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Title: An Essay on Laughter - Its Forms, its Causes, its Development and its Value
Author: Sully, James
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Essay on Laughter - Its Forms, its Causes, its Development and its Value" ***



 THE HUMAN MIND: a Text-book of Psychology. 2 vols. 8vo, 21_s._



 STUDIES OF CHILDHOOD. 8vo, 10_s._ 6_d._

 CHILDREN’S WAYS: being Selections from “Studies of Childhood”. With 25
 Illustrations. Crown 8vo, gilt top, 4_s._ 6_d._
















The present work is, I believe, the first attempt to treat on a
considerable scale the whole subject of Laughter, under its various
aspects, and in its connections with our serious activities and
interests. As such, it will, I feel sure, lay itself open to the
criticism that it lacks completeness, or at least, proportion. A
further criticism to which, I feel equally sure, it will expose itself,
is that it clearly reflects the peculiarities of the experience of the
writer. The anticipation of this objection does not, however, disturb
me. It seems to me to be not only inevitable, but desirable—at least at
the present stage of our knowledge of the subject—that one who attempts
to understand an impulse, of which the intensities and the forms appear
to vary greatly among men, of which the workings are often subtle, and
of which the significance is by no means obvious, should, while making
full use of others’ impressions, draw largely on his own experience.

Portions of the volume have already appeared in Reviews. Chapter
I. was published (under the title “Prolegomena to a Theory of
Laughter”) in _The Philosophical Review_, 1900; Chapter V., in the
_Revue Philosophique_, 1902; and Chapter VIII., in _The International
Monthly_, 1901. The parts of Chapters III. and VI. which treat of the
psychology of tickling appeared in the _Compte rendu_ of the Fourth
International Congress of Psychology (_IV_^{me} _Congrès International
de Psychologie_), Paris, 1901. Some of the ideas in Chapter X. are
outlined in an article on “The Uses of Humour,” which appeared in _The
National Review_, 1897.

Some of my obligations to other writers and workers have been
acknowledged in the volume. For friendly assistance in reading the
proofs of the work I am greatly indebted to Mr. Carveth Read, Dr.
Alexander Hill, Prof. W. P. Ker, Mr. Ling Roth, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers,
Miss C. Osborn, and Miss Alice Woods.

 VAL D’ANNIVIERS, _August_, 1902.



   Objections to serious study of laughter • 1

   Previous treatment of subject by philosophers • 4

   Their way of dealing with facts • 6

   Examination of an illustration given by Dr. Lipps • 9

   Common defects of theories • 17

   Difficulties of attempt to treat subject scientifically • 19

   Scope of inquiry • 20


   Need of studying the bodily process in laughter • 25

   Characteristics of the movements of the smile • 26

   Expressive function of the smile • 27

   Continuity of processes of smiling and laughing • 27

   Characteristics of the movements of laughter • 30

   Concomitant organic changes during laughter • 33

   Physiological benefits of laughing • 34

   Effects of excessive laughter • 37

   The laugh as expression • 39

   Relation of expression to feeling in laughter • 40

   Interactions of joyous feeling and organic concomitants • 44

   Deviations from the normal type of laugh • 48


   1. Laughter as provoked by sense-stimulus: tickling • 50

     Ticklish areas • 52

     Characteristics of the sensations of tickling • 53

     Motor reactions provoked by tickling • 56

     How far attributes of sensation determine laughter of tickling
     • 57

     The mental factor in effect of tickling • 59

     Objective conditions of successful tickling • 60

     Tickling as appealing to a particular mood • 62

   2. Other quasi-reflex forms of laughter • 64

     Varieties of automatic or “nervous” laughter • 65

     Common element in these varieties: relief from strain • 67

   3. Varieties of joyous laughter • 70

     Prolonged laughing fit • 73

     The essential element in joyous laughter • 75

     Occasions of joyous laughter • 76

       (_a_) Play • 76

       (_b_) Teasing as provocative situation • 77

       (_c_) Practical joking and laughter • 78

       (_d_) Laughter as an accompaniment of contest • 78

       (_e_) Occasions of unusual solemnity as provoking laughter • 79

   Physiological basis of laughing habit • 80


   The objective reference in laughter • 82

   Universal element in the laughable • 83

   Groups of laughable things • 87

     (1) Novelty and oddity • 87

     (2) Bodily deformities • 88

     (3) Moral deformities and vices • 91

     (4) Breaches of order and rule • 94

     (5) Small misfortunes • 96

     (6) References to the indecent • 98

     (7) Pretences • 101

     (8) Want of knowledge or skill • 102

     (9) Relations of contrariety and incongruity • 107

     (10) Verbal play and witticism • 111

          Co-operation of different laughable features • 114

     (11) Manifestations of playfulness in objects • 116

     (12) Spectacle of successful combat • 117


   1. The Theory of Degradation • 119

     Aristotle’s theory • 120

     Theory of Hobbes • 120

     Prof. Bain’s theory • 121

     Criticism of theory of degradation • 122

   2. Theory of Contrariety or Incongruity • 125

     Kant’s theory of nullified expectation • 126

     Criticism of Kant’s theory • 126

     Function of surprise in effect of the ludicrous • 129

     Schopenhauer’s theory of incongruity • 130

     Criticism of Schopenhauer’s theory • 132

     Different forms of the incongruous • 134

   Summary of criticism of theories • 135

   Attempts to unify the two principles • 136

   The laughable as failure to comply with a social requirement • 139

   How primitive laughter comes into effect of the ludicrous • 140

   Relation of sudden gladness to release from constraint • 141

   Element of contempt in effect of the ludicrous • 142

   Laughter and the play-mood • 145

   The play-mood in the effects of the ludicrous • 149

   Summary of results of inquiry into theories • 153


   Problem of the origin of laughter in the race • 155

   Supposed rudiments of mirth in animals • 156

   The dog’s manifestations of a sense of fun • 159

   The mirthful displays of the ape • 162

   First appearance of laughter in child: date of the first smile
   • 164

   Date of the first laugh • 166

   The laugh as following the smile • 168

   Order of the two in the evolution of the race • 170

   Conjecture as to genesis of the human smile • 171

   How the primitive smile may have grown into the laugh • 173

   Problem of the evolution of the laughter of tickling • 176

   Effects of tickling in animals • 177

   Date of first response to tickling in the child • 177

   Tickling as inheritance from remote ancestors • 178

   Value of evolutional theories of tickling • 181

   How laughter may have come into tickling • 183


   Problem of the early development of laughter in the individual
   • 186

   Development of smile and laugh as movements • 188

   The general process of emotional development • 189

   Relation of laughter of joy to that of play • 194

   Development of laughter of joy • 195

   Emergence of laughter of surprise • 197

   First laughter of release from strain • 197

   Crude form of laughter of jubilation • 198

   Development of laughter as accompaniment of play • 198

   Early forms of laughing impishness • 201

   First manifestations of rowdyish laughter • 203

   Germs of roguish laughter • 205

   First crude perceptions of the laughable • 207

   The mirthful greeting of sounds • 209

   Early responses to the funny in the visible world • 212

   First enjoyment of pretences • 214

   Early laughter at the improper • 215

   Dim perceptions of the incongruous and the absurd • 216

   Early sense of verbal fun • 217

   Summary of results • 218


   Sources of our knowledge of savage laughter • 220

   Different views of travellers on the subject • 220

   Laughter as a salient characteristic of savages • 223

   Descriptions of their movements of laughter • 227

   Abundance of good spirits • 228

   Laughter as accompaniment of shyness • 228

   Laughter and fondness for teasing • 229

   Rough practical jokes • 230

   The way in which laughter is accepted • 232

   Laughter of superiority and contempt • 233

   Indecent character of jocosity • 234

   Appreciation of the laughably odd • 235

   Ridicule of foreign ways • 237

   Laughter at the doings of the white man • 238

   Laughter of the expert at the ignoramus • 240

   Savage society and the white man’s _gaucherie_ • 241

   Germ of sense of the absurd • 242

   The ridiculing of fellow-tribesmen • 244

   Reciprocal laughter of the men and the women • 245

   Example of dry humour • 246

   Organisation of laughter as entertainment • 247

   Germs of the mimetic art • 247

   Differentiation of professional jesters, etc. • 249

   Amusing songs and stories • 250

   Co-existence of different levels of laughter • 251

   How to manage the savage by laughter • 252


   Connection between laughter and social life • 254

   Contagiousness of mirth as social quality • 255

   Social uses of laughter • 256

   Class-differentiation as condition of laughter • 258

   How social grouping widens the field of the laughable • 259

   Utility of reciprocal group-laughter • 261

   Screwing up members of other groups • 261

   Laughter of superiors at inferiors • 263

   Quizzing of authorities by subjects • 264

   Mirthful turning on task-masters • 265

   Woman’s laughing retort • 267

   Corrective function of laughter of inferiors • 268

   Conciliatory service of group-laughter • 269

   Summary of social utilities of laughter • 271

   Laughter of other groups as corrective of self-importance • 272

   Social movements as influencing laughter • 272

   Changes of fashion • 273

   Fashion and custom • 275

   Merry aspects of movements of fashion • 276

   Droll side of descent of fashion to lower ranks • 277

   Laughter at the old-fashioned • 279

   The movement of progress • 279

   Mirthful greeting of new ideas and practices • 280

   Laughing away effete customs • 281

   Influence of mirthful spirit on social changes • 283

   Effect of evolution of culture groups • 283

   Effect of minuter subdivision of sets • 285

   Effect of progress in breaking down group-barriers • 286

   Droll aspects of transition of society to a plutocratic form • 287

   Refining effect of culture-movement on hilarity • 288

   Decline of older voluminous merriment • 290

   Conflict between popular mirth and authority • 291

   Combination of standards in popular estimate of laughable • 293

   Preparation for individual laughter • 295


   Definition of humour • 297

   Characteristics of humour • 298

   Intellectual basis of humorous sentiment • 300

   Humorous contemplation as binocular • 301

   The field of the laughable for the humorist • 302

   Modification of the conative attitude in humour
   • 304

   Complexity of humour as feeling • 305

   Problem of fusion of dissimilar feelings • 307

   Facts explained by our analysis of humour • 310

   Variations of humour with race and nationality • 311

   Temperament and individuality in humour • 313

   Humour as enlarging range of laughing activity • 315

   The finer detection of the amusing in character • 315

   The appreciation of unfitness of men to circumstances • 317

   Character-study as a pastime • 318

   Laughter as permeating sphere of serious • 319

   Effect of kindliness in extending range of laughter • 320

   Scope for amusing form of self-scrutiny • 321

   Laughter as mode of self-correction • 322

   How humour aids a man in dealing with others • 325

   Laughing away the smaller troubles • 326

   Service of humour in the greater troubles • 328

   Humorous contemplation of social scene • 330

   Amusing aspects of the fine world • 331

   The journal as medium of amusing self-display • 334

   The social spectacle of the past and of the present • 337

   Humour in contemplation of social scene in seasons of stress • 337

   The manifestations of war-temper as humorous spectacle • 338


   Source of impulse of comic art • 343

   Scope for laughter in art as a whole • 345

   Origin of jocose literature • 346

   The dawn of comedy • 346

   Comic incidents as development of child’s play • 347

   Comic value of repetitions • 348

   Elements of trickery and dupery • 349

   Comedy as reflecting movements of social laughter • 351

   Comic dialogue as display of wit • 353

   Theories of wit • 354

   Wit as intellect at play • 354

   Wit and word-play • 356

   Character as comic material • 357

   Mode of representation of character in comedy • 358

   Comic character as type • 359

   Development of character-drawing in classic comedy • 359

   Treatment of character in early English comedy • 361

   Molière as comic portrayer • 364

   His art of constructing character • 364

   Contrast of the anti-social person and the social world • 365

   The abstract and the concrete in Molière’s characters • 365

   The comic dénouement in Molière’s plays • 368

   Molière’s point of view • 368

   Characteristics of Comedy of Restoration • 370

   Lamb and Macaulay on moral aspect of comedy • 371

   Justification of Lamb’s view of Restoration Comedy • 373

   The social as distinct from the moral point of view • 373

   Slackening of social restraints by comedy • 376

   Limitations of field of comic presentation • 377

   The comic point of view in fiction • 378

   Laughter of mixed tone in literature: satire • 380

   Different degrees of seriousness in satire • 381

   Method of virulent satire • 382

   Wit in satire • 383

   Contrast of satirical and humorous literature • 384

   The relation of wit to humour • 385

   Boundaries of satire and humorous literature • 386

   Humour as ingredient of prose fiction • 387

   The boundaries of humour of fiction and of philosophy • 390

   Humour in other species of literature • 390


   Need of bringing in philosophic point of view • 392

   Philosophy as completion of individual criticism of life • 398

   Room for laughter in philosophic contemplation • 393

   Philosophy as belittling our everyday world • 394

   Reasons why philosophers are not commonly humorists • 395

   Speculative Idealism as robbing our common world of interest • 396

   Relation of Optimism and of Pessimism to laughter • 397

   Possibilities of laughter in philosophic Scepticism • 399

   Conditions of development of philosophic humour • 401

   Humour in the final evaluation of life • 402

   Service of philosophic humour • 403

   Justification of the individual point of view • 405

   Legitimacy of an amused contemplation of one’s world • 405

   Amused contemplation as favouring the survival of the unfit • 408

   The philosopher’s preference for retirement • 408

   Point of view of contemplation of things by philosophic humorist
   • 409

   The contemplator as held by his social world • 409

   Points of view of humorist, comedian and satirist • 410

   Question of total value of laughter • 411

   Alleged purifying function of comedy • 411

   Corrective function of social laughter to-day • 413

   Ridicule as a test of truth • 414

   Estimate of helpfulness of private laughter • 415

   Place of laughter among human qualities • 416

   Relation of laughter to social affections • 417

   Restraint of laughter by society • 418

   Control of laughter as part of moral self-regulation • 420

   Prudential reasons for controlling laughter • 422

   The promotion of a love of laughter in others • 423

   The claims of the agelast to be let alone • 424

   The cultivation of laughter in the young • 426

   The status of laughter to-day • 427

   Causes of decline of popular mirth • 428

   Characteristics of laughter of the hour • 430

   Possibility of death of laughter • 431

   How its conservation may be effected • 432




A writer who undertakes to discourse on laughter has to encounter more
than one variety of irritating objection. He finds to his dismay that a
considerable part of his species, which has been flatteringly described
as the laughing animal, has never exercised its high and distinguishing
capacity. Nay, more, he soon learns that a good many oppose themselves
to the practice and are laughter-haters. This kind of person (ὁ
μισόγελως) is so possessed with the spirit of seriousness that the
opposite temper of jocosity appears to him to be something shockingly
wrong. All audible laughter is for him an ill-bred display, at once
unsightly as a bodily contortion, and, as a lapse from the gravity
of reason, a kind of mental degradation. This estimate of laughter
as something unseemly is well represented in Lord Chesterfield’s
_Letters_, in which the writer congratulates himself on the fact that
since he has had the full use of his reason nobody has ever heard him
laugh. In some cases this feeling of repugnance towards mirth and fun
takes on more of an ethical aspect. The laugher is identified with
the scoffer at all things worthy and condemned as morally bad—a view
illustrated in the saying of Pascal: “Diseur de bons mots, mauvais

Now it seems evident that one who discourses on laughter is bound to
notice this attitude of the laughter-hater. If {2} he believes that
the moods of hilarity and the enjoyment of the ludicrous have their
rightful place in human experience, he must be ready to challenge
the monopoly of wisdom claimed by the out-and-out sticklers for
seriousness, and to dispute the proposition that the open, honest laugh
connotes either a vulgar taste or a depraved moral nature.

Perhaps, however, our discourser need not distress himself about these
rather sour-tempered laughter-haters. In these days we have to confront
not so much opposition as indifference. Instead of the denouncer of
mirth as vulgar or wicked, we have the refrainer from laughter, the
non-laugher pure and simple. As his Greek name “agelast” (ἀγέλαστος)
suggests, this rather annoying type was not unknown in ancient times.
In merry England, too, Shakespeare had met with the agelasts who would

          Not show their teeth in way of smile,
    Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.

Yet it is only of late that the variety has appeared in its full force.
To what scanty proportions in these latter days the band of laughers
has dwindled is suggested by the name which is now commonly given them,
for “humorist” meant not so long ago an odd fellow or “eccentric”.
Indeed, one of our living writers suggests that “as the world becomes
more decorous humour becomes tongue-tied and obsolete”.[1]

Even if we grant that the “gelasts” are getting reduced to the
dimensions of a petty sect, the consideration need not deter us from
choosing laughter as our theme. Those who have the perfect ear for
music are probably but a tiny portion of the human family; yet nobody
has suggested {3} that this is an argument against the writing of books
on musical form, the science of thorough bass and the rest.

The friends of laughter have, however, always existed, and even in
these rather dreary days are perhaps more numerous than is often
supposed. In support of this idea one may recall the curious fact
that, as the essayist just quoted remarks, we all shrink from the
“awful imputation” implied in the words “You have no sense of humour”.
This recognition of the capacity for appreciating a joke as a human
attribute which it is well not to be without is, of course, very
far from being proof of a genuine love of fun in the recognisers
themselves. Yet it at least attests the existence of this love in a
respectable number of their fellows.

Now this true friend of laughter (ὁ φιλόγελως) may urge his own
objection to our proposed discussion, an objection less irritating
perhaps than that of the zealous laughter-hater and of the indifferent
agelast, but on the other hand of a more penetrating thrust. He not
unnaturally dislikes the idea of his daily pastime being made the
subject of grave inquiry. He feels in its acutest form the resentment
of the natural man on seeing his enjoyment brought under the scalpel
and lens of the scientific inquirer. He urges with force that the
chucklings of humour are the very lightest and flimsiest of human
things; and that to try to capture them and subject them to serious
investigation looks much like the procedure of the child whose
impulsive hand would seize and examine his dainty soap bubbles.

To these objections from the true friends of the mirthful god one owes
it to reply courteously and at length. Yet the answer cannot well be
given at the outset. A discourse on laughter can remove this kind of
objection, if at all, only by showing in its own treatment of the
subject that serious thought may touch even the gossamer wing of the
merry {4} sprite and not destroy; that all things, and so the lightest,
are things to be comprehended, if only we can reach the right points
of view; and that the problems which rise above the mental horizon,
as soon as we begin to think about man’s humorous bent, have a quite
peculiar interest, an interest in which all who can both laugh at
things and ponder on them may be expected to share.

It seems evident that one who is to probe the spirit of fun in man, and
to extract its meaning, should have special qualifications. It is by
no means sufficient, as some would seem to suppose, that he should be
able to think clearly. He must couple with the gravity of the thinker
something of the intellectual lightness and nimbleness of the jester.
That is to say, he must be in warm touch with his theme, the jocose
mood itself, realising his subject at once vividly and comprehensively
by help of a rich personal experience.

Now it cannot be said that those who have offered to teach us the
secrets of laughter have commonly exhibited these qualifications
in a conspicuous measure. It is a part of the whimsicality which
seems to run through human affairs that the spirit of fun should be
misunderstood not merely by the avowedly indifferent and the avowedly
hostile, but by those who, since they offer to elucidate its ways,
might be expected to have some personal acquaintance with it. The
combination of a fine feeling for the baffling behaviour of this
spirit with a keen scientific analysis, such as is found in Mr. George
Meredith’s _Essay on Comedy_, seems to be a rarity in literature.

This want of the familiar touch is especially observable in a good
deal of the treatment of laughter by philosophic writers. It is not
necessary to dwell on the sublime subtleties of the metaphysicians
who conceive of the comic as a “moment” in the dialectic process
which the æsthetic “Idea” {5} has to pass through. The account of the
gyrations which the Idea has to describe, when once it passes out of
that state of harmonious union with the sensuous image which we call
“the beautiful,” reads strangely enough. Having, for reasons that are
not made too clear, torn itself away from its peaceful companion (the
image), and set itself up as antagonist to this in “the sublime,” the
august Idea encounters the unpleasant retaliation of the image it has
discarded in “the ugly,” where we see the determination of the injured
party to defy its late companion; though, in the end, it revives from
the “swoon” into which this rude behaviour of the image has plunged it,
and recovers its legitimate claims—with which it would seem it was at
the outset dissatisfied—in what we call “the ludicrous”.

I have here tried to put the speculative subtleties of these Hegelian
writers, so far as I am able to catch their drift, into intelligible
English, and not to caricature them. Even favourable critics of these
theories have found it difficult not to treat them with some amount of
irony; and, so far as I am aware, no rehabilitator of Hegelian thought
in England has as yet been bold enough to introduce to our insular mind
a chapter of the sacred mysteries which, as they may well suspect, so
easily lends itself to profane jesting.

How remote this kind of conception of the ludicrous is from the homely
laughter of mortals may be seen in such attempts as are made by these
Hegelian thinkers to connect the two. Hegel himself, in touching on
the nature of comedy, asserted that “only that is truly comic in
which the persons of the play are comic for themselves as well as for
the spectators”. This seems to mean (it is always hazardous to say
confidently what a Hegelian pronouncement does mean) that a large part
of what the world has {6} foolishly supposed to be comedy, including
the plays of Molière, are not so.[2]

It is, perhaps, too much to expect that the aspiring metaphysician,
when, as he fondly thinks, he has gained the altitude from which the
dialectic process of the World-idea is seen to unfold itself, should
trouble himself about so vulgar a thing as our everyday laughter. But
laughter has its mild retaliations for the negligent, and the comedian
of to-day, as of old, is more likely to pluck from those who tread the
speculative cloud-heights material for his merriment than any further
enlightenment on the mysteries of his craft.

It is, however, more to the purpose to refer to those theorists who
make some show of explaining what the ordinary man understands by the
ludicrous, and of testing their theories by an appeal to recognisable
examples. It is instructive to note the cautiousness with which
they will sometimes venture on the slippery “empirical” ground.
Schopenhauer, for example, in setting out his theory of the ludicrous—a
theory which we shall deal with later on—in the first volume of his
chief work, thought it “superfluous” to illustrate his theory by
example. In the second volume, however, he comes to the help of the
“intellectual sluggishness” of his readers and condescends to furnish
illustrations. And what does the reader suppose is the first to be
selected? The amusing look of the angle formed by the meeting of the
tangent and the curve of the circle; which look is due, he tells us, to
the reflection that an angle implies the meeting of two lines which,
when prolonged, intersect, whereas the straight line of the tangent
{7} and the carve of the circle are able merely to graze at one point,
where, strictly speaking, they are parallel. In other words, we laugh
here because the angle which stares us in the face is irreconcilable
with the idea of a meeting of a tangent and a curved line. With a
charming candour the writer proceeds: “The ludicrous in this case
is, no doubt, extremely weak; on the other hand, it illustrates with
exceptional clearness the origin of the ludicrous in the incongruity
between what is thought and what is perceived”.[3]

The significance of this invention of his own illustration by
Schopenhauer is that he was not a metaphysical recluse, but knew the
world and its literatures. Other theorists have not shown the same
daring, but have contented themselves with _finding_ their instances.
Yet in too many cases the arbitrary way in which illustrations have
been selected, while instances making against the theory have been
ignored, shows clearly enough that there has been no serious effort to
build on a large and firm basis of observation. This may be illustrated
not only from the works of Germans, but from those of a people
which has claimed, and with justice, to be the laughing nation _par
excellence_. In a recent volume, marked by great ingenuity, M. Henri
Bergson,[4] an accomplished thinker, attempts to reduce all forms of
the ludicrous to a substitution in our movements, speech and action, of
the rigidity (raideur) of a machine for the pliancy and variability of
an organism. The writer has no difficulty in finding examples of the
stiff mechanical effects which amuse us, say, in gestures and carriage.
But the astonishing thing is that he never refers to the complementary
group of facts, the instances of excessive spontaneity and {8} freedom
of movement where a certain repression and mechanical uniformity are
looked for. The exuberant childish boundings of the clown, an excess
of emphasis or gesture in social intercourse, these and the like are
surely just as comical as the want of the signs of a full play of life
may be in other circumstances.

Perhaps an even worse offence than ignoring facts is trying to twist
them into a shape that will fit an adopted theory. This occurs, too,
and frequently, among writers on our subject. Here is an example among
recent theorists. According to a French essayist, when we laugh at a
clown pushing hard against an open door, we do not laugh merely at
the absurd disproportion between the task to be accomplished and the
amount of effort put into it. We only laugh when our minds pass to
_a second and reflective stage_, and recognise that the man does not
perceive the door to be open, when, consequently, we are able to view
the disproportionate and quite needless exertion as natural.[5] A
more striking instance of inability to understand the swift movement
of common men’s laughter it would be difficult to find. As we shall
see, theories of laughter, like theories of Shakespeare’s genius, have
frequently come to grief by projecting behind the thing which they seek
to account for too much of the author’s own habitual reflectiveness.[6]

Perhaps we shall the better see how theorists have been wont to
ignore and to misunderstand the laughing experiences of the plain
man if we examine at some length {9} the mode of dealing with the
subject adopted by a writer who holds a high place among contemporary
psychologists. Prof. Lipps has recently elaborated a theory of the
ludicrous, illustrating it at some length.[7] This theory may be
described as a modification of Kant’s, which places the cause of
laughter in “the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into
nothing”. According to Lipps, we have the “comic” when “the little”
measures itself with something else and so steps into the daylight.
There is a mental movement (Vorstellungsbewegung) from a presentation
relatively great or important to one relatively little or unimportant;
and the impression of the comic depends on the nullification of the
latter through its contrariety to the former and the disappointment
which this involves. What may be called the belittling idea—which the
reader must bear in mind is the important one—always comes first, the
belittled or nullified one, always second.

In order to illustrate his point he takes among other examples that
of a hat on the wrong head. A man topped by a child’s small cap,
and a child covered with a man’s big hat are, he tells us, equally
comical. But the reason is different in the two cases. In the first,
starting with the perception of the worthy man, we expect an adequate
head-covering, and this expectation is nullified by the obstinate
presence of the tiny cap. Here, then, the funny feature, the belittled
thing, is the diminutive cap. In the second case, however, the movement
of thought is just the reverse. We here set out with the perception of
the headgear, not with that of its wearer. It is the dignified man’s
hat that now {10} first fixes our attention, and it is the obtrusion of
the child beneath when we expect the proper wearer which is the comical
feature. In other words, when a man puts on a baby’s cap it is the cap
which is absurd, when a baby dons his father’s cylinder it is the baby
which is absurd.

This is ingenious, one must confess, but does it not involve some
twisting of facts? Would the unphilosophic humorist recognise this
account of the ways of laughter? Has this account the note of
familiarity with these ways? Let us see.

At the outset one may enter a modest protest against the quiet
assumption that the two incidents here selected are laughable in an
equal degree. It may be urged that, to the grown-up spectator at least,
the sight of the little one crowned with the whelming headgear of his
sire is immeasurably more amusing than the other. Here the author
strikes one as proceeding rather hastily, as he seems to do also when
he assumes that an exceptionally big and an exceptionally little nose
are equally palpable examples of the laughable. This is, to say the
least, disputable. One can hardly think of a comedy turning on the
smallness of a person’s nose, as the _Cyrano de Bergerac_ of M. Rostand
turns on its bigness. But this objection need not, perhaps, be pressed.

Passing, then, to the explanation of his two examples offered by the
author, we are first of all struck by the apparent arbitrariness of
the supposition, that the movement of thought which he assumes should
in the one case take exactly the reverse direction of that taken in
the other. Seeing that both are instances of a grotesquely unsuitable
head-covering should one not expect the enjoyment of them to spring out
of a similar kind of mental activity? {11}

The author probably means to say that we tend to fix the attention
on the more dignified feature in each case, the man beneath the tiny
cap, and the man’s hat above the tiny head. But that is far from being
certain. And in any case there are good reasons against assuming a
“contrary motion” of thought here. Dr. Lipps will no doubt allow,
as a trained psychologist, that these intellectual movements are
subject to well-recognised laws. One deduction from these is that the
sight of a hat will suggest the idea of the human figure to which it
belongs much more certainly and more powerfully than the sight of the
figure will suggest the idea of its appropriate covering. I believe
that everybody’s experience will confirm this. A hat seen even in a
shop-window starts the impulse to think of some wearer; but who would
say that seeing a human head, say across the dinner-table or in an
adjoining stall at the theatre, prompts us to think of its proper
covering? Special circumstances, such as the presence of an exceptional
baldness appealing to pity, must be added before our thoughts flit to
the out-of-door receptacle. In other words, the whole interest and
significance of a hat lie in a reference to a wearer, but not _vice

We must, then, reject the idea of a double and opposed movement of
thought here. If any movement takes place it must be assumed to be in
each case a transition from the perception of the hat to the idea of
its customary and proper wearer.

Now, are we aware when we laugh at either of these odd sights of
carrying out this movement of thought? Keeping to the indisputable
case of the child’s head under or in the man’s hat, do we, before the
agreeable spasm seizes us, first mentally grasp the hat and then pass
to the idea of its rightful wearer? I, at least, cannot find this to
be true in {12} my own experience. But such inability may be due to the
absence of a sufficiently delicate introspection. Let us then try to
test the point in another way.

If the smile of amusement with which we greet this spectacle comes from
the dissolution of the idea of the adult male figure, we should expect
the enjoyment of the ludicrous aspect to be especially conspicuous when
the hat appears an instant before the child-wearer, and so thought is
compelled to travel in the required direction. Let us suppose that a
child in his nursery puts on his father’s hat and stands on a chair,
and that you enter the room and catch a glimpse of the hat first, say
above a piece of furniture, and for a brief moment expect to see an
adult beneath. No doubt you will be aware of a definite movement of
thought in the required direction and of the dissolution into nothing
of the expectant idea. But will the element of clear anticipation
and its annihilation intensify your feeling of the funniness of the
spectacle, or even make the funniness more patent? You would, no doubt,
in such a case, experience a little shock, the full excitement of
surprise, and that might add volume to the whole feeling of the moment.
You might, too, not improbably, laugh more heartily, for you would have
a sense of having been taken in, and there would be a side-current
of hilarity directed against yourself. But I venture to affirm that
the spectacle as such would not impress you as being one whit more
ludicrous when seen in this way, first the hat and then the wearer,
than if your eye had lighted on the two together.

What seems to happen when we are amused by this little comic scene
in the nursery? Do we not at a glance perceive a grotesque whole,
_viz._, a hat on the wrong head, and is not our amusement too
swiftly forthcoming to allow of our singling out a part of what is
seen and going through the {13} process of thought described by
the ingenious author of this theory? Science seems to bear out what
common observation discovers, for the newer psychology teaches that
in the first moment of perceiving an object we obtain not a distinct
apprehension of parts, but a vague apprehension of a whole into which
detail and definiteness only come later and gradually.

An _ensemble_, which can only be described as a whole made up of
ill-fitting parts, this seems to be the object on which our attention
is focussed when we laugh at the child under the needlessly capacious
hat. This intuition involves, no doubt, some rapid seizing of details:
but the attention to parts is not to separate objects, as the language
of Dr. Lipps suggests, but to related parts, to the hat as worn in
relation to the wearer.

This seems to be an adequate account of what takes place so far as it
is the palpable unfitness of dimensions which moves us to laughter. But
it may be urged, and rightly urged, that the laughable spectacle is
more than this, that what tickles us is the uncustomary and topsy-turvy
arrangement of things. And here, it may be said, there certainly
is implied a movement of thought, namely, to something outside the
spectacle, to what is customary and in order.

The supposition is a highly plausible one. Since, moreover, what we
perceive is a whole, it is reasonable to assume that if such a movement
occurs it must be, not, as Dr. Lipps supposes, from one part of it to
another, but from the present whole as oddly and wrongly composed to
some other whole as rightly composed. Do we not, it may be asked, here
carry out a process fairly well described in Schopenhauer’s theory of
the ludicrous, that is, conceive of “an incongruity between the real
object and its idea,” and so, by implication, go back to this idea?

To this I would reply that, so far as I can analyse my own mental state
at such a moment, I do not find the presence of any idea of another
and normal whole to be a necessary element in a full enjoyment of
the grotesque whole before my eyes. Such a second whole would, one
supposes, have to be either the same hat on the right head, or the same
head under its proper covering, and I find that I am perfectly well
able to enjoy the comedy of the child crowned with the tall hat without
making present to my mind either of these combinations.

