The Role of Laughter in the Good Life:
A Philosophical Examination
Laughter receives scant attention among modern philosophical
analysis although many philosophers mention it within their works.
John Morreall, one of the few contemporary laughter theorists, believes
that laughter takes an important part in the development and fulfillment
of an individual on several levels. In his book The Philosophy
of Laughter and Humor, Morreall
gathered many of the hypotheses about laughter existing in philosophical
texts, and in his other book Taking Laughter Seriously he
hopes to show that laughter means more to our existence than just a
fleeting sense of amusement. One reason that Morreall is so adamant
about this topic is that he believes that the human capacity to laugh
is significant and "to understand our laughter is to go a long
way toward understanding our humanity"
 . Since philosophy is frequently concerned with
the discovery of how one is to live well, it would seem natural that
this utterly human thing may reveal something about the true nature
of human existence  .
Laughter has not always received the positive coloring it regularly
enjoys in today's free societies. A brief inquiry into the history
of philosophical thought on laughter unveils a human emotion rife with
criticism. Laughter suffered a prolonged reproach in ancient philosophy
after the commentary of Plato and Aristotle. Both subscribe to
the belief that laughter is a malicious response to the ignorance of
others, and a principled individual must avoid such a hateful response
to the faults of others. While Plato forbids the leaders of his
ideal city-state to laugh, Aristotle argues that laughter may be used
as a tool for promoting social correction in others. There are
many other philosophical texts where laughter is mentioned, and some
of the more notable commentators on laughter are Hobbes, Descartes,
Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Nietzsche
 . While a some of them agree with Plato and Aristotle
that laughter is a reaction to the faults or ignorance of others, many
argue that laughter results from noticing an innocent incongruity uncommon
to normal experience. In this essay, I will focus on Plato and
Aristotle's criticisms against laughter in the human experience, and
I will argue that their works suffer since they both ignore the benefits
of laughter in developing the good life. I will then use Morreall's
arguments and Nietzsche's writings about laughter where they both promote
laughter as especially significant to the good life since it encourages
a distancing from the practical concerns of human experience.
Morreall argues that previous laughter theories are not entirely comprehensive
since they only offer "piecemeal studies on various small aspects
of laughter", when what we need is "a general account of laughter…and
how [it] fit[s] into human life"
 . Because Morreall's Taking Laughter Seriously
as well as The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor will be
my main points of reference throughout the essay, it will be important
that I show why he argues that laughter is significant to living a good
life. He presents the various arguments for the philosophical
elements and benefits of laughter, claiming that it is: (1) a kind of
aesthetic experience, (2) a form of mental liberation, and (3) a way
of interpreting one's life as a whole [CHC1] . Central to Morreall's discussion is
his own comprehensive theory that he aptly calls "a new theory."
This "new theory" is a general account of laughter that Morreall
claims one may apply to any situations that evoke a laugh, and in his
own words, Morreall explains that his new theory explains that laughter
simply "results from a pleasant psychological shift"  . As part of my analysis, I will
show that Morreall's new theory parallels the same thesis proposed by
Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In this
fictional book meant to convey some of Nietzsche's most poignant philosophical
insights, Nietzsche distinguishes a contrast between the "laughter
of the height" and the "laughter of the herd".
Due to a sudden perspectival shift [CHC2] resulting from Zarathustra's
embrace of the eternal recurrence, the "laughter of the height"
takes an active role Zarathustra's ultimate realization of key insights
regarding his own existence. Since both Plato and Aristotle agree
that laughter is not only a malicious reaction to another's misfortune
or ignorance but also not an important part of the human experience,
I will pose their criticisms against the claims of both Morreall and
Nietzsche. Then, [CHC3] I will argue that laughter is
important to living a fulfilled human experience, and I will further
show that Nietzsche's view of laughter coincides nicely with many of
the conclusions Morreall's notion of laughter proposes.
Plato and Aristotle on Laughter
Plato and Aristotle both deny the inherent value of
laughter in the human experience. [CHC4] Plato's condemnation of laughter
is evident in The Republic
as well as the Philebus.
In the Philebus, a discussion
between Protarchus and Socrates (whom I interpret as the fictional manifestation
of Plato's own philosophy), suggests where Plato develops his initial
critique of laughter:
Socrates: Both pleasure and pain can be wrong, can't
Soc: And delighting in our enemies' misfortune is
neither malicious nor wrong?
Prot: Of course not.
Soc: But to feel delight instead of pain when we see
our friends in misfortune-- that is wrong, isn't it?
Soc: Now, didn't we say that ignorance is always an
Soc: Then, if we find in our friends the three kinds
of ignorance we outlined, imaginary wisdom, beauty and wealth, delusions
which are ridiculous in the weak and hateful in the strong--if we find
these in a harmless form in our friends, may we not say, as I was saying
before, that these delusions are simply ridiculous?
