Cicero on Humour and Laughter

Cicero on Humour and Laughter

Summary of Cicero on Humour and Laughter

Cicero was the first philosopher to produce a detailed, systematic analysis of humour and his writings on humour and laughter have influenced many prominent humour theorists.  

Cicero believed humour and laughter to be associated with superiority but unlike Plato and Aristotle, who were cautious of humour and laughter, Cicero viewed them more favourably.

He perceived comedy to be a gift from the gods and a supportive feature of public speaking. He was the first philosopher to appreciate the rhetorical power of humour.

Cicero acknowledged the presence of incongruities in many forms of humour and laughter and, as a result of its importance, emphasised the need for enhancing incongruities to achieve comedic effect.

Like Aristotle, Cicero also acknowledged the need for moderation of humour and laughter. He focused on the feelings of others when using humour and considered this to be an important aspect of humour moderation.

Cicero believed that humour could be used to fabricate the truth and that exaggeration and fantastical versions of reality were helpful in exposing the truth.

He also offered an early attempt at categorising jokes. He proposed two types: the first where humour is generated by words; the second where humour is generated by things.

Cicero’s thinking broadly builds on the writings and thoughts of Plato and Aristotle. If you would like to find out more about those that influenced Cicero on humour and laughter you should read the following two articles:

Plato on Humour and Laughter

Aristotle on Humour and Laughter

VIDEO: Cicero on Humour and Laughter (Coming Soon)

Who Was Cicero?

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, philosopher and lawyer. 

He lived 106BC – 43BC in Formia, Italy. 

He tried to uphold republican principles during the political crises that led to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Cicero On The Orator (De Oratore)

In De Oratore, Cicero explores the techniques required for persuasive public speaking and humour and laughter are considered in this context.

Cicero believed that comedy was a gift from the gods and one which positively supported one’s ability to be an orator.

“It mitigates and relaxes gravity and severity, and often, by a joke or a laugh, breaks the force of offensive remarks, which cannot easily be overthrown by arguments.”

Cicero and Comedic Truth

Cicero proposed that humour required a manipulation of the truth. This could come in the form a surreal joke or story or from an impractical situation.

It was therefore considered by Cicero to be completely acceptable to be fantastical and to exaggerate when being humorous.

Cicero also highlights how humour is capable of bringing prominent features of a situation which are overlooked or unappreciated to the fore.

"Many a true word hath been spoken in jest."

Using humour to alter reality does not necessarily undermine reality.

Instead, comic fabrication can create a new version of the truth where key elements are emphasised and represented in a new way, forcing the audience to reassess their understanding and opinions.

For example, it is possible, through comedic fabrication, to expose the truth of a person’s character or personality. This can be seen visually when a caricature is drawn; all the worse parts of the face (the large nose, the bald head, the goofy teeth) are emphasised and exposed.

This is a practical example but this principle of humour exposing truth can be applied to any person or situation. 

Cicero believed that a skilled public speaker is able to blend believable information with comedic fabrications in order to persuade an audience.

Cicero and Humour Moderation

Although Cicero viewed humour in a more positive light, he still expressed the need for careful use of humour when speaking publicly.

Cicero concurred with Aristotle that humour and laughter needs to be moderated. The speaker should avoid the extremes of buffoonery and boorishness and instead adopt an appropriately moderate use of humour and laughter.

He was aware that whilst humour could be used to create levity, build rapport with an audience and provide a means for communicating unpalatable truths, humour also has the potential to ridicule if taken too far and destroy relationships.

“To what degree the laughable should be carried by the orator requires very diligent consideration.”

Cicero expressed that people need to be selective about the types of topics they joke about and caution should be taken not to go too far.

A difference here though, compared to Aristotle’s view of moderation, is that Cicero expressed a greater need for the feelings of others to be taken into account when being humorous and laughing.

Plato and Aristotle’s justifications for the moderation of humour and laughter were primarily focused the detrimental impact it would have on the speaker.

The focus on the ideal personal state and how one’s level of intellect would be viewed are in the eyes of others if they were humorous was emphasised more by Plato and Aristotle’s moderation of humour and laughter.  

This shift away from the person generating the humour as being the focus to the person appreciating or receiving the humour as also being the focus is an interesting one as it begins to incorporate the importance of social dynamics in the use of humour and laughter.

Cicero and Incongruity Theory

Cicero identified incongruity as a core feature of humour and noticed that most jokes imply an expectation, and that humour is generated when the expectation is not realised.

Specifically, Cicero’s view was that humour was found in the disappointment someone feels when their expectation is undermined. Cicero explored the notion of incongruities and absurdity when using humour during public speaking. If incongruities create humour then it would make sense to amplify them.

Incongruity Theory Of Humour

Cicero and Types of Jokes

Cicero makes an interesting distinction between two different types of jokes.

“There are two sorts of jokes, one of which is excited by things, the other by words.”

Jokes associated with words relate to puns, comical phrases, proverbs, irony and wit and jokes associated with things relate to aspects of amusing situations.

Cicero and Superiority Theory

Cicero agreed with Plato and Aristotle that superiority played a central role in many forms of humour and laughter.

He considered laughter to be associated with ‘deformity’ and ‘low-behaviour.’

However, the superiority theory of humour plays a much lesser role in Cicero’s assessment of humour and laughter compared to Plato and Aristotle.

Superiority theory of humour

Cicero and Tractatus Coislinianus

Some scholars have speculated that Cicero’s thoughts on comedy and laughter, as expressed in De Oratore, were influenced by the writings of Aristotle.

It is hypothesised that this influence came from a treatise on humour called, Tractatus Coislinianus, which some scholars believe to have contained a summary of Aristotle’s views on humour and laughter as expressed in Aristotle’s lost second volume of Poetics.

The existence of this work is somewhat debateable, but it is believed that Aristotle’s lost second volume of Poetics did contain an expansion of his previously expressed views on humour and laughter. 

There does seem to be references made to Aristotle’s thinking contained within Tractatus Coislinianus as it suggests that humour can result in catharsis, much like tragedy, offering a purgation and purification of emotions.

Tractatus Coislinianus also suggests that laughter can be produced in two ways: as a result of what someone says, or as a result of what someone does. This distinction is similarly found in Cicero’s work.

There is no proof that Cicero ever read Tractatus Coislinianus, but he did claim to have read and consulted a number of treaties on humour and laughter, so it is fairly likely one of them would have been Tractatus Coislinianus.

I hope you enjoyed this article on Cicero on Humour and Laughter. I have many other articles on humour and laughter so please take some time to explore my website for more content.

Author: Jonathan Sandling