Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, sometimes without having been asked

On Humour

by John Ziegler

We say, following Aristotle, that man is the rational animal. We often illustrate this by saying that man is inclined to be social, historical, economic, talkative, humorous, or political (which is no laughing matter). Why should the rational animal have humour? The angels weep, goes the saying, but nobody has said that they laugh.

Very young children smile. This sometimes promotes animated discussion: mother: "she smiled!"; friend: "maybe it's just wind"; but pretty soon it is undeniably evident that she does, indeed, smile. Not that anyone would think that a few-week-old child was ruminating on something funny. Rather it seems pretty clear that it is a sign of well-being, of good health.

A smile, too, is found on the lips of victory, in that we not only smile with relief at having no more to endure the demands of the contest, but we smile at the victory itself, provided that we are the victor. It looks as though it is a natural gesture of triumph, which probably also explains the smile of the baby.

Innocent fun is the occasion for smiling: when things are sailing on an even keel, when we know we are fortunate, when we think we can cope, when nothing ill is in prospect, when the world is at our feet or at least not towering above us in menace, when we can simply do things from joy.

And the sardonic smile: a grim smile "not expressing true merriment," says my dictionary. Rather, it is either a conscious parody of merriment, as when 'there is nothing to laugh about', or is something to do with cruelty in the ascendant, 'the smile on the face of the tiger'.

Anyhow, smiling, I would say, is a sign, sometimes scarcely conscious, of winning in one way or another.

So why should we smile at what is seen to be funny?

If I'm right, there would have to be a note of triumph in every joke. Laughing is exultation.

Certainly, you have to have a sense of humour. What this comes down to is that we see the humour in some things, but fail to do so in others, either because we miss something, or because, no doubt like the angels, we see only the sublimity or the tragedy.

Some have said that humour consists in having something unexpected. Well, the unexpected cannot constitute humour, or there would be no such thing as receiving a nasty shock, only a funny one. But is the unexpected necessary? If it were, how could we manage to savour any joke for more than an instant? Yet, and I know I'm no exception, I can smile whenever I think of certain funny things.

Some have said that incongruity belongs to humour. There's a lot in that. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle notes that the giving of a good metaphor is a sign of a good intellect. He goes on to advise that one should counter the opponent's earnestness with humour, or his humour with earnestness. The point seems to be that humour and metaphor are in a way opposed, in that on the one hand metaphor sees likeness between things otherwise dissimilar, so it is useful to the orator in establishing something, whereas humour sees incongruity between things otherwise alike, so it is useful in refutation.

There is indeed an element of incongruity in the joke. Why is a custard tart in the face funny? It's not so funny if ours happens to be the face, nor if the face belongs to someone to whom pity is due, nor to someone who has really earned our respect, such as a benefactor; but only if it is a face which 'ought to be taken down a peg or two', one which has laid claim to too much respect. The incongruity is between the respect unreasonably claimed and what is received, its just dessert (pun intended). What is thought to be due is not what ought to be due.

Humour is conditional. If what was thought due by the owner of the face were what we know to be really due, there would be absurdity. Due homage and super-homage then would be the same thing. Maybe we can simply protest that too much respect is asked and that we refuse to give it. But that wouldn't be funny. So we reject the absurdity (and with it, symbolically, the face) by throwing the custard and having a good laugh.

The rational mind is an intellect, with all the transcendence of intellect over matter, none the less immersed in matter and in part subject to its law. Subject to its law, in that its owner is a mere animal, at the mercy of mere matter for survival itself. Subject to its law, indeed, in that its very functioning is hesitant and difficult and prone to error. Succumb it would were it not that its very first principle - identity - is the root of its triumph over matter. And yet to realise that truth we continually need to affirm it concretely, in a way we can experience. It is necessary to reject contradiction as inimical to the very life of the intellect. It is necessary to reject absurdity in something concrete, and rejoice. It is necessary to laugh, because absurdity is not real.

It is only a joke.

- JZ


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 1999. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
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