Here, again, I think, a better scientific theory bears out the result
of one’s individual self-examination. Psychology has made it clear that
in recognising an object, say a weasel crossing the road on which we
are walking, we do not need to have present to our mind (in addition
to the perception of the object) a pictorial idea or image of a weasel
as formed from past observations. Owing to the organising of a certain
perceptual disposition—a readiness to see an object as a familiar one,
as of a particular “sort”—our mind instantly greets it as a weasel.
In other words, we recognise things by the help not of images present
to the mind at the moment, but of certain ingrained “apperceptive”
tendencies or attitudes. All the higher animals seem to share with
us this highly useful capability of immediate and instantaneous

Now I take it that there is another side to these apperceptive
tendencies. Not only do they secure for us, without the necessity of
calling up distinct ideas, these instant recognitions of a sort of
thing, they enable us as well as intelligent animals mentally to reject
presentations which do not answer to “the sort of thing”. I can say
that this wax figure is not a man without having any distinct image
of the living man present to my consciousness. This ability {15} to
recognise what we see as not of a particular kind of thing, without
calling up a definite idea of this kind, extends to combinations and
arrangements of parts in a whole. When, after my servant has dusted my
books and rearranged them on the shelves, I instantly recognise that
they are wrongly placed, I may at the moment be quite unable to say
what the right arrangement was.[8]

According to my view, the perceptions of the laughable which Dr. Lipps
illustrates are instantaneous perceptions. As such, they may, and
commonly do, arise immediately, that is, without any reversion to the
idea of what is the customary or normal arrangement.

But the reader may urge with force that the enjoyment of this charming
bit of childish pretence involves more than a perception of the unusual
and the irregular. Do we not at least apprehend the fact that the hat
is not merely unfitting, and grotesquely wrong, but a usurpation of
the prerogative of the superior? Is not the behaviour of the child
so deliciously whimsical just because we fix the mental eye on this
element of make-believe? And if so, does not this imply that we have
present to the mind the proper belongings of the hat, _viz._, the
father’s head and figure?

I readily agree that when we make our perceptions reflective, as we may
do, this idea is apt to emerge. As has been implied above, the sight
of the tall hat does tend to suggest the idea of its usual wearer, and
in lingering on this quaint bit of acting we may not improbably catch
ourselves imagining the hat on the right {16} head, especially as we
see that it is the child’s playful aim to personate the privileged
owner. And the same thing might occur in laughing at the father
topped with the small child’s hat; for the laugher, who would in this
case more probably be a child, might naturally enough reinstate in
imaginative thought the small child’s head to which the cap belongs.
This combination seems at least to be much more likely to recur to the
imagination than the other combination, which retaining the wearer
substitutes the idea of the right hat.

How far any distinct image of the hat thus mentally transferred to the
right wearer enters into the appreciation of this humorous spectacle,
it would be hard to say. Different minds may behave differently here.
Judging from my own experience I should say that at most only a vague
“schematic” outline of the proper arrangement presents itself to the
imagination. This seems to me to be what one might naturally expect.
Laughter, as I conceive of it, fastens upon something human. It is
the living wearer that is emphasised in the comical juxtaposition;
we more naturally describe it as the child wearing his father’s hat,
than as the father’s hat on the child. And for the comic effect it is
sufficient that we recognise the hat to be the father’s. This we can do
without mentally picturing the hat as worn by the father. The hat has
become a symbol, and means for us the man’s hat and the dignity which
belongs to this, though we may have at the time no mental image of it
as worn by its rightful possessor.

Our examination seems to show that this apparently simple example
of the laughable is very inadequately accounted for by supposing a
movement of mind from one presentation or idea to another which
contravenes and {17} nullifies the first. It may be added that, with
respect to what is certainly present to our consciousness, when we look
at this bit of child’s play we do not find the relation of part to
part to be merely one of contrariety. A curious fact, not as yet fully
studied by the psychologist, is what may be called the inter-diffusion
of characters between the several parts of a complex presentation.
The figure of a finely dressed lady in a gathering of poor people may
either throw the shabby look of the latter into greater relief by
contrast, or redeem it from its shabbiness by lending it some of its
own glory. The latter effect is favoured by a certain contemplative
attitude which disposes us to look at the whole as such, and with the
least amount of inspection of details and their relations. When we
regard the child in the big hat a semblance of the dignity which lies
in the meaning of the latter is transferred to the small head; and the
mental seizure of this transferred look of dignity by the spectator is
essential to a full enjoyment of the show as a bit of make-believe, of
innocent hypocrisy. Similarly, if we are disposed to laugh, a little
contemptuously, at the man in the child’s hat, it is because the hat
throws for half a moment over the heavy and lined face something of the
fresh sweet look of infancy.[9]

It has seemed worth while to examine at some length the attempt of
Dr. Lipps to deal with a simple instance of the laughable because, in
spite of a recognisable effort to connect theory with concrete facts,
it illustrates the common tendency to adapt the facts to the theory;
and, further, the no less common tendency to overlook the rich variety
of experience {18} which our laughter covers, the multiplicity of the
sources of our merriment and the way in which these may co-operate
in the enjoyable contemplation of a ludicrous object. As we shall
see, theories of the ludicrous have again and again broken down from
attempting to find one uniform cause in a domain where the operation of
“Plurality of Causes” is particularly well marked.

It may be added that such theories, even if they were not one-sided and
forced accounts of the sources of our merriment, would still suffer
from one fatal defect: as Lotze says of Kant’s doctrine,[10] they make
no attempt to show why the dissolved expectation or the failure to
subsume a presentation under an idea should make us _laugh_, rather
than, let us say, cough or sigh. Lotze, besides being a psychologist,
was a physiologist, and it may be added, a humorist in a quiet way, and
the reader of his lines who may have had the privilege of knowing him
will see again the ironical little pout and the merry twinkle of the
dark eye behind the words.

We have agreed that the discourser on the comic, however gravely
philosophic he desires to be, must touch both finely and
comprehensively the common experiences of mankind. Yet it may well be
thought, in the light of the attempts made in the past, that this is
demanding too much. The relish for things which feed our laughter is as
we know a very variable endowment. As the Master tells us, “A jest’s
prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it more than in the tongue
of him that makes it”. The facetiæ of earlier ages fall on modern
ears with a sound as dull as that of an unstrung drum. It may well be
that persons who pass a large number of their hours {19} in abstruse
reflection grow incapable of enjoying many of the commoner varieties
of laughter. Their capability of lapsing into the jocose vein becomes
greatly restricted and may take directions that seem out-of-the-way
to the more habitual laugher. Schopenhauer’s funny little attempt
to extract a joke out of the meeting of the tangent and the circle
seems to be a case in point. On reading some of the definitions of
the ludicrous contributed by the fertile German mind, one is forced
to conclude that the writers had their own peculiar, esoteric modes
of laughter. When, for example, Herr St. Schütze, whose “attempt at a
theory of the Comic” is pronounced by the renowned Th. Vischer to be
“excellent” (vorzüglich), proceeds to define his subject in this way:
“The comic is a perception or idea, which after some moments excites
the obscure feeling that nature carries on a merry game with man while
he thinks himself free to act, in which game the circumscribed liberty
of man is mocked (verspottet) by a reference to a higher liberty,”[11]
one seems to measure the scope of the worthy writer’s sense of fun.
That the irony of things in their relation to our desires and aims
has its amusing aspect is certain: but who that knows anything of the
diversified forms of human mirth could ever think of trying to drag all
of them under so narrow a rubric?

A vivid perception of the variability of the sense of the laughable
in man, of the modification, in the case of individuals and of races,
of the range of its play, and of the standards to which it subjects
itself, by a thousand unknown influences of temperament and habits
of life, may well repel not merely the philosophic recluse who can
hardly be expected perhaps to have followed far the many wild {20}
excursions of the laughing impulse, but others as well. Have we not, it
may be asked, in the appreciation of what is funny or laughable a mode
of sensibility pre-eminently erratic, knowing no law, and incapable
therefore of being understood? Do not the more grotesque attempts to
frame theories of the subject seem to mock the search for law where no
law is?

The difficulty may be admitted whilst the practical conclusion drawn
is rejected. Certainly no thinker will succeed in throwing light on
the dark problem who does not strenuously fight against the narrowing
influences of his “subjectivity,” who does not make a serious effort
to get outside the bounds of his personal preferences, and to compass
in large vision the far-ranging play of the mirthful spirit, and
the endless differencing of its manifestations. But if a man can
only succeed in doing this without losing his head in the somewhat
rollicking scene, there is nothing that need repel him from the task;
for reason assures us that here too, just as in other domains of human
experience where things looked capricious and lawless enough at the
outset, order and law will gradually disclose themselves.

A serious inquiry into the subject, such as we propose to make, must,
it is evident, start from this scientific presupposition. We take the
language of everyday life to imply that human laughter, notwithstanding
its variability, its seeming caprices, is subject to law. We speak
of an objective region of “the laughable,” that is of objects and
relations of objects which are fitted and which tend to excite laughter
in us all alike. It will be one of our chief problems to determine
the characteristics of this field of the laughable, and to define its

But a serious inquiry will take us farther than this. While we do well
to insist that the lightness and {21} capriciousness of movement, the
swift unpredictable coming and going, are of the essence of laughter,
it will be one main object of this inquiry to show how our mirthful
explosions, our sportive railleries, are attached at their very roots
to our serious interests. Laughter, looked at from this point of view,
has its significance as a function of the human organism, and as
spreading its benefits over all the paths of life. We must probe this
value of our laughing moments if we are to treat the subject adequately.

In thus proposing to give to laughter a purpose in the scheme of human
life, one must face the risk of offending its friends yet more deeply.
To these laughter is so precious and sufficing a good in itself, that
to propose to connect it with some extrinsic and serious purpose
looks like robbing it of its delicious freeness and enslaving it to
its traditional foe, excess of seriousness. To these objectors it may
suffice to say at the present stage that their apprehension appears to
me to be groundless. To laugh away the spare moments will continue to
be to the laughter-loving the same delightful pastime even should we
succeed in showing that it brings other blessings in its train. On the
other hand, to show that it does bring these blessings may turn out
to be a handy _argumentum ad hominem_ in meeting the attacks of the
laughter-hater. He could not, one supposes, give himself quite so much
of the look of flouted virtue if we could convince him that laughter,
when perfect freedom is guaranteed it in its own legitimate territory,
will unasked, and, indeed, unwittingly, throw refreshing and healing
drops on the dry pastures of life. Perhaps some thought of these
benefits was present to the Greek philosopher—the very same who was
for banishing Homer and other poets from his ideal commonwealth—when
he uttered the pretty conceit that {22} the Graces in searching for a
temple which would not fall, found the soul of Aristophanes.

Our subject is a large one, and we must endeavour to keep all parts of
it steadily in view. To begin with, we will try to avoid the error of
those who in their subtle disquisitions on the comic idea forgot that
laughter is a bodily act, and not fear to allude to such unmetaphysical
entities as lung and diaphragm, where they seem to be a central fact in
the situation. A careful examination of the very peculiar behaviour of
our respiratory and other organs when the feeling of the comic seizes
us, seems to belong to a scientific investigation of the subject.
Indeed, it appears to me that in trying to get at the meaning of these
gentle and enjoyable shakings of the mind, we shall do well to start,
so to speak, with the bodily shakings, which are, to say the least,
much more accessible to study.

Further, it seems desirable to study the utterances of the spirit of
fun through the whole gamut of its expression. The _gros rire_, the
cacophonous guffaw, must not be regarded as too vulgar to be admitted
here. The attempts in the past to build up a theory of the ludicrous
have commonly failed through a fastidious and highly artificial
restriction of the laughable attribute to the field of wit and refined
humour which the cultivated man is in the habit of enjoying.

Nor is this all. It may possibly be found that no satisfactory
explanation of our enjoyment of the laughable is obtainable without
taking a glance at forms of mirth which have preceded it. Among the
strange things said about laughter is surely the sentence of Bacon:
“In laughing there ever precedeth a conceit of something ridiculous,
and therefore it is proper to man”. That the father of the inductive
philosophy should have approached the subject in this way {23} is one
of the ironies that meet us in these discussions; for, allowing that he
is right as to his fact that only man laughs, we must surely recognise
that his reason is hopelessly weak. The conceit which Bacon here
talks about is, we all know, by no means a universal accompaniment of
laughter; and, what is more important, even when it occurs it is wont
to grow distinct rather in the form of an afterthought than in that of
an antecedent. Among all things human, surely laughter ought least of
all to be afraid of recognising its humble kinsfolk.

The importance of thus sweeping into our scientific net specimens of
all grades of laughter will be seen when it is recognised that the one
promising way of dealing with this subject is to trace its development
from its earliest and crudest forms. If we begin at the top of the
evolutional scheme, and take no account of the lower grades, we are
very likely to fail to penetrate to the core of the laughable, as
so many of our predecessors have failed. But if we will only stoop
to consider its manifestations at the lowest discoverable levels,
and then confine ourselves to the more modest problem: How did the
first laughter, mindless as it may well seem to us, get developed and
differentiated into the variety of forms which make up the humorous
experience of civilised man? we may win a modest success.

It will be evident that any attempt to pursue this line of inquiry
will have to take note, not only of facts obtainable from the realm of
primitive laughter as represented by infancy and the savage state, but
of those social forces which have had so much to do with shaping the
manifestations of mirth. The common directions of our laughter attest
its social character and illustrate how it has insinuated itself into
the many movements of social life.

For a like reason we shall need to discuss to some extent {24} the
place of laughter in Art, and the treatment of the sources of merriment
by the comedian.

Lastly, this larger consideration of the subject will, we shall
probably find, take us to an examination of certain ethical or
practical questions, _viz._, the value which is to be assigned to the
laughing propensity, and the proper limits to be set to its indulgence.

The subject so conceived is a large and complex one, and it will be
hard to deal with it at once thoughtfully and familiarly, with the
genuine ring of laughter ever present to the ear. The present writer
will account himself happy if, in a line where so many appear to have
missed success, he attain to a moderate measure of it. {25}



To treat the facts with proper respect seems to be more than ordinarily
incumbent on us in dealing with the nature and the significance of our
laughter. This means, as already hinted, that some inquiry be made into
the act of laughing itself, the manner of it, and the circumstances
which accompany it, and that this inquiry be carried out in the most
comprehensive way possible.

We grave elders are wont to think of laughing and smiling as something
quite occasional, a momentary lapse once in a while from the persistent
attitude of seriousness. This view is apt to be expressed in too
unqualified a form. Simple types of humanity, the child and the savage,
frequently show us mirthful laughter filling a much larger space in
the day’s hours than our view would suggest. A jolly boy, the subject
of chronic high spirits, which are apt to try the patience of sedate
seniors, might perhaps say—if indeed he could be brought to frame a
theory of life—that laughing is the proper way to pass the time, and
that seriousness is a tiresome necessity which can be tolerated only
now and again. And in any case such a view might be said to represent
the mental attitude of those happy idiots and imbeciles of whom we read
that they “are persistently joyous and {26} benign,” and constantly
laughing or smiling, and that “their countenances often exhibit a
stereotyped smile”.[12]

Yet, attractive as this theory may be for a lover of laughter, it
cannot well adjust itself to stern physiological facts. The full
process of laughter is, like coughing, sobbing and other actions, a
violent interruption of the rhythmic flow of the respiratory movements.
As such, its function in the human organism seems to be limited to that
of an occasional spurt. Even a perpetual smile, quite apart from its
insipidity for others than the smiler, would, strictly speaking, hardly
be compatible with the smooth on-flow of the vital processes. What has
been named the “everlasting barren simper” does not really amount to

The Smile and the Laugh, viewed as physiological events, stand in the
closest relation one to the other. A smile is, as we shall see, rightly
regarded as an incomplete laugh. Hence we shall do well to study the
two together.

Smiling involves a complex group of facial movements. It may suffice
to remind the reader of such characteristic changes as the drawing
back and slight lifting of the comers of the mouth, the raising of
the upper lip, which partially uncovers the teeth, and the curving
of the furrows betwixt the comers of the mouth and the nostrils (the
naso-labial furrows) which these movements involve. To these must be
added the formation of wrinkles under the eyes—a most characteristic
part of the expression—which is a further result of the first
movements. The increased brightness of the eyes is probably the effect
of their tenseness, due to the contraction of the adjacent muscles and
the pressure of the raised cheek, though {27} an acceleration of the
circulation within the eyeball may have something to do with it.

These facial changes are common to the smile and to the laugh, though
in the more violent forms of laughter the eyes are apt to lose under
their lachrymal suffusion the sparkle which the smile brings.

As a characteristic group of facial movements the smile is excellently
well suited for its purpose—the primitive and most universal
expression of a pleasurable or happy state of mind. It forms, in
respect of certain of its features at least, a marked contrast to the
expression of opposite feelings. Thus it is far removed, and so easily
distinguishable, from the facial expression during weeping, _viz._, the
firmly closed eyelids and the wide opening of the mouth in the form
of a squarish cavity; as also from the face’s betrayal of low spirits
and “crossness,” in the depressed corners of the mouth, the oblique
eyebrows and the furrowed forehead.

I have spoken here of the primitive unsophisticated smile as it may
be observed in children and those adults who have not learned to
control the primitive, and instinctive movements of the face. Among
the cultivated classes of a civilised community, this primitive smile
is not only restrained and modified, but serves other uses than the
confession of the elemental experiences of pleasure and gladness. With
the contemptuous smile, the slightly ironical smile of the superior
person, the bitter, sardonic smile, we shall have happily but little
to do here. It is enough to remark that these differentiations answer
closely to those of laughter, and so further illustrate the organic
affinity of the two.

We may now pass to the larger experience of the audible laugh. That
this action is physiologically continuous with {28} the smile has
already been suggested. The facial expression is approximately the
same in the broad smile and the gentle laugh. It is only when laughter
grows immoderate that there is a marked addition of other features,
_viz._, the strong contraction of the muscles about the eyes leading to
frowning, and the shedding of tears. How closely connected are smiling
and moderate laughing may be seen by the tendency we experience when we
reach the broad smile and the fully open mouth to start the respiratory
movements of laughter. As Darwin and others have pointed out, there is
a series of gradations from the faintest and most decorous smile up to
the full explosion of the laugh.[13]

One may, perhaps, go farther and say that the series of gradations here
indicated is gone through, more or less rapidly, in an ordinary laugh.
Persons who laugh slowly, finding it difficult to “let themselves
go,” can be seen to pass through these stages. It has been said by an
ingenious American inquirer that laughter may begin either with the
eyes or with the mouth, the frequency of the former mode, as compared
with the latter, in the instances examined being as 7 to 5.[14]

It may be added that, to this continuity of form in the actions of
smiling and laughing, there answers a community of function. As will
be shown more fully by-and-by, both are in their primitive forms
manifestations of pleasure, laughter being primarily the expression
of the fuller measures of the happy or gladsome state, and varying in
energy and volume with the degree of this fulness.

The chronological relations of the reign of the smile and the laugh in
the life of the individual will occupy us {29} presently. Here it may
be enough to say that these relations allow us to think of smiling at
once as the precursor and as the successor of her kinsman. The first
smiles are a step away from the exceeding gravity of baby-hood towards
full hilarity, the last are a step back from this hilarity to the
stolid composure of senile infancy.

It would seem to follow that the sharp distinction often drawn between
smiling and laughing is artificial. Society, led by its Chesterfield,
may emphasise the difference between the incipient and the completed
process, allowing the one and forbidding the other; but the natural man
is inclined to regard them as one.

The recognition of this identity of the two actions is evidenced by
the usages of speech. We see in the classical languages a tendency
to employ the same word for the two, laughing like smiling being
regarded—primarily and mainly at least—as an object of visual
perception. This is particularly dear in the case of the Latin
“ridere,” which means to smile as well as to laugh, the form
“subridere” being rare. This tendency to assimilate the laugh and
the smile as facial expressions was naturally supplemented by the
employment, both in Greek and in Latin, of a separate word for audible
laughter (“καχάζειν”, “cachinnare”) in cases where it was needful to
emphasise the fact of sound. In some modern languages the relation of
smiling to laughing is precisely indicated as that of a less full to a
fuller action (Italian, “ridere” and “sorridere”; French, “rire” and
“sourire”; German, “lachen” and “lächeln”). Possibly the existence
of two unrelated words in our own and some other modern languages
points to the fact that certain races have been more impressed by the
dissimilarity between the audible and the inaudible expression than by
the similarity of the visible manifestations. {30}

It is worth noting that even after the two expressions have been
distinguished by separate names there is a tendency to use the
stronger metaphor “to laugh,” rather than the weaker one “to smile,”
in describing the brighter aspects of nature’s beauty, such as
meadows when in flower. A painter, whom Dante meets in Purgatory,
and recognises as the first in the art of illumination, gracefully
transfers this distinction to a brother painter by saying that the
leaves which the latter painted “laugh more” (piu ridon) than his

We may now turn to the distinguishing characteristics of laughing, that
is, the production of the familiar series of sounds. Like sighing,
sobbing and some other actions, it is an interruption of the natural
rhythm of the respiratory process, in which inspiration and expiration
follow one another at regular intervals. The obvious feature of this
interruption in the case of laughter is the series of short, spasmodic,
expiratory movements by which the sounds are produced. These are,
however, preceded by a less noticed inspiration of exceptional energy
and depth. These interruptions of the ordinary respiratory movements
involve an unusually energetic action of the large muscles by which the
chest is expanded, _viz._, those which secure the contraction and so
the descent of the dome-shaped diaphragm, and those by the action of
which the ribs are elevated.

The production of the sounds by the spasmodic expiratory movements
shows that the passage from the trachea into the pharynx, _viz._, the
glottis or chink between the vocal cords, is partially closed. The
quality of the sounds is {31} explained by the particular arrangements,
at the moment of the cachinnation, of the vocal apparatus, and more
particularly the shape of the resonance chamber of the mouth.

Familiar though we are with them, we should find it hard to give an
accurate description of the sounds of laughter. To begin with, they
seem to vary considerably in the case of the same person and still more
in that of different persons. Laughter has not yet lent itself to the
methods of the experimental psychologist, and so has not been studied
with scientific precision. By-and-by, we may hope, the phonograph will
capture its sounds, and enable us to observe them at our leisure.
Meanwhile, only a very rough account of them is possible.

Taking the laughter of the adult male, which is perhaps more frank and
better pronounced, we find the more common forms of iterated sounds to
range from the broad vowel sound _aw_ (in “law”) to the sharp _a_ (in
“bat”). The long _o_ sound (as in “go”), involving the rounded mouth
aperture, seems to me to be far less common. The same applies to the
long _ee_ and _ai_ sounds, and those which seem to be most closely
allied to them.

These variations appear, so far as I can judge, to go with alterations
of pitch. The broader sounds, _e.g._, _aw_, seem naturally to ally
themselves to the hardier deep-pitched explosion, the others to the
more cackle-like utterances in the higher parts of the register. This
connection shows itself, too, in the change in the vowel-quality when,
as frequently happens, the laugh runs through a cadence of pitch from a
higher to a lower note.

These considerations will prepare us to find that the vowel-quality
of the sound varies in general with sex and with age. According to
Haller and Gratiolet the sounds of {32} the laughter of women and
children, which correspond with their higher vocal pitch, approach in
vowel-quality to the French _i_ and _e_.[16]

Considerable variations from these typical forms would seem to occur
now and again. In the American returns already referred to, the mode of
laughing described is represented by such odd symbols as “gah! gah!”
“iff! iff!” “tse! tse!” etc. These singularities, if, as it seems, they
are intended to represent habitual modes of voicing mirth, are, one
suspects, hardly referrible to natural differences of vocalisation, but
are probably the result of the interfering agencies of nervousness and
affectation which, as we know, have much to do with fixing the form of
mirthful expression.

The description of laughter here offered applies only to the typical
form. It would have to be modified considerably to suit the attenuated
forms to which the expression is reduced in “polite society”. Of
these, more presently. Even where the vocal outburst retains its
primitive spontaneity and fulness considerable variations are
observable, connected with differences in the whole respiratory and
vocal apparatus. The intensity and volume of the sound, the pitch and
vowel-quality, the rapidity of the successive expirations, the length
of the series, the mode of commencing and of ending, may all exhibit
variations which help to make the laughter of one person or of one race
different from that of another.

We may now pass to some other accompaniments of the muscular movements
of laughter. It is of importance to study these with care if we wish to
estimate the precise value of the hilarious explosion in the economy of
human life. {33}

Since the movements of laughter are sudden and violent interruptions
of the smooth rhythmic flow of the respiratory process, we may expect
to find that they have important organic effects, involving not merely
the mechanism of respiration, but also that of the circulation of the
blood. Here, it seems, we have to do with a double effect First of all
(we are told), this series of spasmodic expirations—during which, as
we have seen, the glottis is partially closed—increases the pressure
within the thorax or chest, and so impedes the entry of blood from
the veins into the heart. This effect is seen in the turgidity of the
head and neck which appears after prolonged and violent laughing.
In the second place, the exceptionally deep inspirations tend to
expand the lungs with air, and to drain off the blood from the veins
into the heart. The manner in which these two actions, the deepened
inspiration and the prolonged expiration, alternate during a fit of
laughter, appears to secure a considerable advantage in respect both of
accelerated circulation and more complete oxygenation of the blood. The
brisker movement of the blood after laughter has recently been observed
in some experimental inquiries into the effects of emotional excitement
of various kinds on the pulse.[17]

It is not improbable that this expedited circulation produces more
remote effects on the organism. It has been suggested that one of
the advantages of a “good laugh” is that it relieves the brain, and
this would seem to imply that it quickens the movement of the blood
through the fine and readily clogged vessels which permeate the
brain-structures. {34}

And here we find ourselves face to face with the question: What truth
is there in the saying that laughter has beneficial physiological
effects? A curious chapter might be written on the views propounded,
both by the light-hearted reveller and the grave and philosophic
onlooker, on the wholesomeness of this form of “bodily exercise”. Only
a bare reference to this aspect of the subject can, however, be given

To begin with, the unlearned, who know nothing of diaphragms or of
congested veins needing to be relieved, have had a shrewd conviction
that laughter sets the current of life moving briskly. Proverbs, such
as “laugh and grow fat,” attest this common conviction. Those who
have catered to the laughter-lovers have not unnaturally made much of
this salutary influence. The mediæval writers of the laughable story
in verse (the “fabliau” or “Conte à rire en vers”) held firmly to the
belief in the “sanitary virtue” (“vertu saine”) of a burst of laughter.

This popular view has been supported by the weight of learned
authority. Vocal exercises, of which laughing is clearly one, have
been recommended by experts from the time of Aristotle as a means of
strengthening the lungs and of furthering the health of the organism as
a whole. By many, moreover, laughter has been specifically inculcated
as a hygienic measure. The learned Burton (_b._ 1577) quotes a number
of physicians in favour of the ancient custom of enlivening the feast
with mirth and jokes.[18] The reader may find references to the
salutary effects of laughter in the latest text-books of physiology.
Both by a vigorous reinforcement of the actions of the large muscles
which do the work of respiration, and, still more, by the beneficial
effects of these reinforced actions on the functions of the {35} lungs
and the circulatory apparatus, laughter properly finds a place among
“bodily exercises”.[19]

The beneficial effects of laughter have not been overlooked by the
pedagogue. Mulcaster, for example (born about 1530), gives a high
place to laughing among his “physical” or health-giving exercises.
The physiological reasons adduced are sometimes funny enough: for
the author relies on Galen and the doctrine of “spirits”. He thinks
that laughter will help those who have cold hands and cold chests
and are troubled with melancholia, since it “moveth much aire in the
breast, and sendeth the warmer spirites outward”. Tickling under the
armpits may well be added, seeing that these parts have a great store
of small veins and little arteries “which being tickled so become
warme themselves, and from thence disperse heat throughout the whole

How far these benign effects on health, which are recognised by the
modern physician as well as by his predecessor, are due to the vigorous
reinforcement brought by laughter to the work of respiration and of the
circulation of the blood, it is not easy to say. The latter process
reminds one of the circulation of pedestrians and vehicles in our
London streets. In a general way it manages itself fairly well. Yet now
and again a lusty “Move on!” from a policeman seems to be distinctly
beneficial. Similar benefits may be extended to the organs of digestion
and the rest.

At the same time we must not lose sight of the possibility that
laughter may act beneficially on our hard-pressed {36} frames in
another way. As has been suggested above, the lusty cachinnation is
nature’s way of voicing gladness, a sudden increase of pleasure. Now
it has been held by psychologists that pleasurable feelings tend
to further the whole group of organic functions, by adding to the
nervous vigour which keeps them going. Laughter may owe a part of its
benign influence on our bodily state to the fact that it produces a
considerable increase of vital activity by way of heightened nervous

One feature of the laughing outburst may pretty safely be ascribed to
this increase of nervous action under pleasurable excitement. In all
genuinely hilarious moods, the laugh is accompanied by a good deal of
diffused activity of the voluntary muscles. This is seen most clearly
in the unsophisticated laughter of children and savages. The sudden
glee which starts the laugh starts also movements of arm, leg and
trunk, so that arms flap wing-like, or meet in the joyous clap, and the
whole body jumps. In older people matters may not be carried so far,
though there are examples of the large shakings of laughter, notably
that of Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh, whose great laugh was one “not of the
face and diaphragm only, but of the whole man from head to heel”; and
it is hard perhaps for any man taken by the “stab” of a good joke to
keep his arms down and his body vertical.

It may be added that this supplementing of the energetic {37}
respiratory actions by movements of the limbs gives to laughter its
clear title to be called a muscular exercise. As such it is vigorous,
voluminous and bordering, so to speak, on the violent. Its salutary
influence, like that of the surgeon’s knife, will consequently depend
on the celerity of its operation.

Here we come to the other column in the reckoning. If laughter does
good by its occasional irruption into a domain which otherwise
would have too much of drowsy monotony, its benefit is rigorously
circumscribed. Only too easily can it overdo the “flushing” part, and
inundate and destroy when it should merely cleanse. In other words, the
mirthful cachinnation, just because it is an irruption, a disorderly
proceeding, must not be unduly prolonged.

At what moment in a prolonged fit of laughter the undesirable effects
begin to appear, it is not easy to say. It must be remembered that
a good part of what remains of modern laughter is by no means pure
hilarity. There is in it from the first ejaculation something of a
biting sensation, or something of a melancholy pain. Yet, waiving
this and looking on what begins as genuine hilarity, we shall find
that it is not so simple a matter to determine the moment when
further prolongation of the exercise will be weakening rather than
strengthening. The excitement of laughter, like that of wine, may in
its measurements have to be adjusted to individual constitution. Among
the humiliations of life may be reckoned the discovery of an inability
to go on laughing at the brilliant descriptions of a caricaturist, and
an experience of aching exhaustion, of flabby collapse, while others
continue the exhilarating chorus.

It is natural to look on the tears which often accompany boisterous
laughter as an unfavourable symptom. Things which do us good should
not, we argue, make us cry. Yet {38} we may reflect that men have
been known to cry out of sheer happiness. With some laughers, too,
the moisture may come at an earlier stage than with others. Was
Shakespeare, one wonders, thinking of a violent laughter when he
made Iachimo tell Imogen that her lord Leonatus had mocked the
French lover’s lugubrious despondencies “with his eyes in flood with
laughter”? Perhaps in Shakespeare’s age, when laughter was held in with
looser rein, the tears came more readily.

According to Darwin, who has made a careful study of laughter’s tears,
their appearance during a violent attack is common to all the races of
mankind. He connects them with the contraction of the muscles round
the eyes which has for its purpose the compressing of the gorged
blood-vessels and so the protection of the eyes. This is the meaning
of the tears alike in the case of grief and of extravagant mirth. The
paroxysm of excessive laughter thus approaches the other extreme of
violent grief; and this fact, Darwin thinks, may help us to understand
how it is that hysterical patients and children often laugh and cry

However it may be with the tears, there is no doubt that violent and
prolonged laughter works mischief in other ways. The sigh that so
frequently follows the laugh, and has been supposed to illustrate the
wider truth that “all pleasures have a sting in the tail,” need not
be taken too seriously. It is the sign of restoration of equilibrium
after the hilarious upset. The prostrating effects of violent laughter
were well known to Shakespeare. Thus he speaks of being “stabbed” {39}
with laughter, of laughing oneself “into stitches”—an experience which
Milton probably had in mind when he wrote of “laughter holding both
his sides”—of the heart being almost broken “with extreme laughing”
and of laughing oneself “to death”.[23] The American returns speak
of a whole Iliad of evil after-effects: fatigue, weakness, sadness,
giddiness, breathlessness and so forth. It may, however, be urged
that these unpleasant experiences hardly justify us in applying to
laughter the rather strong epithet of “killing”. They are, under normal
circumstances, temporary inconveniences only, and to the lover of fun
do not seriously count as against its substantial blessings. When
laughter kills, as it does sometimes, it is because it has degenerated
into something distinctly abnormal, allying itself to hysterical grief
or to the unhinging effect of a great mental shock.

