The Birth of Laughter

Much of my work implicitly imagines what our world would be like if our penchant for mirth were a focus rather than an afterthought. This has led to the following experiment in imaginative criticism, meant to complement my more traditional research on laughter, humor, and emotion. Versions by Hume, Pavlov, and others coming soon…

The Hebrew Bible (ca. 900-500 B.C.E.),

New International Version

Then the Lord God formed man from dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So the Lord took one of the man’s ribs and made a woman from it and brought her to the man to be his wife. Husband and wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. 

But then the woman took the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and gave it to Adam. When they ate it their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked. The Lord called to them and they hid, knowing now of their shame. The Lord asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to touch?” The man looked at the woman and she back at him, and for the first time they knew that the Lord was all-knowing. The Lord asked again, “Who told you that you were naked?” Upon hearing the question repeated, the woman looked at the man and he back at her, and for the first time humankind laughed. 

After this the Lord drove the man and the woman out of the Garden and placed cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way back to the tree of life. As they marched east from Eden, Eve glanced back and saw what the Lord had placed to bar their return. This time, she did not attempt to restrain her mirth. 


Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 700s B.C.E.),

translated from the Greek by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

And with fetters forged by Hephaestus and blessed by Ares, Zeus bound the all-suffering Prometheus. To the crags perched above Ocean at the ends of the world, an eagle was sent to eat the Titan’s immortal liver. After each feast, the organ would reappear in the fire-thief’s hollowed abdomen so that it could be devoured again.

Then Zeus descended to survey his creation. He arrived to find the eagle beak-deep in the sufferer’s belly. Prometheus looked up from his anguish into the gaze of the Father of Men, who spoke: 

“Prometheus, do you now understand the pride and folly that has led you to this fate? Why would you risk so much for the sake of the mortals?”

To which Prometheus, the god of forethought, responded: “Father of Men … I …” 

Straining to pronounce words he was searching for, he looked away from Zeus and back down at his abdomen, where the eagle was about to finish his meal. Prometheus tried to finish his own thought, but the words, like wild horses at the sight of an open plain, refused to obey his will. In their stead, a smile crept up the Titan’s immortal face. 

The sight was too much to bear for the Father of Men. Zeus had never known such anger. He hurled down lightening and cursed Prometheus to an eternity of suffering, swearing that no god, no hero or sympathetic wanderer would ever succeed at releasing him from his agony. 

At which point ready witted Prometheus allowed his laughter—for by then he had already looked down and seen the eagle begin its feast once again—to burst forth.  


The Analects of Confucius (ca. 300s B.C.E.) ,

translated from the Chinese by Burton Watson

The Master questioned Gongming Jia about Gongshu Wenzi, inquiring whether it is true that his master never cried, never laughed, and never spoke. 

Gongming Jia replied: “Whoever said this was exaggerating. My master does all three of these things. But he only cries when others are sad, so no one objects to his tears. He only laughs when everyone is happy, so no one objects to his mirth. He speaks often, but only when it is time to do so. No one ever objects to his opinions.”

“Could that really be so?” the Master asked. 

“I would not say it if it were not true,” Gongming Jia replied. 

“How do you know no one ever objects?” the Master asked. 

“I know, because I have seen it myself. No one has ever spoken back to my master. No one has mocked his tears or bristled at his laughter.”


“What was that?”

The Master replied: “That was the sound of my mirth. You should not object, Gongming Jia, for it is right to laugh when others lack modesty.”


Augustine’s Confessions (ca. 400),

translated from the Latin by Henry Chadwick

Lord, is there any way you deny us the chance to understand our sins? When I was a child and afraid of every thing and every one but You, nothing pained me more than the look on my parents’ and teachers’ faces as they beat me. As the face’s expressions are nature’s grammar, universal to all races and creeds, I took for granted my interpretation of them. Long before I learned to read words, with a confidence only the truly ignorant possess, I believed I had mastered reading people. I understood their mirth was mocking my weakness, even knowing that they wished me no evil. I should have realized it was rebuking my pride. 

I blush to recall how much pride I mistook for strength, how much weakness I confused with fortitude. And yet once I was alone, and the threat of the cane no longer hung over me, I discovered such curiosity lurking in my innermost tendencies. I believe I might have come to wisdom sooner, had my teachers not cloaked their care in intimidation. But that was a lesson that could only come later. “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?” (Job 4:17).

