Why Stoics Must Have Humor

Humor has had a bad reputation among philosophers for thousands of years. Humor and laughter have had few mentions by philosophers and when they are mentioned they are characterized in negative terms. Plato and Aristotle viewed humor as malicious or merely a form of mockery. Plato thought that comedy should be tightly regulated by the state. Epictetus’s Enchiridion (33) advises “Let not your laughter be loud, frequent, or unrestrained.” It is claimed that Epictetus never laughed at all.

Unfortunately things did not improve in the time of Hobbes and Descartes because the Biblical and ancient view of humor was still the dominant theory. The dominant theory was known as the Superiority Theory. Humor was seen only in the lens of feeling superior to others or over our former selves. It is true that people do often laugh at their superiority over others and you can find many examples of this. Today this humor is called punching down instead of punching up. But it is obvious that the superiority theory of humor is limited since it does not account for all forms of humor. It was not until Kant that we developed the view that humor is about incongruity. Yes, as humorless as we view Immanuel Kant, he proposed a view of humor that is not negative. Humor is when we expect something to happen but when it does not happen as expected, we laugh. Kant explains humor in depth:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 133

Kant’s view of humor, in the realm of philosophy, is certainly a breakthrough since it undoes years of humor portrayed as vicious or a result of lack of self-control. A good example of incongruity is in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the Bridgekeeper wants King Arthur and his knights to answer what one would presume are difficult questions. But against our expectations he asks very simple questions like what is your favorite color? And just when you think it would be easy for one knight to answer the color question our expectations are destroyed when the knight actually has difficulty answering what should be a simple question and is then thrown to his death on the rocks below. This is the kind of humor that is classified under incongruity. The comedy group Monty Python are superior at delivering incongruity humor in the form of non sequitors.

So why is it important for Stoics to have a sense of humor? I mean, didn’t I just write earlier about how Epictetus seemed to be against humor? Well, it is because Chrysippus is such a shining example that outdoes all the other Stoics. It is said that there would be no Stoic school without Chrysippus. Chrysippus was the brilliant Stoic who intellectually stood up to the Academy and wrote 700 books defending Stoic principles. He developed propositional logic and made arguments for free will compatible with a determined universe that are still useful today. But he is also known for something just as important. He laughed to death. It does not matter if someone like Epictetus thought humor was only about ridicule. It does not matter if any other Stoic thought that humor was only about superiority. Chrysippus died laughing because he thought it was absurd that a donkey would eat human food, which happened to be figs. If Chrysippus could laugh to death, then we, as Stoics, should be able to laugh to death. It is a right. I do not know if the story was told to discredit Chrysippus or was used against his reputation but he laughed at something because he did not expect the result. He did not expect a donkey to eat human food, which fits with the incongruity theory of humor.

So we should realize that philosophy, for thousands of years, has mostly neglected or has been unfair to humor. But, we know that that it takes just one Stoic because of their intellectual prestige to make it possible for Stoics to have humor. If it were not for Chrysippus, there would be no Stoic school. And if it were not for Chrysippus, there would be no Stoic humor.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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