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The Role of Laughter in the Good Life:
A Philosophical Examination

                 I.             Introduction

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" [1] .  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 [2]

                  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 [3] .  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" [4] .  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" [5] . 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.

                    II.            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 they?

Protarchus: Unquestionably.

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?

Prot: Certainly.

Soc: Now, didn't we say that ignorance is always an evil?

Prot: Yes.

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?

Prot: Certainly.

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?

Prot: Certainly.

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 [6] .

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 [7] .

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 insolence" [8] .  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 "boorish dour" [9] . [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" [10] .  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.

                       III.          The Traditional Theories of Laughter

Three theories of laughter are common to the philosophy of laughter and humor [11] .  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" [12] .  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 [13] .  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 [CHC18]  .

                  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 [14] .  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" [15] .  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 [16] .  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" [17] .  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.

                        IV.          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" [18] [CHC30]  He argues that all three incorporate a (1) "change in psychological state", (2) "sudden change", and (3) "the psychological shift is pleasant" [19] .  All together, Morreall explains that his new theory describes these three components in a single phrase: "Laughter results from a pleasant psychological shift" [20] .  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" [21] .  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. [CHC31]  

                     V.           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" [22] .  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" [23] .  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" [24] .  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" [25] .  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 [26] .  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" [27] 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" [28] .  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 [29] .  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" [30] .  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" [31] .  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 [32] . 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 excusable reaction.

                        VI.          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" [33] .  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" [34] .

                  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" [35] .  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" [36] .  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 [37] .  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 [38] .  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 up.

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! [39]

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" [40] . [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" [41] .  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" [42] .  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! [43] .

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.

                           VII.        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.

                              VIII.       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" [44] .  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.



[1] John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany: SUNY, 1983), x.

[2] I am indebted to Arsitotle for making the observation that only humans laugh. His own explanation appears in his tremendous work titled On the Parts of Animals.

[3] All of these philosophers, except Nietzsche, and  their comments on laughter  have their own sections in Morreall's book The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor.

[4] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, x.

[5] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 39.

[6] Plato, Philebus, 48c-50b. There are also some helpful passages in The Laws, Book XI, 935d-936a where Plato discusses the need to regulate comedians.  I am indebted to Quentin Skinner's December 2000 Passmore lecture for this observation.

[7] Plato, The Republic, Book III, 388e.

[8] Aristotle, Poetics, Book II, 12.

[9] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, 8.

[10] Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book II, 13.

[11] All of the descriptions of the three traditional theories of laughter in this section I learned from reading both Morreall's Taking Laughter Seriously and The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor.

[12] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 15.

[13] The following example is from my own imagination.

[14] This biological process escapes my own comprehension of basic anatomy so I will not attempt to explain in detail.

[15] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 19.

[16] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 18.

[17] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 38.

[18] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 38

[19] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 38-39.

[20] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 39.

[21] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 39.

[22] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriosuly, 89.

[23] Found under "aesthetic" in The American Heritage Dictionary , Third Edition. (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 14.

[24] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 89.

[25] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 90.

[26] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 104.

[27] Quoted in Max Eastman, The Sense of Humor (New York: Scribner's, 1921), 188.

[28] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 106.

[29] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 103.

[30] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 108.

[31] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 125.

[32] Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 39.

[33] Walter Kaufmann, trans. and ed., The Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1968), 422n.

[34] John Lippitt, "Nietzsche, Zarathustra, and the Status of Laughter," British Journal of Aesthetics 32.1 (January 1992), 39.

[35] Lippitt, 39.

[36] Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 47.

[37] The eternal recurrence  one of the hallmarks of Nietzsche's philosophy.  Basically, the eternal recurrence is the acceptance that everything that happens in this life happens eternally to each one of us in life after life.  It is a form of immortality in mortality--we live forever, but we live the same exact lives.  By embracing the eternal recurrence, Nietzsche believed that this was the highest affirmation of life possible by an individual who realizes that what he chooses for himself now will be what he forever chooses.

[38] Lippitt, 40.

[39] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 180.

[40] Lippitt, 40.

[41] Pete A. Gunter, "Nietzschean Laughter," The Sewanee Review 76 (1968), 493-506.

[42] Lippitt, 46.

[43] These statements were in their whole form in the "On the Higher Man", sections 17-20, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV, but they appear in the abridged form shown here in Nietzsche's  "Attempt at a Self Criticism" in The Birth of Tragedy  trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Random House, 1967), 26-27.

[44] Israel Knox , "Towards a Philosophy of Humor" The Journal of Philosophy 48.18 (August 30, 1951), 541-548.


Page: 3
  [CHC1] So what is the new wrinkle here?  I see three things here, and I doubt if they hadn’t been considered earlier.  In fact, you go on to admit that Nietzsche’s position is similar.

Page: 3
  [CHC2] The fulfillment of a perspective?  Humor and laughter “take a significant function in the liberation of mind.”  What does this mean?

Page: 3
  [CHC3] How about “against this position” instead of the first clause?

Page: 4
  [CHC4] You are getting ahead of yourself here.  You aren’t in a position to draw contrasts until you develop the competing positions.

Page: 6
  [CHC5] Let’s have a passage or two before any commentary.

Page: 7
  [CHC6] Awkward phrase.