Laughter, o Lord, is the means by which You allow us, born into sin, to reflect upon our frailty. For the Word is reckless upon the lips of the faithless, but mirth is indisputable. And yet, we sinners confuse what lies there to be read with what surges forth to be heard. When I was still a child, I took up with other boys nearby in order to denude a landowner’s fig tree of its fruit. It was all done for a laugh. I didn’t enjoy the taste of that fig so much as the experience of ripping it from another man’s tree. Why did I derive so much pleasure from an act I had hastily stumbled into? I did not plan the theft. I’ve never even enjoyed figs. And yet, the moment I tasted it and looked around at the other boys doing the same thing, I was overcome with laughter. The sound of my enjoyment spread to the others, to the point of keeling us over, all of us, in a riot of lurid mirth. Why did we enjoy this so much, together?

Our fun did not last long. A voice was heard in the distance and we scattered. Rather than return home, I stopped by the stage plays where actors were performing the mockery of Thersites. I remember looking at the audience, keeled over in laughter much as I had just been. But why? Why, when we are together, do we look on innocently at another’s suffering and take pleasure in it? If we step back, and take heed of the Word, we might see that the landowner’s loss, like the stage actor’s humiliation, bespeaks our ignorance, not our sagacity.

“Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (Job 5:17). What greater gift than this? To be given this disposition, this temptation to revel alongside those with whom we reside in sin. If only we felt laughter less naturally. If only we were forced to acquire its language with more effort, perhaps we might be more inclined to question its significance when it surfaces. 


Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532),

translated from the Italian by Peter Bondanella

Every prince must desire to be thought of as merciful and not cruel; nevertheless, he must also recognize that mercy is God’s domain, not man’s. From this arises a question: Is it better to be loved or feared? Clearly, anyone would prefer to be both. But since it is difficult to be loved and feared together, it is much safer to inspire fear rather than love alone. 

Vespucci recounts the affair of the natives who, upon hearing the Europeans fire their artillery for the first time, jumped overboard. He calls their fear “laughable.” I call it useful. Such fear is not worthy of derision, for there is nothing absurd about fleeing superior forces. European armies do so all the time. This is just realism, logical and brute. A prince should never belittle his subjects’ fear, for therein lies the secret to his longevity. Understand why a man fears, and you determine what he is willing to risk. Conversely, understand why a man laughs, and you determine what he takes for granted. It is no coincidence that Columbus conquered the new world for his princes, not Vespucci. Columbus did not laugh at his future subjects. 

I have said that it is better to be feared than loved. But it is also better to be neither, rather than despised. Men are less hesitant to wrong the master they fear rather than love, since love is sustained by self-interest and fear by self-preservation. But hatred is sustained by ambition, and it feeds on humiliation. Men will forgive the loss of their property more quickly than the loss of their dignity. Only the latter condemns one to subservience.


“Reminiscences of My Father’s Everyday Life,”

by Charles Darwin (1883)

It is my wish to present a rough sketch of my father. To those who did not know him, these recollections might seem trifling. Nevertheless, I give them with the hope that they preserve my impression of the man who first sparked my curiosity for the world—an impression at once so vivid, all these years hence, and yet so untranslatable into words. 

Of his physical appearance (in these days of multiplied photographs) it is hardly necessary to speak. He was about six feet in height, but scarcely looked so tall. Always accompanied by his beloved Spitz Polly, he was often stooping to commend the dog with a pat behind the ears. His face was ruddy in colour, and this perhaps made people think him less of an invalid than he was. His facial expressions bore few signs of the continual discomfort he suffered. He used to laugh often, and for this reason, we felt welcomed to laugh alongside him. His laugh was a free and remarkably high-pitched peal, often accompanied by gesture. I think he was given to gesture as a way of explaining things (e.g. the fertilisation of a flower) to himself rather than to his listeners. When overcome with admiration—for instance, when looking upon the mass of Azaleas in the drawing-room—he would grin in such a way as to resemble the dog during its pleasurable and excited states of mind. When we pointed out the resemblance, my father would laugh so forcefully that he reminded me of children when they are breathless from being tickled. His eyes would sparkle and grow brighter, his peals break down into breathless panting. His was the laughter of an Olympian, as when Homer described “their celestial joy after their daily banquet.” It was, generally speaking, a kind of expulsion of perhaps some superfluous nervous energy, or perhaps because his mind, as it so often was, had been tickled by a ludicrous idea which he never shared with us. There was a purposelessness to these bouts which both drew me to him and distanced us from each other. We can hardly put ourselves in the position of these great men, and understand their actions, can we? Not when their disclosures are so fleeting.