Thomas Hobbes on Humour and Laughter
[Superiority Theory of Humour]

Thomas Hobbes on Humour and Laughter

Hobbes was a supporter of the superiority theory of humour and he is considered to be the first philosophers to directly refer to superiority theory in his writing.

He was an uncompromising superiority theorist who believed that all humour and laughter is associated with conflict and competition and that laughter is an expression of a ‘sudden glory’ felt when becoming superior to others.

Hobbes considered the role of superiority theory when laughing at other people and also when laughing at ourselves.

When considering Thomas Hobbes on Humour and Laughter, and humour theory in general, Hobbes is a prominent name within early humour theory and is well-worthy of further exploration.

Who Was Thomas Hobbes?

Before exploring Thomas Hobbes on Humour and Laughter it is important to first explain who Hobbes was.

Thomas Hobbes was an English Philosopher who lived 1588-1679.

He is considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy and is best known for his book ‘Leviathan’, published in 1651, which presents the influential formulation of his ‘social contract theory’.

However, it is his writings in ‘The Elements of Law Natural and Politic’ (1650) that we will refer to in this article as it is within this text that Hobbes offers his insights into humour and laughter.

Thomas Hobbes: The Superiority Theory of Humour

Philosophers who preceded Hobbes – such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Descartes – indirectly described the superiority theory of humour, but Hobbes was the first to directly refer to this theory in his writings.

It is within ‘The Elements of Law Natural and Politic’ (1650) where Hobbes provides what is broadly considered to be the first explicit summary of the superiority theory.

Unlike Descartes, who acknowledged some potentially positive considerations of the superiority theory of humour, such as the positive emotions of joy and wonder being capable of producing humour without the presence of hatred, and its ability to positively benefit society through facilitating corrective behaviour, Hobbes offered a more unforgiving account of humour, laughter and the superiority theory.

Hobbes is therefore an uncompromising superiority theorist and one who has become a central, prominent name when considering the superiority theory of humour.

Hobbes believed that laughter was a biproduct of our own malicious enjoyment experienced through our own sense of triumph over others.

Therefore, Hobbes proposed there must always be an element of competition or conflict associated with humour and laughter which is why he viewed humour and laughter as negatively framed and something that should be supressed and not used in excess.

The use of humour at the expense of others, through mocking and teasing, was viewed unfavourably by Hobbes on moral grounds.

Thomas Hobbes: Sudden Glory and Laughter

It will be helpful to consider Hobbes’ perspective on humour and laughter in the context of his general theory of life which he called ‘The State of Nature’.

Hobbes proposed that all humans are naturally in a constant struggle for power throughout their lives and that if government was removed and people functioned without societal boundaries it would lead to ‘a war of all against all’.

Within this context, Hobbes believed that laughter assisted people in their struggle for power.

Below is a commonly referenced section from Hobbes’ work which outlines the superiority theory and the sudden glory experienced through laughter.

“I may therefore conclude, that the passion of laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory arising form sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others, or with our own formerly: for men laugh at the follies of themselves past, when they come suddenly to remembrance, except they bring with them any present dishonour.”

Thomas Hobbes (1650)

Thomas Hobbes: Superiority Theory and Laughing at Others

Hobbes believed that people laugh at the sudden realisation of the inferiority, absurdity or shortcomings of others when compared to their own perceived superiority.

Hobbes’ reference to the suddenness of feelings of superiority appear to be an important feature of feelings of superiority which makes us laugh compared to feelings of superiority which do not.

Thomas Hobbes: Superiority Theory and Laughing at Ourselves

The example of someone laughing at themselves in a self-disparaging manner is sometimes used as a counter argument for the superiority theory of humour, however Hobbes proposed that examples such as these actually reinforce the argument in support of feelings of superiority during laughter.

When someone laughs at themselves, they are laughing at a former, inferior version of themselves and they can assign superiority to their present self in comparison to their inferior past self.

In other words, they are able to mock their inferior past self because they can identify that they are no longer in this inferior position as they have grown wiser and more competent since this point in time.

Similarly, if someone laughs at themselves in the present, they are identifying their current inferiority and this will enable them to correct this in the future, much in the same way that Descartes proposed.

This perspective can also be extended to someone laughing at their own joke.

In this example, the individual will be laughing not at their own joke, but from the sense of superiority felt from telling the joke and the feelings of power they acquire from this social situation.

Thomas Hobbes: Humour and Laughter 'Abstracted from Persons'

Hobbes’ general theory of humour is centred around the idea that individuals laugh due to feelings of conflict and superiority in comparison to others.

However, there are examples of humour and laughter which are not associated with people which may diminish the generality of this theory.

Laughter associated with absurdity which is not directed at other people, such as laughing at a word pun, or when laughter is directed at another person, but no malice is present, such as a parent laughing at their baby, it becomes more challenging to apply the superiority theory of humour to all humour examples.

In these examples, are we laughing at absurdity for absurdity’s own sake?

The example with the word pun, could be a feeling of superiority at understanding the pun, as someone with less intellect may not understand the pun.

The example of the parent laughing at their baby could still be viewed as the parent being superior to the baby, but the notion of conflict and malice can surely not be argued.

Hobbes considers this type of benign humour but does a relatively poor job in explaining it using his interpretation of superiority theory.

It is therefore examples such as these which open an avenue for challenge into Hobbes’ concept of superiority theory as a general theory of humour.

Author: Jonathan Sandling