As already noted, the laugh, like the smile which is its beginning,
is in general an expression of a pleasurable state of feeling. Among
unsophisticated children and savage adults it is the common mode of
expressing all considerable intensities of pleasure when they involve
a sudden brightening of the pleasure-tone of consciousness, as in the
overflow of gladness or good spirits. As such it stands in marked
dissimilarity to the expression of opposite tones of feeling. To begin
with, it presents a striking contrast to states of suffering, sorrow
and low spirits in general. It illustrates the broad generalisation
laid down by psychologists that a state of pleasure manifests itself
in vigorous and expansive movements, whereas a state of pain involves
a lowering of muscular energy and a kind of shrinking into oneself.
In a more special way it forms an antithesis, in certain of its
features at least, to the expression of violent {40} suffering. Darwin
remarks that in the production of screams or cries of distress the
expirations are prolonged and continuous and the inspirations short and
interrupted; whereas in the production of laughter we have, as we have
seen, the expirations short and broken and the inspirations prolonged.
This is merely one case of the wider generalisation that “the whole
expression of a man in good spirits is exactly the opposite of that of
one suffering from sorrow”.[24]

The value of this arrangement as helping us to understand one another’s
feelings is obvious. Among the many mistakes which we are wont to
commit in reading our children’s minds, that of confusing their joy and
grief cannot, fortunately, be a frequent one. It is only in exceptional
and abnormal cases, where the extremes of boisterous mirth and grief
seem to approach one another, that the language of the one can be
mistaken for that of the other.

A curious point, which the ingenuities of some later psychologists
compel us to consider, is whether the pleasure, of which laughter
is popularly supposed to be the outcome or effect, really stands in
this relation to it. According to the theory here referred to, of
which Prof. W. James is the best-known advocate in our language,
a blush cannot be attributed to an antecedent feeling of modesty
or shamefacedness: but for the blush there would be no feeling of
modesty: in truth, it is the blush, _i.e._, the hot sensation of it,
that constitutes the feeling. The theory has done much to popularise
psychology in these last days. It is, I have found, a plum in a pudding
where plums are rare for many who read psychology for examinations. It
seems to be {41} particularly dear to young women. It certainly has
about it the charm of a lively fancy.

But science has, alas! sometimes to do battle with liveliness of fancy;
and it has to do this here. By trying to get all your emotions out of
the organic effects, you find yourself in the awkward situation of
being unable to say how these organic effects themselves are brought
about. You must have something of the emotional thrill and of the
nervous thrill which this involves before you get that interference
with the routine action of the muscles of the facial capillaries which
brings on the blush.

Not only may the presence of an element of feeling at the very
beginning of an emotional experience be thus shown to be a necessary
assumption, it can, in certain cases at least, be clearly observed.
This applies more particularly to such feelings as the admiration of a
beautiful landscape or a fine bit of harmonised melody. In these cases
it must, one would suppose, be evident to all that the pleasurable
emotion is started and sustained by numerous currents of agreeable
sensation pouring in by way of eye or ear, and by the agreeable
perceptions which grow immediately out of these. To say that all the
joyous elevation in these experiences springs out of the secondary,
internally excited sensations, those which accompany the altered
condition of muscle and gland, the heightened pulse-rate, the bodily
thrill and the rest, is surely to inflict an undeserved indignity on
“the higher senses,” and to exhibit the full depth of ludicrous paradox
which lurks in this theory.[25]

The case of laughter is not quite so clear. It has, indeed, one
characteristic which seems to favour the {42} view that the bodily
resonance is everything, namely, that it is easily induced in a
mechanical or quasi-mechanical manner. It is of all the expressive
movements the one most subject to the force of imitation. Children’s
laughter, and that excited by the popular game, the “laughing chorus,”
clearly illustrate its contagious character.[26] Moreover, as we know,
a fit of laughter may be brought on, in part at least, by actions
which presumably reinstate some of the physiological elements in the
process. Thus my son tells me that he was overtaken by an irresistible
impulse to laugh when riding a horse without a saddle, and again when
running a race; and my daughter had the same tendency at the end of
her first mountain climb. It seems probable that the movements and the
changed condition of the breathing function are prime causes of the
irresistible tendency in such cases.

It is, however, one thing to allow the indisputable fact that laughter
can be excited in this seemingly mechanical way, another thing to claim
for the reaction in such cases the value of the full joyous outburst.
I believe that a person who watches his mental processes can observe
that a merely imitative laughter does not bring the whole delightful
psychosis which arises when some agreeable impression initiates the

To this it must be added that in the cases here touched on the
imitation is not wholly mechanical. When we laugh because others laugh,
do we not accept their laughter as a playful challenge and fall into
the gay mood? And are we not, commonly at least, affected by others’
voluminous laughter as by a droll sight and sound, which directly
stimulates the mirthful muscles? My son’s laughter, {43} in the
circumstances just referred to, seemed to be directed to the movements
of the horse’s ears, and to those of the boy running just in front of
him. The movements of laughter have, in the case of some adults, come
so completely under the initiative control of mental processes, that
even when powerful organic forces prompt the movements, it is necessary
to make a show of finding some cause of merriment.

Coming now to the ordinary case of the emotional reaction, we note
first of all the swift, explosive character of the outburst. If the
motor discharge follow the first swell of joyous feeling, which is
popularly said to excite it, it seems to do so with such electrical
rapidity as to make it impossible to detect this initial swell as
distinctly preceding it. Yet this fact need not baffle our inquiry.
When for example we laugh at some absurd incongruity in speech or
manners, can we not see that the perception which starts the laugh is
an emotional perception, one which not only directs itself to something
that has emotional interest and value, namely, the incongruous features
as such, but is flooded from the very first with the gladness of mirth.
To say that my perception of a big woman hanging upon the arm of a
small man is a purely intellectual affair, like the perception of the
inequality of two lines in a geometrical figure, is, one fears, to
confess either to a poverty of humorous experience or to a very scanty
faculty of psychological analysis.

But perhaps the clearest disproof of this quaint paradox in the realm
of laughter is supplied by the situation already referred to, that
of forced abstention from a choral laugh through fatigue. When thus
“doubled up” and impotent, we may be quite capable of seizing the funny
turns of the good “story,” and of feeling all the {44} force of the
bugle-call of the others’ laughter. In sooth it is just here that the
misery of the situation lies, that the joyous sense of fun in the air
is now robbed of its sturdy ally and so reduced to a state of limp
inefficiency. The comicality still makes full appeal: we feel it, but
the feeling is denied its full normal outflow.

This brings us face to face with the kernel, the valuable kernel, of
truth which lies in what seems at first an empty paradoxical nutshell.
Though the “bodily reverberation” that is, the swiftly returning
tidings of a raised or depressed nervous activity in outlying regions
of the organism, is not everything in an emotion, it is a part, and
an important part. The full experience of the joys of the comic, like
other full emotional experiences, implies that the vents are clear,
that the nervous swirl started at the centres at the moment when we
greet the coming of fun with gladness can find its customary outflow
along the familiar channels. Not only so, but as suggested above,
this large expansion of the area of nervous commotion throughout the
bodily system gives added life and a more distinctive character to the
enjoyment of fun.

I have here supposed a perfectly simple instance of laughter in which
a sudden increase of pleasure up to the point of gladness brings on
the reaction. Even in this case, however, there is some complication,
some reciprocal action between the out-pouring mental gladness and the
in-pouring somatic resonance. In a good, prolonged laugh the bodily
factor does undoubtedly react upon the psycho-physical process which
makes up the mental gaiety, and this means that it precedes the later
stages of this process. In all cases where this central psycho-physical
factor is complex and requires time for its {45} completion, the
interactions between it and the bodily factor become vital. As hinted
in the preceding chapter, the reflective intuitions which are said by
certain theorists to be the cause, and so to precede laughter, are
often after-thoughts. This means that when the laughing apparatus is
set and ready to discharge, the first joyous perception of something
funny, though utterly vague with respect to the particular features
and relations wherein lies the funniness, suffices to bring on the
reaction, which instantly reinforces the gladsome mood. And the jollity
may sustain itself for a while mainly as a fit of laughter; though
swift mental glances are all along being shot across the spasms at
the provoking “object,” glances which make clearer and clearer the
ludicrous features, and by so doing raise the force of the mental

If, as we have seen to be probable, laughter is within limits a good
exercise, bringing a considerable increase of pleasurable activity and
furthering the sense of bodily well-being, we can easily understand
how essential it is to the full realisation of good spirits and the
hilarious mood. Its explosive movements seem, indeed, to belong to the
state of exhilaration, of conscious expansion, and to give it much
of its piquant flavour: whence the hardship of losing breath through
excessive indulgence, or having to stifle the impulse to laugh at
its birth when exposed to the shocked look of the agelast. The deep,
forcible chest-movements bring a sense of heightened energy, of a
high-tide fulness of the life-current. The voluminous mass of sensation
which they supply, partly in the stirring sounds which react on the
laugher’s own ears, and partly in the large, exhilarating effects in
the viscera, is in itself a vast expansion of our consciousness. This
sudden rise of the tide in our organic life is a part at least of that
sense {46} of “sudden glory” which the sight of the ludicrous is said
to bring us.

That this organic swell is a large factor, is, I think, shown in
more ways than one. To name but one fact; we may begin a laugh with
something of bitterness, something of malignity in our hearts; but end
it having a freer, serener consciousness, as if the laughter had been
a sort of cleansing process, and, like another and widely different
κάθαρσις, substituted a happy and peaceful for a disturbed and unhappy
state of feeling. It will be seen presently that among the causes of
laughter, a moment’s relaxation of strain—muscular, intellectual or
emotional tension—is one of the most common, if it be not universal.
The delicious sense of relief which the collapse of the strained
attitude brings us may no doubt be due to a consciousness of the
transition, the escape from pressure of the moment before. At the same
time, it is not improbable that the physiological processes of laughter
themselves, by securing organic relief and refreshment, contribute a
large element to the whole mental state.

A like remark applies to the element of disagreeable feeling which
frequently, at least, makes our laughter a mixed experience:—

    Our sincerest laughter
    With some pain is fraught.

Shelley was hardly the person, one suspects, to judge of the quality
of men’s laughter: yet his couplet contains an element of truth.
This mixture of elements is, no doubt, largely due to the initiating
perception itself; for, as we shall see, the laughable spectacle
commonly shows us in the background something regrettable. But it seems
reasonable to say that the element of sadness in our hilarity has its
organic support in the unpleasant feeling-tones {47} which accompany
the effects of all violent and prolonged laughter.[27]

What may be the precise proportions between the initial or “cerebral”
joy and the joy reverberated by the organism we have no data for
determining. There seems something plausible in the contention that
the former, when it lacks the reinforcement of the latter, is but a
“thin” and “pale” feeling. This view may be supported by the fact
that the response of the body is never wholly silenced. Even when
a man controls his laughter, say in church, he is aware of a swift
spasm in the throat. But there are facts which tell powerfully in
the other direction. We never stifle the organic resonance without
introducing other and distinctly adverse influences. When by a forcible
effort we hold back our laughter this effort itself, as an artificial
and difficult attitude, does much to spoil the whole experience.
The conflict between the impulse to laugh and the curbing will is
distinctly disagreeable, and may readily grow into an acute suffering.
And when the corporeal reverberation fails through sheer fatigue, this
fatigue, both in itself and in its antagonism to the appeal to mirth,
becomes a large factor in the whole experience. We must consequently
wait for this knowledge of the precise shares contributed by the two
factors, until some ingenious experimenter can succeed in exciting the
mirthful mood and at the same time cutting off the bodily reverberation
without inducing a new organic consciousness; or, on the other hand,
can devise a method of securing for us in some utterly serious moment
the full bodily reverberation of laughter, say by electrically {48}
stimulating our respiratory muscles. It may be predicted with some
confidence that this waiting will be a long one.

Here again, as in the case of the smile, we have to note various
deviations from the typical form of the expression. When laughter no
longer springs from pure joy, but has in it something of a sardonic
bitterness, or something of a contemptuous defiance, the experience
will of course be complicated by a new ingredient of consciousness.
Whether this change of experience is due merely to the difference in
the initial mental attitude may be doubted. It is not improbable that
the physiological processes, that is to say, the respiratory movements,
the vocalisation, and the more diffused organic effects, will be
altered in such cases. A bitter laugh seems both to taste differently
and to sound differently from a perfectly joyous one.

In these deviations from the typical laugh of the joyous mood we see
the beginning of the intrusion of a new factor, the will. There is more
of intention to be heard in, say, the ironical laughter of one side of
the House of Commons than in the laughter of an unsophisticated child.

This intrusion of will serves both to restrain the natural process,
reducing it to a degraded and rudimentary form, and to originate
various affected counterfeits of the spontaneous outburst. This double
action supports the idea that the conventions of polite society aim not
merely at suppressing the “vulgar” kind of explosion, but at evoking
the signs of amusement when an effort is being made to amuse. Hence
the multiplicity of weird utterances which cultivated humanity has
adopted. The giggle, the titter, the snicker and the rest appear to be
not merely reduced or half-suppressed laughter, but substitutes which
can readily {49} be produced when the occasion asks for them.[28]
Those who confine themselves to this debased laughter are naturally
despised by the much-laughing soul. Carlyle—himself a voluminous
laugher at times—when writing of Teufelsdröckh’s great laugh hurls
contempt on these triflers with the big things of mirth in this wise:
they “only sniff and titter and sniggle from the throat outwards; or
at best produce some whiffling, husky cachinnation, as if they were
laughing through wool”.[29] An accurate scientific record of these
strange perversions of laughter, even though it were less picturesque
than Carlyle’s description, would be of considerable value. The
laughter-lover may at least console himself for the injury done him by
this kind of imitation with the reflection that it is empty of joy, and
even of the refreshing sensations which issue from the genuine laugh.
Nay, more, as a forced performance, it presumably has a disagreeable
feeling of irksomeness as its accompaniment.

It is sad to reflect that these spurious varieties of laughter are apt
to appear early in the life of the individual. Preyer tells us he was
able to distinguish, in the third year of his boy’s utterances, the
genuine laugh of hilarity from that of imitation, which was probably
rather more forced. Possibly they all appear among that wondrous
gathering of queer sounds for which infancy is famous, and may be
permanently selected by a certain number of “highly proper” children in
preference to the fuller sounds.




It seemed desirable to examine the process of laughter itself before
taking up the much-discussed question of its causes. In considering
this side of our subject, we shall, as already hinted, take a
comprehensive view of the occasions and modes of production of the
mirthful outburst, and approach the narrower problem of the nature and
mode of action of the ludicrous by way of this larger inquiry.

According to the common assumption, laughter, in ordinary cases,
is excited by some provocative, to speak more precisely, by some
sense-presentation, or its representative idea, such as a “funny”
sensation, the sight of a droll human figure, or a quaint fancy. Yet we
must not assume that such an initial presentation occurs in all cases.
As is implied in what has been said above about the laughter of “good
spirits,” and as we shall see more clearly presently, there are cases
where laughter takes on the appearance of a spontaneous or “automatic”
group of movements.

1. It may be well, however, to begin our inquiry by touching on those
varieties of laughter in which the action of a sense-stimulus is
apparent. And it will be convenient to select a form of distinctly
provoked laughter in which the intellectual processes play only a
subordinate part. The effect of tickling is clearly of this kind, and
as one of the {51} simplest modes of exciting laughter it seems to
claim our first attention here. Since, moreover, it is the mode of
exciting laughter of which our knowledge has been rendered in a measure
precise by means of experiment, I propose to deal with it at some

The experience of being tickled is best described in its entirety as a
sensational reflex; that is to say, a motor reaction on a process of
sensory stimulation which produces a well-marked variety of sensation.
To speak of titillation as if it were merely the production of a
certain kind of sensation is unscientific. It involves the excitation
of certain movements, and where these are not forthcoming we must
infer, either that the sensory part of the process is defective, or
that the motor impulse is inhibited in some way.

The stimulation in this case is, as we all know, a light tactile one.
The agent commonly applied is the finger or a still softer body, such
as a feather. The mode of contact is light, or at least does not
commonly rise to the point of heavy pressure. The manner of contact is
usually intermittent, the finger or fingers giving a series of short
and staccato impacts. Movements of the fingers from point to point
commonly accompany the series of contacts. In some cases, however, a
single light touch, or even a continuous touch with movement from point
to point, may suffice to induce the proper effect.

The precise nature of the sensations is not yet fully understood.
It is pretty clear that the “minimal stimuli” here employed do not
give rise to purely tactile sensations of low intensity. This seems
to be established by the fact brought out by Dr. Louis Robinson that
the parts of the skin having the most acute tactile sensibility, the
tips of the fingers and the tip of the tongue, are “scarcely at
all sensitive {52} to titillation”.[30] It has been pointed out by
Wundt that the sensations in this case, as in that of some other skin
sensations, tend to spread themselves out, other and even distant
parts of the surface being engaged by means of the mechanism of reflex
sensation.[31] This in itself suggests that the sensations of tickling
are more allied to organic than to purely tactile sensations. It is
supposed that the light stimuli set up in the skin certain organic
changes, more particularly modifications of the circulation of blood in
the small vessels.[32]

It is well known that not all parts of the skin are equally susceptible
of the effect of tickling. Certain areas, for example, the sole of the
foot and the armpit, are commonly said to be “ticklish places”. In the
answers to questions sent out by Dr. Stanley Hall we find the order,
as determined by most frequent naming of the part, to be as follows:
the sole of the foot, the armpit, the neck and part under the chin,
the ribs, and so forth. The inquiries brought out the fact that there
are considerable differences of experience here, some saying that they
were ticklish in all parts, others only in one. The method adopted in
this inquiry clearly affords no accurate measurement of comparative
sensibility.[33] {53}

A more scientific attempt to measure this was made by Dr. Louis
Robinson, who carried out a large number of experiments on children
from two to four years of age with the definite purpose of testing the
degree of responsiveness by way of laughter. According to his results
the order of decreasing sensibility is as follows: (1) the region in
front of the neck; (2) the ribs; (3) axillae; (4) bend of elbow; (5)
junction of ribs and abdominal muscles; (6) flanks; (7) region of the
hip joint; (8) upper anterior part of the thigh.[34]

A glance at these statements shows that the determination of the
scale of ticklish sensibility over the surface is not yet completed.
Dr. L. Robinson, by the way, mentions neither the sole, a highly
ticklish spot in the popular creed, nor the palm, which, as we shall
see, is decidedly a ticklish region.[35] It is highly desirable that
more precise experimental inquiries should be directed to these
local variations of ticklishness, and that, after the seats of the
higher degrees of the sensibility have been ascertained, the question
should be considered whether these are marked off by any definite
peculiarities of structure.

It is probable that the sensations included under the head of
ticklishness are not all of the same quality. It seems safe to say
that in all cases the sensation is complex to this extent, that it
is composed of a tactile and an organic factor. But we may see that
the complexity is often greater than this. An obvious instance is
the addition {54} of a peculiarly irritating effect when the orifice
of the ear or nostril is tickled, an effect due to the action of the
stimulus on the hairs, which are specially abundant here.[36] Some
surfaces, too, which are free from hair, appear to be endowed with a
special modification of the ticklish sensibility. In my own case, at
any rate, light touches on the sole, have, as long as I can remember,
excited sensations which seem to have almost a character of their own.
A further complication probably occurs when the tickling grows rougher
and approaches to a digging of the fingers into the soft parts of the
armpits; for here the nerve-endings lying deeper are pretty certainly

Lastly, it is important to add that prolongation of the tickling seems
to introduce changes in the intensity, if not also in the quality of
the sensations. Hence it would appear that the sensations falling
under the head of ticklishness, though they have certain common
characteristics, may vary considerably.

Since we are here concerned with these sensations as provocatives of
laughter, it behoves us to look rather closely at their feeling-tones.
As largely organic sensations they may be expected to have a strongly
marked element of the agreeable or disagreeable; and this is what we
find. I, at least, cannot conceive of myself as having the proper
sensational experience of tickling, and yet being wholly indifferent.

When, however, we ask what is the precise feeling-tone of one of these
sensations, we find no simple answer forthcoming. Some psychologists
view them as having, in general, an unpleasant character.[37] On the
other hand, children are {55} certainly fond of being tickled, ask for
it, and make a pastime of it. This at once suggests that we have here
to do with a complexity of feeling-tone, as, indeed, our study of the
sensations would lead us to suppose.

It is, I think, a plausible supposition that no sensation coming under
the head of tickling is merely agreeable or disagreeable. It seems
always to be of a mixed feeling-tone: some sensational elements being
pleasant, others unpleasant, though analysis may be unable to attribute
with exactness their respective tones to the several elements.

Adopting this hypothesis, we should expect that the differences in the
composition of the sensations already dealt with would lead to the
result that, whereas some are preponderantly agreeable, others are
rather disagreeable. And this, I believe, accords with the results of
observation. The tickling sensations excited by stimulating the hairy
orifices of the ear and the nostril are said by Dr. Louis Robinson to
be “distinctly distasteful”. The sensations produced by tickling the
sole of the foot are commonly held, at least by older children and
adults, to be disagreeable in all degrees of their intensity. This
certainly accords with my own self-observation. The lightest touch, say
from a shampooer’s hand, is to me distinctly “nasty,” with an uncanny
nastiness which I cannot hope to describe.

An example of a distinctly agreeable sensation of tickling is,
curiously enough, supplied by another hairless surface, closely
analogous to the sole, namely the palm. A lady, who is an excellent
observer of children and endowed with an exceptional memory of her
early experiences, tells me that when a child she loved to have her
hands tickled. Her feeling was a kind of “awful joy,” the awfulness
coming {56} from a vague suspicion that the pastime was not quite
proper. Other preponderantly agreeable varieties appear to be the
sensations produced by the lighter stimulation of those parts which
seem in a special way to be laughter-provoking areas, _e.g._, the
armpits and ribs. This is, at least, suggested by the fact that younger
children love to be tickled in these parts in moderation, and will ask
to have the pastime renewed.

An important characteristic of these feeling-tones is their
unsteadiness or changefulness. Although at a particular moment we may
be able to detect clearly a slight preponderance of the agreeable or of
the disagreeable aspect, it is only for a moment. An increase in the
degree of pressure, a further prolongation of the stimulation, or even
a slight variation in the mode of contact, may suffice to bring up and
render prominent the opposed feeling-phase.

We may now pass to the motor reactions, which are of more especial
interest in the present connection. Overlooking the less conspicuous
elements, such as the contraction of the muscles of the hairs, we find
that there are two easily distinguishable groups of movements: (_a_)
a number of protective or _defensive_ reactions which are adapted to
warding off or escaping from the attack of the tickling stimulus; (_b_)
movements expressive of pleasure and rollicking enjoyment, from the
smile up to uproarious and prolonged laughter.

The defensive movements are such as the following:—retraction of the
foot and leg when the sole is tickled; the bending of the head to the
shoulder when the neck is tickled; the rendering of the body concave
on the side which is attacked; the thrusting away of the hand of the
tickler; wriggling and fencing with the arms when a child is tickled
lying on his back. These movements appear to {57} introduce important
modifications into the sensations excited by tickling. Dr. Louis
Robinson tells us that the flexing of the foot when tickled transforms
an unpleasant sensation into a rather pleasant one.

We may now pass to the point of chief importance for our present study,
the conditions of the laughter-reaction during a process of tickling.
This reaction is clearly the typical form of childish risibility.

It has been already more or less clearly implied, that we cannot mark
off the laughter in this case as an effect determined by any assignable
differences in the characteristics of the sensations involved. Dr.
Louis Robinson thinks that the tickling which provokes laughter is a
special variety involving the stimulation of the deeper-lying nerves.
Dr. Leonard Hill, who has specially tested this point for me, writes,
“There is no difference in response to deep and superficial tickling”;
and again, “I am sure that the most delicate superficial stimulation
can provoke laughter”. This certainly seems to agree with ordinary
observation. One of the most laughter-provoking forms of tickling
consists of a series of pianissimo touches.

Again, in speaking of ticklish areas of the skin, we must be careful
not to restrict the titillation which calls forth laughter to any
assignable region. It is undeniable that there are areas which more
readily respond, in the case of children generally, to the tickling
provocation. The armpits perhaps will occur to most readers; and it
is noticeable that Darwin speaks of the anthropoid apes giving out
“a reiterated sound, corresponding with our laughter, when they are
tickled, especially under the armpits”.[38] This {58} fact, however,
does not imply that the area of sensibility is circumscribed. Dr.
Leonard Hill assures me, as a result of his investigations, that
laughter under favourable conditions may be excited by tickling _any
part_ of the body. Dr. L. Robinson in a letter explains to me that he
agrees with Dr. L. Hill here. He finds that if a child is in a ticklish
mood, the tickling of any part or even the threat of doing so will
suffice to provoke laughter. On the other hand, we cannot speak of any
part of the surface as one, the tickling of which will uniformly call
forth laughter. Here again, as we shall see, the influence of mental
agencies modifies the result.

Now these facts suggest that even those varieties of tickling which
produce a sensation having a well-marked disagreeable tone may excite
the response of laughter. The tickling of the sole of the foot not only
provokes laughter in an infant; it tends to do so, I believe, in an
adult, who may at the same time express his dislike of the sensation by
a grimace.

It seems impossible then to conclude that the laughter which
arises from tickling is a mere expression of the pleasure-tone of
a sensational process. Even if we supposed that in all cases the
sensations were preponderantly agreeable, it would still be impossible
to account for the energy of the reaction by the intensity of the
sensuous enjoyment experienced.

That we have not to do here merely with the effect of agreeable
stimulation is shown by the fact that when a child laughs under, and is
said to enjoy, a process of titillation, _the laughter is accompanied
by defensive movements_. When, for example, a child is tickled on its
back, it will, says Dr. Robinson, “wriggle about, fencing with its
arms and dodging the attacks of its playmate . . . _laughing all the
time_ {59} _with open mouth and teeth fully displayed_”. This surely
suggests that the laughter is not merely the result of an agreeable
sensation, but rather of a complex mental state, in which the agreeable
and disagreeable elements of sensation appear to play only a secondary

Nor again does it seem as if the mere transition from an agreeable
to a disagreeable sensation, or the reverse process, would account
for the laughter of tickling. A person highly sensitive to the effect
of tickling can imitate the process by movements of his own fingers,
and produce quite similar sensations of varying feeling-tone _without
experiencing the faintest impulse to laugh_. Again we know that other
experiences, such as scratching a sore place when it is healing up,
involve an alternation of moments of agreeable and disagreeable
feeling-tone, and yet are not provocative of laughter.

These and other familiar facts point to the conclusion that the
laughter excited by tickling is not a net effect of the sensory
stimulation. It is no doubt broadly determined by the characteristics
of the sensations. Intensely disagreeable ones would certainly not
call forth the laughing response. But the determining conditions
include, in addition to a sequence of sensations, _a higher psychical
factor_, namely, an apperceptive process or assignment of _meaning_
to the sensations. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that the
laughter-reaction occurs first of all (to give the earliest date)
in the second month—presumably in the second half of this month.
The presence of such a psychical factor is more strongly supported
by the fact, already referred to, that the reaction does not occur
in the first three months save when mental agencies co-operate; and
that throughout the ticklish period an exactly similar process of
titillative stimulation applied to the same area of the {60} skin will
now produce laughter, now fail to do so, according to the varying mood
of the child.[39]

That the interpretation of the sensation is the decisive element in
eliciting laughter may, I think, be seen by a simple experiment which
any reader who is ticklish may carry out upon himself. The next time he
happens to have a subjective, creepy skin sensation, he will find that
he can bring on either laughter or a very different state of feeling by
adopting one of two ways of mentally envisaging what is happening. The
merest suggestion of an invading parasite suffices, I believe, to set
up a mental state which completely inhibits the impulse to laugh.

We may now seek to assign with more precision the mental conditions
which induce the mode of apperception favourable to laughter.

Beginning with the “objective” characteristics, those which reside in
the tickling experience itself, we may observe how much apprehension
of meaning has to do with the “funniness” of the experience. It is to
be noticed at the outset that when we are tickled there is _an element
of the unknown_ in the process. This seems to have been recognised by
Darwin when he laid emphasis on the fact that the more ticklish parts
are those rarely touched, at least on small areas, and, one may add,
lightly.[40] The familiar fact that one cannot tickle oneself points to
the same conclusion. A person who tries to do this knows too much about
what is going on. Dr. Ch. Richet observes, however, that one can tickle
oneself _by means of a feather_; and he, as I think {61} rightly,
explains this apparent exception by saying that in the attempt to
tickle oneself with the finger, the double sensation, of the finger
and the part tickled, seems to inhibit the effect, whereas, when the
feather is interposed this obstacle is eliminated.[41]

Other facts, too, seem to point to the importance of an element of the
unknown. The common way of tickling a child is by running the fingers
with discontinuous contact over the skin. Dr. L. Hill describes his
mode of tickling in one case as running the fingers up the child’s
arm _like a mouse_. This evidently brings in an element of _local_
uncertainty as well as of change. The effect is increased when, as
frequently happens, there are pauses between the attacks of the fingers.

The invasion of the skin-territory, like that of larger territories,
is, it would seem, likely to be more effective when it has an element
of unpredictableness. The uncertainty is, I believe, sometimes
increased by half-voluntary variations in the direction and in the
velocity of the tickling movements. Whether the fact communicated by
Dr. L. Robinson, that a child is more ticklish when dressed than when
undressed, is explained by the increased obscurity of the process in
the former case, I am not sure. It is worth noting, however, that some
of the areas said to be most ticklish, _e.g._, the armpits and the
neck, are inaccessible to sight. I believe, too, that when a child
gives himself up to the full excitement of tickling he makes no attempt
to see what is going on.

Now touches of unknown origin at places not closely observable have
something of a disturbing character. A touch is always an attack,
and has, so to speak, to be {62} condoned. This disturbing element
I regard as an essential element in the experience: it goes along
with the faintly disagreeable element of sensation, which, as we have
assumed, is commonly, if not always, more or less clearly recognisable
in the experience.[42] Yet it is certain that the disturbing effect
(like the disagreeableness of the sensation) is limited. If the unknown
bulks too largely and comes near the point of the alarming, the effect
of laughter is wholly counteracted. This is a part of the explanation
of the refusal of a child to be tickled by a stranger: for he knows
here _too little_ of what is going to happen, and consequently is
disposed to fear. Again, Dr. L. Hill informs me that “tickling a child
unexpectedly and from an unseen quarter will not provoke laughter”: the
element of surprise would seem in this case to be too great. Possibly
the comparative difficulty of making a child laugh when naked may
be explained by the increased apprehensiveness which goes with the
defenceless state of nudity. The familiar fact that the readiness to
laugh increases with practice, points to the same need of a certain
comfortable assurance lying safely below the slight superficial
apprehensions which are excited by the stimuli.

All this suggests, that in order to call forth the glad response of
laughter, we must secure a certain adjustment of stimulus to mental
attitude. The tickling must fit in with a particular mood, the state of
mind which makes enjoyment of fun not only possible but welcome.

Now it is clear that non-adjustment may arise, not only from
the presence of unsuitable characteristics in the mode {63} of
stimulation, but from some antagonistic force in the child’s previous
state of mind. The acceptance of the attack in good part depends on the
preceding attitude. The dreadfully serious, “on-the-alarm” attitude
of the child when nursed by a stranger is an effectual bar to playful
overtures. A child when cross will not, says Dr. L. Hill, give genial
response, even if the attacker be his familiar tickler, father or
nurse; and the same is true, he adds, of a child when suffering from
vaccination, or when mentally preoccupied with some hurt for which he
is seeking for sympathy, or with a story which he wants you to tell
him. As Darwin puts it, the great subjective condition of the laughter
of tickling is that the child’s mind be in “a pleasurable condition,”
the state of mind which welcomes fun in all its forms. Possibly the
position of lying on the back, which, according to Dr. L. Robinson,
makes children more responsive to tickling, may, through a relaxation
of the muscles, favour this compliant attitude of self-abandonment to
the tickling fingers.

