The word "humour", meaning "funny" and as related to laughter, is relatively new in the English language.
It came into the vocabulary around the 17th century. The phrase "sense of humour" came into use in the 1840s and was used as a way of praising someone thirty years later. Originally humour referred to a theory of fluids that determined one's temperament. It was the playwright Ben Johnson who related humour to laughter as we know it today, as a peculiarity or perfection of one's personality.
Basil Cole's book, A Sense of Humour and Virtue, tells us this interesting fact and much else about the philosophy and psychology of humour. If we don't bend like the bow we snap; if we don't laugh it affects our physical and psychological health. What food and water are to the body, play, mirth and laughter are to the soul.
Humour has many parts to play: a social function like satire; being accepted by other people; creation of group unity and the strengthening of friendship. It also helps us release fears and anxieties, and helps us relax from too much thinking. Someone who lacked a sense of humour was seen as being excessively serious, fanatical, and inflexible. A lack of humour was viewed as a characteristic of some forms of mental illness, instability, paranoia.
Being too funny is also a vice, whereas being reasonably serious and moderately funny can be virtues. The ability to laugh at ourselves, to stand at a distance from ourselves and see our foibles and conceits, is a very good quality. Plato said that the guardians of the ideal republic should not be permitted to indulge in laughter. For him laughing was a kind of excess.
Laughter led, he thought, to weakness in character. Meanwhile, Aristotle chastised the buffoon, the one who is too funny, but warned that those who cannot say anything funny or who are even offended by humour are ill-mannered kill-joys. Thomas Aquinas said that the capacity for laughter is in the nature of man, and it is a need to balance the aches and pains of life.
Or as a modern philosopher, Conrad Hyers, put it: Unqualified seriousness is dehumanizing and dangerous. Humanity cannot live by seriousness, reasoning alone. Sometimes one has to play the fool.
We have to be careful when laughing at others, and only in such a way they don't feel offended. The laughter that mocks the dwarf and the cripple is largely vulgar. For most of us natural defect awakens sympathy, and only correctable comic vices provoke our laughter.
The author also adds a few words on sorrow. For example, when one is in love and the relationship ends. The loss of friendship can sometimes be overwhelming. The loss can hinder the peace and calm necessary for humour to blossom.
Constant physical pain can have the same result because the body's natural inclination is to ward off pain and this leaves the individual "unavailable" for humour. Thought-provoking.
Book: A Sense of Humour and Virtue
Author: Basil Cole
Publisher: St Paul's Publishers, 2011
Volume: 127 pages
Cost: Shs 18,000
Reviewer: Martyn Drakard
Available from St Paul's Bookshop