Prot: Yes, we may.
Soc: And do we not agree that this state of
mind, being ignorant, is evil?
Soc: And when we laugh at it, do we feel pain or pleasure?
Prot: Clearly we feel pleasure.
Soc: And we agreed that it is malice that is the source
of the pleasure we feel at our friend's misfortune?
Soc: Then our argument shows that when we laugh at
what is ridiculous in our friends, our pleasure, in mixing with malice,
mixes with pain, for we have agreed that malice is a pain of the soul,
and that laughter is pleasant, and on these occasions we both feel malice
and laugh  .
He argues that laughter is a malicious reaction to
the domination over a more unfortunate member of society, and those
occasionally engaged in laughter are exposed to something base which
should be avoided in the best of men. In this dialectic, Plato
suggests that laughter promotes the inhumane pleasure of enjoying a
friend fail, and since this is a hateful response to another's shortcomings,
it is always wrong to laugh at one's friends. Interestingly enough,
Plato does distinguish a difference from laughing at one's enemies and
one's friends. He argues that laughing at one's friends is always
malicious; however, laughing at one's enemies is neither wrong nor malicious.
Therefore, one should never laugh at his own friends and should only
laugh at the demise of his enemies. It is surprising to note that
Plato does recognize that "laughter is pleasant", but he never
explains why laughter can't embody any positive human traits.
Plato advances another critique of laughter in The
Republic. In this book, Socrates envisions a thorough
blueprint for the ideal society in an elaborate series of dialectics.
Hoping this framework would succeed in empowering a nation to its full
potential, Plato devised an administrative hierarchy composed of several
leadership positions. The need for virtuous, sensible authorities
to command this regimented society would be an absolute necessity.
Plato understood that the commanders of such a great power would demand
an even greater responsibility, and at this point, Plato introduced
the role of the guardians. Prospective guardians were specially
trained, hand picked citizens educated from birth and developed into
the ideal leaders of the government. The cornerstone of the guardians'
education would be their understanding of philosophical concepts that
Plato, being a philosopher himself, unquestionably believed was the
supreme fulfillment of all human intelligence. In order for them
to execute their crucial objectives in government, the guardians must
be trained to think reasonably. Rigorous philosophical training
would offer them the ability to rationalize the demanding concerns of
the city-state. Since it is so important that the guardians maintain
their notion of justice and the rational, any irrational influence that
could potentially interfere with their decisions would not be tolerated.
At this point, Plato declares that laughter is a characteristic that
could not be part of the guardians' lives, and they must not be exposed
to this irrational emotion. [CHC5] In The Republic,
Socrates explains to Ademantus that the guardians of the city-state
must not be exposed to humor or laughter so their minds aren't corrupted
before facing their important role in government:
Socrates: They[guardians] musn't be lovers of laughter
either, for whenever anyone indulges in violent laughter, a violent
change of mood is likely to occur.
Ademantus: So I believe.
Socrates: Then, if someone represents worthwhile people
as overcome by laughter, we won't approve, and we'l l approve even less
if they represent gods that way.
Ademantus: Much less  .
Plato thought that laughter produced a change that
led to the loss of man's rational senses, a change that must not occur
in the minds of the guardians. What Plato calls "violent laughter"
is debatable, and it could mean only a type of laughter that is inherently
vicious. However, from Plato's previous explanation of laughter
where he describes laughter as laced with a pleasant reaction to "malice",
one might claim that this "violent laughter" is just another
form of laugher as such. Even so, it is clear that Plato does
not want the guardians to engage in laughter since he considers laughter
as something that is objectionable, irrational, and careless.
[CHC6] As the intellectually exceptional
constituents of a highly disciplined crew, laughter could be damaging
to the guardians' sensibilities. It is questionable whether Plato
creates these guidelines for all of society or just the guardians, but
since he only admits the guardians should not develop a sense of humor
it is only fair to attribute these limitations on them alone.
In the context of their grave responsibility, Plato poses a solid argument
against any actions, such as laughter, which he found malicious and
morally detrimental to the ideal republic. As leaders of the government
and the embodiment of the perfectly styled educational system, the guardians
in the ideal city-state of Plato's Republic were not supposed
to laugh because any laughter would slight their intellectual capabilities.
Therefore, Plato argues that the strict development of these leaders
should not include an irrational human emotion such as laughter.
