Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible on Laughter
I sometimes hear Christians wrongly interpret the verse above as "Laughter is a good medicine." This is not what Proverbs 17:22 is saying. It is a "heart" which is cheerful (an inward state) that is good medicine, not a mouth which is laughing (an outward expression). I recently heard a church staff member say, "What we need in the church is for people to laugh." Not necessarily so.
Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., in his book Quirkology, provided empirical support for the old adage about the difference between comedy and tragedy: "If you fall down an open manhole, that's comedy. But if I fall down the same hole, that's tragedy."
Dr. Wiseman spent years researching to find the world's funniest joke--the joke that produces the most laughter. He established a website and received tens of thousands of submissions. He allowed readers of his website to rate the jokes on a scale of 1 to 5 from "not very funny" to "very funny." Dr. Wiseman's research led him and his scientific team to conclude:
(1). The jokes voted "the funniest" were those that created a sense of superiority in the reader.
Illustration: "Did you hear about the man who was proud when he completed the jigsaw within thirty minutes, because it said '5-6 years' on the box?"
(2). The jokes voted "the funniest" were those which pulled down pomposity with even greater pomposity.
Illustration: University of Texas graduate: "Where are you from?" Harvard graduate: "I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions." University of Texas graduate: "Okay--where are you from, jackass?"
(3). The jokes voted "the funniest" were those that made someone else look foolish or stupid.
Illustration: A teacher said to her class "Can everyone who thinks they're stupid stand up!" After a few seconds, just one child slowly stood up. The teacher turned to the child and said, "Do you think you're stupid?" "No," replied the child, "but I hate to see you standing there all by yourself."
Dr. Wiseman concluded that most people laugh when they feel superior to others. His conclusions correspond to what Plato wrote in The Republic: "Laughter is the roar of triumph in the ancient jungle duel." Plato did not like laughter (the showing of teeth in open mouth laughter) because he felt it had more in common with the animalistic "baring of teeth" that comes from an attempt to conquer another. Laughter, felt Plato, made people seem "less than human." It wasn't the act of laughing that bothered Plato, it was the philosophy behind the laughter. Plato, one of the early philosophers of the human condition, observed most people laugh at others. Plato believed it so wrong to laugh at other people that he urged the citizens of Greece to limit their attendance at comedies and never to appear on stage in "this lowest form of the dramatic arts."
Aristotle felt the same way. Aristotle argued that many successful clowns and comedians make people laugh by eliciting a sense of superiority. Dwarves, hunchbacks, and physical deformities caused merriment in others during the Middle Ages. Words like "fat, stupid, poor, ugly" seem to be picture words that draw people to laugh today. Could it be that one of the evidences of moral decay in our culture is our increase of laughter at others?
The Bible has a handful of verses regarding laughter. Here is one:
"Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, 'The Lord has done great things for them'" (Psalm 126:2).
Interesting, is it not, that the laughter prescribed by the Bible is a laughter of joy and excitement for the good that comes to other people. If we took laughter as seriously as we should, then we might refuse to laugh when:
(1). A joke is told and the punch line revolves around someone else's ethnicity, personal appearance, or physical deformity.
(2). A joke is told and the punch line revolves around someone else's misfortune or problems in life.
(3). A joke is told and the punch line revolves around someone else's perceived stupidity or foolishness.
May I always be on my guard to laugh with joy at the good fortune of others and to refrain from laughing at others.