Page: 7
  [CHC7] Don’t mention any theory which you can’t properly introduce, even if briefly.  Also, I don’t think you conclusion here follows at all.  Two hasty generalizations seem to have occurred here, from violent laughter to laughter, and from one class of society to society as a whole.

Page: 8
  [CHC8] Where’s this passage from? 

Page: 8
  [CHC9] Same problem as before: this is not the place for commentary.

Page: 8
  [CHC10] Does he affirm the antecedent of this conditional?

Page: 8
  [CHC11] You need texts here and also in connection with the following sentence.

Page: 9
  [CHC12] Is this theory given as an explanation of all laughter?  I don’t see how anyone could seriously offer this as a monistic theory.

Page: 10
  [CHC13] Note: you mention this as a theory about laughter (as such), and then go on to mention a particular type of laughter.  Isn’t there a problem here?

Page: 10
  [CHC14] Is this your example, or does it have a source? Also, “the joke” can’t just come out of nowhere. 

Page: 11
  [CHC15] Wordy, hard to follow.

Page: 11
  [CHC16] An incongruity?

Page: 11
  [CHC17] Again, is this example new to you?  If not, then you need to give the appropriate credits.

Page: 11
  [CHC18] If you are going to mention Kant and make these sorts of observations, you really need to cite a text or two.

Page: 11
  [CHC19] Too informal.  Also, what is the point of this faint praise? 

Page: 11
  [CHC20] But why would anyone think that any one of these “theories” was meant to cover all cases of laughter?  You can’t identify Plato or Aristotle with one of these general theories give such scant textual information.

Page: 11
  [CHC21] But this is so obvious that becomes difficult to think that anyone would have thought otherwise.  And how about when we laugh at ourselves?

Page: 11
  [CHC22] Same problem here.

Page: 11
  [CHC23] The theory depends upon the release of pent-up energies?  There is a pervasive tendency to misdescribe theories here.

Page: 12
  [CHC24] What dilemma? 

Page: 12
  [CHC25] Comma fault here.

Page: 12
  [CHC26] Very awkward phrase.

Page: 12
  [CHC27] The relief theory has a biological nature?  And it happens?

Page: 12
  [CHC28] Explains that?  Better: explains why.

Page: 13
  [CHC29] Are these observations found in the Moreall text?  If so, you need references here.

Page: 13
  [CHC30] Awkward phrase.

Page: 13
  [CHC31] This sentence is a disaster.   What is the antecedent of the ‘it’ in the second clause? 

Page: 14
  [CHC32] You are doing it again: summing up where you should be introducing.

Page: 14
  [CHC33] Is this M.’s claim, or some sort of self-evident truth?

Page: 14
  [CHC34] But isn’t this painfully obvious?  If so, then it shouldn’t be listed as some sort of discovery.

Page: 15
  [CHC35] Antecedent unclear.

Page: 15
  [CHC36] I can’t take much more of this.  You are NOT being sufficiently critical.  You need to give a succinct, argumentative, and self-consciously critical account of his position.

Page: 15
  [CHC37] You are meandering.  This is a poorly structured paragraph…you just seem to be bouncing around between various points without any clear direction.

Page: 16
  [CHC38] Wordy, awkward: there are cases in which it is not appropriate to laugh.  I have been wanting to ask what the difference is between laughter an humor.  Here they seem to be given as more-or-less equivalent. 

Page: 17
  [CHC39] Awkward phrase.

Page: 17
  [CHC40] What you are saying here is pretty trivial.  What you are trying to say here needs to be shown, with examples.  Just saying that this is so accomplishes nothing.

Page: 17
  [CHC41] Now’s he’s suddenly got a theory on this topic?

Page: 17
  [CHC42] Here again, this is one of those statements that does you no good at all.  Either remove it or provide some examples.

Page: 17
  [CHC43] Comma fault here.

Page: 17
  [CHC44] This is a very awkward  and wordy way to introduce someone else’s thoughts and writings.

Page: 18
  [CHC45] Comma fault; find a way to introduce the quote without using brackets.

Page: 18
  [CHC46] You’ve got to find a better way to make this point.   You are suggesting here that he completely ignores N.  Is that true?

Page: 18
  [CHC47] Awkward, wordy.  Be more concise and direct.

Page: 18
  [CHC48] At this point it strikes me that your previous development and analysis of N.’s work on this topic is too shallow for your present purposes.

Page: 18
  [CHC49] Laughter results from these three things?  Surely you don’t mean to say this.

Page: 18
  [CHC50] And this is precisely the work which you need to have done, and did not do.

Page: 20
  [CHC51] Awkward, wordy.

Page: 20
  [CHC52] This position requires an argument.

Page: 20
  [CHC53] Comma fault.

Page: 20
  [CHC54] Sounds like a technical term.  It needs to be properly explained, if only in a footnote.

Page: 21
  [CHC55] Sounds too weak.

Page: 22
  [CHC56] Article missing: is he referring to some particular realization?  If so, flesh this out.

Page: 23
  [CHC57] This realization is itself an aesthetic experience?

Page: 24
  [CHC58] But I don’t see where you’ve shown that laugher itself is a way of modifying one’s perspective on his life as a whole.

Page: 24
  [CHC59] From what you have said here, you are certainly not in a position to make this strong of a claim. 

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