Their laughter would also reflect poorly upon the society as a whole
since they were supposed to represent the culmination of the city-state's
best educational system. Therefore, Plato claims that the guardians
should not laugh because laughter was something below their intelligence
and detrimental to the well fare of the entire republic. [CHC7]
Aristotle continues the classical critique of laughter in a few of his
works. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops his
virtue ethics as a way for an individual to achieve maximum potential
as a morally balanced human being. A central component in the
development of these virtue ethics is a precise adherence to the doctrine
of the mean. The doctrine of the mean is basically an ethical
scale on which one may judge one's own moral shortcomings. Having
an excess of one particular trait like courage might result in foolhardiness,
and lacking enough courage results in cowardliness. Much of Aristotle's
theory on laughter sustains Plato's own findings that laughter was a
malicious reaction to the absurd or ridiculousness defects in others,
and in the Poetics Aristotle describes witty laughter as "well-bred
. For Aristotle, laughing is really an insult to another's
intelligence, and it is a youthful mannerism that needs to be refined
through age. Following the doctrine of the mean, someone who laughs
too much is a "vulgar buffoon" and "cannot resist any
temptation to be funny", and one who hardly laughs at all is a
 . [CHC8] Adding a
new wrinkle to the study of laughter, Aristotle also claims
[CHC9] that laughter could be used as a social corrective
since laughter, being something that is inherently malicious towards
another, relishes in the stupidity of the benign. [CHC10] In the Poetics,
Aristotle declares that laughter is a result of observing "the
ridiculous, which is a species of the ugly" and comedies represent
the "imitation of men worse than average"
 . By observing the faults embedded in comic characters,
the audience appreciates the ignorance of the players' imperfections
by responding in a derisory laugh. [CHC11] These observations
impress upon the audience a euphoric sense of superiority over that
character, and they laugh at the defects inherent in such outlandish
portrayals of the imperfect human condition. Therefore, according
to Aristotle's theory, laughter serves the human experience solely as
a way to appreciate one's own superiority over another by laughing at
the problems others must endure, and it has value only in the derisory
aspects of social correction.
From these criticisms, it is evident that both Aristotle and Plato thought
laugher was a malicious and base reaction to the stupidity inherent
in others. Neither Plato nor Aristotle produced, as far as I have
been able to unearth, any further critiques of laughter that might contradict
their existing arguments that laughter is almost always connected with
the reproving of vice. Furthermore, although they both only briefly
mention the value of laughter in the human experience, what has been
published is the only current available resource to derive their theories
on this subject.
The Traditional Theories of Laughter
Three theories of laughter are common to the philosophy
of laughter and humor  . The superiority theory
is unquestionably the oldest. It shares its roots both in Plato's
writings and also in several of Aristotle's works. The superiority
theory, plainly stated, is the notion that all laughter is the result
of observing the ridiculousness in others. [CHC12] Under their comprehensive theory, all laughter
is a response to the comical ignorance in others. The superiority
theory makes a solid case by claiming that laughter is derision towards
another's misfortune, and a good laugh commonly follows the painful
obstacles that others may endure. An example of this type of laughter
may be when one goes to a fair and visit the dunk tank where someone
is repeatedly dropped into a tank of icy water. This may
be funny because it is a relatively harmless situation of watching someone
else ridiculed for being in a ridiculous predicament. Yet another
example might be when someone forgets his lines during a play or other
live performance. It is funny when someone slips up, and a hearty
laugh at the embarrassing dilemma often seems natural. The superiority
theory hinges on the idea that all laughter is a result of regarding
one's own status as outstanding in the light of another's faults.
It is the only theory of laughter among the three traditional theories
that is commonly attributed a comprehensive status, a point that will
become more important later on in this essay.
The relief theory is the second hypothesis about laughter. Unlike
the superiority theory, the relief theory only applies to specific situations
of a particular type of laughter. Basically, this type of laughter
results [CHC13] from a sudden release of pent up nervous energy
in moments of uneasiness or anxiety. Integral to this theory are
several biological functions acting upon the suppressed psyche of an
individual, and when this nervous energy finds an opportunity, it may
release itself in the form of a laugh or chuckle. [CHC14] This emotional eruption
liberates the vast store of anxiety within the individual's mental discomfort.
Since my essay is not particularly concerned with this theory, it is
only briefly mentioned here.
The last traditional theory that several philosophers of laughter favor
is the incongruity theory. Morreall describes this type of laughter
as "an intellectual reaction to something that is unexpected, illogical,
or inappropriate in some other way"
 . From everyday experience, the laws of cause
and effect make impressions upon the mind that a normal, harmonious
order is present in the world. When a situation occurs that disrupts
this harmony, sometimes a laugh is the first reaction to this strange
deviation from the norm. [CHC15] An "incongruity"
occurs [CHC16] when this harmony is broken, and the ridiculousness
of the situation may produce a laugh. For example, a talking dog
is not normal  . But, if one day a dog were to look up
at you and say very clearly, "How you doing?," it might trigger
a laugh as a reaction to the incongruity of the situation that a dog
just spoke. [CHC17] This theory of laughter
explains that a betrayal of one's ordered world may be so absurd that
it could produce a situation where a laugh is the first response
Although all three of these traditional theories devise explanations
[CHC19] for why we laugh, Morreall
argues that none can totally support the entire philosophy of laughter
the way it needs to be simplified [CHC20] . Plato and Aristotle
both thought that all laugher could be neatly placed within the superiority
theory, but it seems obvious that this theory is too narrow to account
for all laughter. The superiority theory proposed by Plato and
Aristotle rests on the idea that we laugh when we take pleasure in others'
suffering, but this theory cannot account for the times when we laugh
at something without scorn or contempt [CHC21] . For example, the innocent laughter of
babies is not one that we define as a result of superiority over another.
