Summer Class 2010, Day 2: Humor & Greek Philosophers

Previously: Day 1

Unfortunately we didn’t quite get to Three Men and a Boat today as I hoped, and honestly I thought class was a little bit boring for the lack. However, we did talk a bit about humor, in relation to yesterday’s lecture about comedy.


The word “humor” as we know it (as in “the faculty of perceiving what is amusing or comical” [def]) originated in the 17th century out of the psycho-physiological scientific speculation on the effects of various humors— the “elemental fluids” kind– on a person’s temperament. A person who had a build up of black bile, for instance, would supposedly be melancholic and somewhat like Droopy the dog in temperament. (More about that on Wikipedia, if you’re interested.)

Humor, like laughter, is now understood to be a response to a certain kind of stimulae, for instance when a suspenseful situation has been resolved. Think about the way jokes are normally set up: long build-up, short punch line. The punch line is the relief from the suspense of the build-up, and in response humor pops up…unless it’s a really bad joke, maybe!

Some people apparently want to separate humor from laughter and comedy, because they have heads full of wool instead of thoughts, apparently. But in truth, humor is not a necessary condition of laughter, and even if something is humorous it might not produce a laugh. A smile is a more regular occurrence than a laugh.

The Greek Philosophers

Party pooper #1: Aristotle

Both Plato and Aristotle thought that comedy was a blending of pain and pleasure. Think of schadenfreude, for instance, wherein someone gets pleasure out of another person’s misfortune. On the one hand, it’s funny because it happened to someone else. But on the other hand, what happened to that person could possibly happen to you as well, and so we wince while we laugh.

Plato also thought that comic figures combined delusion with weakness and an inability to get revenge on whoever’s making fun of them. This is kind of true in the classic comic characters, such as Shakespeare’s Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but you can also see it in some modern comedies, such as in the Marx brothers films. Aristotle thought the same, but he also thought that comedy imitates “lower types” and that wit is “educated insolence.” Ouch!

Party pooper #2: Plato

I don’t think either Plato or Aristotle thought much of comedy, which seems to be a product of their times (but it can see be seen today). To them and many other Greeks, tragedy was the intelligent, highbrow, important stuff, and comedy was a thing to be consumed by people too stupid to put two thoughts together. I knew there was a reason I did so poorly in my Philosophy 101 class! Philosophers just aren’t as fun as, oh, everybody else.

Tomorrow, hopefully, Three Men in a Boat.

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1 thought on “Summer Class 2010, Day 2: Humor & Greek Philosophers”

  1. Oooo the bit about Plato is very interesting, personally that’s the kind of comedy I’m less keen on, the frustrated, buffoon kind of comedy, but it’s very prevalent. I agree based on the documents that have survived the Greeks seemed much more keen on tragedy, the Romans on the other hand were big fans of comedy (at least when they weren’t too busy being stoic). Lots of twins and misunderstandings, which probably all filtered into Sgakespeare’s comedies of manners.

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