We may perhaps sum up the special conditions of the laughter-process
under tickling as follows: when a child is tickled he is thrown into
an attitude of indefinite expectancy. He is expecting contact, but
cannot be sure of the exact moment or of the locality. This element
of uncertainty would in itself develop the attitude into one of
uneasiness and apprehensiveness; and this happens save when the child
is happy and disposed to take things lightly and as play. In this case
we may suppose that the half-developed mild form of fear is each time
swiftly dissolved into nothing by a recognition of the unreality of
the cause, of the fact that the touches are harmless and come from the
good-natured mother or nurse by way of play. This recognition becomes
clearer as the process is continued, and so there supervenes a new
attitude, that of play, in which all {64} serious interpretation is
abandoned and the gentle attacks are accepted as fun or make-believe.

If this is a correct analysis of the experience of the tickling which
excites laughter, we seem to have in it at a very early age elements
which are to be found, in a more fully developed form, in the later
and more complex sorts of mirth, namely, relief from a serious and
constrained attitude, a transition from a momentary apprehension
induced by the presentation of the partially unknown, to a joyous
sense of harmless make-believe. That this is so is further evidenced
by the familiar fact that a child, when used to the game, will begin
to laugh vigorously when you only threaten with the advancing fingers.
As a German writer observes, this is a clear case of Lipps’ theory of
annihilated expectation;[43] only he omits to note that the laughter
depends, not on the mere fact of annihilation, but on the peculiar
conditions of it in this case, involving a slight shock at the approach
of something partially unknown to a specially sensitive region of
the organism, and the instant correction of the apprehension by a
recognition of its harmlessness.

Much the same kind of stimulative process seems to be present in
the other and allied cases of reflex or quasi-reflex laughter. It
is well known that certain sense-stimuli which excite sensations of
a disagreeable character, but which, though acute, are not violent,
such as the application of a cold douche, are apt to provoke laughter.
According to the German authority just quoted, the effect depends
here, too, on variation in respect of the intensity and the locality
of the stimulation. He found further, in carrying out psychological
experiments, that whereas the introduction of a stronger stimulus than
was expected is apt to excite apprehension in {65} the subject, that
of a weaker stimulus will excite laughter.[44] Here, too, we seem to
have a sensational reflex in which is present a distinctly mental
element, _viz._, a moment of mild shock and apprehension at the sudden
coming of something disagreeable and partially unknown, instantly
followed by another moment of dissolution of shock in a pleasurable
recognition of the harmlessness of the assault.

2. Laughter is not, however, always of this reflex form. It may arise
without sensory stimulation in an “automatic” manner as the result of
a cerebral rather than of a peripheral process. This is illustrated by
the seemingly causeless laughter which breaks out in certain abnormal
states and has an “uncanny” aspect for the sane observer. A well-known
example of this is the effect of the action on the brain centres of
laughing gas and other substances. Such “automatisms” occur, however,
within the limits of normal experience, as when a person laughs during
a state of high emotional tension. I propose to speak of such seemingly
uncaused reactions as _nervous laughter_.[45]

A common and simple variety of this nervous laughter is the spasmodic
outburst that often succeeds a shock of fear. A child will laugh after
being frightened by a dog; a woman often breaks out into a nervous
laugh after a short but distinctly shaking experience of fear, _e.g._,
in a carriage behind a runaway horse, or in a boat which has nearly
capsized. And it does not seem that such laughter is preceded by a
perception of the absurdity of the fear, or of any similar mode of
consciousness; it looks like a kind of physiological reaction after the
fear. {66}

The same thing will show itself in circumstances which give rise to
a prolonged mental attitude, involving a feeling of apprehensiveness
and of constraint. Thus a shy man, making his first essay as a public
speaker, will sometimes betray his nervousness on the platform by
weird little explosions of laughter as well as by awkward gestures.
I have noted the same thing in strangers to whom I have spoken at a
_table d’hôte_ abroad. The way in which little spasms of laughter are
apt to intrude themselves into situations which, by making us the
object of others’ special attention, bring an awkward consciousness
of insecurity, is further illustrated in the behaviour of many
boys and girls when summoned to an interview with the Head, in the
laughter which often follows the going up to take a prize before a
large assembly, and the like. The strong tendency to laugh which many
persons experience during a solemn ceremony, say a church service,
may sometimes illustrate the same effect. When an enforced attitude,
difficult to maintain for the required length of time, brings on the
impulse, this will gather strength from the growth of a feeling of
apprehension lest we should not be equal to the test imposed.

Another variety, coming under the head of nervous laughter, is the
sudden outburst which now and again occurs in a state of great
emotional strain, having a distinctly painful character, especially
when it includes something in the nature of a shock. The news of
the death of an acquaintance has been known to excite a paroxysm of
laughter in a company of young persons from nineteen to twenty-four
years of age.[46] One may assume here that the {67} outbreak is not
the direct result of the news, but depends on the effect of the shock,
with the abnormal cerebral tension which this involves.

A like spasmodic outburst of laughter occasionally occurs during a
more prolonged state of painful emotional excitement. It sometimes
intrudes itself into a bout of physical suffering. Lange speaks of a
young man who, when treated for ulceration of the tongue by a very
painful caustic, regularly broke out into violent laughter when the
pain reached its maximum.[47] Many persons when thrown into a prolonged
state of grief, accompanied by weeping, exhibit a tendency to break out
into laughter towards the end of the fit. Shakespeare illustrates this
tendency when he makes Titus Andronicus, whose hand has been cut off,
answer the question why he laughed with the exclamation: “Why I have
not another tear to shed”.[48]

Can we find a common element in these different forms of nervous
or apparently unmotived laughter? We appear to have in all of them
a preceding state of consciousness which is exceptionally intense
and concentrated. The situation of fear, of constraint on being made
the object of others’ unusual observation, of suddenly hearing news
of deep import for which the mind is not prepared, of prolonged
emotional agitation, these all involve an intensification of the
psycho-physical processes which immediately condition our states of
consciousness. Looking at these intensified {68} forms of consciousness
more closely, we observe that they include something in the nature
of psychical pressure, of the presence of forces which make for
disorder, whereas the situation calls for severe self-control. This
special strain thrown on the volitional process is illustrated in
the demand for closer observation and calm reflection during a fit
of fear, or other emotional excitement, which tends to bring about a
state of wild movement and of disorderly ideas. It is, I believe, _the
specially severe strain_ belonging to such an attitude which is the
essential pre-condition of the laughter. It makes the attitude a highly
artificial one, and one which it is exceedingly difficult to maintain
for a long period. As such, the attitude is eminently unstable, and
tends, so to say, to break down of itself; and will certainly collapse,
partially at least, if the demand seems, though only for a moment, to
grow less imperative. Hence the readiness with which such a means of
temporary relief as laughter undoubtedly supplies is seized at the

It remains to determine the character of this sudden relaxation of the
strain of attention more precisely. As a sudden collapse, it is clearly
to be distinguished from the gradual breakdown due to “mental fatigue”
and nervous exhaustion. The psycho-physical energy concentrated
for the special purpose of meeting the strain is by no means used
up, but has to find some way of escape. Here, no doubt, we seem to
come across Mr. Spencer’s ingenious idea that laughter is an escape
of nervous energy which has suddenly been set free. It is no less
evident that the redundant energy follows the direction of the risible
muscles because no other commanding object for the attention presents
itself at the moment. The innervation of these muscles is not a mere
diversion of attention: it is a _dispersion_ of the energies which
for the maintenance of attention ought to {69} be concentrated. We
are never less attentive during our waking life than at the moment of
laughter. Yet even here, I think, the theory of a convenient waste-pipe
arrangement is not adequate. There is, I take it, in the case a relief
of sur-charged nerve-centres, which process would seem to be better
described by the figure of a safety-valve arrangement.

It is not difficult to surmise why the liberated energy should follow
this particular nervous route. There is no doubt that the motor
apparatus, by the disturbances of which all such interruptions of the
smooth flow of respiration are brought about, is very readily acted on
by emotional agencies. Altered respiration, showing itself in altered
vocalisation, is one of the first of the commonly recognised signs
of emotional agitation; and this effect has been rendered more clear
and precise by recent experiments. We should expect, then, that the
collapse of strained attitudes, with the great change in feeling-tone
which this must carry with it, would deeply affect the respiration.
We know, however, more than this. Severe efforts of attention are in
general accompanied by a partial checking of respiration, an effect
which seems to be alluded to in the French expression, an effort “de
longue haleine”. On the other hand, the termination of such an effort
is apt to be announced by the sigh of relief. Now, though the movements
of laughter are not the same as those of sighing, they resemble the
latter in their initial stage, that of deepened inspiration. May
we not conclude, then, that laughter is likely to occur as another
mode of physiological relief from the attitude of mental strain? And
supposing, as seems certain, that laughter in its moderate degrees, by
bringing a new briskness into the circulation, relieves the congested
capillaries of the brain, may we not go farther and say that nature has
{70} probably come to our aid by connecting with the mental upheavals
and the cruel strains here referred to, which pretty certainly involve
a risky condition of the cerebral system of capillaries, a mode of
muscular reaction which is peculiarly well fitted to bring the needed

More special conditions may favour the movements of laughter in
certain cases. As I have observed above, Darwin suggests that the
rapid alternation of crying and laughing which occur among hysterical
patients may be favoured by “the close similarity of the spasmodic
movements”.[49] In other words, the motor centres engaged, when in the
full swing of one mode of action, may readily pass to the other and
partially similar action. This would help to account for the short
outbursts of laughter during a prolonged state of painful agitation,
and to explain the fact noted by Descartes, that no cause so readily
disposes us to laughter as a feeling of sadness.[50]

Our theory plainly requires that these sudden breakdowns or relaxations
of strained mental attitudes should, even when only momentary
interruptions, be accompanied by an agreeable sense of relief. I
believe that those whose experience best qualifies them to judge will
say that this is so. The dead weight of the fear, the poignancy of the
grief, and the constraining effect of the situation of _gêne_, seem
to yield at the moment when the “awful laugh” is snatched at. This
comforting sense of a lightened load, though in part the direct result
of a cessation of cerebral strain, would, as we have seen, pretty
certainly derive added volume from the returning sense-reports telling
of the ameliorated condition of the bodily organs.

3. We have considered two of the varieties of laughter {71} which lie
outside the region of our everyday mirth. We may now pass into this
region, and inquire, first of all, into the causes of those varieties
which come under the head of joyous laughter.

Here we shall best begin by touching on the simple and early form
which may be called the overflow of good spirits. Darwin, as has been
mentioned, rightly regards the full reaction of the laugh as the
universal expression by our species of good spirits, of a joyous state
of mind. We have now to examine the mode of production of this simple

It is important to note that all experiences of pleasure do not bring
on laughter. There are quiet enjoyments of a soothing character which
are far from generating the powerful impulse needed for the movements
of diaphragm and rib. To lie on a summer day in a hammock in a wood
and indulge in the sweets of _dolce far niente_ is to be out of reach
of the tickling imp. States of enjoyment, too, which, though exciting,
require a measure of close attention, such as those occasioned by
a glorious sunset, or stirring music, do not start the spasmodic
contractions of muscle.

The enjoyment that moves us to laughter must, it is evident, amount to
gladness or joy. And this means, first of all, that the pleasurable
consciousness must come in the form of a large accession, and, for a
moment at least, be ample, filling soul and body. As the expression
“good spirits” suggests, the organic processes during such states of
joyousness are voluminous and well marked. As a part of this heightened
tide of vital activity, we have the characteristic motor expression
of the gladsome mind, the movement of the limbs, the shouting and the

Not all risings of the vital tide, however, produce laughter. Gentle
and gradual augmentations of the sense of well-being {72} and
happiness hardly tend to stir the muscles concerned. The joyous
outburst marks a _sudden_ accession of happy consciousness. It has
something of the character of a violent flooding of the spirit and the
corresponding bodily conduits.

There is a negative condition, also, to which it may not be superfluous
to allude. The flood-like rise of the happy mood which is to produce
laughter must not be accompanied by any further demand on the
attention. A girl reading a first love letter from the man whom her
heart has chosen will be glad, and will grow gladder by leaps and
bounds. But the fulness of laughter will not come while unread words
still claim the eye.

The laughter of joy is most noticeable, I think, under two sets of
conditions. Of these the first is the situation of release from
external restraint. The wild jubilant gladness of boys as they rush
out of school, provided that they have the requisite reserve fund
of animal spirits, is the stock example of this sort of laughter.
The explosion seems here to be a way of throwing off the constraint
and the dulness of the classroom, and getting a deep breath of the
delicious sense of restored liberty. So far as the outflow of good
spirits is thus connected with an escape from a serious and difficult
attitude—strenuous application of the energies of mind and body in
work—it is plainly analogous to the nervous laughter already considered.

But the swift accession of joy may come in another way, from the sudden
transformation of one’s world, from the arrival of some good thing
which is at once unexpected and big enough to lift us to a higher level
of happiness. With children and savages the sight of a new and pretty
toy is sometimes enough to effect this. The charming bauble will so
fill sense and soul that the joy of living leaps to a {73} higher
plane and bursts into a peal of mirth. The unexpected sound of the
father’s voice at the end of a long day devoted to the things of the
nursery was, we are told, enough to evoke a shout of laughter in a
small American boy: it sufficed to bring back to the little fellow’s
consciousness another and a glorious world. We older folk have, for the
greater part, lost the capacity of simply greeting delightful things
in this way, a greeting in which there is no thought either of their
meaning or of their interest for us. Yet we may meet the unexpected
coming of friends with something of the child’s simplicity of attitude.
It is hard not to smile on suddenly seeing a friend in a crowded London
street: hard to keep the smile from swelling into a laugh, if the
friend has been supposed at the moment of encounter to be many miles
away. Some of us, indeed, may retain the child’s capacity of laughing
with a joyous wonder at a brilliant explosion of fireworks.

It remains to account for the persistent fit of laughter which
frequently accompanies a prolonged gladness. Does not the fact that
the child and the natural man, when taken with the mood of mirth, go
on venting their good spirits in renewed peals tell against our theory
that the outburst is caused by an accession of joy?

In order to answer this we must look a little more closely at
this so-called persistent laughter. The language of observers of
unsophisticated human nature is sadly wanting in precision here. When,
for example, we are told by travellers that certain savages are always
laughing, we know that we are not to take the statement literally.
It means only what it means when a mother tells her visitor that her
rogue of a boy is for ever laughing and shouting; that under certain
favourable conditions the laughing fit comes readily and persists
longer than usual. In a lasting {74} mood of jollity we are all
strongly inclined to laugh, and need very little to call forth a long

This preternaturally large output of laughter during a prolonged
state of high spirits finds its explanation in part in a kind of
physiological inertia, the tendency to go on repeating movements when
once these are started. The protracted iteration of laughter in a
child is closely analogous to that of his half-unconscious singing
to himself. This tendency of movements to perpetuate themselves in a
mechanical way probably accounts for the lengthening of the single
outburst in the case of a child violently seized with mirth. As mothers
know, this reduction of laughter to a mechanical iteration of movement
is apt to continue beyond the limits of fatigue and to bring on such
unpleasant effects as “hiccup”. It is probable, too, that the tendency
during a prolonged state of mirth to recommence laughing after a short
pause is referrible to a like cause: the physiological springs of the
movements being once set going, the explosive fit tends to renew itself.

Discounting this effect of physiological inertia, we seem to find
that in these periods of prolonged high spirits laughter retains its
fundamental character as a comparatively short process which occurs
intermittently. Where the laughing is not merely a trick played off by
the bodily mechanism, but holds a germ of mind in the shape of a happy
consciousness, it has its large and significant pauses.

If this is so, it seems reasonable to suppose that the mental
antecedent which brings on some new explosion is analogous to the sense
of “sudden glory” which accounts for the single joyous peal. Owing to
the exceptionally strong disposition to laugh during such a period,
the antecedent feeling need not be a powerful one, a very slight {75}
momentary increase of the joyous tone sufficing to give a fresh start
to the muscles.

It is not difficult to suggest possible sources of such slight
sudden augmentations of the happy feeling-tone. No prolonged state
of consciousness is, strictly speaking, of one uniform colour; in
the boisterous merriment of an old-fashioned dinner-party there were
alternations of tone, brilliant moments following others of comparative
dulness. The course of the bodily sensations in these prolonged
states of joy is in itself a series of changes, involving a sequence
of exaltations upon relative depressions of the “vital sense”. The
course of the presentations to eye and to ear in such a festive mood
must be subject to like fluctuations in respect of their action upon
the feeling-tone; and the same applies to the flow of ideas which can
find a place in the mind when thus affected. Lastly, it must not be
forgotten that the movements of attention would of themselves always
secure a certain rise and fall of enjoyment. We all know how, when we
are gladdened by some new and unexpected happiness, the mind after a
short digression returns to the delightful theme, and how, as a result
of this return, a new wave of joyous feeling seems to inundate the

There seems much, then, to be said for the hypothesis that all
varieties of joyous laughter (when not reduced to a mechanical form)
are excited by something in the nature of _a sudden accession of
pleasurable consciousness_. Where the laugh is a new thing, unprepared
for by a previous mood of hilarity, this rise of the spirits will, as
we shall see later, probably involve a transition from a mental state
which was relatively depressed. Where, on the other hand, a joyous mood
prolongs itself, all that seems needed for re-exciting the movements of
laughter (provided that the muscular {76} energies are equal to the
explosion) is the sudden increase by an appreciable quantity of the
pleasurable tone of the consciousness.

We may further illustrate and verify this generalisation respecting
the causes of joyous laughter by an examination of some of the more
familiar circumstances in which this is wont to occur. Here we shall
of course be dealing with the early and unsophisticated mind. Properly
drilled “grown-ups” but rarely exhibit the phenomenon in its full

(_a_) It is a matter of common observation that joyous laughter is a
frequent concomitant of the play-attitude, especially at its first
resumption. We have already found this illustrated in the laughter of
“happy boys” just liberated from school. Here the conditions indicated,
a relief from restraint and a sudden expansion of joyous activity, are
patent to all.

Closely related to this situation of released bodily energies is that
of relieved mental restraint. During a nursery lesson—if only the
teacher is a fond mother or other manageable person—the child is apt
to try modes of escape from the irksomeness by diverting the talk, and
especially by introducing “funny” topics; and the execution of the bold
little manœuvre is frequently announced by a laugh. By such familiar
infantile artifices the pressure is lightened for a moment, and the
laugh announces a moment’s escape into the delicious world of fun and

The impulse to be gay and to laugh runs, moreover, through the
enjoyment of play. No doubt this in its turn may often grow exceedingly
serious, as when the illness of dolly, or the thrilling horrors of a
bear’s cave, or of an attack by scalping Indians, are realistically
lived out. Yet we must remember that this playful tampering with {77}
the serious, even on its genuine side, is a part of the enjoyment. The
momentary terror is desired by healthy young nerves, because the thrill
of it, when the certainty of the nothingness lies securely within
mental reach, is delicious excitement. A fuller examination of the
relation of laughter to play belongs to a later stage of our inquiry.

(_b_) Another situation which is closely related to play is that of
being teased. By “teasing” is here understood those varieties of
attack which have in them an element of pretence, and do not cross the
boundary line of serious intention to annoy. As thus defined, teasing
enters into a good deal of child’s play. Tickling is clearly only a
special modification of the teasing impulse. In some of the earliest
nursery play, the game of bo-peep, for instance, there is an element of
teasing in the pretence to alarm by a feigned disappearance, as also in
the shock of the sudden reappearance. The teaser of a child, whether
he threatens to pinch him or to snatch at his toy, carries out a
menace; but it is a make-believe menace—a thing to be a wee bit afraid
of for just a moment, yet so light and passing as to bring instantly
the delightful rebound of disillusion, if only the subject keeps good
tempered. On the teaser’s side (when it remains pure teasing) it is
prompted by no serious desire to torment, by no motive more serious
than the half-scientific curiosity to see how the subject of the
experiment will take it.

The explosions of a good-humoured subject under such gentle teasing
are closely analogous to those of a tickled child: they spring from
a sudden sense of relief, of elastic rebound, after repression. The
swift alternations of moments of nascent fear and of joyous recognition
of the fun of the thing are eminently fitted to supply the conditions
of a sudden rising of the spirits. The child that likes to be {78}
teased—in the proper way of course—is perfectly willing to pay for
these momentary delights by the momentary trepidations.

On the side of the teaser, the situation is also highly favourable to
outbreaks of hilarity. If successful, he reaps the joy of the superior
person, and glories in the cleverness of his experiments. The swellings
of the sense of power as he watches his victim give just those
experiences of “sudden glory” which a philosopher places at the base
of all enjoyment of the laughable; and, alas, in the less kindly these
risings of the pleasurable consciousness may continue and even increase
after the teasing has ceased to be play and becomes indistinguishable
from the behaviour of a tormentor.[51]

(_c_) Much the same kind of remark applies to practical joking, which,
when it is not weighted with the serious purposes of punishment and
moral correction, is merely an expansion of this playful attack of
the tickler and the teaser. When the victim reaches the moral height
of being able to enjoy the performance, his enjoyment comes under the
head of dissolved apprehension, or disillusion after taking things too
seriously. By far the larger share of the pleasure of the practical
joke certainly falls, however, to the perpetrator, who in this case,
too, realises a “sudden glory,” an increased sense of power.

(_d_) Once more, laughter is a common accompaniment of all varieties of
contest or sharp encounter, both physical and mental. When, as in the
case of the savage, the schoolboy and the civilised soldier, it breaks
out after bodily fight, it {79} has some of the characteristics of
nervous laughter. It is a concomitant of a sudden remission of physical
and mental strain, of a dissolution of the attitude of apprehensive
self-protection. In most cases, since it is “they laugh that win,” the
feeling of relief is reinforced by that of contemptuous exultation at
the first taste of victory.

A prolonged combat, if not too unequal, offers on both sides frequent
openings for these reliefs of tension and upspringings of the exultant
mood. A good fighter in the ring is, I understand, supposed to be able
now and again to relieve the grimness of the situation by a sweet
smile. This is certainly true of all mental contests. Nothing is more
remarkable in the study of popular laughter than the way in which it
seems to penetrate those relations and dealings of social life which
involve sharp contest and crossing of wits. These will be illustrated
more fully by-and-by. It is enough here, to allude to the enormous
influence of contests between the sexes on the development of wit and a
lively sense of the ludicrous.

(_e_) As a last group of situations favourable to the experience of
joyous expansion we have those in which an unusual degree of solemnity
is forced upon us. This has already been touched on. Extremes seem to
meet here. It might be expected that an impulse born of the play-mood
would find its natural dwelling-place in scenes of social gaiety and
conviviality. And in the days when society was gay the festive board
was doubtless the focus of the activity of the mirthful spirit. In our
time it seems almost more natural to associate a laugh with a funeral
ceremony than with a dinner-party. Yet the art of extracting fun from
solemn things is not of to-day, as may be seen by a glance at the jokes
of the church architect and the play writer of the Middle Ages. In such
bizarre intrusions of the droll {80} into the domain of the solemn
we seem to find the struggling of an irrepressible gladness of spirit
against the bonds which threaten to strangle it.

Whether the invasion of the territory of the solemn by the jocose
results in a barely mastered impulse to laugh, depends on variable
conditions. The frivolous mind, hardly touched by the gravity of the
occasion, will, no doubt, often be the first to welcome the delivering
hand. Yet it is an error to suppose that a tendency to laugh on a
solemn occasion shows want of genuine emotion. The sincerest worshipper
in a church may, if he have the requisite sensibility, be moved to
laughter by some grotesque incident, such as the _mal à propos_ remark
of a garrulous child. For the point of our theory is that laughter in
such cases is an escape from pressure; and the man who feels deeply at
such a moment may experience an emotional pressure which equals, if it
does not exceed, that of the external constraint which the non-reverent
“worshipper” is experiencing. It is true, of course, that the deeper
the feeling the greater the inertia that will have to be overcome
before the laughing impulse can make way for itself. Yet here, again,
we must remember that emotional temperaments vary, and that with some
a genuine awe and even an intense grief may yield now and again for a
moment to the challenge of the laughable when its note catches the ear.

The last remarks suggest that in any attempt to deal with the
conditions favourable to laughter reference should be made to those
physiological characteristics which are supposed to determine the
particular temperament of a man: his special bent, say, towards jollity
on the one hand, or towards a brooding melancholy on the other.
Our forefathers had pretty definite ideas about the sort of bodily
constitution which was the foundation of the {81} laughter-loving
temper. A full “habit” tending to obesity, as in Falstaff, was, and
is, I believe, popularly supposed to be a mainstay of the laughing
spirit. The saying “Laugh and grow fat” may imply a vague apprehension
of this relation, as well as a recognition of the benefits of laughter.
Yet the precise organic substrate of this happy endowment is unknown.
Health and all that makes for “good spirits” are no doubt favourable
to a voluble laughter of the elemental kind. On the other hand,
as we shall see, the laughing capacity frequently co-exists with
physiological conditions of quite another kind. Men are to be found
of a lean habit, and with a strong bent to grave reflection, who are
nevertheless able, not merely to provoke laughter from others, like the
“melancholy Jaques,” but themselves to contribute a sonorous laughter
to the higher intellectual domains of mirth. It is conceivable that
the disposition to laugh may have its own restricted physiological
conditions in a special instability of the mechanism concerned. This
again may presumably include some as yet undefinable property of the
nerve-centres which favours rapid change in the mode of brain activity,
and those sudden collapses of tension which seem to be the immediate
physiological antecedent of the motor discharge in laughter. {82}



In the preceding chapter we have examined those early and elementary
forms of laughter which arise from the action of such causes as
tickling, the attitude of play, and the sudden uplifting in a feeling
of joy. These do not, it is evident, imply the existence of that
specific faculty which we call the perception of the laughable in
things, or what is commonly spoken of as the sense of the ludicrous.
We have now to inquire into the mode of operation of this more
intellectual cause of laughter, and to connect it, if possible, with
that of the simpler processes of excitation.

The peculiarity in this case is that there is not only an external
excitant, such as tickling fingers, but an object of the laughter. A
tickled child laughs because of the tickling, but not at this as an
object. The same is true of a good deal of the laughter of play: it is
only when play represents something funny, or when the play-illusion is
interrupted by a moment’s critical glance at the poverty of the doll
or other plaything, that it gives rise to a proper enjoyment of the
laughable; and a like remark holds good of the laughter which springs
out of a relief of tension and a sudden transition from grave to gay.
In the laughter of educated men and women we see an intellectual
element, the perception of a laughable quality in an object, and the
justification of the action by a reference to this. The examination
of this intellectual type of laughter will bring {83} us to what is
undoubtedly at once the most interesting and the most difficult problem
in our study.

The objective reference in laughter implied in speaking of the
“laughable” may be illustrated by a glance at the contemptuous laughter
of the victor surveying his prostrate foe. The boy of ten who danced
and screamed and laughed after he had killed his playmate in a street
fight[52] was hardly possessed with what we call a sense of the
comicality of things. The laughter, though directed _at something_,
had not, in the complete sense of the expression, _its object_. The
boy himself would not have laughed at the spectacle at another time,
but viewed it with quite different feelings. And the object would not
have presented itself as laughable to others who chanced to see it. In
other words, the laughter was not caused by a mere contemplation of
an object, but was conditioned by a particular relation between the
laugher and this object.

To say that a thing is laughable, just as to say that a thing is
eatable, implies an element of permanence and of universality. This
is true even when a person says about a spectacle, _e.g._, that of a
drunken man walking, “It is laughable to me,” since he means that for
his experience at least it is a general rule that the sight of such
movements excites laughter. But the word laughable clearly connotes
more than this, a universality which embraces others as well as the
individual. A thing is only rightly so called when it is supposed to be
fitted to provoke men’s laughter in general. Language has been built
up by men living the social life, and interested in common forms of
experience; and the word laughable and all similar words undoubtedly
refer to such common forms. {84}

These common forms of experience may be conceived of narrowly or
widely. Much of what is called laughable by a schoolboy, by a savage,
or even by an educated Englishman, is made to appear so by the special
habits and correlated modes of thought of his community or his class.
This clearly holds good of laughter at strange forms of dress, language
and the like. Its “universality” is thus strictly conditioned. In
dealing with the laughable we shall have constantly to allude to its
relativity to particular customs and expectations. It will be a part of
our problem to disengage from among the common excitants of laughter
what seems to possess a truly universal character.

In speaking of an object of laughter as having universal potency, we
do not imply that it will, as a matter of fact, always excite the
outburst. The expression means only that a man will be ready to laugh
at it, provided that he has certain requisite perceptions with the
correlated emotional susceptibilities, and that nothing interferes with
the working of these. Hence we shall have to speak of the laughable as
answering to a _tendency_ only, and to note the circumstances which are
apt to counteract it. It is obvious, for example, that the limitations
of class-custom, so far as they make laughter relative, will render a
man blind to what is “objectively” laughable in his own customs. In
truth, the adoption of such relative and accidental standards, which
marks all the earlier stages in the growth of intelligence and of
æsthetic sentiment, is the great obstacle to a clear recognition of
what is laughable in a wider and more strictly universal sense.

Again, when we are considering the question of fact, “What do men
really laugh at?” it is important to bear in mind that the tendency
to laugh may, on the one hand, be reinforced by a favourable
psycho-physical condition at the {85} moment, as well as by previously
formed tendencies to apperceive things on their laughable side; while,
on the other hand, it may be checked and wholly counteracted by
unfavourable conditions, such as a sad mood, or an acquired habit of
looking at those aspects of things which excite feelings antagonistic
to laughter. Owing to the action of these forces, we find, not only
that one man may fail to discern the laughable in an object which moves
another to a hearty outburst, but that in many cases in which two men
join in laughing at something they may not be touched by the same
laughable feature or aspect of the presentation. Nothing, indeed, has
more of that appearance of caprice which comes from the influence of
uncertain subjective factors than the laughter of men, even of those
who have a normal sense of the ludicrous.

A word more is needed on the language here used. The terms laughable
and ludicrous may be employed interchangeably up to a certain point
without risk of confusion. At the same time it is well to note that the
second is used in a stricter sense than the first. The term ludicrous
seems to denote particularly what is not only an universal object of
laughter, but an object of that more intellectual kind of laughter
which implies a clear perception of relations. In everyday language we
should speak of incidents and stories, of which the fun is obvious and
broad, as “laughable” rather than as “ludicrous”. Closely connected
with this emphasis on an intellectual element in the meaning of the
term ludicrous, is its tendency to take on an ideal connotation, to
mark off what we deem to be worthy of laughter. Here, as in the case
of other objects of an æsthetic sentiment, there is a half-disguised
reference to the regulative principles of art.

This control by an æsthetic principle or standard is more {86} clearly
indicated in the use of “comic,” a word, by the way, which is used more
freely in some European languages than in our own. A comic spectacle
means, for one who uses language with precision, a presentation which
is choice, which comes up to the requirements of art, and would be
excellent material for comedy.

Our problem may now be defined as an analysis of the objects of our
common perception and imagination which ordinary men tend to laugh at
and to describe as laughable. This inductive inquiry into facts is, as
implied above, a necessary preliminary to a discussion of the nature of
the “ludicrous” or “comic” as an ideal or regulative conception.

In order to find our way with some degree of certainty to the general
characteristics of laughable things, we should do well to take at least
a rapid survey of the objects of men’s laughter as reflected in popular
jests, “_contes pour rire_,” “comic songs” and amusing literature in
general; as also in what may be called the standing dishes in the
repasts of fun served up in the circus and other places where they
laugh. No assemblage of facts of this kind adequate for scientific
purposes has, so far as I know, yet been made;[53] so that it must
suffice here to indicate some of the leading groups of laughable
objects which a brief inspection of the field discloses.

It may be assumed as a matter of common recognition that this field
of laughable objects will lie in the main within the limits of the
spectacle of human life. It is the situations, appearances and thoughts
of men which yield to laughter the larger part of its harvest. At
the same time allusion will be made now and again to provocatives
{87} lying outside these limits, which are certainly found in simple
examples of the laughable.

In attempting to form these groups one must give a warning. It is
implied in what has been said above, that the things we laugh at have
in many cases, perhaps in most, more than one distinguishably amusing
facet. In trying to classify them, therefore, we must be guided by
what seems the most massive and impressive feature; and, as already
suggested, it is not always easy to say what really is the main
determinant of our laughter.