Similarly, the relief theory alone cannot and does not attempt to account
for all the laughter we experience since suppressed emotions are not
always the reason for why we find things funny [CHC22] . The relief theory is based primarily
on the release of pent-up tension [CHC23] and the overall complexity
of this bodily function escapes biological explanation so far and is
also difficult to prove empirically  . Finally,
the incongruity theory cannot totally account for laughter, and Morreall
explains that this is because "there are many cases of nonhumorous
laughter which do not involve incongruity"  . Defined in terms of intellectual
stimulus that produces a "mismatch between conceptual understanding
and perception", we may argue that the laughter from tickling is
not one that appeals to any incongruity but results more from a physical
stimulus of a noncognitive nature  . Morreall admits that
all three of these modes of laughter do play a part in defining the
concept of laughter, but "no version of any of these theories is
comprehensive enough to account for all cases of laughter"  . This seems like an obvious
conclusion, but the critique that laughter receives from both Aristotle
and Plato demands a more thorough explanation that can show why laughter
is far more important to human experience than just for the derision
of others. Morreall thinks this study needs a single explanation
for laughter that can simplify the common thread he sees running through
all three traditional theories. [CHC24] Morreall advances his own
theory as an all-encompassing solution to the many theories that he
simply calls the new theory of laughter.
The New Theory
Morreall argues that each traditional theory contains
an important aspect of laughter his new theory may explain. The
superiority theory claims that a laugh arises when [CHC25] [CHC26] one is feeling awkwardly
better than another. At that moment when one laughs, it is in
response to this reassuring, although devious feeling of superiority.
The relief theory can explain laughter in some nerve-racking situations
where tensions are high and make one uncomfortable. [CHC27] The incongruity theory explains
why [CHC28] we are sometimes amused by
the anomalies occurring in the natural order of experiential phenomena,
and we may laugh in response to these sudden deviations to the current
worldview [CHC29] .
Since he claims that the three traditional theories are unable to individually
form a comprehensive account of laughter, Morreall offers his own solution.
He asserts that embedded in all three theories are "three general
features of laughter situations that can form the basis of a comprehensive
theory"  .
[CHC30] He argues that all three incorporate
a (1) "change in psychological state", (2) "sudden change",
and (3) "the psychological shift is pleasant"  . All together, Morreall explains that his
new theory describes these three components in a single phrase: "Laughter
results from a pleasant psychological shift"
 . He explains his reasons for combining them when
he claims that "enjoying self-glory, being amused by some
incongruity, releasing pent up energy--all these feel good, and can
cause us to laugh"
 . In a nutshell, Morreall contends that his new
theory is one that blends the simplest elements of all three into one
single statement. The new theory bridges a few similarities inherent
in all three traditional theories, and in doing Morreall suggests
that he simplifies the new theory to a generalized account of laughter.
The Value of Humor and Laughter
Now that Morreall's new theory is on the table, it
is time to explain why he believes that Aristotle and Plato are wrong
by criticizing the value of laughter in the human experience.
Against what he believes are the parochial claims of the superiority
theory, Morreall thinks that laughter has far more to offer than just
derision toward one's fellow man. In fact, Morreall dares to argue
that "they[Plato and Aristotle] greatly underestimate the importance
of humor in our lives"
 . In Taking Laughter Seriously, Morreall claims that laughter is a type of aesthetic
experience, a form of mental liberation, and a way of interpreting one's
life as a whole [CHC32] . Since he believes all of these traits
are conducive to living a fulfilling life, I will begin by evaluating
his claims one by one.
Aesthetics evoke an appreciation of perceptual experiences and appeal
to the cognitive and creative portion of one's worldview. The
American Heritage Dictionary defines "aesthetic" as a field
"concerning the appreciation of beauty"
 . Central to all aesthetic experience is that
it has an intrinsic value that one can appreciate as an end in itself
[CHC33] . Aesthetic experiences
are those priceless situations where an illuminating appreciation for
magnificence of life or beauty transcends ordinary experience.
