing us with his deep knowledge of Chinese but is manifestly butchering basic sentences and making a fool of himself, though we might also laugh satisfyingly if he fails to be impressive by accidentally slipping on a wet spot on the floor.

As a general account of what makes us laugh, this story seems too simple. People laugh at all kinds of things, and they don’t all seem to involve people who culpably lack self-knowledge. Yet it does seem to capture, at least in outline, one kind of laughter, and specifically the kind of laughter that makes people want to ‘avenge’ themselves — the kind of laughter that people try to distance themselves from when they pull out the old line, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.” This kind of laughter may not map very well on to the contemporary English word ‘ridiculous,’ and the boundaries between this kind of laughter and others might be pretty fuzzy. What interests me, though, and leads me to think that Plato deserves credit for some insight here, is that this seems to be exactly the kind of laughter that most people making fun of Donald Trump are indulging in and trying to elicit in others.

It is certainly hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump lacks self-knowledge in the way that Socrates describes. He pretty clearly genuinely thinks that he is incredibly smart, insightful, and shrewd, appropriately bold and courageous enough not to be intimidated by his opponents, allies, or advisors, thoroughly in control of himself and self-sufficient enough not to be tempted or seduced into sacrificing his own long-term interests or the good of the country for some short-term gain, and more honest, fair, and concerned for the well-being of Americans than most politicians. In other words, he thinks he is a paragon of the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice. He also pretty clearly thinks that he’s eloquent, graceful, smooth, charming, and yes, even unusually handsome. But he is none of these things, and in many cases not even close (readers who seriously deny or doubt this are simply not part of my target audience). He may also think he’s richer than he is, though it’s hard to tell whether he’s lying about that. He suffers from self-ignorance in at least two, and possibly all three, of the ways that Socrates distinguishes, and with regard to all of the virtues. Or so, at least, his own public behavior seems to suggest.

This lack of self-knowledge also seems to be why many people find him so easy to make fun of, and to be at least in large part what they make fun of. If Trump didn’t believe that he is an outstandingly excellent person unusually fit for office, or if he were an outstandingly excellent person unusually fit for office, it would be very difficult to make fun of him or to laugh at him in the mocking, contemptuous way that so many do. He’s not a comedian trying to make us laugh, and it’s not at all hard to understand why he, or anyone subjected to the kind of laughter that is so often directed at him, would feel an impulse to ‘avenge’ himself.

The Philebus account of the ridiculous, though, includes a further division. We don’t, Socrates thinks, find self-ignorance ridiculous when the ignorant are strong and powerful. Instead we find them frightening and hateful, because their ignorance is harmful and ugly. There’s at least something to this. The security guard who thinks he’s Dirty Harry but is actually a hothead with an inferiority complex and poor firearms training isn’t funny, he’s scary; the mafioso who thinks he’s Don Corleone but is actually a bumbling soldier desperate for respect doesn’t inspire laughter, but fear; the tenured star professor who thinks he’s Don Juan but is institutionally protected from the consequences of sexually harassing his students isn’t a laughingstock, but a cause for concern. Socrates might think that we don’t laugh at these people because we’re afraid of what they’ll do to us, because unlike the weak, they can avenge themselves. But I take it that he also thinks that these people just aren’t ridiculous, because their ignorance of themselves isn’t harmless and amusing, but harmful and ugly. That seems right.

It should go without saying that Donald Trump, now as never before, is not weak and harmless. He has never been weak and harmless, at least not so long as he’s been rich and famous. But now he is the President of the United States of America. Whatever else that is, that’s power, and it brings with it the potential to do enormous damage to very many people. That makes his ignorance of himself ugly and terrifying, not ridiculous. It doesn’t make him funny, it makes him hateful. Little people like me don’t need to fear that he’ll avenge himself on us if we laugh at him, but we do need to fear that his ignorance of himself will harm a whole lot of people, even if we and those closest to us aren’t among them. With a clear-eyed view of the man’s power, I cannot join in the mockery and gleeful derision that I’ve encountered so often on social media and occasionally in print journalism, radio, and television.

It may be, however, that Plato can explain why so many people do laugh at him, precisely because it is hard to take someone seriously when we are laughing at him. Laughter, at least of this malicious, derisive kind, can be a way of pretending that someone is really not so scary and dangerous as he really is. While we’re laughing at him, we’re ignoring the real power and danger, escaping momentarily from the discomfort they bring. Some would insist that laughter and mockery are ways of disempowering the object of our derision, or at least of withholding from it the power of keeping us in fear and anxiety. Perhaps that’s a successful strategy when the goal is to silence intellectual opponents, to prevent someone from gaining power, or to lessen the burdens of mortality. With Trump, though, there’s not much power that we can take away from him by laughing at him, and if we indulge ourselves too much we risk cultivating the illusion that he can’t do any harm. We need not live in abject terror, and maybe all of us need to ignore the segment of reality that is the Trump Presidency for at least a few hours each day to get things done; maybe we can even reasonably find some grounds for optimism that he won’t do too much damage. Pretending that he isn’t powerful and dangerous, however, would be foolish, and a kind of ignorance itself, maybe even a kind of self-ignorance.

