Aristotle on Humour and Laughter

Aristotle on Humour and Laughter

Summary of Aristotle on Humour and Laughter

Aristotle was an early proponent of the superiority theory of humour and believed that people predominantly laugh at the inferiority and ugliness of others.  

Aristotle acknowledged the role incongruities play in humour generation and appreciation and identified how laughter is created when an expectation is not consistent with reality. 

Aristotle proposed the concept of eutrapelia (wittiness) which places humour on a continuum of amusement. 

At the lower end is boorishness and at the upper end is buffoonery. The ideal state would be in the middle of these two extremes – referred to by Aristotle as the golden mean.

Like Plato, Aristotle was cautious of humour and laughter, however he was able to appreciate the positive attributes of the comic. 

If someone is able to cultivate a correct attitude towards humour and laughter (golden mean) it can be liberating. Someone who is able to use comedy in a moderate and appropriate way possesses an extremely valuable skill. 

The following sections explore these key themes of Aristotle on Humour and Laughter in more detail.  

VIDEO: Aristotle on Humour and Laughter

Who Was Aristotle?

Aristotle was an Athenian Philosopher who lived 384-322 BC in Ancient Greece during the Classical Period.

He was a student of Plato (428-349 BC) and a teacher of many prominent individuals, such as, Alexander the Great and Theophrastus.

He is considered to be the first genuine scientist in history, and he invented the field of ‘formal logic’.

Aristotle wrote widely on many topics, most predominantly ethics and politics.

He also built on Plato’s works on humour and laughter, most notably in his works: Poetics, Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics.

For more information on Plato’s philosophy on humour and laughter you should read the following article:

Plato on Humour and Laughter

Aristotle and Superiority Theory

One aspect of humour and laughter where Aristotle agreed with Plato, was that humour is associated with superiority and malice.

Aristotle considered humour and laughter to be associated with inordinate behaviour and it was this reason that he was cautious of humour and laughter.

He believed that people laugh at inferior or ugly individuals because it brings them happiness and joy at feeling superior to others.

Aristotle considered the feeling of superiority to be the result of the inadequacies of an individual or group of people, or when there is a deviation from societal expectations.

Superiority theory of humour

Aristotle and Incongruity Theory

Aristotle appreciated the enjoyment of the ludicrous and believed his pleasure was not always just due to the misfortune of others.

In Poetics (350BC), Aristotle identified an example of humour which did not generate derisive laughter and was not associated with ridicule.

“Comedy consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.”

By viewing the comic mask as not being associated with human distress, Aristotle suggested that humour can produce laughter that is benign and not malicious.

Aristotle considered humour and laughter to be associated with the “frailties, follies and infirmities of human nature, as distinguished from its graver vices or crimes,” (Butcher, 1951).

Butcher also suggested that Aristotle may have also considered humour and laughter to be associated with “the incongruities, absurdities, or cross-purpose of life, its blunders and discords, its imperfect correspondences and adjustments.”

If we accept Butcher’s interpretation of Aristotle’s writings, as many people do, then the notion that humour and laughter can only be produced through malice and superiority must be challenged. 

This raises the following question:

Can incongruities and absurdities produce humour and laughter in the absence of another person’s misfortune of interiority?

Aristotle believed it could and he used the example from a dramatic comedy to support this point.

Laughter is typically created when the audience’s expectations are undermined. Aristotle gives the following example from a Greek drama:

“As he walked, beneath his feet were – chilblains.”

In this example the audience would have expected sandals, earth, sand or some other predictable word to be beneath his feet.

Humour and laughter are generated by the incongruity that is created between the audience’s expectation (sandals) and the reality (chilblains).

We can safely say that humour has clearly progressed since Ancient Greece but this example does provide some support for Aristotle’s theory. 

The theory that incongruities can create humour and laughter is one which would be later proposed by other humour philosophers and thinkers, such as Frances Hutcheson (1694-1746) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Although Aristotle implied the incongruity theory in his writing and thinking, he did not actually coin the term or formulate a structured theory of incongruity himself.

Incongruity Theory Of Humour

Aristotle and Eutrapelia

In his best known work on ethics, Nicomachen Ethics, Aristotle explored how best to attain happiness and how best to live a good life. 

He believed, like Socrates and Plato before him, that this could be achieved by cultivating a set of necessary virtues. Where Aristotle differed slightly from his predecessors was that he believed each virtue must be enacted in moderation.

Wittiness was one of the virtues Aristotle proposed. 

Aristotle places a person’s response to humour on a continuum of amusement.

At the upper end of the amusement continuum, Aristotle identified a person who is a ‘vulgar buffoon,’ and at the lower end of the continuum he identified a person who is ‘boorish and unpolished.’

Aristotle considered both extremes to be potentially problematic.

Vulgar buffoons were considered just as bad as those who could not make a joke themselves or put up with the jokes of others.  

A buffoon becomes corrupted by laughter and over-indulges. A boorish person is too serious and lacks the social virtues that are required for a goof life.   

The ideal, Aristotle suggested, is to find a happy-medium, and a balance, between buffoonery and boorishness.

Aristotle referred to this ideal middle state between buffoonery and boorishness as the ‘Golden-Mean.’

Aristotle called this eutrapelia – which translates to ‘ready-wittedness’ or simply ‘wittedness’, from the Greek for ‘turning well.’

Aristotle's Eutrapelia wittiness amusement boorishness buffoonery

Aristotle’s concept of eutrapelia was later supported and extended by Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae where he explored whether there can be virtue in actions undertaken during play and amusement.

Aquinas proposed that humour also has social benefits and extended Aristotle’s eutrapelia to mean a “pleasant person with a happy cast of mind who gives his words and deed a cheerful turn.”

Aquinas further suggested that a person who fails to act or think playfully is acting ‘against reason.’

“Life includes rest as well as activity, and in this is includes leisure and amusement.”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Tweet

This concept of the ideal sitting in the middle of this continuum and both extremes being problematic is different to Plato’s view on the ideal state which was one of seriousness.

This may potentially seem like a small difference but when considering the importance both Plato and Aristotle placed on the ability to ‘reason’ a difference in ideal state to maximising ‘reasoning’ becomes more fundamental. 

Plato typically believed that all forms of humour and laughter negatively impacted a person’s ability to reason.

Whereas, Aristotle’s view was that too much, or too little, humour and laughter will negatively impact reason. This was the first account of humour being considered as a means for enabling reason and that a moderate level of humour and laughter can facilitate improved reasoning.

Author: Jonathan Sandling

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