Art is a common aesthetic format because art isn't really valuable except
to those who find significant meaning in it for themselves, and a lot
of art that falls under the aesthetic dimension may just be a simple
piece of paper with some colors on it. Morreall argues that "our
enjoyment of a good deal of humor…is a kind of aesthetic experience,
and as such is equal in value to any other kind of aesthetic experience"  . He claims
that our experiences of humor as well as art are both pleasant activities
enjoyed for their own sake. Critics may claim that Van Gogh's
Haystacks and hearing a good blonde are two entirely different
types of aesthetic experiences, but both may excite a similar response
of joy or happiness from a pleasant shift in perspective. A
[CHC34] shift in perspective demands an "aesthetic
frame of mind" so that "we are not locked into looking at
things in just one way"
 . Some of the most successful artists and comedians
are those who, in defining their own path, stumble upon some hilarious
truth or remarkable beauty that invokes a spontaneous aesthetic appreciation
of their insights. Morreall urges that we not judge art and good
jokes [CHC35] by two different standards
since there are so alike.
Morreall also claims that humor and laughter can be path to mental liberation
since it may afford one a release from the purely practical aspects
of human experience. [CHC36] By distancing ourselves from the practical
aspects of normal life, he argues that "we are free from being
dominated" by a situation in which we have little or no control  . As anybody who's gone
through a difficult time would know, laughter can offer a release from
the gravest of events, and laughter can lessen the burden of mental
anguish by relieving the mind from worry and personal failure.
The ability to create distance from the most serious events such as
death and injury allows the individual to flourish regardless of his
troubles. For those times of success, it is also important to
remain self-critical, and it is important to being able to laugh at
oneself from time to time. In Max Eastman's book The Sense
of Humor, A. Penjon is quoted as saying that laughter "frees
us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism on the other by
keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen
to us"  .
Morreall [CHC37] claims that those who cannot occasionally remove
themselves from the practical components of life "will not be able
to view things from any distance, and thus will not be able to enjoy
anything simply as funny"
 . By changing a perspective on things, Morreall
also argues that laughter can override "moral…and political
constraints" so that one does not become locked into conformity
and spiritual atrophy  . This mental liberation
Morreall describes serves a function to both the individual and the
society that can take the good with the bad in stride.
A third benefit of humor and laughter Morreall proposes is that humor
and laughter are conducive to living a healthy life. Laughter
allows one to "cope better with stressful situations [and] it can
markedly reduce tension and the accompaniments of stress" since
a good sense of humor permits one to become "more flexible in his
approach to any situation"  . The lightened
perspective we undergo resulting from this "pleasant psychological
shift" Morreall argues, might afford one the distance needed to
see the "big picture" that keeps him from worrying about the
trivial and uncontrollable happenings in life. I should note that
Morreall does recognize that we must act sternly when a situation demands
our intense focus or attention, but he also claims that a good sense
of humor allows one "to live with the awareness that nothing is
important in an absolute way"
 . This point will be more developed in the Nietzsche
section of the essay.
Naturally, there are cases in which it is not appropriate to laugh
[CHC38] . Morreall does not
ignore the fact that some laughter is in response to the pain or suffering
of others. However, he does explain that these situations must first
demand our practical concerns. An unpleasant shift in perspective
"such as learning the death of a loved one, or being confronted
with some distressing incongruity, is not the kind of thing that makes
us laugh" and would not be the type of situation in which laughter
is normally an appropriate reaction  . We should take necessary precautions against
laughing at morally reprehensible situations or events. Watching
a nearby building fall down unexpectedly does appeal to the incongruity
and suddenness of Morreall's standard theory of laughter, but it should
be obvious that this is not a time for laughter. Therefore, each
individual must decide when to laugh and when not to laugh. Laughing
at the possibility of other's misfortune or pain is rarely a morally
Nietzsche and Laughter
I would now like to show where Nietzsche's philosophy
develops an appreciation for laughter in the human experience.
As I shall demonstrate, many of his claims are similar to Morreall's.
Typical of Nietzsche's erratic philosophy is that he mentions laughter
in very brief statements that sometimes need a fair amount of interpretive
analysis. [CHC39] [CHC40] Perhaps due to the
brevity of these statements, Nietzsche's ideas about laughter
[CHC41] have been largely ignored, but arguments claiming
that laughter was a vital component of Nietzsche's philosophy do exist
[CHC42] . As I will show, John
Lippitt, Pete Gunter, and Walter Kaufmann are just a few who have ideas
concerning the importance of laughter in Nietzsche's philosophy. In
one of his many critiques of Nietzsche, Walter Kaufman [CHC43] n wrote "for Nietzsche laughter represents
an attitude toward the world, toward life and toward oneself"  . In the
article "Nietzsche, Zarathustra, and the Status of Laughter",
John Lippitt advances [CHC44] the notion that those who ignore Nietzsche's
contribution to the philosophy of laughter commit "an important
oversight, since he [CHC45] awards laughter a status higher than that granted
by any other philosopher"
One would think that Morreall, one of the very few modern philosophers
in humor research, would include Nietzsche in his book titled The
Philosophy of Laughter and Humor where the likes of Plato, Aristotle,
Descartes, Kant, and many other great thinkers are granted their own
exclusive portions; disappointingly, Morreall does not.
