Plato is regarded as being the first person to propose the superiority theory of humour and laughter. He is also regarded as the first known philosopher to comment on comedy, humour and laughter in a meaningful way.
Plato’s predominant opinion on humour and laughter is that it is generated as a result of another person’s inadequacies or ridiculousness in comparison to our own.
This perspective on humour aligns with behaviours such as mocking and teasing and using another person as the ‘butt’ of the joke.
Plato believed that humour and laughter occur in hierarchical situations where there are power and competency dynamics that can be exploited.
Due to this perspective, Plato’s thinking on humour and laughter have been central in the development of superiority theory, which remains one of the most commonly referenced humour theories today.
Plato also considered humour to be at odds with our desired ideal state, which is one of seriousness and intellect. He didn’t approve of laughter as he believed it was associated with fundamental human instincts which negatively impact one’s ability to reason.
It was believed that emotions such as humour and laughter override rational self-control and should therefore be avoided and controlled to minimise their detrimental impact.
Plato was an Athenian philosopher who lived 428-349 BC in Ancient Greece during the Classical Period.
He was a student of Socrates (470-399 BC) and a teacher of Aristotle (384-322 BC).
Plato founded the Platonist school of thought and the Academy, the first recorded institution of higher learning in the Western World.
He is also considered to be one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality.
Plato produced many works but for the purpose of this article three main works will be considered to explore Plato on Humour and Laughter:
Philebus (360-347 BC)
Laws (360 BC)
The superiority theory of humour can be first traced back to Plato.
This early theory of humour was supported by his student, Aristotle, and then later by Thomas Hobbes.
The general principles of the superiority theory is that a person finds humour and laughter in something due to the misfortune of others.
When laughing at the misfortune or inferiority of others we ourselves feel a sense of superiority.
This associated power dynamic led Plato to consider an experience of superiority in laughter to be malicious.
This idea of taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others is sometimes referred to as schadenfreude.
Plato was reported to have said that Socrates, his teacher and mentor, considered the ridiculous to be characterised by a demonstration of self-ignorance.
Superiority theory occurs as the result of the inadequacies of an individual or group of people, or when there is a deviation from societal expectations.
And for Aristotle, Plato’s student and mentee, he believed we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel joy in our own feelings of superiority.
Although Immanuel Kant is predominantly associated with incongruity theory, Kant is another philosopher who recognised the role superiority played in humour generation and appreciation.
Superiority theory is the earliest of the humour theories and despite its narrow perspective and limited application in all scenarios it still remains one of the most commonly cited theory on humour today; and it all started with Plato.
In Republic, Plato explores the relationship between the ideal person and the ideal state and laughter was considered to be something that can threaten the ideal state.
The ideal state, according to Plato, is a serious one, where any feelings, thoughts or emotions which undermine the individual’s ability to be serious (e.g. laughter) should be controlled and supressed.
Plato likened laughter and the act of clowning to other emotions and desires such as anger and sex. He believed such emotions should be managed in order to achieve a more fulfilled and happier life.
The causes of laughter were thought to be external to the individual and something that interfered with one’s serious nature.
Plato didn’t approve of laughter as he believed it was associated with fundamental human instincts which negatively impact one’s ability to reason; and reason was celebrated over everything else.
Plato even insisted that the education of others must remove all references to gods or heroes who were known to have laughed uncontrollably. Instead, he promoted serious role models as being appropriate points of reference for education.
He took particular issue with the passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey where Mount Olympus was said to ring with the laughter of the gods.
Philebus is a series of Socratic dialogues between Philebus, Socrates and Protarchus. The dialogue debates the merits of a life of pleasure against a life of intelligence.
The name ‘Philebus’ translates into ‘loverboy’, so Philebus offers the argument for a life of pleasure with Socrates offering the argument for a life of intelligence.
Protarchus opposes laughter as he believes it is associated with malice. This is a theory of humour where laugher is targeted at the misfortune and ridiculousness of others.
Plato proposed that laughing at other’s inferiority, and taking delight in doing so, is morally objectionable. Comedy and laughter of this kind should therefore be tightly controlled.
Plato suggests that laughter is pleasurable and as such it is something one is drawn to and tempted by. In this debate, where a life of pleasure is pitched against a life of intelligence, anything that brings pleasure would disrupt rational thought and intelligence.
Plato therefore viewed laughter as something that had the potential to corrupt his judgement. Such thoughts cast a negative light on laughter and humour, one which would be taken on by other future humour theorists and thinkers.
In Laws, Plato continues his broadly negative perspective of comedy and laughter.
However, he does identify some potential benefits associated with comedic performance.
Plato acknowledges the possibility of making serious points when using humour. He suggests that comedy may provide a means for communicating unpalatable truths and that comedy may also provide examples of undesirable behaviour that others can learn from.
This perspective could be considered to be an early attempt at incongruity theory but the lack of detail provided on this point results in a weak argument.
However, these concepts are not explored in significant depth and the remainder of views expressed by Plato on humour and laughter are consistent with his prior work.