(1) Among the things which are commonly said to be laughable we find
many objects distinguished by _novelty_. A presentation which differs
widely from those of the ordinary type, and so has a stimulating
freshness, may, as we have seen, when agreeable and of sufficient
force, excite to laughter by suddenly relieving the dulness of the
common and oft-repeated, and raising the feeling-tone of the observer
to the level of joyous excitement. The proper effect of a recognised
laughable aspect only appears when experience begins to be organised
and the mind of the spectator to perceive, dimly at least, a certain
contrariety in the new presentation to the usual run of his perceptual
experience, in other words, the aspect of “out-of-the-wayness” or
_oddity_. Much of the laughter of children, and, as we shall see, of
savages, at what is called “funny” illustrates this. A child will laugh
vigorously, for example, on first hearing a new and odd-sounding word,
or on first seeing a donkey roll on his back, a Highlander in his kilt,
his sister’s hair done up in curling-papers, and the like. In some
of these cases, at least, the appreciation of the new object as odd
or singular is aided by the agreeably lively character of the novel
impression. This is true also of the amusing effect of two strikingly
similar faces seen together; for here the look {88} of oddity, which
is explained by the circumstance that our ordinary experience is of
dissimilarity between faces, is supported by the stimulative force of
the likeness itself.

This expansive effect of the new and the odd on our feeling may come
too from the perception of things sub-human. The sight of a crab
walking sideways, of an oddly-marked dog, of an eddy of leaves in
autumn, and so forth will excite laughter in a child.

A glance at the language employed in describing laughable objects
suggests the large scope of the odd. Thus the “whimsical” and the
“fantastic” in the realm of ideas and tastes, the “extravagant” in the
region of sentiment—these and the like seem to refer directly to what
is peculiar, to the point of an amusing remoteness from life’s common

This enjoyable appreciation of the odd is in a particularly obvious
way subject to the condition of relativity. To begin with, the amusing
aspect is determined by, and so strictly relative to the manner of the
hour; so that, as the word “antic” shows, the old-fashioned begins to
take on an amusing aspect as soon as it is so far displaced by a new
custom as to be an out-of-the-way thing.

Again, as already hinted, the odd is always relative to the custom of
a locality or a class. A savage and a civilised man alike are wont to
laugh at much in the appearance and actions of a foreign people; and
this because of its sharp contrast to the customary forms of their

The chief counteractive to be noted here is the impulse to distrust and
fear the new and unfamiliar. A child may often be noticed oscillating
between laughter and fear as some new strange sight bursts upon him.
A savage must feel himself secure before he can freely indulge in
laughter at all the odd belongings and doings of the white man.

(2) A special variety of the singular or exceptional which {89} is
fitted, within certain limits, to excite laughter is _deformity_,
or deviation from the typical form. It is certain that, for the
unsophisticated palate of the child and the savage, bodily deformity is
a large source of mirth. The dwarf, the hunchback, the cripple, the man
with the big nose, and the like have been great entertainers of youth.
The tendency to regard such deviations from type as amusing extends,
as we know, to our perceptions of animals and of plants. A limping
quadruped or a tree with a wen-like excrescence seems to reflect a
human deformity and to share in its laughable aspect. Even a lifeless
object may sometimes entertain us with its appearance of deformity. A
house shored up affects us in the same way as a man on crutches, and
the back view of a rickety tilted cart, as it wobbles down a street,
may gladden the eye much as the sight of a heavy, ill-balanced human
figure attempting to run.

While we may view the laughable aspect of bodily deformity as an
example of the odd or deviation from the common pattern of our
experience, we must not forget that it appeals to the more brutal
element in laughter. All ugly things had in them for the Greek mind
something contemptible or disgraceful. Much of the point of men’s
laughter at deformity lies in a recognition of its demeaning effect
on the person who is its subject. It is a clear manifestation of
the impulse to rejoice in the sight of what is degraded, base, or
contemptible. It is not difficult to detect this note of contemptuous
rejoicing in the derisive laughter of the coarser sort of boy and
savage, the kind of laughter illustrated in Homer’s description of
the merriment of the Achæan chiefs at the sight of the misshapen
Thersites, with his hump, his sugar-loaf head crowned with stubble,
and his persecuting squint.[54] Here we seem to have an unmistakable
ingredient {90} of malignant satisfaction, of rejoicing at another’s
ills (Aristotle’s ἐπιχαιρεκακία).

Roughly speaking, we may say that the laughable force of a deformity
varies with its extent. The droll effect of an enlargement of the nose
or of a reduction of the chin increases, within certain limits at
least, with the amount of the aberration from the normal dimensions.
Yet it would be difficult to establish any exact quantitative relation

Again, all kinds of deformity are not equally provocative of laughter.
In general, perhaps, positive additions or extensions, such as a big
nose or big ears, are more conducive to merriment than reductions and
losses; they seem to seize perception more aggressively. Then there are
varieties of the deformed which probably involve special kinds of droll
suggestiveness. Certain squints and twistings of the human face divine
may move us as expressions of the roguish; a red nose or a shock of
red hair may owe its force to its supposed moral symbolism. Long ears
and other deformities affect us through their undignified reminder of
affinity to a lower animal species. Much, however, in these preferences
of the ruder sort of laughter looks quite capricious, and can only be
set down to habit and imitation.

The impulse to laugh at deformity has a narrower and a wider
counteractive. The first is pity, the second is the feeling of
repugnance at the sight of ugliness.

The inhibition of laughter at deformity by pity and kindly
consideration is one of the marks of a refined nature. Where the
unsightly feature suggests suffering, whether physical or moral, such
consideration may completely counteract the impulse.

Since deformity is a variety of the ugly, and the perception of the
ugly as such repels us, we have as a further counteractive a fine
æsthetic shrinking from what is {91} unsightly. A person endowed with
this repugnance may have his capacity of enjoying the funny aspect
of a deformity completely paralysed. At the other extreme, we have
a readiness to make fun of all bodily defects, even when they are a
revolting spectacle. The area of enjoyment for most men lies between
these extremes, when the displeasing element of the ugly is mitigated,
so that its effect is lost in the stream of hilarity which its drollery
sets flowing.

It may be added that where deformity has been turned into a laughable
quality the impulse to “make fun” has commonly been aided by other
forces, more particularly a sense of relief from fear and a feeling of
retaliation. This is clearly illustrated in the laughter of the people
in the Middle Ages at the devil, the demons and the rest. Perhaps
children’s rather cruel laughter at the hunchback contains an element
of retaliative dislike for a person who is viewed as vicious and

(3) Another group of laughable objects is closely related to the last.
Certain _moral deformities and vices_ have always been a special dish
in the feast of laughter. We have only to think of popular jokes, the
_contes_ of the Middle Ages, and the large branches of literature known
as comedy and satire, to see how eagerly the spirit of mirth has looked
out for this source of gratification.

So far as this laughter directs itself against a vicious disposition,
or deformity of character, such as vanity or cowardice, and not against
a lighter defect of external manners, it seems to involve a perception
of something ugly, like a bodily blemish, and further some appreciation
of its disgraceful or degrading aspect.

It is a view commonly held, and as we shall see supported by the
practices of art, that all vices are not equally fit subjects for
laughter. Some kinds seem to have a specially {92} amusing aspect.
There may be peculiar features in the expression of the vicious
disposition which give it value for the laughing eye. This is obviously
true of drunkenness, for example; and hardly less so of violence of
temper, which has a large and impressive drollness in its display.
Other vices, such as cowardice and miserliness, have something choice
for the eye of laughter in the meanness of their display, the petty,
contemptible practices to which they commonly lead. The supreme place
given to vanity among laughable moral failings seems to be explicable
in part by this consideration. Nothing is more entertaining than the
inflation in carriage and speech which comes from an overweening
conceit. Hypocrisy, again, together with her kinswomen deceit and
lying, seems to have a peculiar value for the mirthful eye by reason
of her disguise, and the elemental joy which mortals young and old
derive from a good peep behind a mask. As a last example we may take a
porcine obstinacy over against the expression of others’ wishes, the
stupidity against which even “the gods contend in vain,” a variety of
the amusing which seems to tickle our sensibilities by presenting to us
the rigidity of the machine in lieu of the reasonably pliant organism
of the man.

This glance at the amusing side of what we call moral deformities
suggests that when we laugh at these we are by no means always at
the moral point of view, looking at actions and traits of character
as immoral. This is seen, first of all, in the fact that, when we
are laughing at what we view as vice, we do not, as some say, always
recognise its littleness and harmlessness, visiting it, so to speak,
with the merely nominal penalty of a laugh. Lying, or a display of
brutal appetite, may be turned into a subject of mirth when the least
reflection would show that it is decidedly {93} harmful. It is seen,
further, in the fact that the laughable in this case extends far beyond
the limits of what we commonly call vices. The excessive humility
of the friend of our youth, Mr. Toots, is hardly less entertaining
a spectacle than excessive vanity. It seems rather to be want of a
certain completeness and proportion of parts in the moral structure
which amuses here. This is yet more clearly illustrated by the fact
that comedy, as we shall see, holds up to a gentle laughter want
of moderation even in qualities which we admire, such as warmth of
feeling, refinement of sentiment, and conscientiousness itself.

Here again we may note that the “laughable” will be relative to
the special experiences and standards adopted by the particular
society. Contrast, for example, the fund of amusement which lies in
the spectacle of drunkenness for a people addicted to, and therefore
tolerant of, deep drinking, with that available for another people
by whom the vice is shunned and judged severely. It is evident,
indeed, that our readiness to be entertained by the look of excess or
disproportion in a character will vary with the idea of the normal
pattern. The old Greek way of scanning character differed, in certain
respects, from that habitual, say in England to-day.

In the case of what are palpable vices we have as counteractive
tendencies, not merely the finer shrinking from the ugly, but the
recoil of the moral sense in the distressed attitude of reprobation.
Hence it may be said that the immoral trait must not be of such volume
and gravity as to call forth the moral sense within us. Here, too,
differences of temperament and habit, and, one may add, of the mood
in which the presentation finds us, will affect the result. It is
amazing to what an extent even reputable citizens are able to enjoy the
presentment of moral failings, when they give {94} themselves up to
the mood which seems to belong to a seat before the comic stage.

(4) We may pass to a group of laughable presentations in which the
feature specially fixated by the observer’s mental eye is some _breach
of order and rule_. Laughable displays of vice involve this element,
of course, but in the cases now to be considered the violence done to
rule is the more conspicuous feature. On the other hand, laughable
violations of rule are closely related to the oddities dealt with
above. The donkey rolling on his back may be said, for the child’s
intelligence, to break the rule of the donkey’s normal behaviour; yet
here the laughableness seems to spring immediately out of the fresh
stimulating character of the novelty of the spectacle. In order that
an action may impress us as disorderly, we must recognise, vaguely at
least, that some custom or rule is disobeyed. The sight of a donkey
stepping on to the pavement of a street, or quietly browsing in a
garden, would amuse as an exhibition of the disorderly. Perhaps we have
the boundary-line between what is merely odd and what is disorderly
illustrated by the bizarre aspect of a boy in a class who deviates
considerably in height from the approximately uniform height of the
rest of the class. It has been pointed out by Dr. Lipps[55] that
even a house in a row may assume an amusing appearance under like
circumstances. Here the general uniformity, immediately presented to
the eye, seems to supply the spectator with the idea of a rule which
the odd-looking individual is violating.[56] Under the present head we
shall keep to examples of the laughable where the breach of rule is
palpable. {95}

To begin with, disorderliness, the upsetting of the usual orderliness
of life, is a great source of laughter to the young and even to many
adults. All the more extravagant forms of jollity or “high spirits” are
wont to pass into the disorderly. This applies not merely to uproar,
but to such “jocose” proceedings as smashing windows, the enjoyment
of which, as Addison reminds us, is by some laid down as the test of

This being so, we might expect that the appearance of the disorderly
would wear an amusing aspect for ordinary men. This is certainly what
we find. The crowd loves the spectacle of lawlessness and misrule
in the harlequinade and elsewhere. The laughter-moving force of the
presentment of a man always in a hurry, or continually changing his
purpose, illustrates this effect of the disorderly. The comic value
of the man in a rage depends too in part on this circumstance. All
appearances of disorder where order is counted on, as in dress, are apt
to provoke a smile of amusement. A squad of soldiers marching out of
time, or out of line, is a recognised stimulus to laughter. Even the
sight of a room turned upside down for a cleaning, or of the confusion
of a dinner-table after a meal, takes on something of this amusing
aspect of the disorderly.

The droll aspect of the disorderly becomes specialised in the breach
of commonly-recognised rules of behaviour. The best marked cases are
offences against the code of good manners, and the rules of correct
speech. Rude behaviour and _gaucheries_, solecisms, provincialisms, and
confusions in the use of language, amuse us as breaches of familiar
rule, though they may no doubt entertain us also as manifestations of a
naïve ignorance.

It is hardly needful to point out that men’s judgments of the laughable
element in breach of rule will be relative. {96} The code of manners
will vary with the community and with the particular class, and will
tend to change with time in the case of the same group. One has only
to think of the variations, from period to period, in the fashionable
modes of accost, of pronouncing words, and so on.

The great force which tends to counteract this direction of laughter is
the respect for order and rule, which has been formed slowly and with
much difficulty, at least in the larger part of a community. It follows
that if men who are supporters of rule are to laugh at a violation of
it, the act of lawlessness must not seem of a gravity sufficient to
offend this respect. This condition will be satisfied if it is manifest
that the upsetting of rule, so far as it is intentional, is not serious
but a sort of make-believe; or that it is confined within the limits
of the harmless, as in the case of the angry man vainly threatening
denunciation against all and sundry; or, again, that the failure to
comply with rule is not intentional but due to ignorance.

(5) We may now pass to a group of presentations where the laughable
feature seems to reside in a situation or condition which is distinctly
undesirable. _Small misfortunes_, especially those which involve
something in the nature of a difficulty or “fix,” are for the ordinary
onlooker apt to wear an amusing aspect. The loss of one’s hat, a fall
due to a slip, or a tilting against another pedestrian, are recognised
instances of the amusing in the spectacle of the streets. Such sights
as Ajax slipping in the foot-race and getting his mouth filled with
dirt (_Iliad_, xxiii., 770–85), John Gilpin on his runaway steed, a
party in a boat left stranded on a sand-bank, the down in the circus
vainly trying to stop a runaway horse by clinging to its tail; these
and other illustrations will readily occur to one familiar with the
ways of laughter. The older popular entertainments, such as the {97}
enjoyment of the performance of grinning through the horse-collar at
the country fair, owed something of their value to this delight in
seeing a man in a fix—if only that of being compelled to make a fool of
oneself—especially when it was due to his lack of foresight.[57] A more
refined sense of the laughable seizes on the many “awkward” situations
of social life, say the unconcealable _gêne_ that overtakes a fine lady
when she makes a meritorious but ill-judged attempt to get into touch
with one of the “lower class”.

It is to be noted that many situations involving not only an irritating
amount of inconvenience but real suffering may excite this kind of
laughter in the vulgar. The spectacle of a cripple dragging his body
along has its amusing aspect, not only for jovial mortals but for
superior beings. Homer represents the Olympian gods as dissolved in
laughter at the sight of the lame blacksmith trying to discharge the
dainty office of the cup-bearer Ganymede. We see the same unfeeling
rejoicing at mishap in the laughter of the savage and of the coarser
product of civilisation at certain forms of punishment, particularly
the administration of a good thrashing to a wife, or to some ugly piece
of mischief, as Thersites. Even “polite society” seems to have a relish
for this form of amusement, if we may judge from the entertainment
which the fashionable crowd on one side of the English Channel
appears to find in scanning the gloomy figures and wan faces of the
passengers as they land after a stormy passage. Here, again, the deep
malignity of man peeps out in a rejoicing at the sight of others’ hurt

Among these mirth-provoking misadventures, situations and incidents
which manifestly involve loss of dignity fill a large space. The
spectacle of a flying hat pursued by its {98} owner owes much of
its “funniness” to the fact that the loss of a symbol of dignity is
involved. Possibly certain bodily deformities, especially a failure of
the nose or of the chin, may derive something of their laughableness
from our perception of the loss of a dignified feature.[58] The
laughter which is wont to greet the sight of a man left with a baby
on his hands illustrates the same effect. The favourite situations in
the lighter popular comedy, as that of the man who is henpecked, and
who is subject to a mother-in-law, amuse so much because of the deep
descent of the “head” of the house which they involve. The stimulating
force of this kind of presentation is the greater where the undignified
situation overtakes one who is holding at the time an exalted position,
as when a preacher in the pulpit is caught stumbling on too homely
an expression, or a judge on the bench giving way to an oppressive

As in the other instances, we have here to note the limitations
introduced by the variable nature and circumstances of the spectator.
Misfortune, the suffering of indignity, clearly appeals to a kind
of feeling quite dissimilar to that of mirth. Where pity is strong
and alert much of the laughter at mischances, at difficulties, and
so forth, is restrained. On the other hand, this pity for men in
misadventure comes of knowledge and of insight; and where experience
and training have not given these, the restraining influence on
laughter will be wanting. Hence the familiar fact that youngsters,
though not less capable of pity than their elders, will laugh at
sights, such as the old lady slipping and falling, which touch the
heart of those who know what they really mean.

(6) We may now touch on a group of laughable objects {99} which has
a close kinship with more than one of the groups already illustrated,
though it stands apart by right of well-marked peculiarities. I
refer to laughter at _the indecent_ or obscene, whether in actual
presentation or in suggestion.

Any serious attempt to illustrate the variety of the sources of men’s
ordinary laughter must, I think, find a place for this group. Among
men, and one may add the gods, the uncovering of that which decency
insists on hiding is a powerful provocative of laughter. In their more
direct and potent workings indecent presentations appeal to the loud
mirthfulness of the coarse mind, to the _gros rire_ of the man tossing
the _gros sel_, as Mr. Meredith has it. They bulk among the jocosities
of savage tribes—or at least many of these—and of the less refined
among civilised societies. Culture is a great restraining influence
here. Yet it would be an error to suppose that educated men who are
also of the laughter-loving are destitute of this sensibility. The
impulse to greet merrily an allusion to the indecent, when it comes
unexpectedly, taking us off our guard, so to speak, and when it is
neither too pronounced nor enlarged upon, is, I believe, universal
among men who laugh.

The laughter at a suggestion of what not only civilised but even
savage society seeks to veil from view would seem to be most naturally
regarded as a case of the improper, or breach of accepted rule. To make
reference to these matters is to break through a well-understood social
convention. This breach, moreover, carries with it a plump descent into
the depths of the undignified; for since society has willed to throw
the veil here any attempt to uplift it implies something shameful. The
disgrace falls on the person who is the subject of the allusion—in
all cases where there is a definable person concerned. In others,
where {100} the allusion is directed to a common “infirmity” of human
nature, the indignity done is, of course, more widespread. Not only so,
we feel on hearing such an allusion that there is a lapse of dignity
all round in speaker and hearers alike. The blush of the refined hearer
attests this feeling of shame.

Yet to describe the effect here as due to breach of rule and lapse of
dignity is certainly not to give a full account of the _modus operandi_
of this variety of the laughable. If to speak of these things is
forbidden and branded as an offence to good taste, on the other hand
that which is alluded to is a real and an inseparable part of our
nature. The enjoyment of these allusions may accordingly be viewed
under another aspect as a rejection of the artificial in favour of
simple unadorned nature. The casting aside for the moment of the decent
veil and the facing of what is customarily hidden away seems, indeed,
to be attended by a distinct feeling of liberation from restraint and
of joyous expansion. Hence, probably, the fact noted by historians
of mediæval manners that the coarseness of the jocosity appeared
to increase with the magnitude of the feast. The mood of exuberant
hilarity favours the slackening of all artificial restrictions. The
same consideration may, perhaps, explain the hold which coarse jokes,
if only they have just the right quantum of salt, maintain on the
humorous palate of the strong and virile among men of intellect.

In this brief account of the mirthful aspect of the indecent I have
confined myself to what discloses itself to consciousness in the
moderate forms of laughter, common among civilised men who practise
a certain self-restraint. Yet we know that the outbursts which are
provoked, in coarser men at least, by the uncovering of sexual matters
have a deeper {101} source in the obscure parts of our animal
organisation. Our sources of knowledge with respect to the condition
of men when they are seized with the sexual orgasm, including the
testimony of mythology, suggest that laughter here assumes the function
of voicing a state of riotous self-glorification of the animal part of
our nature, when fully released for a moment; and, further, that here,
as in some forms of nervous laughter, it has an organic connection with
a condition of emotional paroxysm.

It is hardly necessary to point out that relativity has a large empire
in this branch of the laughable. A man’s idea of what is obscene
will be relative to the standards of his society, which may vary
considerably. The Englishman living abroad is apt to be impressed by
the fact that men and women, otherwise as refined as his own people,
hesitate less to call a spade a spade and to allude in conversation
to subjects which are tabu at home. Similarly, the modern reader of
Shakespeare may be shocked by the freedom of speech of the cultivated
women of another age.

Further, as implied above, the readiness to laugh here will be modified
profoundly by refinement of feeling. If it is true that all men are
capable of enjoying an allusion to the indecent, provided that it is
delicately executed, it is no less true that only coarse-minded men
are able to drink frequently or deeply at this rather muddy spring of

(7) Another group of laughable presentations has a certain analogy with
the last. Popular mirth has made a {102} prominent target of men’s
_pretences_. To peep behind the mask and seize the make-believe is a
sure means of providing ourselves with laughter. So large, indeed, is
the part of affectation and disguise in social life, that not only the
ruder popular art, but comedy has made them one chief source of its
entertainment. The flavour of the laughter varies greatly according to
the moral complexion of the pretence. Seeing through the transparent
make-believe of the child sets us laughing in one key; the detection
of the half-unconscious humbug, in another; and that of the artful
impostor, in yet another.

That the appreciation of this embodiment of the laughable is relative,
may not be at once evident. Yet a glance at the numerous little
hypocrisies not only allowed, but even exacted by polite society,
will suffice to show how the standard may vary. The dulling influence
of use is exceptionally apparent here. The shams of life cease to
amuse us—save a very few—when they are numerous and ubiquitous. The
Englishman who laughs at the little pretences of society abroad, may
be quite incapable of discerning the amusing side of quite similar
simulations and dissimulations in the ways of his own society.

Here, too, as in the case of moral blemishes generally, the impulse
will be restrained by the tendency to judge seriously, and by the
higher degrees of moral sensitiveness. Men of easy morals will laugh
cynically, perhaps, at forms of imposture which would shock those of a
finer moral texture.

(8) We may now pass to a species of the laughable which has a more
markedly intellectual character. Among the exhibitions of human quality
none appears to have had its ludicrous mark more widely recognised
than that of _want of knowledge or of skill_. Here, again, our friend,
the clown {103} of the circus, comes to our aid. The spectacle of
his futile attempts to imitate the exploits of the skilled horseman
and other experts stirs the risibility of the multitude to one of its
_fortissimo_ outbursts. Ignorance of locality, especially when it
lands a traveller in a mess, is a common source of merriment to the
rustic onlooker. Children, savages, and all simple folk delight in
such exhibitions of ignorance and incompetence. The more restrained
amusement of “society” at the want of _savoir faire_ in the uninitiated
shows that this enjoyment of the spectacle of ignorance by the
well-informed is widespread. The value of the spectacle is evinced
by the fact that when in argument a man desires to win the laugh of
onlookers to his side, he will do his best to show up a laughable
degree of ignorance in his fellow-disputant. The presence of the expert
in a gathering of bucolics is a situation pregnant with possibilities
of mirthful enjoyment. Let the delightful discussions of Mr. Hardy’s
Wessex folk suffice as illustration.

These amusing uncoverings of ignorance and inability are a spicy
ingredient in the mutual quizzings of men belonging to distinct peoples
or classes, such as the savage and the white man, the sailor and the
landsman. This will be illustrated later on.

In these cases the spectator may not count on the possession by
others of knowledge or skill. The man who laughs has at most a vague
expectation that outsiders should be equal to those of his own set. The
laugh at ignorance and incompetence takes on another and more ironical
ring when knowledge and competence are reasonably to be expected, as
for example when an official shows a striking incompetence for the
duties of his office.

The spectacle of human ignorance grows particularly entertaining when
it has to do with matters supposed to be {104} of common knowledge.
M. Bergson gives us an example in the observation of a disappointed
traveller on hearing that there was an extinct volcano in the
neighbourhood: “They had a volcano and allowed it to go out”.[60] It
is this element of ignorance of what is generally known which, in
part, gives the amusing aspect to many breaches of rule, particularly
those of language. So firm is our assumption that everybody, even the
foreigner, ought to be able to speak our language that we cannot hear
a gross mispronunciation or misapprehension of meaning without feeling
it to be naïve. Shakespeare in the same play makes us laugh at the bad
English of Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh Evans. Of course the fun is greater
if the foreigner stumbles unwittingly into an observation which tells
against himself; as when a German visitor to London, being asked how
his wife was, answered, “She is generally lying, and when she is not
lying she is swindling,” meaning to say “lying down” and “feeling
giddy” (“hat Schwindel”).

The ludicrous side of the paradoxical, of what is violently opposed to
common-sense—a matter to be dealt with more fully presently—illustrates
the effect of intellectual naïveté. All exaggeration in description and
other extravagance of statement are laughed at, in part at least, as
showing ignorance of what is credible. On the other hand, insistence on
the well known and the obvious, especially when it is accompanied by
a laboured argument, amuses us by ignoring the circumstance that the
hearer or reader is already quite familiar with the matter.

A delightful exhibition of the naïve intelligence is given by a
gross misapprehension of what is happening or of what is being said
at the moment. The Londoner may delight his country listener with
his misunderstandings of {105} what to the latter seems perfectly
self-explanatory. The tickling force of such misapprehension is
heightened when it involves an idea which is the very reverse of the
truth. The good story of the Yorkshire juryman who remarked that
“Lawyer Scarlet gets all the easy cases” turns on the delicious
inversion of causal relations. When travelling once in a train I heard
a mother say to her little girl, who had been complaining of the heat,
“The more you think of it the worse it will be”; upon which the child
remarked in a drily humorous tone, “I should say the worse it is the
more I shall think of it”. The mother’s remark had probably seemed an
inversion of the true relation.

Other examples of what we call naïveté come, in part at least,
under this head. The want of tact, the bringing in of that which
has no relevance to the circumstances or the ideas of the moment,
is an excitant of laughter for men of all levels of culture. The
inappropriate ways in which the kindly savage or child tries to
minister to his visitor’s comfort are a pretty example of such
simplicity. Irrelevances in conversation and discussion, such as _mal à
propos_, mistakings of the issue, unfortunate suggestions of reasons,
and the like, are among the recognised tributaries of the river of
laughter. These irrelevances make a large contribution to the lighter
enjoyment of social intercourse. An irrelevance having a peculiarly
broad effect is a response to a question which wholly misses its point,
as when one reads of a man on a descending balloon who asked a yokel,
“Where am I?” and received for answer only the absurdly obvious, “In a

Children’s naïveté—a mine of wealth to the discerning seeker after the
laughable—illustrates this tickling property of a perfect simplicity
of intelligence, and of those {106} irrelevances of behaviour and
of utterance which by their mighty compass seize and occupy for the
instant the field of contemplative vision. One of its most valuable
manifestations is the habit of quietly substituting the child’s point
of view for the adult’s. A large number of the “funny remarks” of
children illustrate this. Here is an example. An improver of occasions
asked a child who had seduced her grandfather into a rather alarming
romp, “Isn’t grandpapa very kind to play with you, dear?” and received
the sharp correction, “I’m playing with _him_”.

A bare reference may be made to other illustrations of the intellectual
simplicity which entertains the mirthful eye. The effect of prejudice
and passion in narrowing the mental outlook and setting up erroneous
views of things is a favourite subject of comic treatment. As we shall
see, the spectacle gains a higher value when the degraded intelligence
approaches that of the disordered, and the amusing person, wholly
preoccupied with his illusions, utters a string of remarks so widely
irrelevant to the actual circumstances of the moment as to upset the
gravity even of a serious spectator.

The limiting influence of relativity in the appreciation of this branch
of the amusing has been pretty plainly illustrated in what has been
said. The lack of skill or of knowledge which excites our merriment
is the lack of that which is a familiar possession of our set, which
accordingly we, at least, tend to look for in others. Hence, the man
of society is amused at your not knowing one kind of thing, say, the
history of the British Peerage, the bucolic at your ignorance of
another, say, the ways of calves, and so forth. The simplicity of a
child’s mind only impresses us in relation to our own grown-up and
complex ways of thinking. Even the absurdities of paradox are relative,
for what we are {107} pleased to regard as the stable, unalterable
body of common-sense is, in reality, subject to change.

(9) We will now touch on a group of facts on which writers on the
ludicrous are accustomed to lay stress. The spectacle of a child
wearing a man’s hat, fully considered above, shows us the laughable
directly and unmistakably as a juxtaposition of two foreign elements,
the semblance of a whole made up of incongruous parts. Here we see
the sense of fun fixing its eye on _relations_. It is recognised by
all that the perception of certain relations, more particularly the
unfitting, the disproportionate, the incongruous and the logically
inconsistent, plays a large part in calling forth the more refined sort
of laughter.

In dealing with this laughable aspect of relations we must draw a
distinction. When a person laughs, say, at the imbecile movements of
a skater as he tries to save himself from a fall, or at an outrageous
costume, or at the fantastic language of some _précieuse_, he may
be aware of half-perceiving a relation; such as want of fitness,
extravagant departure from the normal. He knows, however, that his
mental eye is not focussed for this relation; on the contrary, he feels
as if the presentation in itself, by giving the required jerk to his
apperceptive tendencies, were directly provocative of mirth.

On the other hand, he will, I believe, hold that there are cases where
the enjoyment of the laughable depends on the mental eye directing
itself to a relation. The relation may not be apprehended in a
perfectly precise way; but the point is that it is mentally seized,
if only for the fraction of a second; and, further, that a degree of
definiteness is given to the apprehension of the relation by a glimpse,
at least, of the related terms.

This localising of the laughable in a relation is most {108} evident
in the case of those complex presentations where lack of harmony and
of mutual fitness—what we call incongruity—appear in the several
parts of the whole which are present to the eye, and forces itself
on the attention in a thoroughly aggressive fashion. A country woman
displaying in her dress or in her speech a bizarre mixture of the
peasant and the fine lady, a proposal to climb a mountain in dainty
high-heeled shoes, the couching of a vote of thanks in language far
below or above the needs of the occasion, these pull at the muscles of
laughter because they strike us as a forcing together of things which
hurtle and refuse to consort. The same holds true of cases in which
the incongruity lies between one presentation and another which has
preceded and is still present to the imagination, as in the clown’s
utter failure to reproduce the model action of the expert which he sets
out to equal.

Even in cases where the laughable incongruity holds between things
both of which are not present at the same or nearly the same
moment, a direct glancing at the relation, involving at least a dim
representation of the absent member of the related twain, may be
requisite for a full enjoyment. It is probable, for example, that
Homer’s gods, when they laughed uproariously at the sight of the grimy
and lame Vulcan essaying the part of Ganymede, mentally recalled the
image of the latter and carried out a comparison between the two.
Similarly in many of our nicer judgments of the amusingly excessive in
dress, speech and so forth, we may, as suggested above, envisage the
relation to a standard of measure in this direct way.[61]

It may, no doubt, be a question whether the relation made “focal”
in consciousness in such cases lies between two parts of a complex
presentation, or between the {109} presentation as a whole and a
represented standard arrangement. When, for example, we laugh at the
intrusion of a too lively gesture into the pulpit, do we mentally
fixate the incongruity between the situation and the action, or
mentally go back to the idea of the customary and suitable kind and
amount of gesture, and view the present performance as disagreeing with
these? This point may be reserved for later consideration.