[CHC46] Since he omitted Nietzsche from this "comprehensive"
account of philosophy and humor, I will show where he and Nietzsche
agree about the benefits of laughter in the human experience
[CHC47] . [CHC48] Furthermore, I will
argue that Morreall and Nietzsche both develop an understanding of laughter
that challenges the criticisms of Plato and Aristotle.
At this point, I will now illustrate the parallels between Nietzsche's
ideas about laughter and Morreall's new theory. Both philosophers
agree that laughter may encourage (1) a liberation of the mind, (2)
a pleasant shift in perspective, and (3) a meaningful way of interpreting
one's life as a whole [CHC49] . From my description, it may at first
seem that Morreall only copied Nietzsche's ideas since they are identical,
but such a notion would be absurd. Nietzsche never explicitly
developed a thorough account of laughter in his texts although he mentions
laughter quite often in his texts. [CHC50] I will now begin a brief introduction
to the various portions of Nietzsche's philosophy where he values laughter
in the human experience in a similar fashion as Morreall.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we find Nietzsche's philosophical
explorations of human possibility and potential as a direct response
to the nihilism and pessimism embedded in Schopenhauer's dark prophecies.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the story of Zarathustra, a commoner
who comes becomes enlightened with the true capabilities inherent in
mankind. After ten years of solitude in the mountains, Zarathustra
returns to society to share his wisdom with others in hopes that they
too might realize the truths he has come to understand. He tells
them of the Ubermench and the Last Man. The Ubermench,
Zarathustra descibes, is the man who represents the zenith of all possible
life and embodies all the meaning in the world. Lippitt depicts
the Ubermench as "the goal for which Nietzsche wishes the
best specimens of humanity to aim: a being who represents ascending
life, self-overcoming and self-possession"  . In contrast,
the Last Man is the person comfortable being the same as everyone else
and one who accepts conformity as a way of life. When he speaks
of these two types of men, Zarathustra is met with "scornful, mocking
laughter" and he recognizes painfully that "there is ice in
their laughter"  . The townsfolk poke fun at him, and ask
him to make them not into the Ubermench but instead the Last
Man. This laughter is what Nietzsche classifies as "the laughter
of the herd", and Zarathustra finds it incredibly obscene that
the townspeople should laugh at him when he has something substantial
to offer them. Nietzsche later introduces "the laughter of
the height" in the third part of the book when Zarathustra embraces
the eternal recurrence, or the idea that everything that happens in
our lives happens over and over again echoing into eternity
 . The "laugher of the height" and "the
laughter of the herd" are the main features of Nietzsche's theory
of laughter, and I will now show how they fit in to Morreall's new theory
and the theories in traditional humor research.
The "laughter of the herd" appeals to the superiority theory.
[CHC51] The suspicious townspeople
respond in a wicked laughter that ridicules his position as an authority
on the subject of humanity. They laugh because "his radical
discourse has come as a threat to what society believes and wants"
and they triumphantly agree that Zarathustra is beyond his means to
make such a bold statement
 . The townspeople would rather classify him as
a braggart and place him below their esteemed status as members of an
allied and a conformed commonwealth that reassures itself in uniting
against his bold assertions that mock their way of life. The "laughter
of the herd" is an emotional response triggered by the townpeople's
belief that Zarathustra is crazy. Since they don't realize
[CHC52] Zarathustra's sincere, practical
concern for the well being of all humanity, they laugh. The townspeople's
dismissal of Zarathustra's teachings reflects their own inability to
recognize their [CHC53] foolish existence within the restricted mold
of conformity. They have much more potential than they are willing
to admit to themselves, and their collective laughter loudly echoes
their own ignorance of intrinsic human capabilities.
When Nietzsche introduces the "laughter of the height", it
is in sharp contrast to the "laughter of the herd".
The "laughter of the height" represents Zarathustra's supreme
realization and final embrace of the eternal recurrence [CHC54] . In part three of the text, Zarathustra
has a vision of a shepherd with a black snake lodged down his mouth
and biting his throat. He tries to help the stricken man to no
avail, so Zarathustra tells him to bite off the snake's head.
In this passage, the laugher of the shepherd, who we find out later
is Zarathustra himself, is the one's of the most important sequences
in the entire book, and the laughter results from his understanding
of the eternal recurrence:
The shepherd…bit as my cry had advised him;
he bit with a good bite! He spat far away the snake's head--and sprang
No longer a shepherd, no longer a man---a transformed
being, surrounded with light, laughing!
Never yet on earth had any man laughed as he laughed!
O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human
laughter--and now a thirst consumes me, a longing that is never stilled.
My longing for this laughter consumes me: oh how do
I endure still to live! And how could I endure to die now!
