Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The idea of laughter can be pleasant as well as contemptuous, and can therefore form a part of a properly 'civil' life, had come to be widely accepted by the early decades of the seventeenth century. So it comes as something of a shock to find that, in the two best-known discussions of laughter in the next generation - those of Hobbes and Descartes - these assumptions are explicitly set aside in favor of a return to an unambiguously classical point of view.

This is not to say that Hobbes and Descartes restate the Aristotelian theory in its most blinkered form. They both picked up and reiterate the two developments of Aristotle's argument I have already discussed. First of all, they lay considerable emphasis on the concept originally introduced by Fracastoro into the discussion, the concept of surprise or wonderment. Descartes, for whom admiratio is a fundamental passion, opens his analysis of laughter in Les Passions de l'ame by stressing the importance of novelty and suddenness, arguing that we laugh only when something happens 'to cause the lung suddenly to inflate' so that 'the air they contain is forced out through the windpipe with impetuosity, forming an inarticulate and uncontrolled voice'. He adds that these distinctive physiological changes take place only when a new and sudden event is associated with feelings of wonderment. The blood coming from the spleen must be 'pushed towards the heart by some light emotion of Hatred, aided by the surprise of l'Admiration if the outcome is to be the form of dilation with which laughter is associated...

What is striking, however, is that neither Hobbes nor Descartes ever mentions the direct challenge to the Aristotelian theory that had arisen in the course of the Renaissance, an omission all the more surprising when one reflects that they usually go out of their way to express their scorn for Aristotle's philosophy. Descartes's principal claim about laughter in Les Passions de l'ame remains a purely Aristotelian one. 'Although', as he explains, 'the Laugh may seem to be one of the principal signs of Joy, joy cannot be the cause of laughter unless the joy is only moderate, and is at the same time mixed with an element of hatred or wonderment.' The connection of laughter with hatred and contempt is one on which he lays particular emphasis, and he later returns to it in his discussion of la moquerie: 'Derision of Mockery is a kind of Joy mixed with Hatred, and when this feeling arises unexpectedly the result is that we burst out with laughter.' ...

That Hobbes returns to the same classical argument is yet more remarkable, since he opens his discussion in The Elements ... his oft-quoted definition ... runs as follows:

"The passion of Laughter is nothying else but a suddaine Glory arising from suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others, or with our owne formerly."

The invocation of glory, and the emphasis on glorying over others, have often been singled out as quintessentially Hobbesian sentiments. As will by now be evident, however, they amount to little more than unacknowledged quotations from Hobbes's ancient sources, and in particular from the analysis of laughter in book 6 of Quintilian's Institutio oratoria.

Hobbes further underlines his classical allegiances by emphasizing that the feelings of glory he is describing are invariably contemptuous and derisory: 'Men Laugh at the infirmityes of others by comparison of which their owne abilityes are sett off, and illustrated.' This being so, 'it is no wonder therefore that men take it heanously to be laughed at', for in becoming objects of laughter they are being 'derided, that is tryumphed over'. He summarizes still more brutally at the end of the chapter, where he presents his 'comparisons of the life of man to a race' and explains the role in this comparison of the different passions of the soul:

"To fall on the suddaine, is disposition to Weepe
To see another to fall, disposition to Laugh"

As in the case of Descartes, Hobbes basic suggestion is thus that laughter expresses a joyful and contemptuous sense of our own superiority.

Hobbes and Descartes enunciate similar theories, but Hobbes's analysis is a more elaborate one, embodying as it does a number of distinctive elements. One is the suggestion, put forward at the end of his discussion in The Elements, that we sometimes laugh not because we feel contempt for any particular person, but rather because we have been made aware of some general absurdity. This possibility allows for what Hobbes describes as 'laughter without offense', which is said to take place when we laugh 'at absurdityes and affirmityes abstracted from persons, and where all the Company may laugh together'. Such laughter will still be an expression of our scorn, but instead of mocking other people to their faces we join together in ridiculing some ludicrous feature of the world and its ways.

... Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter, Quentin Skinner

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