The view that in the cases just illustrated we have to do with another
variety of laughter, that of the mind or intelligence, is confirmed by
the reflection that much of it is excluded from the popular category.
The masses can enjoy a palpable contradiction between profession
and performance—witness the enjoyment afforded to the populace of
the Middle Ages by the spectacle of the moral inconsistencies of
the monks.[62] But when it comes to the appreciation of inherent
inconsistencies within the character, such as want of stability of
purpose, fickleness in the affections and so forth, the need of
a certain acuteness in perceiving relations, and of quickness in
mentally reinstating what is not present, may greatly restrict the
area of the enjoyment. Gross and palpable inconsistencies, such as
those represented in the delightful monologue _L’Indécis_, with which
M. Coquelin (aîné) rejoices us, are accessible to popular laughter,
but most of the self-contradictions with which a Molière, a George
Eliot, or a George Meredith refreshes our spirits are “caviare to the
general”. Much the same is true of the laughter which gladdens the
measuring eye when it lights on the unmeasured, the excessive, the
disproportionate. {110}

One subdivision of this domain of the laughable is the logically
incongruous or _the absurd_. Here, again, we touch on a region into a
large part of which culture must give the key of admission. An example
of such a laughable absurdity is found in that which conflicts with our
deepest and most unalterable convictions. What is logically far-fetched
or paradoxical is a familiar provocative of mirth. Since this case,
like that of laughing at an extravagant costume, does not imply a
direct and clear perception of relation, but only a kind of harmless
shock to our firmly rooted apperceptive tendencies, we may expect to
find illustrations of it low down in the scale of intelligence. As we
shall see later, children will be moved to mirth by the presentation
of an idea that directly conflicts with their crude standards of
the possible; and savages show the same impulse to laugh at what is
manifestly opposed to their fixed traditional standards of truth. So
it is with suggestions and proposals which strike the more mature
intelligence as paradoxical, that is to say, as a kind of assault on
its deeply fixed habits of belief, and what it is pleased to call
its “common-sense”. Ideas which strike it as revolutionary, whether
they appear in the domain of social custom, of political activity,
of morals, or of scientific explanation, are greeted by voluminous
laughter. Darwin’s idea of man’s descent from an ape-like ancestor,
when first introduced, probably excited almost as much hilarity as

More restricted is the area for amusement supplied by logical
inconsistencies. The spying out of amusing inconsequences in a man’s
various utterances is the work of an expert. A contradiction must be
very palpable, and the contradictory statements must be very near to
one another in time, in order that food for laughter may reach the
many. The best example of this laughter at contradiction in popular
{111} mirth is, I suppose, the “bull,” where the incompatibility
stares out at you from a single statement, and sets your sides shaking;
as in the argument, attributed to an Irish statesman, that, in the
prosecution of a certain war, “every man ought to be ready to give his
last guinea to protect the remainder”.[63]

One might naturally suppose that in the appreciation of these more
intellectual forms of the laughable there would be no room for the
restraining action of relativity. An incongruous relation would seem
to be one and the same object for all men’s intuitions, and the least
affected by accidents of temperament and external circumstances. Yet
this supposition is not quite correct. Such incongruities as moral and
logical inconsistencies have, it must be remembered, their disagreeable
and even their painful aspect. When discovered in the character or
in the intellect of a person known to be of a high consistency, a
contradiction would naturally offend the admiring spectator. Here, too,
then, we have to add the qualification, “provided that there is nothing
disagreeable and repellant in the manifestation”. Not only so, with
respect to much that is popularly called paradox it is to be remembered
that the standard of truth employed is far from being that of the
eternal verities. As the allusion to the ridicule poured on Darwin’s
theory of natural selection shows, what one generation laughs at as
plainly contradictory to fundamental notions may be quietly recognised
as a familiar truth by its successor.

(10) A group of laughable presentations making large appeal to the
more intellectual kind of laughter meets us in {112} _verbal play and
amusing witticism_. A closer examination of the nature of wit will come

What seems most manifestly characteristic of verbal forms of the
“funny” is the intrusion of the playful impulse. Children’s word-play
shows this clearly enough. New words are for them sounds to be reduced
to familiar ones, and the funnier the results of this reduction the
better are they pleased. This leads by a step to punning, where quite
intelligible words or phrases are purposely altered so as to bring in
a new meaning; or where without any verbal alteration the substitution
of a new meaning for the primary and obvious one effects the required
change. The playful impulse to get as far away as possible from
rule and restriction, to turn things topsy-turvy, to seize on the
extravagant and wildly capricious, is clearly enough recognisable here.
Much of this word-play, too, has a close kinship with make-believe; a
natural and obvious meaning is the pretence in this case, whereas the
reality is the half-hidden meaning introduced by the inventive wag. All
the same it seems to me that this group of laughable objects has its
place close to that of the incongruous and absurd. A pun that claims
any intellectual rank must have a point, a bite, and this would appear
to be most naturally secured by introducing an element of irony and
rendering the primary and obvious meaning of the sentence ludicrously
false. When, for example, a preacher whose ponderous dulness had set
his congregation genteelly scuttling was said to have delivered “a very
_moving_ discourse,” the point of the witty thrust lay in the complete
opposition between the best and the worst result of eloquence brought
together in the two meanings of “moving,” an opposition which gives the
trenchant irony to the description.

In cases, too, where there is no verbal trickery the lighter {113}
kind of wit shows the same tendency to a playful capriciousness
of fancy. It delights in substituting for our ordinary points of
view and standards of reference others which strike the hearer as
amusingly fanciful and extravagant. This is illustrated by much of our
entertaining talk, which is wont to try to escape for a moment from the
leading-strings of sober sense; as when a person _à propos_ of a moon
looking wan and faint some hours after an eclipse observed that she
seemed not yet to have got over the effects of the eclipse.

In this department of contemplative amusement we see once more the
limitations introduced by differences of temperament and mental
attitude, as well as of experience and knowledge. Nowhere, perhaps, is
the habitual inclination of the balance between seriousness and love of
fun in a man more clearly indicated than in his readiness to tolerate
and enjoy word-play and the entertaining side of nonsense generally.
One to whom words and serious points of view are sacred things, will
barely suffer any form of this recreation. On the other hand a ready
appreciation of these pranks of wit means that the listener’s fancy
has the requisite speed of wing. It means, too, commonly, that his
intelligence is in touch with the wit’s standpoint, with his experience
and circle of ideas. Bucolic wit is a sealed book to the superior
gentleman from the town; the merry verbal sports of the judge, the
statesman, the theologian and so forth, reflecting like their dreams
daily types of experience and habits of thought, are apt to fall flat
on the ears of those who are not in touch with these.

The above may, perhaps, serve as a sufficiently full enumeration of
the more prominent of those attributes or aspects of laughable things
which, some in some cases, others in others, make direct appeal to our
mirth. {114}

That each of these may of itself thus start the currents of laughter
will, I believe, be admitted by those who are familiar with the field
of human mirth. There is, I hold, ample evidence to show that what is
embarrassing, what is contrary to rule, what is demeaning, what is
unreal and pretentious, and the rest, do each, under certain limiting
conditions, move men’s laughter.

It is, no doubt, difficult to supply a perfect demonstration of the
fact of the intrinsic laughableness of each of these features. It has
already been pointed out that in many of the most agreeable instances
of the laughable different stimuli combine their forces. This is
so much the case that it is sometimes difficult to decide which of
the co-operating attributes is the most prominent. For example, the
spectacle of the lackey donning the externals of a fine gentleman—a
favourite subject of mirthful treatment by Molière and others—may amuse
us as a transparent pretence, as a fine display of insolent vanity,
or, again, as an amusing caricature of the extravagant absurdities of
fine manners. Extravagance in dress and the like is frequently found in
the company of a deliciously erroneous idea of one’s own importance.
Intellectual naïveté may peep out at us and a moral naïveté look over
its shoulder, as in the remark of a lady whom the astronomer Cassini
had invited to see an eclipse, when she found that she had arrived
too late: “M. de Cassini will be good enough to begin again for my
sake”.[64] As I have remarked, the unfitting is in a large number
of cases an introduction of something unworthy; as when a man at a
dinner-party almost suggests something of an animal violence in his
mode of eating, or an orator resorts to a “wooden” manner of speech
or gesture, or when an unhappy simile hurls {115} the hearer into
the lowest region of the commonplace, a proceeding satirised in the
well-known lines from Butler’s _Hudibras_:—

    And like a lobster boil’d, the morn
    From black to red began to turn.

As a last example of the many-sidedness of the laughable we may name
affectation, particularly when it takes the form of aping another’s
manners; for this may amuse us as a bit of acting seen through, or
as an incongruous intrusion of a foreign element into the natural
character of the imitator, or, again, as a weakness, a lack of
intellectual or of moral initiative.

Nevertheless, the appearance of cross-division in our scheme is really
no objection to it. By collecting a sufficient number of instances,
and noting how the presentation of a certain feature affects us when
it is plainly the preponderant stimulus, and how it will continue to
affect us in much the same way when its concomitants vary, we may
satisfy ourselves that each of the aspects here named is effective as
a provocative of laughter. It will be for experimental psychology, if
ever its methods are competent to grapple with the subject, to make
this clearer.

There is another objection, which, though related to the last, is to
be carefully distinguished from it. Even in cases where the laughable
feature is clearly localised there may seem something arbitrary in our
mode of describing it. For example, it may be said, why distinguish
the relation of the unfit and kindred relations as a special group,
since in all cases they may be regarded as products and expressions of
a defective intelligence or taste? To raise this difficulty now is,
however, to anticipate our theoretical problem, how far these several
varieties of laughable feature lend themselves to reduction to a {116}
common principle. In naming each of the above groups I have sought to
envisage the laughable aspect as the natural man, innocent of theoretic
aims, would envisage it.

What is important here is to emphasise both the frequent combination of
entertaining features in the objects which excite our laughter, and the
fact that one and the same feature may be envisaged in more than one
way. These two circumstances throw an interesting light on the meaning
of the long discussions and the want of agreement among theorists.

In drawing up this list of the laughable features in things I have said
nothing about the connection between this part of the inquiry and that
which preceded it. Yet the connection has not been wholly hidden. In
the entertaining effect of new things we have found an element of the
laughter which springs from a sudden expansion of joy. In the laughter
excited by the indecent we have noted a trace of the laughter of
“sudden glory” and of what I have called nervous laughter. Lastly, in
dealing with the entertaining quality of the more sportive wit we seem
to have got near the laughter of play.

This connection would appear the more clearly if we were to extend our
list by adding a pair of groups. These are (11) laughable objects which
affect us as expressions of a merry mood; and (12) laughable situations
which involve a relation akin to that of victor and vanquished. A word
or two on each of these must suffice.

(11) There is little doubt that all presentations which are instantly
interpreted as manifestations of a fun-loving disposition tend to
excite merriment. This is true of series of sounds, musical as well as
non-musical, which have in their rapid staccato movement a resemblance
to those of laughter. It holds good also of play-like movements, such
as the {117} freakish gambols of a just loosened pony, or of a circus
clown. The expression of the mirthful temper in things awakens a
sympathetic laughter in the observer. Here, perhaps it would seem to
be more correct to say that we laugh not _at_ or _over_, but, if one
may so say, _to_ the playful freak. Nevertheless, we shall find that
what we recognise as objectively laughable cannot be understood save by
reference to these appearances of playful challenge.

(12) That the sight of a man winning in a struggle or getting the
better of another in some way is fitted to furnish amusement, is
indisputable. This obviously falls in part under the head of laughter
at the spectacle of another’s difficulty or scrape; but it certainly
deserves a separate place in an enumeration of the larger and popularly
distinguished sources of merriment.

There is no need to emphasise the fact that the social spectacle owes
much of its interest to combat, competition, all that is understood
by men’s measuring their powers one against the other. The amusing
side of this interest is found in the gleeful satisfaction which the
impartial spectator derives from each successful stroke, whether on the
one side or on the other. The attraction of all encounters of wit in
the market-place, in the political domain, on the stage and so forth,
illustrates this. Popular literature will show that the plain man has
fed his mirth bounteously from this source.

The situations which minister to this feeling of “sudden glory” in
an onlooker are not confined to those of contest. All displays of a
capacity to get the better of another seem to be entertaining to the
many. Just as the sight of a man chastising his wife is good sport for
the savage onlooker, so the spectacle of taking down, of discomfiture
and humiliation—especially if it involves an element of deception or
{118} befooling, and so takes on the look of outwitting—may yield
excellent fun to the civilised spectator.

A more refined variety of the perception of the laughable occurs when
we look on Nature or fate as discomfiting man, playing tricks on him
or outwitting him. So far as this idea of irony comes into our view of
things, any misfortune, especially if it involves disappointment of
hopes and frustration of efforts, may excite a note of laughter which
has an “over-tone” of triumphant mockery.

The enjoyment of the spectacle of one man triumphing over another or
showing superiority to him will in all cases be limited by conditions
already sufficiently indicated. Since the laughter excited here is,
presumably, in its characteristic ingredient a reflection by way
of sympathetic imagination of the victors sudden glory, it must be
included in the more brutal variety. If a lively sensibility produces
quickly enough a sympathetic apprehension of the feelings of the
vanquished, it will effectually check the impulse to laugh.

Finally, a bare allusion may be made to the way in which the laughter
of relief from emotional or other strain comes into our appreciation of
the laughable in things. The amusing aspect of all lapses from dignity
in religious and other ceremonies cannot, I believe, be understood
merely as an illustration of an inconsequence and irrelevance, but
must be connected with the powerful tendency to throw off a heavy and
depressing mental load by a moment’s mirth. The laughter at what is
lawless, and still more at the indecent and the profane, certainly
derives a part of its gusto from a sense of relief from restraint,
which is a main ingredient in the enjoyment of all license. But the
fuller discussion of the way in which the primal sources of laughter
contribute to the impressions we receive from laughable objects belongs
to another chapter.




Our survey of laughable things has led us to recognise certain groups
which appear to induce the laughing mood: each presenting its special
variety of laughable feature. One group may be said, _primâ facie_,
to exhibit mischances, another some form of human defect, another,
again, something of the misfitting or incongruous, and so forth. We may
now advance to the theoretic problem of unifying and explaining these
varieties of the laughable.

Here, for the second time, we must touch on the views propounded by
authorities on the subject under the name of Theories of the Ludicrous.
Happily, it is not necessary to burden the reader with a full account
of these. We shall of course pass by all doctrines deduced from _a
priori_ metaphysical conceptions, and confine ourselves to those which
make a show, at least, of grounding themselves on an analysis of facts.
Of these I shall select two or three typical theories which come to us
with the claims of distinguished authorship. We shall test these by
examining how far they succeed in comprehending the diversity of fact
now before us.

1. The first of these typical theories localises the secret force
of the laughable in something unworthy or degraded in the object.
According to this view, the function of laughter is to accompany and
give voice to what may be called the derogatory impulse in man, his
tendency to look {120} out for and to rejoice over what is mean
and undignified. This may be called the Moral Theory, or Theory of

Aristotle’s brief remarks on comedy in the _Poetics_ may be taken
as illustrative of this way of envisaging the laughable. Comedy, he
tells us, is “an imitation of characters of a lower type—not, however,
in the full sense of the word bad”; and, again, the Ludicrous (τὸ
γελοῖον) is a subdivision of the ugly (τοῦ αἰσχροῦ), and consists in
“some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive”.[65] Of
an adequate theory of the subject there is here, of course, hardly
a pretence. It seems strange, indeed, that a great thinker with the
works of his compatriot Aristophanes before him should have placed the
ludicrous wholly in character, altogether overlooking the comic value
of situation. Still, the reference of the laughable to the category of
ugly and disgraceful things—for τὸ αἰσχρὸν on its moral side connotes
the disgraceful (compare the Latin “turpe”)—may be said to imply a germ
of the principle of degradation.

A more careful attempt to construct a theory of the ludicrous by a
reference to something low or degraded in the object is embodied in
the famous doctrine of Thomas Hobbes. According to this writer, “the
passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from
sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the
inferiority of others, or with our own formerly”. In this theory our
laughter is viewed as arising, not immediately from a perception of
something low or undignified, but only mediately from this perception,
through a recognition of our own superiority and an accompanying
emotional movement, namely, an expansion of the “self-feeling,” a
sudden quickening of the sentiment of pride or power. Nevertheless, the
{121} theory may be said to come under the principle of degradation,
in so far as it makes the process of laughter start with a perception
of some point of inferiority, that is to say of a comparative loss of
dignity, in the laughable object.

The main point of this theory, that whenever we enjoy the ludicrous we
are consciously realising our superiority to another, will, I think,
hardly bear examination. That in this enjoyment there may be, and
often is, an element of this agreeable sense of elevation I readily
allow, and I shall try to show presently how it gets there. But it is
altogether inadequate as an exhaustive account of the several varieties
of our laughing satisfaction. Even in the groups of cases to which it
seems to be most plainly applicable, for example, those of mischances
and awkward situations, it is not a sufficient explanation. Is there
any discoverable trace of the uplifting of pride, of the temper of
“Schadenfreude”—the malicious satisfaction of watching from the safe
shore the tossings of mariners in a storm—in the instantaneous response
of our mirth to the spectacle of the skater’s wild movements when for
a moment he loses equilibrium, or of the hat wind-driven far from its
proper seat on the respectable citizen’s head? Is there time here for
mentally bringing in the contrasting idea of our own immunity? Has the
laugh the characteristic taste of the outburst of contempt which is
excited by the consciousness of victory, of taking somebody down?

In dealing with this type of theory, it seems only fair to test it in
the more mature form given it by a recent writer. Prof. Alexander Bain
defines “the occasion of the ludicrous” as “the degradation of some
person or interest possessing dignity in circumstances that excite no
other strong emotion”. The most marked improvements here on Hobbes’
statement are (1) that consciousness of our own superiority {122}
need not come in, since we may laugh sympathetically with another who
scores off his adversary, and so forth; (2) that the object degraded
need not be a person, since human affairs in general, _e.g._, political
institutions, a code of manners, a style of poetic composition, may be
taken down; and (3) that, as in Aristotle’s theory, certain limiting
conditions, namely, absence of counteracting emotions, such as pity
or disgust, are recognised. These extensions on the one hand and
limitations on the other are clearly meant to safeguard the Hobbesian
principle against the attacks to which it so dangerously exposes

Even in this new and more guarded form, however, the theory will not
bear the strain put upon it. It will account fairly well for some of
the forms of the laughable in our list, such as slight misfortunes or
mischances, defects, moral and intellectual, which do not shock or
otherwise hurt our feelings, also certain forms of make-believe which
are distinctly hypocritical and so capable of being regarded at once
as moral defects, and (being seen through) as discomfitures. It _may_
apply also, as has been hinted above, to the effect of the obscene;
though I, at least, feel that without some forcing the effect cannot be
interpreted in this way. There seems to me to lurk in our laughter here
something of the joy of the child, of the Naturkind, Walt Whitman, at
the sight of what is customarily hidden away.[67]

Leaving this, however, as a more doubtful case, let us turn to
other groups. Is it possible to regard all laughable exhibitions of
incongruities as degradations? Is the {123} charming unsuitability
of the “grown-up’s” coat and hat to the childish form viewed by the
laughing spectator as a degradation when he “lets himself go”? Are we
laughing at the clothes as degraded by being thus transformed, or at
the child’s naïveté as a degradation of human intelligence? I confess
that such a way of interpreting the spectacle strikes me as grotesquely
forced. The look of the whole thing in the complete unfitness of its
parts seems to affect one as a delicious absurdity before the sweet
simplicity below the surface is detected.

Our author does his best to show that mere incongruity, where nothing
is degraded, does not raise the laugh. I readily grant that he has
made out his case, so far as to show that in most of the pungent and
potently moving examples of the incongruous an element of degradation,
of malicious detraction is present. But this is not enough. The
question is whether it is always present, and whether in the cases
where it is present it is the sole excitant of our mirth. I believe
that a finer analysis shows that this is not so. Where, for example, is
“the degraded” in a child’s laughter at the sight of his nursery all
topsy-turvy on a cleaning day? Does he view the nurse as put to shame
by the setting of chairs on tables and so forth, instead of observing
the proper local congruities? or does he think of the room as something
quasi-human which takes on an improper look as he himself does when he
makes himself in a glorious mess? Slight movements of fancy of this
kind may be present: but do they lie at the sources of his laughter and
constitute its main moving force?

As another way of testing the theory, we may glance at those examples
of the odd or out of the way in which we find nothing of deformity, and
do not seem to focus our mental glance on any loss of dignity, but are
content to be {124} amused at the queer spectacle for its own sake.
I have seen a child of three or so go into a long fit of laughter at
the antics of a skittish pair of horses just turned loose on a common.
Did the child see anything of the mean, disgraceful, undignified in
these new and lively movements? Were they not immensely, overpoweringly
funny, just because they were outrageous deviations from the customary
proper behaviour of horses when saddled or harnessed to a carriage?
I feel the impulse to laugh at a “guy” in the street who captures my
roving nonchalant eye long before I reflect on any loss of dignity
which the bizarre costume may signify. In sooth, if, in this first
happy moment, any distinct thought of the personality behind the wild,
startling figure floats up to the surface of consciousness, it is a
friendly one. I am disposed to like and feel grateful to the person
who thus for an instant relieves for me the insufferable dulness of
the spectacle of London citizens all dressed according to one stupid

Or let us take another group: the relish for word-play and the lighter
kinds of wit. Here, again, I concede to Bain that the taking down of
something a good peg-interval intensifies our satisfaction: but it
seems impossible to maintain that our mirth depends altogether on the
recognition of this. A good pun, a skilful turning of words so as to
give a new and startlingly disconnected meaning, can hardly be said
to owe its instant capture of our laughing muscles to our perception
of a degradation of language and the habits of serious speech. On the
contrary, I should say that any focussing of thought on this aspect
would considerably weaken and might altogether arrest the laughing
impulse. It is to the serious person who keeps his mouth firmly closed
that this feature of the case addresses itself. Is there not here, even
in the case of mirthful men, some of the delight {125} of the playful
child who amuses himself by turning words and expressions into queer
nonsense just for the fun of the thing?

2. We may now pass to the second of the main types of theory which
have been proposed as explanations of the working of the laughable on
our feeling and the correlated muscular mechanism. Its distinctive
mark is that, instead of setting behind our enjoyment of the ludicrous
an emotion, or a change in our moral attitude, namely, a sense of
our own superiority or of something else’s degradation, it sets a
purely intellectual attitude, a modification of thought-activity. The
laughter, according to this second theory, results from a peculiar
effect on our intellectual mechanism, such as the nullification of
a process of expectation or of an expectant tendency. It is this
perfectly disinterested intellectual process which brings about the
_feeling_ of the ludicrous and its expression in laughter. This
may be called the Intellectual Theory, or Theory of Contrariety or
Incongruity. Since we have already touched on this mode of conceiving
of the effect of the ludicrous in criticising the view of Dr. Lipps, a
brief examination of it may content us here.

It may be noted in passing that this way of dealing with the ludicrous
is characteristically German. The dominant note in the philosophy
of Kant and his successors has been to regard all determinations of
experience as fundamentally a rational process. Just as in the domain
of ethics these thinkers conceive of what British Ethicists have been
wont to call the Moral Sentiment as essentially a process of Reason,
so in that branch of Æsthetics which deals with the Comic we find them
disposed to regard the effect of the ludicrous, less as the excitation
of a concrete and familiar emotion, such as Pride or Power, than as a
special modification of the process of thought. {126}

Kant may be taken as the first great representative of this theory.
According to him, wit—the only variety of the ludicrous which he
touches on—is a kind of play, namely, that of thought. In everything
that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd. It
is “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained
(_gespannte_) expectation into nothing”. The transformation is, of
course, not directly enjoyable to the understanding: it seems to induce
gratification indirectly by means of a furthered _bodily_ process.
This, by the way, is a noteworthy concession by a German thinker to the
claims of the poor body to recognition in these high affairs of the
understanding, a concession which his followers quickly struck out.
He gives as an example of his theory the story of a Hindoo who, when
sitting at an Englishman’s table, and seeing a bottle of beer turned
into froth, expressed astonishment. Being questioned as to the reason,
he remarked: “I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I
do wonder how you ever got it in”.

I have enlarged on Kant’s theory mainly because of the authority of the
author. German critics themselves recognise how absurdly inadequate is
the little he says on the subject as an explanation of the effect of
the laughable.[68] A few words will perhaps make this plain.

It is evident that what Kant was thinking of under the head of the
ludicrous was merely those exchanges of witty words and amusing stories
which naturally enough formed a principal pastime of the devoted
Königsberg thinker. Yet, even when considered under this narrow aspect,
his theory shows itself to be palpably insufficient. It is noteworthy
{127} that, in seeking to make it fit the remark of the Hindoo quoted
above, Kant feels himself called upon to contradict the suggestion that
we laugh “because we deem ourselves cleverer than this ignorant man”.
This objection, which could not fail to occur to one who remembers
Hobbes, cannot, however, be summarily dismissed by a bare assurance
such as Kant gives us; and, as a recent writer remarks, “there is good
reason to suppose that we laugh at the ignorance (better, ‘at the
naïveté’) of the man who seeks the difficulty in a wrong place”.[69]

One may go farther and venture the assertion that it is impossible to
explain any laughable incident, story or remark as due _altogether_ to
dissolved expectation or surprise.

In examining the adequacy of Kant’s theory to this purpose, I set out
with the natural presupposition that, when using the word expectation,
he does not mean a definite anticipation of some particular concrete
sequel to what is presented to the mind at the moment. In the
illustration given, he would not have meant that the questioner had
a well-defined expectant idea of another explanation of the Hindoo’s
astonishment. It is only fair to assume that he meant merely what the
word “expect” means when, on meeting a friend in a London street whom
I had supposed to be out of England, I say “I did not expect to see
you”. In other words, “expectation” stands here for a general attitude
of mind, a mode of apperceptive readiness to assimilate any idea of
a certain order, that is to say, standing in a recognisable relation
to what is presented. It is the attitude in which we appreciate the
evolution of a plot in fiction when this appears natural and does not
give a shock to consciousness. {128}

Employing the word in this sense, one may say that, even when we
laugh on receiving the solution to a conundrum which has teased and
baffled us, it is not because of the dissipation of an expectant
attitude. This conclusion is suggested by the familiar fact that,
when at the end of our self-puzzling we are told that there is no
solution, and when consequently we are unmistakably the subjects of
an annulled expectation, we are very likely not to laugh; or, if
we are good-natured enough to do so, it is as a result, not of any
disappointment, but of a discovery that we have been hoaxed. This laugh
at one’s befooled self—which we shall not be disposed to repeat if the
trick is tried a second time—so far from illustrating the principle of
annulled expectation is a particularly clear example of that of lowered

The best kind of example of the laughable for Kant’s purpose would
seem to be something odd and fantastic in dress or manners. Here, as I
have allowed, a kind of shock is inflicted on our fixed apperceptive
tendencies. But to speak of a process of dissipated expectation here
seems to be hardly accurate. As I have hinted, the sudden appearance of
the unexpected moves us to laughter primarily as a delightful novelty.

It seems to follow that Kant’s principle of nullified expectation
offers no adequate explanation of those forms of the ludicrous which
are most promising for his purpose. I may add that it fails because it
makes no serious attempt to mark off the domain of the laughable by
certain well-defined characteristics. We have seen that the objects
which excite our laughter are things human, or akin to the human.
The theory of degradation evidently recognises this: by making the
ludicrous consist in a loss of dignity it points at once to the human
sphere. But the theory {129} that the effect of the ludicrous comes
from an annihilation of a strained expectation suggests that it has
nothing specially to do with the spectacle of human life.

As I have not included the capability of dissipating expectation among
the laughable features of objects, I may indicate what I hold to be
the function of surprise in the effect of the ludicrous. Surprise,
the effect of a presentation for which the mind is not perfectly
pre-adjusted at the moment, seems to be a common condition of vivid
and exciting impressions, certainly of those which induce a state of
gladness. Hence we need not wonder that it should be found among the
antecedents of that outburst of gladness which we call laughter.

Nevertheless, it seems probable that the part played by surprise in
the enjoyment of the laughable has been exaggerated. Does the Londoner
who laughs again and again at the rough jocosities of the Punch and
Judy show, depend on annihilated expectation for his mirth? Dogberry’s
love of a mildewy old story is by no means peculiar to him. A really
good joke continues to amuse long after the first effect of surprise
has worn off. A like conclusion is reached by remembering that even
when a definite attitude of expectation for the coming of the ludicrous
turn is assumed, laughter’s greeting is none the less hearty. When
racy stories are circulating and the lips move in anticipation of some
new joke it seems an odd way of describing the effect to say that it
is due to a dissipation of expectation. There surely seems to be more
of realisation than annihilation here, even though the precise form
of the impending attack on our laughter is unknown. In certain cases,
moreover, as when we are watching with amusement the actions of one on
whom a practical joke is being played—actions which we, being in the
secret of the plot, are able to {130} forecast with a considerable
degree of precision, the element of surprise dwindles to the vanishing
point. The essential condition of our laughter would thus appear to be,
not the meeting of the amusing presentation with a state of complete
unpreparedness of mind at the moment, but such a degree of contrariety
between the presentation and our fixed and irrepressible apperceptive
tendencies as will, even in spite of a pre-adjustment, secure something
of a mild, momentary shock.[70]

A more carefully developed example of the mode of conceiving of the
laughable which finds its essence in the annihilation of a rational
attitude is supplied by Schopenhauer. According to this writer,
the process which determines our laughter is describable as an
intellectual effort and its frustration. “In every instance (he tells
us) the phenomenon of laughter indicates the sudden perception of an
incongruity between a conception (Begriff) and a real object, which
is to be understood or ‘thought’ through (_i.e._, by means of) this
conception.” The incongruity between the perception and the conception
under which the understanding necessarily strives to bring it must
be of such a degree that the perception strikingly differs from the
conception. The greater and the more unexpected the incongruity, the
more violent (heftiger) will be our laughter.

The author’s example of the absurdity of the presentation of the
curve and straight line trying to force itself under the incongruent
conception of an angle is intended to illustrate this theory.[71] Here
is another which has a {131} more promising look. A man who has been
arrested by soldiers is allowed to join them in a game of cards. He is
found cheating and is kicked out, his playmates quite forgetting that
he is their prisoner. Here, according to Schopenhauer, we laugh because
the incident, the ejection of a prisoner just arrested, will not fit
into the general rule, “cheats at the card-table should be thrust out”.

This form of the Intellectual theory clearly avoids the objection to
Kant’s version, that we frequently laugh at things when there is no
discoverable trace of a preceding expectation involving something in
the nature of an idea; for we take it as meaning that the conception
arises after, and as a result of, the perception. It is further
indisputable, as Kant has shown us, that in our explicit judgments, as
when we say, “This painting is (or is not) a work of Rubens,” a general
form of representation or something in the nature of a concept may take
part, the percept being (or refusing to be) subsumed under this.

At the same time, as was urged in the first chapter, the distinct
calling up of this general representation is occasional only, and,
therefore, not a pre-requisite of a perception of conformity or
non-conformity to the normal type. When I envisage a person as
correctly or as oddly dressed, I do not in either case need to have a
schematic representation of the proper typical style of dress. The same
holds good of many cases in which a definite rule, say of language or
good manners, is felt to be complied with or to be broken: we do not
need to call up a distinct representation of the rule. At most we can
speak here of a conceptual _tendency_, of an apperceptive acceptance or
rejection of a presentation, certain features of which are specially
attended to as characteristic of the type or general form; or, on the
other hand, as marks of deviation from this. {132}

Even if we adopt this amended form of Schopenhauer’s theory, we find
that it is not sufficient for explaining his examples. Of the funny
tangential angle no more need be said. Nor will his illustration of the
self-befooled warders bear close inspection. To begin with, one may
note a certain arbitrariness in the use of a mode of interpretation
which plainly allows of an alternative. We can say equally well,
either (with Schopenhauer) that the extrusion of a cheat who is also
a prisoner will not fit into the general rule “cheats have to be
ejected,” or that the extrusion of a prisoner who is also a cheat
will not fit into the rule that prisoners have to be confined.[72] It
seems to be more fitting here also to regard the incongruity—so far as
the perception of this is the direct cause of our laughter—as holding
between two aspects of the incident presented. The man is envisaged
at once as a cheat and as a prisoner, and as such comes under two
_régimes_ which directly conflict. The perception of the fun of the
story surely begins with a discernment of this mutual interference of
two systems of rule.

Yet this is certainly not all or the chief part of the perception. The
unstinting laugh comes only when we view the keepers as naïvely “giving
themselves away” to their prisoner by consenting to become playmates,
and so putting themselves under a rule which wholly destroys their
_rôle_ as custodians. Here, too, then, the principle of incongruity
shows itself to be insufficient.