Recalling Zarathustra's bitter run-in with the ignorant
townpeople, the snake in this passage represents the "most abysmal
thought" that both great men and those of the herd will eternally
recur. Once he bites through the snake, Zarathustra finally comes
to terms with this frightening realization. He laughs knowing
that life is no longer a burden, and he has been totally released from
any practical concern for conventional values. Lippitt writes
that Zarathustra's answer to this dilemma "is to give the highest
affirmation of life possible: to saying a joyous Yes to life despite
its negative side, despite its horrors and suffering"
 . [CHC55] He laughs as a response to
his liberation from the fatalistic constraints of life itself and as
an overcoming, or absence, of the obstacles those laughing "the
laughter of the herd" must endure. In his essay in The
Sewanee Review titled "Nietzschean Laughter", Pete Gunter
nicely describes Zarathustra's sudden transformation. He depicts
Zarathustra's change from one state of a simple existence to another
state under the ultimate realization of the eternal recurrence
[CHC56] as similar to a surfer who "after successfully
riding the crest of large, potentially very dangerous breakers…would
explain with little puzzlement that his most characteristic reaction
upon reaching calmer waters was--to laugh"  . Free to create his own values and determine
his own interpretation of life, Zarathustra can now approach his experience
with a humorous attitude. He now lives laughing out loud
to the comedy of existence surfing calmly atop the waves of practical
concerns by fusing to his life "the spirit of childlike playfulness
which is so common an element in humour"  . In another passage in part four of Thus
Spoke Zarathuatra, Zarathustra is continues his newfound understanding
of the comedy of existence, and he teaches what he has learned by appealing
to the ranks of educated men in the crowd listening to him. He
urges the men to unite with him in the joy of existence by affirming
the eternal recurrence:
Raise up your hearts, my brothers, high, higher! And
don't forget your legs! Raise up your legs! Raise up your legs too,
good dancers; and still better: stand on your heads!
This crown of the laughter, the rose-wreath crown:
I crown myself with this crown; I myself pronounced holy my laughter.
I did not find anyone else today strong enough for that.
Zarathustra, the dancer; Zarathustra, the light one
who beckons with his wings, preparing for a flight, beckoning to all
birds, ready and heady, blissfully lightheaded;
Zarathustra, the soothsayer; Zarathustra, the sooth-laugher;
not impatient; not conditional; one who leaps and sideleaps: I crown
myself with this crown.
This crown of the laughter, the rose-wreath crown:
to you, my brothers, I throw this crown. Laughter I have pronounced
holy: you higher men, learn--to laugh!
Zarathustra's laughter is his reaction to finally understanding
his place in the world, and his laughter grants him the position atop
which he can view all of human existence. His laughter marked
the transition that transformed his own perspective, and this "rose-wreathed
crown" I interpret as the trophy in the physical realm of his affirmation
of the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche even consecrates this laughter
to a divine status, and he declares that his ability to laugh as he
does grants him the mental strength above any other individual.
My position here is that a common thread can be drawn from Zarathustra's
realization of the eternal recurrence to Morreall's arguments in Taking
Laughter Seriously when he explains the benefits of laughter in
the human experience. These two philosophers use laughter as a
predominant function in achieving fulfillment as an individual, and
they both describe laughter as a significant human reaction to the liberation
of the mind. Although Nietzsche's concepts are somewhat hidden
between his idea of eternal recurrence and opinion of humanity, a brief
explanation should reveal that Zarathustra's laughter is analogous to
many of the arguments Morreall proposes as the benefits of laughter
in Taking Laughter Seriously.
Zarathustra's realization [CHC57] appealed to the cognitive
and creative part of his worldview and evoked an appreciation for the
beauty of life. This life-affirming reaction he fervently desired
Zarathustra humbly admits when he claims, "my longing for this
laughter consumes me", and he truly feels his life will not be
complete without attaining it. The laughter itself is the pronouncement
of the ultimate pleasure of realizing his newfound status as an individual
free from the practical constraints of ordinary experience. Zarathustra's
laughter results from his dramatic shift in perspective that allows
him to look at his own life in a way that wouldn't have been possible
if he hadn't embraced the eternal recurrence [CHC58] . His sense of humor granted him the flexibility
of perspective he needed to comprehend the comedy of existence.
Without a developed sense of humor, Zarathustra might easily have overlooked
this poignant realization that is the most important concept in Thus
Spoke Zarathustra. Under this interpretation, I propose that
Nietzsche and Morreall both share a common idea about the benefits of
laughter and the positive role it takes in the development and overall
fulfillment of the individual.
Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle both criticize laughter and deny
it contains any intrinsic value in the development and fulfillment of
an individual [CHC59] . Although Plato's critique is mainly concerned
with the rational status of the guardians, he would fiercely dispute
the reverence both Morreall and Nietzsche have for laughter and its
benefits in the development of the individual. Recalling the role
the guardians must serve by governing the city-state and maintaining
a balance of justice among its citizens, Plato would reject the arguments
that laughter is important in their lives. The guardians, I believe
Plato might claim, cannot lose touch with their responsibilities, and
laughter promotes a release from the rational portion of the mind.
