To Laugh or Not to Laugh, That Is the Greek Question

socrates philosophy
Socrates in a good mood

The philosophers of Ancient Greece are, in many ways, the pillars upon which a lot of Western and intellectual fields like literature and philosophy are based. Two of the most prominent Greek philosophers are Plato and Aristotle, whose philosophies are studied, quoted and integrated into today’s modern culture; however, in spite of their profound connection, they do not always agree with each other.

This brief essay will examine and discuss one example from Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s The Poetics in which there is a discrepancy between the two philosophers regarding their approach to comedy and humor.

In The Republic, Plato describes his ideal vision of a just politically structured state through a discussion of Socrates with Glaucon and other characters. In Book III, in his description of the educational stories that the state’s guardians should learn, Socrates states the following:

“Neither ought our guardians to be given to laughter. For a fit of laughter which has been indulged to excess almost always produces a violent reaction … Then persons of worth, even if only mortal men, must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less must such a representation of the gods be allowed.”

In this excerpt, Socrates essentially explains that the guardians should not engage with texts that might stir them to laughter. He believes that an excessive “fit of laughter” is often accompanied by “a violent reaction,” and therefore, those types of stories should just be forbidden for the guardians. Additionally, it appears that Socrates perceives laughter as a weakness; he deems that it is not suitable for any “persons of worth,” not men and certainly not the gods. Thus, Socrates reckons that the guardians should not watch nor read anything even remotely related to comedy, as it may push them into the toxic realm of laughter.

As opposed to Plato, Aristotle feels differently about comedy. In Part 5 (V) of The Poetics, Aristotle makes the following statement:

“Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.”

According to Aristotle, comedy plainly displays a portrayal of ridiculous characters who possess defective or ugly attributes; however, that does not mean that they are “painful or destructive.” Aristotle’s implied rationalization is that the readers/watchers of comedies are fully capable of acknowledging that they only observe an imitation of lesser characters who do not represent them. Consequently, it means that there is no reason whatsoever to ban comedies, contrary to Plato’s opinion as mentioned earlier, due to the ruinous nature he ascribes to them.

In my view and personal experience, in this case, Aristotle is much more right, or more accurately, Plato is much more wrong. In general, comedy and the laughter it produces have an eventual positive effect on people, and perhaps even mostly on individuals under constant duress, such as the guardians.

First, comedies display an absurd chain of events and characters from which the audience can learn how not to behave and imitate. Second, comedies can become a momentary harbor of relaxation and repose that tranquilize the audience. In my experience, soldiers (or “guardians” for that matter) function much better after this kind of mental, psychological and physical respite from their tedious and arduous routine.