It only remains to add that if Schopenhauer’s theory turns out to be
inadequate even when applied to an example chosen by himself, it is
pretty certain to fail when applied to other groups of instances of
the laughable in our list, in which incongruity does not seem to be a
potent {133} ingredient, if indeed it is present at all. To suggest,
for example, that our laughter at small and harmless vices, such as
Aristotle speaks of, is the outcome of a suddenly conceived incongruity
between a “real object” or presentation and a conception sounds
sufficiently forced. Would the author of the theory have been prepared
to say that in these instances we have present to our mind the concept
of a perfectly virtuous man, and that our laughter comes of our failing
to bring the perception under this conception? Surely the intrusion
of any such exalted “concept” would be fatal to our enjoyment of the
laughable aspect of vice.

Facts, moreover, contradict this view on every hand. It may suffice
to allude to one of the world’s great purveyors of laughter, Sir John
Falstaff. According to this theory, we ought to laugh most at his vices
when he first reveals them, since this is the moment when we should be
most likely to bring to bear on him the “concept” of a proper decent
gentleman. But is it not the fact that we laugh more freely when we
have quite ceased to think of him as a possible embodiment of sobriety
and decency, and when we apperceive his behaviour by help of the
conceptual tendency answering, not to the type of virtuous citizen, but
to the general manner of behaviour or the character of John Falstaff
himself? The same is true in everyday life. We are, I think, most ready
to laugh at a man’s foibles, say, his vanity or his exaggerations of
speech, when we know the man and can say, “Oh, it is only So-and-So!”

Neither the theory of Kant nor of Schopenhauer seems, then, to be
competent to do what it undertakes to do, to explain the various forms
and impressions of the laughable. These two theories, in spite of
their difference, agree in regarding the incongruity which excites
our laughter as lying between what we perceive and what our previous
{134} experience and our pre-existing ideas and apperceptive habits
have prepared us to accept as natural and proper. But our examination
of the instance of the ill-matched hat and head supplied by Dr. Lipps,
as also our fuller discussion of the relation of incongruity in the
preceding chapter, has led us to recognise an amusing contrariety
between different parts of a presentation, of what may be called
_internal_ incongruity in contradistinction to the external dealt with
by Kant and Schopenhauer. Hence we have to inquire how these two modes
of apprehending incongruity are related.

That, _prima facie_, we have to do in this case with a real difference
in the mode of perception, seems indisputable; let the reader compare
the effect of the two spectacles, a man wearing an extravagantly tall
hat, and a small boy wearing a hat of the height of a man’s; or,
again, a tiny man alone, and a short man by the side of a tall woman.
In some instances, indeed, we may see that there is an intrinsic
repugnance between the parts of a presentation, as when two colours
in a woman’s dress violently clash, or when a statement is palpably
self-contradictory. Here there seems to be no reference, however
vague, to previous experience or the customary. At the same time we
may easily see that this field of the internally incongruent is a
very narrow one. Much of what looks like this turns out, on closer
inspection, to be, in part at least, externally determined. This is
true of what we call a bizarre mixture of incongruent elements in
mode of attire or in manners; for it is experience and the habits of
social life which dispose our minds to regard them as foreign one to
the other. Much of our mirthful gratification at exhibitions of the
incongruous arises through a perception of the intrusion of something
foreign into a situation. When, for example, we observe a {135} rather
sprightly gesture in the pulpit, we mentally view this action against
a background which is the situation of the moment. Now this situation
is by no means wholly presented: it is a presentation greatly enlarged
and profoundly modified by the addition of a general significance.
The attitude of the spectator’s mind, face to face with the scene,
is determined by apperceptive tendencies which imply a readiness to
expect _a certain kind_ of behaviour. And this, again, evidently means
that certain directions of imaginative activity, and something in the
nature of a “generic image” and of conceptual thought, are stirring.
This effect of experience and apperceptive habits in modifying our
perceptions is probably illustrated in all our appreciations of the
amusingly incongruous. To revert once more to the spectacle of the
man’s hat on the child’s head, may we not say that in this case, also,
we envisage the hat as an interloper in the situation—the sweet sanctum
of the nursery?

It seems to follow that Kant and Schopenhauer were wise, when dealing
with incongruity, in emphasising the apperceptive factor. Contrariety
to what we are accustomed to is undoubtedly the great determining
element in the ill-assortments of things which provoke our laughter.
Hence, in examining the theories of these two writers, we seem to
have dealt with the intellectual principle in its most comprehensive
and most favourable form. Nor do I see how any transformation of this
principle will make it an adequate theory. The entertaining instances
of mischances and awkward situations, of takings down, of moral and
intellectual failings, these and other varieties of the laughable dealt
with above steadily refuse to yield up their secret at the bidding of
this theory.

Let us now sum up the results of our criticism of the theories. We
seem to have found that, whereas neither of {136} the two chief
types of theory covers the whole field of the laughable, each has its
proper, limited domain. It is certain that in many cases we laugh at
an incident, a situation, an action, where the provocative is best
described as a loss of dignity. It is equally certain that in many
other cases our laughter springs directly out of a perception, more or
less distinct, of incongruity.

That these principles have each a large sway over our laughter has
been sufficiently illustrated in the preceding chapter: also that they
frequently co-operate in one and the same amusing presentation. Hence
we might expect that the advocate of each theory would be able to find
his illustrations, and would sometimes manage to pounce upon one just
after it had been carried off by his rival.[73]

But, it may be urged, even if both principles are shown to be valid
they may be unified. If by this is meant that the incongruous and the
undignified or unworthy, considered as abstract ideas, are identical,
or that logically each involves the other, I am not concerned to
discuss the point. It is enough for our present purpose to urge that
the modes of perception and the shades of feeling involved are clearly

The same fundamental distinction would nullify the attempt to subsume
one of these principles as a special case under the other. If we set
out with the Intellectual principle, we may, without doubt, succeed
in showing that many, if not all, amusing losses of dignity—such as
a slight disgrace, or a bungling into a “fix”—logically involve a
contrariety between what is presented and the normal custom or rule.
But our question is one not of the logical analysis of meaning but of
the psychological analysis of process, and I can find no evidence in
favour of the theory {137} that when we laugh at these things we have
at the moment any apprehension of such a contrariety.

It is the same if we start with the other or Moral principle.
Incongruities which are lapses from standard ideas may certainly, as
already conceded, be regarded as degradations. And it may be possible
to show that in all cases of incongruity _some_ loss of dignity is
logically implied. Yet even if it be so, the psychological contention
will still stand that in many cases of incongruity, including our old
friend the child in the father’s hat, we have a full sense of relishing
the incongruity and yet none at all of enjoying a degradation. Where
is the degradation in the spectacle of a crow on a sheep’s back which
may flood a child with mirth? In truth, if our theorists had only
condescended to take note of so small a matter as children’s enjoyment
of the world’s fun, the hypothesis of degradation could never have
stood its ground so long.

Yet another way of evading a glaring dualism may suggest itself.
Allowing that the two principles are each valid, we might, at least,
be able to combine them in the form of a single generalisation. This
is what is done by Hazlitt, for example, who, though he finds the
essence of the laughable in the incongruous, defines the ludicrous
as involving disappointment of expectation _by something having
deformity or (something) inconvenient_, that is _what is contrary to
the customary_ and desirable.[74] Herbert Spencer’s expression, a
“descending incongruity,” is clearly a very similar mode of combining
the principles.[75] Lipps’ theory of incongruity, with its distinction
of a little, and a belittling presentation, might also, I think, easily
be made to illustrate another mode of such combination. More recently
Fouillée {138} and others have urged that the one principle in a
manner supplements the other.[76]

It is evident, however, that this apparent mode of escape will not
avail us. The combined theory implies that all cases of the laughable
are at once incongruities and degradations, that is to say, perceived
and felt to be such. In dealing with the principles separately,
however, we have seen that, in the case of each alike, there are
well-recognised examples of the laughable to which it does not apply.
This conclusion manifestly carries with it the proposition that there
are cases to which a combination of the principles does not apply.

A last attempt to escape this theoretic dualism would be to urge that
the two principles rule in distinct realms. In that of the _ludicrous_
proper, it might be urged, we have to do with the intellectual
principle: it is only when the sphere is enlarged to include all
that is laughable, and so the region of the _ridiculous_, that the
principle of lowered dignity comes in.[77] Theorists may insist on such
distinctions, but it seems to me that they cannot be maintained as hard
and fast boundaries. As has been shown above, laughable things do not
all affect us in quite the same way. A spice of malice comes into much
of the laughter that greets the spectacle, say of a bit of successful
trickery; yet this does not make the experience substantially different
from that of enjoying some striking example of incongruity, say a good
Irish “bull”. When the note of derision begins to sound clearly, there
is of course no longer any suggestion of an effect of the laughable
pure and simple.

The attempt to analyse our perceptions of the laughable {139} in the
hope of discovering some single uniting principle has proved to be
abortive. We find in the end that two causes of laughter remain on our

The most promising way of bringing the several laughable qualities
and aspects of things under one descriptive head would seem to be
to say that they all illustrate a presentation of something in the
nature of a defect, a failure to satisfy some standard-requirement,
as that of law or custom, provided that it is small enough to be
viewed as a harmless plaything. Much, at least, of our laughter at
the odd as opposed to the customary, at the deformed, at failure in
good manners and the other observances of social life, at defects of
intelligence and of character, at fixes and misfortunes—so far as the
situation implies want of foresight—at the lack of a perception of the
fitness of things, and at other laughable features, may undoubtedly be
regarded as directed to something _which fails to comply with a social
requirement_, yet is so trifling that we do not feel called upon to
judge the shortcoming severely.

I am sure that to look at the laughable in this way is an indispensable
step in the construction of a theory of the subject. We must, as
we shall see presently, supplement the common mode of dealing with
laughter as an abstract psychological problem, by bringing into view
its _social_ function. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the
consideration of this function will lead us straightway to a simple
theory of the ludicrous. As hinted in the preceding chapter, we may
easily exaggerate the more serious function of laughter, and this point
will be made clearer in subsequent chapters.

That the effects of the laughable cannot all be brought under the head
of means of social correction or improvement, {140} may, even at this
stage of our inquiry, be seen by considering another point, to which
we will now turn. No analysis of the qualities of things in which the
laughable resides will enable us to account for the mirthful effects
of these, even while we remain within the limits of what is commonly
recognised as the ludicrous. This has been illustrated in the preceding
chapter, and a word or two more may suffice to make it clear.

I have tried to show that some at least of the spectacles that shake
us with laughter do so by satisfying something within us akin to the
child’s delight in the gloriously new and extravagant. This, again,
means that these spectacles make appeal to that primitive form of
laughter, already illustrated, which is called forth by some sudden
increase of joy. Our rejoicing at the sight of the clown’s droll
costume and funny movements has in it something of the laughing joy of
the savage when he is shown some mechanical wonder of Europe, something
of the laughing joy of the infant at the sudden invasion of his nursery
wall by a dancing sunbeam.[79]

A little more reflection on the groups of laughable things will show
that other ingredients of this primitive laughter are present in our
appreciation of the ludicrous. Dr. Bain finds himself compelled to
eke out the deficiencies of the Hobbesian principle by urging that
the spectacle of degradation may move us to laughter, not merely by
exciting the feeling of power or superiority (as Hobbes said), but by
supplying a sudden release from a state of constraint. The abandonment
of the serious attitude in church when some trivial incident occurs is
an instance of a lowering of the dignity of a thing, or an occasion,
which refreshes {141} us with a sense of liberation.[80] This idea
carries us much farther than the author thinks. The joyous deliverance
from pressure and constraint will, I think, be found to reinforce other
mental agencies in many cases of ludicrous presentation in which no
degradation is discoverable. Sometimes the constraint is very severe;
witness the effect when the narrator of a funny story knows how to wind
up the emotion of fear to just the right pitch in order to give us the
delicious run down of the mental works when the funny _dénouement_
bursts upon us. Here our laughter has a large support in the joyous
relief from nervous tension.

In other cases, again, the release comes as an interruption of a solemn
occasion by the intrusion of something disconnected, and, by contrast,
trifling. The tittering in a church at a small _contretemps_ has
been our illustration. There is incongruity here between two orders
of ideas, if you like; or, as I should prefer to put it, between two
levels of interest. For the point is that the interruption must seem
ludicrous by exhibiting clearly a trifling character, by powerfully
suggesting a non-reverent point of view.

As hinted above, these two sources of laughter, a sudden oncoming
of gladness and a relief from restraint, are closely connected. The
unexpected presentation which gladdens us seems commonly to bring
a kind of relief. This is certainly true of all cases in which the
preceding state was one of conscious depression and ennui. The laughter
of the young, in response to our often cumbrous attempts to amuse them,
may be an escape from a certain strain which belongs to a state of
ennui, from the confinement or restraint which the poverty of their
surroundings at the moment imposes on them.[81] {142}

There is another conceivable way of bringing together the effect of
sudden gladness and relief from restraint. It has been urged that all
laughable things affect us by way of a shock of surprise followed by
a sense of relief. Leigh Hunt, for example, thinks that when we laugh
at something we receive a shock of surprise which gives _a check to
the breath_, a check which is in proportion to the vivacity of the
surprise; and that our laughter is a relief from this.[82] This theory
embodies a sound physiological principle, one which we have already
adopted, but it seems to go too far. As I have tried to show, a shock
of surprise, as we ordinarily understand the expression, is not an
invariable antecedent of our response to laughable things. On the other
hand, it may be urged with some reason that even in cases where this
full shock of the unexpected is wanting, there is a moment of strain as
the presentation affronts the custom-trained eye, and that the laughter
is the expression of the condoning of this affront, the acceptance of
it as harmless play.

In order to complete our psychological analysis of the tendencies which
combine in our enjoyment of ludicrous things, we need to glance at
one other variety of primitive laughter, that of contempt. In dealing
with this in Chapter III. we drew the line between it and the true
enjoyment of the laughable as something “objective”. Yet it would be a
profound error not to recognise the fact, that there is a real kinship
between the two. To begin with, the laugh of contempt, say over a
prostrate foe, or over one whom we have succeeded in teasing by playing
off on him some practical joke, readily passes into an enjoyment of
the laughable proper. It is obviously in part a laugh _at_ something.
Not only so, as a _laugh_ it may be presumed to involve a less {143}
serious attitude in the successful spectator than a sneer, say, or
the hurling of opprobrious words. It will naturally direct itself to
something in the undignified _look_ of the discomfited party which
would be likely to be recognised by others also as laughter-moving.

Again, though I hold that Hobbes’ theory, as he himself formulates it,
errs by insisting on the swelling of the spectator’s self-consciousness
into a feeling of superiority or power, it seems to me to be
indisputable that all examples of the laughable which clearly fall into
the category of mild degradations do give us a sense of uplifting,
something akin to Hobbes’ “sudden glory”. As we are reminded by Dr.
Bain, malevolence or malice has its protean disguises, and one of them
is undoubtedly the joy of the laugher. The note of malicious crowing,
of Schadenfreude, may, no doubt, be most distinctly heard in some
of the laughter of satire and of the more brutal sort of joke. Yet
I suspect that a trace of it lurks, like a beaten foe, inexpugnable
though greatly reduced in strength, in a large part of our laughter.

There are one or two facts which seem to me to point to the conclusion
that superiority is implied in, if not tacitly claimed by, the forms
of laughter which have a distinctly personal aim. One of these is the
familiar fact that anything in the shape of a feeling of inferiority
to, or even of respect for, the laughable person inhibits the laughter
of the contemplator. But other facts seem to me to be still more
conclusive. Of these the first is that if a person finds himself
distinctly involved in the disgrace, the absurd situation, or whatever
else provokes laughter, he no longer laughs, or laughs in another key.
I see my estimable fellow-pedestrian lose his hat at a street corner
where the wind lies in ambush: my soul expands exultingly. The moment
after, I, too, may fall a victim to the ambuscade, in {144} which
case I probably stop laughing and become the subject of a different
emotion. Or, if I am “laughing animal” enough to keep up the hilarity,
the laugh will have changed. All the glory, the sense of uplifting,
the exultation will have fled, and the new laugh, which embraces
myself along with another unfortunate, will have in it something of
humiliation, will at most have shrunk into a “chastened joy”.

The second fact is still more decisive. If no superiority is implied
in our common laughter at others, how does it come about that we all
have so very obstinate a dislike to be made its object? The most
amiable of men find it hard enough to rise to the level of a bare
toleration of others’ laughter: the man who can reach the sublime
height of finding a real and considerable gratification in it must be
a hero, or—as some would say—a craven. There are men of a genuine and
most blameless humour who are hardly, if at all, less keenly sensitive
to the attack of another laugher than the most serious of prigs. Is
this understandable unless we suppose that laughter at a person is
instinctively interpreted as an assertion of superiority over him?

It would seem then to be a reasonable view, that if laughter in
ordinary cases involves superiority, and is so regarded by its object,
the enjoyment of it by its subject will be very apt to bring with it
a taste of superiority. This, I conceive, is the element of truth in
Hobbes’ theory.

The foregoing considerations seem to show clearly that the realm of
the ludicrous is not a closed and clearly bounded territory, as the
theorists for the most part assume it to be. Our enjoyment of its
amusing sights connects itself with, and indeed absorbs into itself,
tendencies which we may observe in the laughter of children and
uncivilised adults. And, if so, the fact seems to require us to go back
upon those primitive tendencies in order to see how far the connection
{145} holds, that is to say, how far the effects of the ludicrous can
be regarded as due to the play of those tendencies.

An analysis of the primitive forms of laughter, which precede its
regulation by a reference to ideas, has disclosed the fact that it is
the expression of pleasure, yet not of all pleasure, but only of the
sudden oncoming or increase of pleasure, of what we call gladness. It
has shown us, further, that this joy of laughter is, in many, if not
in all cases, conditioned by a sudden relaxation of mental strain, and
may, indeed, be described by reference to this condition as a sense of
relief from pressure. This was seen to hold good alike in those graver
situations in which nervous laughter is apt to occur, in the lighter
ones, such as the escape of schoolboys from the classroom to the
playground, and in the still lighter ones in which the strain relaxed
is momentary only, of which the laughter induced by tickling is the
best representative.

Now it seems evident that we have in all these experiences something
analogous to play. The natural alliance of laughter with the play-mood
has already been touched on.[83] We may now go a step farther and say
that these spurts of joyous consciousness which, in simple natures
untrammelled by thought of appearances, express themselves in laughter
are of the essence of Play. To be glad with the gaiety of laughter, to
throw off the stiff and wearing attitude of seriousness and to abandon
oneself to mirth and jollity is, in truth, to begin to play.

The deep kinship between laughter and play discloses itself as soon as
we begin carefully to compare them. Let us look at some of their common

Play contrasts with work, not as rest or inactivity contrasts with
it, but as light pleasurable activity contrasts {146} with the
more strenuous and partly disagreeable kind. The same holds good of
laughter. It is light pleasurable activity in contrast to the more
burdensome activity of our serious hours.

Again, play is free activity entered upon for its own sake. That is to
say, it is not directed to any end outside itself, to the satisfaction
of any want, save that of the play-impulse itself; and so it is free
from external restraint, and from the sense of compulsion—of a “must”
at the ear, whether embodied in the voice of a master or in that of a
higher self—which accompanies the attitude of the worker. Similarly,
when we laugh we are released from the strain and pressure of serious
concentration, from the compulsion of the practical and other needs
which keep men, in the main, serious beings.

It follows at once that play is relative to work, that it is enjoyed as
a relief from graver occupations, and cannot be indefinitely prolonged.
And, as has been hinted above, the same holds true of laughter and what
we appropriately describe as playing the fool.

In saying that play is spontaneous activity, freed from the imperious
rule of necessity, I do not mean that it is aimless. The play-impulse
provides its own ends; for, without something to aim at, it could
not become conscious activity in the full sense. Thus in the case of
children, at any rate, and possibly of young animals also, playing at
some form of combat implies, as Prof. Groos urges, a keen striving
for something akin to conquest. In other words, the instinct which
underlies the activity seems to bring with it the setting up of
something like an end. Similarly with respect to those varieties
of children’s play which aim at the realisation of an idea, and so
resemble art. In this case, too, an instinct, namely, imitative
production, prompts to the semblance of a serious conative process, the
striving {147} after an end. The same applies to mirthful activity.
In playing off a joke on another we certainly have a definite aim in
view. In neither case, however, is the end regarded as a serious or
important one. Play ceases to be pure play just as soon as the end, for
example conquest, begins to be regarded as a thing of consequence to
the player; and, in like manner, laughter ceases to be pure mirth just
as soon as the end, say the invention of a witticism, is envisaged as a
solid personal advantage, such as heightened reputation.[84]

A like remark applies to the intrusion of the serious attitude into
play when this takes on an elaborate form requiring some concentration
of attention. This does not destroy the playful character of the
activity so long as the end is not viewed as matter of serious import.
In this respect, too, laughter resembles play, for we may take
considerable pains in shaping our practical joke without ever losing
hold of fun as our end.

This brings us to another point of kinship between play and laughter.
Each, though marked off from the things of the real serious world, has
to do with these in a manner. The play both of animals and of children
is largely pretence, that is to say, the production of a semblance
of an action of serious life, involving some consciousness of its
illusory character. This seems inferrible, in the case of animal play,
_e.g._, the make-believe combats, from the palpable restriction of
the movements within the limits of the harmless.[85] And with regard
to the play of the nursery, it {148} is probable that all through a
play-action there is, in spite of the look of absorbing seriousness, a
dim awareness of the make-believe. It is fairly certain that we have to
do in this case with a double or “divided” consciousness.[86] And, as
has been illustrated above, laughter is wont to hover about the domain
of the serious. In both cases we find the love of pretence playing
pranks with the real world, divesting things of their significance and
value for the serious part of our mind, and transmuting them by fancy
into mere appearances for our amusement.

Another point of similarity may be just alluded to. Recent discussions
on the nature of play have served to bring out its utility or
serviceableness. Not only is the sportive activity of children and
young animals of physiological benefit as wholesome exercise, it is now
seen to be valuable as a preliminary practice of actions which later
on become necessary. Thus in play-combats children and young animals
begin to learn the arts of skilful attack and defence.[87] Much of
this benefit of play-activity is due to the circumstance that it is
a mode of organised co-operation and supplies a kind of training for
the serious social activity of later years. I shall hope to show later
that laughter has a like value, not merely as a source of physiological
benefit to the individual, but as helping us to become fit members of
society. It seems hardly needful to point out that since the fact of
this utility is known neither to the player nor to the laugher, it
does not in the least affect the truth of our contention, that their
activity is not controlled by external ends which have a practical or
other serious value. {149}

Our comparison justifies us in identifying play and mirth, so far as
to say that when we play and when we laugh our mood is substantially
the same. Common language seems to support this view. “Fun,” “frolic,”
“sport,” “pastime,” these and the like may be said to cover at once all
joyous play and all varieties of mirth. We are justified, therefore, in
making the principle of play fundamental in our theory of laughter.[88]
We may now proceed to illustrate rather more fully the presence of
the play-attitude in the higher domain of laughter, the enjoyment of
ludicrous spectacle.

To begin with, much of the laughable illustrated above may be regarded
as an expression in persons or things of the play-mood which seizes the
spectator by way of a sympathetic resonance. Examples have been given
in the laughter excited by the spectacle of aimless actions which have
the look of frolicsomeness. As our name “word-play” clearly suggests,
verbal jokes are recognised as an outcome of the play-mood which throws
off for the nonce the proper serious treatment of language. Again, the
odd when it reaches the height of the extravagant has an unmistakable
look of play-license. Much of the amusing effect of disguise, of
pretence, including certain kinds of “aping,” appears to involve some
recognition of the make-believe aspect of play. The disorderly, even
when it applies to a room, is, to say the least, powerfully suggestive
of the ways of rompish play. Many irregularities of thought and action
readily take on the look of a self-abandonment to play; for example,
irrelevances and confusions of idea, droll, aimless-looking actions,
such as going off the scene and coming back again and again, {150}
senseless repetitions of actions by the same person or by others—a
common entertainment of the circus and the popular play-house. As a
last example, we may instance the effect of the incongruous when it
assumes a trifling aspect on a solemn occasion. This is surely amusing
because it is so like the interruptions of child’s play.

How far can this principle be carried? May not a good deal of
the amusingly incongruous in behaviour and in circumstances, of
intellectual and of moral collapse, when this wears the aspect of
folly, be said to affect us as an expression of the play-mood? And is
not our amusement at the sight of certain mischances which have the
look of a tripping up, an outwitting or befooling, either by others
or by circumstance or “fate,” traceable to a perception of something
indistinguishable from playful teasing?

Yet we must not rely on this expression of the playful too much. There
seem to be many cases of the laughable, for example, amusing vices,
absences of mind, and all irrelevances which bring in the solemn where
it is out of place, where that which is expressed is a mood the very
opposite of the playful. Nor do we need to push this principle to an
extreme. Even if the laughable spectacle does not wear the look of a
play-challenge, it can bring up the playful mood in the spectator in
another way. It may so present its particular feature as to throw us
off our serious balance, and by a sweet compulsion force us to play
with it rather than to consider it seriously. A brief reference to our
store of laughable things may suffice to illustrate this.

To begin with our laughter at novelties, the odd, the extravagant, what
is it but the outcome of a play-impulse, a gay caprice which wills
for the instant not to take objects seriously, but to disregard their
real nature and significance, {151} practical, theoretical, and even
æsthetic, for the joy of making them playthings for the eye? Or, if
the suggestion of a rule, broken by the newcomer into our field of
perception, obtrudes itself, our laughter announces that the infraction
does not matter, that the violation of custom’s good law itself is
passed over and turned into fun by the blithe play-spirit in us.

It is the same with mischances, awkward fixes, and all sorts of moral
and intellectual shortcomings. These things obviously have in them
what should appeal to our seriousness: they come up for judgment as
pitiable, as regrettable, often as distinctly culpable. Yet we laugh
and cast aside our judicial responsibilities just because the mood of
the moment disposes us to be indulgent, and because the attitude we
take up in viewing the offence as a little one instantly brings up
the love of play, the impulse to turn the significant into enjoyable

Once more, in our laughter at artful allusion to the obscene, it is
the same swift transition from the serious attitude to that of play
which seems to be at the bottom of our merriment. Here again it is the
littleness—a quantity, as pointed out, varying considerably with the
quality of the laugher—which disarms the serious attitude and allures
it to play.

In pretences, both hypocrisies and less serious kinds, which raise the
laugh, we note the same swift lapse into the play-attitude. For, in
order to enjoy these vain shows with perfect gaiety, we must be ready
to bring a mental “blind spot” to bear on everything in them which has
serious moral significance. Here, too, we take a leap into the world of
the player, transmuting what has something of seriousness, something
even of offending hurtfulness, into a mere plaything. {152}

The more intellectual varieties of the ludicrous disclose the same
deep-seated characteristic. The incongruous, the absurd, the tricks of
ambiguous speech, these are things which offend us as serious mortals
bent on having consistency of ideas and clearness of utterance in our
social world. They evoke our laughter when they take such a form as to
upset this serious attitude and to win us over to regarding them as
nothing but entertaining show.

In all the more intellectual laughter at things we seem to find the
perfect form of the mind’s play. I say “perfect” because psychologists
as well as others are wont to speak of poetic imagination as playful
activity, though this, as controlled by the ends of art, is seriousness
itself compared with the freer movements of ideas when the sportive
temper takes us.

One other illustration of the _rôle_ of the playful spirit in the
sphere of the laughable must not be overlooked. I have dealt with the
intrusion of the trivial into solemn scenes as an expression of the
child’s playfulness. But, as has been suggested above, it is more than
this. Scenes of great formality, where a degree of severe self-control
is enforced which is trying to mortals of only a limited gravity, are
apt to throw us into a state of highly unstable equilibrium. Hence the
welcome we are disposed to give to anything which touches the playful
susceptibilities in us. Under such circumstances small occurrences,
which at other times would pass wholly unmarked, are grasped at and
become laughable things for us, just because of the great necessity of
man to escape now and again into the freedom of play.

As already implied, this saturation of laughter with the spirit of
playfulness is characteristic only of the gayer kind, that which is
purified from all tinge of seriousness. So far {153} as our jocose
impulses lend themselves to serious purposes, as for example in the
laughter of satire, the playful character tends to become less clearly
recognisable. Not that here, too, we are unable to find a resemblance
between laughter and play; for, as we know, much of what we call play
or sport has its serious interest, and the player, like the laugher,
may easily slip across the line which divides the playful from the
serious attitude. Nevertheless, we shall need to insist on the point
that laughter is a thing of different tones, some more playful than
others, and that its nature and its function can only be clearly
determined by distinguishing these.

The result of our inquiry is that the impressions of the laughable
cannot be reduced to one or two principles. Our laughter at things
is of various tones. It gathers up into itself a number of primitive
tendencies; it represents the products of widely removed stages of
intellectual and moral evolution. This is virtually admitted by all who
recognise the Intellectual and the Moral principle; for our laughter
at seeing dignity unfrocked is presumably of more ancient origin than
the “laughter of the mind,” which discoursers on the ludicrous are
for the most part thinking of. Our argument takes us farther, namely,
to the conclusion that the effect of the laughable, even of what is
given by philosophers as a sample of the ludicrous, is a highly complex
feeling, containing something of the child’s joyous surprise at the new
and unheard of; something too of the child’s gay responsiveness to a
play-challenge; often something also of the glorious sense of expansion
after compression which gives the large mobility to freshly freed limbs
of young animals and children.

A consequence of this recognition of the relation of the laughable to
our laughter as a whole is that we shall need to alter our method of
treating the subject. Our problem {154} naturally transforms itself
into the question: can we trace out the organic differentiation and
integration of the several psychical tendencies which our analysis has
disclosed? In other words, we find that we must resort to the genetic
method, and try to explain the action of the ludicrous upon us in the
modest scientific fashion by retracing the stages of its development.
Such explanation may some day be crowned by a distinctly philosophical
one, if a finer logical analysis succeeds in discovering the essence of
the ludicrous; for the present it seems to be all that is available.

It will at once be evident that a large investigation into the origin
and development of the laughing impulse will take us beyond the limits
of pure psychology. We shall have to consider how the impulse grew
up in the evolution of the race; and this will force us to adopt the
biological point of view, and ask how this special group of movements
came to be selected and fixed among the characters of our species. On
the other hand, laughter is more than a physiological and psychological
phenomenon. As hinted above, it has a social significance, and we shall
find that the higher stages of its evolution can only be adequately
dealt with in their connection with the movement of social progress.

Lastly, it will be by tracing the evolution of laughter in the human
community that we shall best approach the problem of the ideal which
should regulate this somewhat unruly impulse of man. Such a study would
seem to promise us a disclosure of tendencies by which laughter has
been lifted and refined in the past, and by the light of which it may
consciously direct itself in the future.




To attempt to get back to the beginnings of human laughter may well
seem to be too ambitious a proceeding. Beginnings are small things, and
may easily escape detection, even when they lie well-lit not far from
the eye. How, then, can we hope to get at them when they are hidden in
the darkness of the remote past?

It is evident that our method here can only be the modest one of
conjecture, a method which must do its best to make its conjecture look
reasonable, while it never loses sight of the fact that it is dealing
with the conjectural. Our aim is to get an intelligible supposition,
by the help of which we may explain how laughter broke on the earthly
scene, adding one more to the many strange sounds of the animal world.

This bit of conjectural inquiry will begin by trying to answer the
question: By what process did the laugh, from being a general sign of
pleasure, become specialised into an expression of the uprising of the
mirthful, fun-loving or jocose spirit? It will then address itself to
the problem: What has been the course of development of the spirit of
fun and of its characteristic mode of utterance?

It would not, of course, be possible to attempt even a conjectural
account of these far-off and unchronicled events, but for the new
instruments of hypothetical construction {156} with which the Theory
of Evolution has furnished us. In attempting so hazardous a task we
have, at least, the example of one of the most modest of men to draw us
on. Charles Darwin has taught us how to be at once daring and cautious
in trying to penetrate the darkness of the ages behind us; and one can
wish nothing better than to be able to walk worthily in his steps.

It will be evident that in essaying an effort which can at best end in
only a plausible guess we must use every available clue. This means,
not merely that we try to trace back the history of mirthful utterance,
alike in the evolution of the individual and of the species, to its
rude inchoate forms, but that we search for vestiges of utterances
vaguely resembling human laughter in the animal world.