Since it encourages an appreciation of ignorance, laughter serves no
functional benefit to the rulers of a society based on a strict obedience
and a regimented structure. If the guardians were allowed to engage
in laughter, they would lose all the credibility of their positions.
Plato might even claim that the controversial politicians of our present
society display the irrationality he so adamantly refused in his own
ideal city-state, and the reason modern politics is so corrupt is because
we grant our politicians too much freedom in their exercise of the irrational.
Therefore, in response to the claim that laughter benefits the lives
of those in touch with the laughable situations of human experience,
Plato would reject the notion that laughter might further the capabilities
of the city-state he envisioned in the Republic.
Aristotle would also reject the idea that laughter serves as an important
part of the fulfillment of the individual. For Aristotle, laughter
is inherently wrong and hateful. No individual hoping to live
a flourishing life according to his virtue ethics and doctrine of the
mean should laugh regularly since laughter is an expression of contempt.
By laughing at others or life itself, we pay homage to the ridiculous
and ugly aspects of human imperfection--a most serious offense to good
taste. Therefore, laughter is something that needs to be regulated
as much as any other human flaw, and we cannot suppose that laughter
is an integral part of living the good and virtuous life. Since
both of these philosophers attribute laughter to the superiority theory,
neither would encourage a human emotion where one is exposing himself
to the basest of all human ignorance. Moreover, both Plato and
Aristotle would challenge Nietzsche and Morreall's inclusion of laughter
within their descriptions of living the good life since the good life
is neither one of reprehensible mirth nor is it one meant for amusement
at the metaphysical level of one's own mortality.
Nietzsche and Morreall: Final Thoughts
In response to the claim that laughter is not an important
trait of one living the good life, Nietzsche and Morreall would argue
that both Aristotle and Plato characterize laughter in a limited and
unreasonable group of assumptions. This seems obvious, but the
superiority theory was designed as a comprehensive theory of laughter
meant to restrict laughter in some ancient societies. The superiority
theory of laughter that both Aristotle and Plato incorporate in their
works is blind to the potential laughter offers to the individual and
to society at large. It is true that some laughter is derisory,
but not all of it is. There are many advantages for the individual
who has a sense of humor: he is better in tune with his surroundings,
he can easily recover from the gravest of losses, and he sees the world
in a positive light. Israel Knox possibly strikes the main element
among all three of these points suggesting laughter is "surely
a species of liberation, a lifting of horizons and a preclude to the
peace and freedom vouchsafed by an unclouded sight and an unerring insight"
 . Although Plato's guardians must preserve an
intense level of leadership governed by an unwavering sense of the rational,
there needs to be a little breathing room in their lives for the trivial
amusements common to normal human life. Plato is irrational to
assume that the guardians should not be exposed to laughter because
laughter is a natural human response houses several benefits not only
for the individual but also for society as a whole.
Aristotle is wrong to attribute all cases of laughter to malice, and
it is also inappropriate that he encourages laughter as a social corrective
when he feels it is an inherently evil action. The superiority
theory, as a comprehensive theory of laughter, is a morally revolting
interpretation of all cases of laughter. Surely it should be obvious
that the laughter of babies is not a malicious laugh, and it is improper
to classify it as such under this theory. Aristotle made many
profound achievements in philosophy, but his theory of laughter came
up very short of any complete, all-inclusive theory of laughter.
Nietzsche and Morrreall share a common belief that laughter is important
in the fulfillment and development of the individual living the good
life. In this essay, I have argued that Nietzsche's comments on
laughter coincide with Morreall's arguments on several levels.
I have shown that Plato and Aristotle's arguments cannot account for
laughter by appealing only to the superiority theory. Since they
offer only contemptuous interpretations of laughter, Plato and Aristotle
fall remarkably short of developing any significant or charitable description
of laughter. For this reason, both of their philosophical projects
suffer since they find no incentive to include any positive interpretation
of laughter in their descriptions of the good life. In contrast,
Nietzsche and Morreall understand the inherent value of laughter in
the life of a flourishing person. They also both recognize that
laugher is an aesthetic experience, a form of mental liberation, and
a way of interpreting one's life as a whole. I have also shown
that Morreall's claim that laughter may result from a sudden, pleasant,
perspectival shift is similar to the events in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Ancient philosophers did an injustice to laughter when they declared
it was thoroughly malicious, and some of their projects hurt from this
rash generalization. I have tried to show that laughter is important
not only in philosophy but also in those interested in living the good
life, because laughter offers a release from the practical concerns
that sometimes fetter the human mind. It has been said before
that the goal of philosophy is to laugh well and to live well, and this
statement embraces the paramount thesis of this essay.