Plato might be encouraging us in the Philebus never to laugh contemptuously at people, to find self-ignorance pitiable rather than ridiculous. I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m not here to exhort you not to laugh at people. I am, however, exhorting you not to laugh at Donald Trump. At least not too much.

9 thoughts on “Plato on the Ridiculous and Donald Trump

  1. A letter in today’s New York Times:

    To the Editor:

    Ironies of ironies, “Saturday Night Live” is swiftly losing its bite. The subjects of its satire seem to belong more on “S.N.L.” than in the White House. Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant Sean Spicer and Alec Baldwin’s President Trump are no longer more astounding than their subjects.

    The sad part is that the real thing is not funny. It is frightening and becomes more like a horror movie every hour. Moreover, we cannot switch it off like a TV or phone screen.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. For what its worth, I believe you must laugh while you can. With him in command laughter will be in short supply. where is a sick grinning emoji when you want one?


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  4. I just happened to read this piece in the Times, and it reminded me instantly of your post:

    You can almost read Poniewozick’s piece as a companion to this post: if Poniewozick is right, his account provides the underlying explanation for why the Trump presidency is ridiculous in Plato’s sense. Anything that’s modeled on–or just is–an extended reality TV show is bound to be ridiculous in that sense. The explanation is so perfect that it almost sounds trivial or pat. But I find it illuminating.

    To use another Platonic metaphor: Donald Trump is like a Philosopher-King-in-Reverse. The Philosopher King escapes the cave, encounters the Sun, and then comes back and tries to draw the cave’s inhabitants toward the Sun. Donald Trump seems to have a vague, anxious sense that a Sun lies beyond the cave he inhabits. His response is to expand the cave so that it covers as much of the planet as possible. It puts his real estate endeavors in a new light, so to speak.

    PS. You should send this off to Reason Papers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My Platonic thesis, though, is that he isn’t ridiculous, precisely because he’s dangerous. I notice fewer efforts to laugh at him these days than I did when I wrote this piece. That may be just a fact about my selective attention, but it may also have something to do with fewer people being able or willing to mask his dangerousness with laughter. Of course there are other sorts of mockery and derision that don’t so clearly presuppose that their objects aren’t dangerous. But I continue to find it difficult to laugh much at the guy.


      • Yeah, I put that badly. On your view, he’s ridiculous in the sense implied by conventional English usage, but non-ridiculously terrifying in the Platonic sense implied by the last passage you quote from the Philebus.

        What I was thinking (and mistakenly attributing to Plato) was this thought: if the self-ignorance of strong people is explained by a form of moral or psychological weakness, then the ignorance of the strong turns out to be both dangerous and ridiculous–dangerous because the strong-ignorant are capable of producing real danger, but ridiculous because that capacity for danger comes from a place of weakness. I think that explains why people have been so eager to laugh at Trump. He’s strong in one sense but weak in another, and they’d prefer–or did prefer–to laugh at the weakness than tremble at the strength. This, I take it, is the “mockery and derision that don’t so clearly presuppose that the objects aren’t dangerous.” You can laugh at Trump if, despite acknowledging his political strength, you attribute his worst qualities to a kind of inferiority complex or insecurity.

        I think you’re right that people are less inclined to laugh at Trump now than they were earlier on in his presidency. There are at least two reasons for this, I think. One is that they’ve come to grasp that Trump is not a sui generis phenomenon; he has a real constituency and represents a large part of the country. The discomfiture that’s arisen from that realization is hard to reconcile with laughter.

        Second, I think there’s a tendency on the part of those who attribute vice to weakness to waver when they really have to confront the fact that vice produces worldly success. So far, Trump has not been knocked over by anything thrown his way. And a lot has been thrown his way. The more resilient he is, the less plausible it seems (to some) that he really is as weak (or stupid) as was previously thought. It’s one thing cavalierly to attribute weakness to him. It’s another thing to remain convinced of that. What is most discomfiting to Trump’s opposition is the thought that they don’t really understand what motivates him or his base–not his dangerousness per se, but his sheer motivational opacity. At some level, it is hard to understand who or what he is.

        The point I’ve wanted to make since before Trump got elected is that his opacity is his dangerousness. A democracy cannot be led by a motivationally opaque president whose only consistent trait is to pander to the lowest instincts of the craziest mob. This is the basic error of Brennan’s policy-based conception of voting (not to beat my favorite dead horse). It fails to grasp that in voting for the president, we are voting for a person who enacts policies, not an impersonal causal lever that happens to produce policy outcomes. If we treat that person as a moral and psychological black box, we have no idea what the fuck we’re getting into. If half the country then starts projecting their insane fantasies onto that black box, we are headed for fascism. It’s beside the point to look for peer-reviewed, double blind econometric studies about what happens to “policy” (=the economy) when we elect motivationally opaque, demogogic presidents. How would you know? A rational person knows never to vote for one. In a choice between {indecency & unintelligibility} and {basic decency and basic intelligibility}, unless the latter choice leads to clear-cut policy disaster, that’s what you choose.


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