The use and theory of humor begins around 400 B.C. with Plato’s beliefs that “laughter is something that should be avoided” (Traditional Tales 10) because when we laugh, we are maliciously being ignorant. To Plato, ridiculousness is not knowing oneself which is evil and a powerless ignorance. For we are not only ignorant of others, but of ourselves as well. We can be ignorant of our wealth, when we assume we are richer, more talented, look better, or are more virtuous than we actually are. This is a way of lying to ourselves, which is evil. We use these lies to separate the powerful and strong against the weak, where the weak are considered to be ridiculous and the cause for laughter while the strong are hateful for feeling joy from others’ misfortunes. Therefore, Plato believes laughter is wrong because through laughter, we are finding joy in others’ misfortunes.
Hobbes follows Plato’s negative views towards humor when he says, “the passion of laughter proceeds from a sudden conception of some ability in himself that laughs” (Hobbes 20). In other words, we laugh when we realize we better than someone else, which according to Plato is ignorant. He then goes on to formulate ideas like how we laugh at unexpected, new, and absurd things that do not happen to us.
Kant take the discussion of humor and makes it more physical, focusing instead on how humor offers gratification, “a feeling of the furtherance of the whole life of the man, and consequently, also of his bodily well-being” (Kant 45). All changes in chance, tone, and thought will provide gratification due to the differences in sensations. He also believes that laughter is the consequence of realizing our expectations of things are not realized and become nothing. While saying this, he is denouncing the work of Hobbes and Plato, claiming we laugh “not because we deem ourselves cleverer than [the] ignorant man…but because our expectation was strained and then was suddenly dissipated into nothing” (Kant 48).
Kierkegaard expands upon Kant’s ideas of something becoming nothing and formulates his opinion that “wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present” (Kierkegaard 83). Although the comical is present, it might not always be shown as he explains that it manifests itself when the pain from this contradiction is not essential and can be ignored. He also expands upon the works of Plato and Hobbes by noticing that laughter can be immoral when enjoyed at the wrong times, while disagreeing that laughter itself is not wrong.
It is interesting to see how the early philosophies of humor influence the more modern authors and their works. For example, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King uses humor when he says “If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work”. Here, King uses humor and logos to show his authority and position in the Civil Rights Movement without bragging about his accomplishments. This is related to Hobbes opinions that we use laughter when we realize we are superior, although Dr. King is humbler than the image that comes to mind when I think of using humor because of superiority. Dr. King also uses humor when he says “While Mr. Boutwell is much more articulate and gentle than Mr. Conner”. Here, he is using humor to question the authority and intelligence of Mr. Boutwell in a way similar to the ignorance of talent expressed by Plato.
Although not humorous, it is also important to note how certain elements of the philosophies on humor we studied are present in his letter. Dr. King is educated and studied the works of Plato and Socrates, as is mentioned in his letter. Perhaps parts of his humorous rhetoric come directly from his knowledge of the works we read for class. He also shows a exemplifies Kierkegaard’s theory of humor by explaining a very non-humorous situation. The contradiction of how the people of Alabama expect violence but King’s movement never became violent is an example of non-humorous contradiction because the pain is obvious. It is painful for the followers of the movement to be treated like violent criminals for peaceful protesting simply because of the color of their skin. This pain is essential and cannot be ignored so the contradiction is therefore not funny.
Through comparing more recent texts with older texts, it is interesting for me to see the movement of thoughts and philosophies regarding humor. From Plato believing humor is evil to Dr. King using humor to explain his opinions on the Civil Right Movement and fight for equality, humanity certainly has come a long way in the use, acceptance, and understanding of this form of rhetoric.