This last suggestion may well seem to the reader like another blow
to man’s early pride of race. The worthy naturalist who called his
species the “laughing animal” did not probably trouble himself about
the question of the dignity of the attribute. Since laughing was one
of the things that only man could do, it served as a convenient way of
describing him. Yet, since the later evolutional psychology has led
us to be more generous in recognising in the lower animals something
closely similar to our own processes of reasoning, we need not be
greatly shocked to hear that it is actually crediting other species
than our own with a simple sense of fun, and a characteristic manner of
expressing the feeling; that is to say, an utterance answering to our

Now here, if anywhere, we must be on our guard. In attempting to
detect traces of mirthful expression in animals we are exposed to
a two-fold danger: that common to all observation of animal ways—a
too anthropomorphic kind of interpretation; and that of mistaking in
other beings, {157} whether human or sub-human, what we envisage as
funny, for their conscious fun. It is eminently natural, when we do
not screw ourselves up to the severely scientific attitude, to see
signs of chuckling glee in animals. I remember how I watched somewhere
in Norway, in the early morning, a magpie as he stood for some time
ducking his head and throwing up his long tail, accompanying these
movements with chuckle-like sounds; and how I found it exceedingly
hard not to believe that he was having a good laugh at something,
possibly the absurd ways of the foreign tourists who visit his coast.
Yet, judged by the standard of scientific observation, this “natural”
interpretation was scarcely satisfactory.

Since our aim compels us to be scientific, we cannot accept common
modes of interpreting the “mischievous” performances of animals. Many
of a monkey’s tricks are “funny” enough; yet we may seriously doubt
whether he enjoys them as practical jokes. His solemn mien certainly
does not suggest it; but then it may be said that human jokers have a
way of keeping up an appearance of gravity. A consideration of greater
weight is that what looks to us much like a merry joke may be a display
of the _teasing_ instinct, when this goes beyond the playful limit,
and aims at real annoyance or mischief. The remark probably applies to
some of the well-known stories of “animal humour,” for example, that of
Charles Dickens about the raven. This bird, it may be remembered, had
to share the garden with a captive eagle. Having carefully measured the
length of this formidable creature’s chain, he turned to good account
the occasion of the giant’s sleep by stealing his dinner; and then,
the rightful owner having presumably woke up, made an impudent display
of eating the same just safely outside the {158} eagle’s “sphere of
influence”. This doubtless showed some cunning, and something of spite;
but it is not clear that it indicated an enjoyment of the fun of the

That this teasing and playing of tricks by animals may now and
again approach the human attitude of malicious mirthfulness is not
improbable. A cat that “plays” with its captive mouse, half-pretending,
as it seems, not to see the small thing’s hopeless attempt to “bolt,”
may, perhaps, be enjoying something of the exultant chuckle of a human
victor. So, too, some of the mischievous behaviour of a lively and
imperfectly domesticated monkey, which a simple-minded sailor has
brought to his mother by way of making her happy, may disclose a germ
of the spirit of fun, of a malicious playfulness which is capable of
enjoying its jokes as such.

Yet, while we may question the truth of the proposition that these
mischievous actions are enjoyed as practical jokes—in the way in which
Uncle Remus represents them—we need not hesitate to attribute to
animals a simple form of the child’s sense of fun. This trait appears
most plainly in the pastimes of the young of many familiar species,
including our two domestic pets, pastimes which are quite correctly
described as animal play. The particular forms of this playful
activity, the tusslings, the attacks and retreats on both sides, the
chasings and the rest, are pretty certainly determined by special
instincts.[89] But, as play, these actions are an expression of high
spirits and of something analogous to a child’s love of “pretending”.
Is it not a bit of playful make-believe, for example, when a dog, on
seeing the approach of a canine stranger, “lies low” wearing the look
of an alert foe; yet, as soon as the stranger approaches, “gives {159}
away the show” by entering with an almost disgraceful celerity into
perfectly friendly relations with him? It is the same when a dog teases
another dog by startling him, showing signs of enjoying the trick. H.
M. Stanley writes: “My dog took the same delight in coming up quietly
behind a small dog and giving a terrifying bark as does the child in
jumping out from a corner and crying ‘boo’”.[90]

Owing, to no little extent, perhaps, to the fact of its education
by man, the dog gives much the clearest indications of a sense of
fun. No one can observe a dog during a walk with his child-comrades
without noting how readily he falls in with their playful proposals.
The infectiousness of an announcement of the playful temper is clearly
illustrated here. The dog imitates the gambols, and will even seem
to respond to the vocal outbursts of his merry playmates. Darwin
has rightly recognised a germ of our “sense of humour” in a dog’s
joining in the game of stick-throwing. You throw a bit of stick for
him to fetch, and having picked it up he proceeds to carry it away
some distance and to squat down with it on the ground just before
him. You then come quite close as if to take the stick from him, on
which he seizes it and bears it off exultingly, repeating the little
make-believe with evident enjoyment.[91]

I have tested a dog again and again when playing with him in this
fashion, and have satisfied myself that he is in the play-mood, and
knows perfectly well that you are too; so that if you pretend to be
serious and to command him in your most magisterial voice to give up
the stick he sidles up with a hollow show of obedience which could
impose on nobody, as if to say, “I know better: you are not really
serious; so I am going on with the game”. All {160} the notes of a
true sense of fun seem to be present in this case: the gay and festive
mood, a firm resolve _desipere in loco_, and a strong inclination to
play at “pretending”.

Prof. Lloyd Morgan gives an example of what certainly looks like a
dog’s merry make-believe in which man’s lead takes no part. The writer
tells us that he used at one time to take an intelligent retriever to
a sandy shore, where the dog engaged spontaneously in the following
pastime. He buried a number of small crabs in the sand, and then
stood waiting till a leg or a claw appeared, “upon which he would run
backwards and forwards giving short barks of keen enjoyment”.[92]

I find it hard to doubt that this was a genuine outburst of joyousness
and of something indistinguishable from a love of fun, and that it was
connected with the “coming off” of a practical joke. The repetitions
of the burial when the dog had seen that it was ineffectual, points
clearly to a consciousness of the make-believe character of the

Whatever a dog’s powers of jocosity when uninstructed by man, it seems
safe to set down a good share of his highly developed sense of fun
to his profound susceptibility to man’s educative influence; which
again (as the difference between the educability of the dog and of the
cat at once shows) implies an unusual strength of those instincts of
attachment to man which have made him almost the type of fidelity.

How far, one wonders, will this educative influence of man be likely
to go in the case of the most companionable of our domestic pets? W.
Preyer tells us, that the dog is capable of imitating the signs of
human gaiety, that an {161} intelligent specimen, when confronted
with our laughter will draw back the corners of his mouth and leap
into the air with a bright lustre in the eye.[93] Here we seem to have
a rudiment of a genuine laugh, and may perhaps cease to speak rather
confusingly of a dog’s “laughing with his tail”. G. J. Romanes relates
that he had a dog who went some way towards qualifying himself for the
office of clown. This animal would perform a number of self-taught
tricks which were clearly intended to excite laughter. “For instance,
while lying on his side and violently grinning, he would hold one leg
in his mouth.” Under these circumstances “nothing pleased him so much
as having his joke duly appreciated, while, if no notice was taken of
him, he would become sulky”.[94]

This animal must, one supposes, have been in an exceptional degree
a “funny dog”. It seems a pity that the observer did not take a
“snapshot” at that grin so that it might be a shade less abstract and
“in the air” than the grin of the Cheshire cat, as treated by Mr. Lewis
Carroll. What seems clear is, that the physiognomy of a dog manages to
execute a weirdly distorted semblance of our smile. With respect to the
vocal part of the expression, we must not expect too much. The bark may
not be able to adjust itself to our quick explosions of gaiety. It is
commonly said that the dog has a special bark for expressing pleasure,
and it seems likely that he employs this when he is said to be seized
by the sense of the funniness of things.

On the moral side, the possibility of the dog’s becoming a humorous
beast looks more promising. He certainly exhibits rudiments of feelings
and mental attitudes which {162} seem in man to be closely related to
a reflective humour. As the inner circle of his human friends know, he
can be terribly bored. I saw, not long since, a small dog undergoing
the process of chaining by his mistress before she took him into a
shop. He drew a long yawn, and his appearance was eminently suggestive
of a keen sense of the absurdity of the shopping habits of ladies, a
sense which only wanted the appropriate utterance to become a mild,
tolerant kind of satire. Yet one must be mindful of one’s own warning
against a too hasty interpretation of such actions.

We may now turn to animals much nearer ourselves in the zoological
scale. Among monkeys we obtain, undoubtedly, something more closely
akin to our smile and laugh. Darwin has made a careful inquiry into the
similarities between the two. He tells us that some of the essential
features of the facial expression during a laugh, the drawing backwards
of the corners of the mouth, the formation of wrinkles under the eyes,
etc., are “characteristic and expressive of a pleased state of mind in
various kinds of monkeys”.[95]

With respect to laughter-like sounds, Darwin gives us several pertinent
facts. A young chimpanzee will make a kind of barking noise when he
is pleased by the return of any one to whom he is attached, a noise
which the keeper interprets as a laugh. The correctness of this
interpretation is confirmed by the fact that other monkeys utter a kind
of “tittering sound” when they see a beloved person. A young chimpanzee
when tickled under the armpits produces a more decided chuckling
or laughing sound. “Young ourangs, also, when tickled will make a
chuckling sound and put on a grin.”

It has been found by Dr. L. Robinson that the young of {163} the
anthropoid apes are specially ticklish in the regions of the surface
of the body which correspond with the ticklish regions in the case of
the child. Not only so, a young chimpanzee will show great pleasure
when tickled, rolling over on his back and abandoning himself to the
pastime, much as a child does. When the tickling is prolonged he
resembles a child further by defending ticklish spots. So, too, does a
young ourang. It may be added that young apes, like many children, make
a pretence of biting when tickled.

To sum up: the young of the higher apes have something resembling our
smile and laugh, and produce the requisite movements when pleased.
Their attempt at laughter, as we might be disposed to regard it,
appears as a sign of sudden joy in circumstances in which a child will
laugh, _e.g._, on the reappearance of a beloved companion after a
considerable interval. It further occurs when the animal is tickled,
along with other manifestations which point to the existence of a
rudiment of the child’s capacity for fun and for the make-believe of

One more fact should be added in order to bring out the similarity
here to the human attitude towards the laughable. It is probable, from
the testimony of several observers, that monkeys dislike being laughed
at.[96] Now, it is true that the enjoyment of fun and the dislike to
being made its object are not the same thing. Nor do they seem to vary
together in the case of men; otherwise the agelast would not be so
often found among those who keenly resent being the object of others’
laughter. Nevertheless, they may be regarded in general as correlative
traits; creatures which show a distinct distaste for being made the
objects of laughter may be supposed to be capable of {164} the
laughing attitude, so far at least as to be able to understand it.

Turning now from sub-human kinds of laughter to the full expression
as we know it in ourselves, we may briefly trace the history of the
smile and laugh during the first years of life. Here the question
of the date of the first appearance of these expressive movements
becomes important; and happily we have more than one set of careful
observations on the point.

With respect to the smile, which is commonly supposed to be the first
to show itself, we have notes made by Darwin and by Preyer. According
to the former, the first smile appeared, in the case of two of his
children, at the age of forty-five days, and, of a third, at a somewhat
earlier date.[97] Not only were the corners of the mouth drawn back,
but the eyes brightened and the eyelids slightly closed. Darwin adds
that the circumstances pointed to a happy state of mind. Preyer is
much fuller here.[98] He points out the difficulties of noting the
first true smile of pleasure. In the case of his own boy, it seems, the
movements of the corners of the mouth, accompanied by the formation of
dimples in the cheek, occurred in the second week, both in the waking
and in the sleeping state. The father thinks, however, that the first
smile of pleasure occurred on the twenty-sixth day, when after a good
meal the child’s eyes lighted on the mother’s face. This early smile,
he adds, was not an imitation of another’s; nor did it imply a joyous
recognition of the mother. It was just the instinctive expression of a
feeling of bodily satisfaction. {165}

Other observers differ, too, in respect of the date of the first
occurrence of the true expressive smile. For example, Dr. Champneys
puts it in the sixth, Sigismund in the seventh week, agreeing roughly
with Darwin; whereas Miss Shinn gives as the date the latter half
of the first month, and so supports Preyer’s observations. Another
lady, Mrs. K. C. Moore, would go farther than Preyer and say that the
first smile occurs on the sixth day of life.[99] It may be added that
Miss Shinn is more precise than Preyer in her account of the early
development of the smile. She tells us that, whereas the first smile
of her niece—whom we will henceforth call by her name, Ruth—(latter
half of first month) was merely the outcome of general comfort, a smile
occurred in the second month which involved an agreeable perception,
namely, that of faces bending over the child in which she took great
interest. This smile of special pleasure, expressing much gaiety,
occurred when she was lying fed, warm, and altogether comfortable.

It is fairly certain that these differences indicate some inequalities
of precocity in the children observed. At the same time, it seems
probable that the several observers are dealing with different stages
in the development of the smile. Preyer shows clearly that it undergoes
considerable expansion, involving increased complexity of movement, and
the addition of the important feature, the brightening of the eye. Mrs.
Moore gives no description of what she saw on the sixth and seventh
days, and is presumably referring to a vague resemblance to a rudiment
of a smile which had no {166} expressive significance; and some things
in Preyer’s account lead us to infer that he is speaking of a less
highly developed smile than Darwin.[100]

All that can certainly be said, then, is that the movements of a smile,
as an expression of pleasure, undergo a gradual process of development,
and that an approach to a perfect smile of pleasure occurs some time in
the second month of life.

If we turn to the dates assigned to the first occurrence of a laugh, we
find the uncertainties are at least equal to those encountered in the
case of the smile. Darwin illustrates how a smile may gradually take on
an accompaniment of sound which grows more and more laughter-like. One
of his children, who, he thinks, first smiled at the age of forty-five
days, developed about eight days later a more distinct and impressive
smile, accompanied by a little “bleating” noise, which, he adds,
“perhaps represented a laugh”. It was not, however, till much later
(113th day) that the noises became broken up into the discrete sounds
of a laugh. Another child of his, when sixty-five days old, accompanied
his smile by “noises very like laughter”. A laughter, with all the
indications of genuine fun behind it, occurred in the case of one of
his children on the 110th day, when the game was tried of throwing a
pinafore over the child’s face and then suddenly withdrawing it, this
being varied by the father’s suddenly uncovering his own face and
approaching the child’s. He adds that, some three or four weeks before
this, his boy appeared to enjoy as a good joke a little pinch on his
nose and cheeks.

Preyer puts the date of the first laughter-like sounds, as {167} he
puts that of the first smile, earlier than Darwin. He says he observed
a visible and audible laugh in his boy on the twenty-third day. This
was a chuckling at the view of a rose-tinted curtain. The sounds
were repeated in the following weeks at the sight of slowly swinging
coloured objects and at new sounds, _e.g._, those of the piano. At the
same time he tells us that a prolonged loud laughter, recognisable as
such by a person not looking at what was going on, first occurred in
the eighth month when the boy was playing with his mother. Among the
other observers it may suffice to refer to one of the most careful,
Miss Shinn. This lady, who, it will be remembered, puts the date of
Ruth’s first smile as early as the first month, assigns the child’s
first genuine laughter to the 118th day. It was excited by the sight of
the mother making faces. It is worth adding that Ruth reached her third
performance eleven days later.[101]

In this case, too, it is probable that we have to do, not merely
with differences of precocity in the children observed, but with the
difficulties of determining what is a clear example of the expression
concerned.[102] There is no doubt that the full reiteration of our
laughter is reached by stages. This is brought out fully by Darwin,
and is allowed by Preyer. Yet how much of the series of more or less
laughter-like sounds produced by an infant during states of pleasure is
to be regarded as entering into the development of laughter, it is not
easy to say. Miss Shinn heard Ruth give out curious little chuckling
sounds of two syllables on the 105th day, that is thirteen days before
she produced her {168} laugh. She adds under the date, 113th day, that
is to say, five days before the laugh, that the child had developed new
throat sounds, crowing, croaking, etc., and showed a strong disposition
to vary sounds in a pleasurable mood. It seems highly improbable that
these sounds were not preparatory stages in the development of the

It is fairly certain that laughing comes after smiling. Preyer’s words
may no doubt seem to suggest that the first laugh (twenty-third day)
comes before the first smile (twenty-sixth day); but his account of
the development of the two shows plainly that this is not his meaning.
He distinctly says that laughter is only a strengthened and audible
(laut) smile; and remarks, further, that “in all (children) alike the
utterance of pleasure begins with a scarcely noticeable smile, which
quite gradually passes into laughter in the course of the first three
months”. He adds that this development depends on that of the higher
brain centres, and the capability of having perceptions.[104]

The first laughter is, like the smile, an expression of pleasure. As
Preyer puts it, the laughter is a mere heightening of the look of
pleasure. It marks, however, a higher level of agreeable consciousness.
Whereas the first clumsy experiments in smiling denote nothing but a
comfortable state of repletion, the first attempts at laughter are
responses to gladdening sense-presentations, such as swinging coloured
objects, and the new sounds of a piano. This laughter at new visual
and aural presentations was followed, according to Preyer, between the
sixth and the {169} ninth week by a laughter more distinctly joyous
or jubilant, as the child regarded his mother’s face and appeared
to recognise it. This laughter of mental gaiety seems at an early
age—about the fourth month—to ally itself with movements of the limbs
(raising and lowering of the arms, etc.) as a complex sign of high
spirits or gladness.[105]

How far the provocative of laughter mentioned by Darwin, namely,
suddenly uncovering the child’s head (or his own) implied a rudiment
of fun, I am not sure. It shows, however, the early connection between
laughter and agreeable surprise, that is to say, a mild shock, which,
though it borders on the alarming, is on the whole gladdening.

One other early form of laughter, which is found also in certain young
animals, is that excited by tickling. This has been first observed, in
the case of the child, in the second or the third month. Preyer’s boy
laughed in response to tickling in the second month.[106] Dr. Leonard
Hill tells me that his little girl, who was by-the-bye specially
sensitive to titillation, responded first by laughter in the tenth week.

Since our analysis has led us to regard the effect of tickling as
largely mental, and as involving a playful attitude, this fact confirms
the conclusion that the specialised laughter which is the accompaniment
of play occurs in a well-defined form within the first three months.

To sum up: We find, within the first two or three months, both the
smile and the laugh as expressions of pleasure, including sensations of
bodily comfort and gladdening sense-presentations. We find, further,
in the reflex reaction of laughter under tickling, which is observable
about the {170} end of the second month, the germ of a sense of fun,
or of mirthful play; and this is indicated too in the laughter excited
by little pinches on the cheek at the end of the third month.

It is certain that these tendencies are not learned by imitation. This
is proved by the fact, established by Preyer, that imitative movements
do not occur in the normal child till considerably later, and by the
fact that the child, Laura Bridgman, who was shut out by her blindness
and deafness from the lead of companions, developed these expressions.
We must conclude, then, that they are inherited tendencies.

Here the psychologist might well stop in his inquiries, if Darwin and
others had not opened up the larger vista of the evolution of the
species. Can we, by carrying the eye along this vista, conjecture how
these instinctive movements came to be acquired in the course of animal

The first question that arises in this inquiry is whether the smile
or the laugh was the earlier to appear in the course of racial
development. The expressions of animals below man do not offer any
decisive clue here. The anthropoid apes appear both to produce a kind
of smile or grin, and to utter sounds analogous to our laughter. It
may, however, be contended that this so-called laughter is much less
like our laughter than the grin is like our smile. In the absence of
better evidence, the fact that the smile appears first in the life of
the child must, according to a well-known law of evolution, be taken as
favouring the hypothesis that man’s remote ancestors learned to smile
before they could rise to the achievement of the laugh. This is further
supported by the fact that, in the case of the individual, the laugh
when it occurs announces a higher form of pleasurable consciousness,
the level of perception {171} as distinguished from the level of
sensation which is expressed by the first smile. Lastly, I am informed
that among imbeciles the smile persists lower down in the scale of
degeneration than the laugh. Dr. F. E. Beddard writes to me: “I
remember once seeing a defective human monster (with no frontal lobes)
whose only sign of intelligence was drawing up the lips when music was

It is commonly held that, since the expression of pain, suffering, or
apprehension of danger among animals is a much more pressing necessity
for purposes of family and tribal preservation than that of pleasure
or contentment, the former is developed considerably earlier than the
latter. According to this view, we can understand why the adumbrations
of a smile and a laugh which we find in animals closely related to man
have been so imperfectly developed and appear only sporadically.

Supposing that the smile was the first of the two expressive movements
to appear in the evolution of the human species, can we conjecture how
it came to be the common and best-defined expression of pleasurable
states? In dealing with this point we may derive more definite aid from
Darwin’s principles.

The fact that the basis of a smile is a movement of the mouth at
once suggests a connection with the primal source of human as of
animal enjoyment; and there seems, moreover, to be some evidence of
the existence of such a connection. A baby after a good meal will,
I believe, go on performing something resembling sucking movements.
The first smiles may have arisen as a special modification of these
movements when there was a particularly lively feeling of organic
contentment or well-being. I believe, further, {172} that an infant
is apt to carry out movements of the mouth when food is shown to it. A
similar tendency seems to be illustrated by the behaviour of a monkey
which, when a choice delicacy was given it at meal-time, slightly
raised the corners of the mouth, the movement partaking of the nature
of “an incipient smile”.[108] Again, our hypothesis finds some support
in the fact that, according to Preyer and others, the first smiles of
infants were noticed during a happy condition of repletion after a good

Supposing the smile in its origin to have thus been organically
connected with the pleasurable experience of sated appetite, we can
easily see how it might get generalised into a common sign of pleasure.
Darwin and Wundt have made us familiar with the principle that
expressive movements may be transferred to states of feeling resembling
those of which they were primarily the manifestations. The scratching
of the head during a state of mental irritation is a well-known
instance of the transference.

There are, I believe, facts which go some way towards verifying the
supposition of a transference of eating-signs to states of lively
satisfaction and pleasure generally. Savages are wont to express keen
pleasure by gestures, _e.g._, rubbing the belly, which seem to point
to the voluminous satisfactions of the primal appetite. The clearest
evidence, however, seems to be furnished by the account of a baboon
given us by Darwin. This creature, after having been made furiously
angry by his keeper, on making friends again, “rapidly moved up and
down his jaws and lips and looked pleased”. {173} Darwin adds that a
similar movement or quiver of the jaws may be observed in a man when he
laughs heartily, though with us the muscles of the chest rather than
those of the lips and jaws are “spasmodically affected”.[110]

Judging from the interval between the occurrence of the first smile and
of the first laugh in the life of the individual, we may conjecture
that laughter did not grow into a full reiterated sound in “primitive
man,” or his unknown immediate predecessor, till much later. We should
expect that a considerable development of vocal power would be a
condition of man’s taking heartily to this mode of emotional utterance.
The study of the infant certainly supports this idea. The babble of
the second and third months, which is made up of a reiteration of many
vocal and consonantal sounds, may prepare for laughter, as it certainly
does for speech. The observations of Miss Shinn, quoted above, on the
expansion of the range of vocal sound before the occurrence of the
first laugh are most significant here. They seem to point to the fact
that in the evolution of the species the first laughter was selected
from among a great variety of sounds produced in pleasurable states.

Let us now suppose that our immediate animal ancestor has reached the
level of clear perceptions, and is given to the utterance of certain
reiterated sounds during states of pleasure. Let us further conceive
of him as having his sympathies developed up to the point of requiring
a medium for expressing not only pains but pleasures, and more
particularly for calling others’ attention to the presence of cheering
and welcome objects, _e.g._, of a member of the family who has been
abroad for a time. Such an animal would need to improve on his primal
smiles and grins. He would require vocal utterances of some strength in
order {174} to reach distant ears, something answering to the cackle
of the hen when she has discovered some choice morsel and desires to
bring her brood to her side. How is this improvement to be effected?

One may hazard the guess that the process may have been something
of this kind. The position of the open mouth during a broad smile
was, we may reason, in itself favourable to the production of vocal
sounds. We may, after the analogy of positions of the eyes, speak of
it as the “primary position” of the vocal chamber when opened. This
primary position would pretty certainly be specially favourable to
the utterance of a certain kind of sound, let us say that commonly
indicated by “eh,”[111] together with something of the guttural or
chuckling accompaniment of this in the sound of laughter. We may
then infer that, when some of the reiterated babble-like sounds were
produced during states of pleasurable satisfaction, the same (primary)
position would be taken up. We should thus get, as psycho-physical
concomitants of the sensed position of the opened mouth during a
broad smile or “grin,” not only a disposition to reiterate the
“eh” or some similar sound as a completion of the whole action, of
which the opening of the mouth is the first stage, but a definite
associative co-ordination between the movement of opening the mouth
and the reiterated actions of the muscles of the respiratory and vocal
apparatus. In this way we may understand how, when the pleasurable
state expressed by a smile increased in intensity, as, for example,
when the happy feeling excited by the sight of a face passed into the
joy of recognising a member of the family, the {175} movements would
widen out into those of a laughter-like utterance.

It appears to me that, in this connection, the observed course
of development of laughter in the individual is not without its
suggestiveness. Miss Shinn remarks that Ruth’s mouth was opened wide
on the 113th day—five days before the first laugh—while the child was
tossed and tumbled. Under date of the 134th day, again, we read of
much laughter of an inaudible kind, consisting of broad laughter-like
smiles; and these observations certainly show that about the date of
the first laughter an expanded smile, indistinguishable from a laugh
save by the absence of the respiratory and vocal adjunct, was frequent.
In other words, they tell us that about the time when she achieved her
first laugh she was freely practising the intermediate facial step
between the earlier smile and the true laugh.

This theory would plainly illustrate Mr. Herbert Spencer’s principle,
that states of feeling affect the voluntary muscles in the order of
increasing calibre, the smaller being called into play by feelings
of lower intensity, the larger by those of higher intensity. But
this theory is not enough. We must take into account also the order
of frequency of use, and of consequent liability to discharge in the
connected nerve-centres. It seems probable that the muscles engaged
in the movements of the mouth and those exercised in phonation would,
for these reasons, be specially liable to be acted upon. These wider
tendencies would, according to the above hypothesis, be assisted
by special associations. These would secure the combination of the
two groups of movements, which I have assumed to have been employed
independently as utterances of pleasurable feeling: namely, those
involved in smiling, and those underlying the first happy reiterated
sounds of a quasi-infantile babbling. {176}

One element in the laugh, its explosive vigour, seems unaccounted for
on this hypothesis. Here, I think, the effect of relief from strain,
which is so common a factor in human laughter, may be called in. The
earliest laughter of the child seems to illustrate this element. For
example, that which occurs during tickling, in a game of bo-peep, and
at the sight of the mother making faces may be said to arise from a
serious attitude suddenly dissolved. Perhaps the first great laugh was
produced by man or by his proximate progenitor, when relief came after
fear or the strain of battle. So far as primitive laughter was the
outcome of such concentrated energy seeking relief, this circumstance
would help to account for the prolongation as well as for the strength
of the sounds.

Our conjecture cannot lay claim to be a hypothesis. It makes no attempt
to explain the precise forms of the changes which enter both into the
smile and into the laugh. At best, it is only a rough hint as to a
possible mode of genesis.

I have here treated of the genesis of laughter under its more general
aspect as an expression of pleasurable states of feeling. We have seen,
however, that within the first three months of life another and clearly
specialised variety of laughter emerges, namely, that called forth
by tickling. It follows from our analysis of the effect of tickling
that it is one of the earliest manifestations, in a clear form, of the
laughter of fun or of play. As such, it demands special attention in
any attempt to explain the development of laughter.

As a specialised reaction having a clearly marked reflex form, it
is natural to ask whether laughter in response to tickling is not
inherited, and, if so, how it arose in the evolution of the race. And
we find that suggestions have {177} been made for explaining the
genesis of this curious phenomenon. We will first glance again at the
facts, and then examine the hypotheses put forward for explaining them.

Here, again, the question how far animals are susceptible of the effect
becomes important. I have already alluded to Darwin’s remark, that if
a young chimpanzee is tickled, more particularly under the armpits, he
responds by a kind of laughter. The sound is of a chuckling or laughing
kind. The emission of these sounds is accompanied by retraction of the
corners of the mouth, and sometimes by a slight amount of wrinkling in
the lower eyelids.[112] Dr. Louis Robinson publishes other observations
of the effect of tickling on the young of anthropoid apes. He tells us
that a young chimpanzee when tickled for some time under the armpits
would roll over on his back showing all his teeth and accompanying
the simian grin by defensive movements, just as a child does. A
young ourang at the Zoological Gardens (London) behaved in a very
similar way. The young of other animals, too, betray some degree of
ticklishness. Stanley Hall remarks that a dog will retract the corners
of his mouth and thus go some way towards smiling if tickled over the
ribs.[113] Dr. Robinson finds that horses and pigs are also ticklish;
and he thinks that these animals have specially ticklish regions,
which correspond to a considerable extent to those which have been
ascertained in the case of the child.

We may now refer to the first appearances of the tickling reflex in
the child. As pointed out above, the response by defensive movements
appears shortly after birth, whereas {178} the earliest instance of a
response by laughter occurs in the second, or in the first half of the
third month. It is to be noted that this date is distinctly later than
that of the first laughter of pleasure, though it is not far removed
from that of the first clear appearance of the laughter of gaiety or

These chronological facts bear out the theory that the laughter of a
tickled child has a distinct _psychical_ antecedent. On this point Dr.
L. Robinson writes to me as follows: “I have never been able to succeed
in eliciting laughter from young infants under three months old by
means of tickling, _unless one also smiled and caught their attention
in some such way_”. This evidently points to the influence of mental
agencies even in the first stages of laughter from tickling.

With respect to the parts in which the tickling first excites laughter,
different observers appear to have reached dissimilar results. Preyer
distinctly speaks of the tickling of the sole of the foot as provoking
laughter in the second month. Whether he tried other parts he does not
say. Dr. Leonard Hill tells me that one of his children first responded
to tickling when the titillation attacked the palm of the hand, or ran
up the arm. Responses to the tickling of the neck and soles of the feet
came later.

The fact that the effect of tickling becomes so well defined by, or
soon after, the end of the second month, proves pretty conclusively
that it is an inherited reflex; and the evolutionist naturally asks
what it means, what its significance has been in the life of our

Dr. Stanley Hall carries back evolutional speculation very far, and
suggests that in tickling we may have the oldest stratum of our psychic
life, that it is a survival of a process in remote animal progenitors
for which touch was the only {179} sense. He supposes that in these
circumstances even light or “minimal” touches, say those coming from
the movements of small parasites, being unannounced by sight or other
far-reaching sense, would be accompanied by disproportionately strong
reactions. He does not attempt to explain how laughter grew out of
these reactions. He does indeed call them reactions “of escape,” but
he does not follow up the idea by hinting that the violent shakings of
the body by laughter, when it came, helped to get rid of the little
pesterers. In truth, this ingenious thinker hardly appears to make the
explanation of the laughter of tickling, as distinguished from the
other reactions, the subject of a special inquiry.[114]

A more serious attempt to explain the evolution of the laughter of
tickling has been made by Dr. Louis Robinson. He, too, hints at the
vestigial survival of experiences of parasites, but appears to think
that these account only for the disagreeable effects which are brought
about when the hairy orifices of the nostril and the ear are tickled.
This limitation strikes one as a little arbitrary. The reaction of
laughter, which Dr. L. Hill called forth when he made his fingers run
up the arm of his infant, is surely suggestive of a vestigial reflex
handed down from ages of parasitic pestering.[115]

With regard to the laughing reaction, which, as we have seen, he
considers to involve a distinct mode of stimulation, he suggests
that it is an inherited form of that common mode of play among young
animals, which consists in an exchange of good-natured and make-believe
attacks and defences, or a sort of game of sham-fight. {180}

In support of this theory he lays stress on the fact that
susceptibility to tickling is shared in by the young of a number of
species of animals standing high in point of intelligence, including
not only the higher apes, but the dog and the horse. He adds that, in
general, there is a concomitance between the degree of playfulness of
a young creature and that of its ticklishness, though lambs and kids
which are not ticklish are allowed to be an awkward exception.

If tickling is a playing at fighting we may expect it, like other kinds
of play, to mimic serious forms of assault. Now we know that the first
rude attacks of man, so far as we can gather from the movements of a
passionate infant, took the forms of striking, tearing with the nails
and biting. Tickling may be said to be a sort of mild pretence at
clawing. Dr. Robinson tells us that about 10 per cent. of the children
he has examined pretended to bite when they were tickled, just as a
puppy will do.

Dr. Robinson goes a step farther and seeks to show that the areas of
the bodily surface which are specially ticklish in children are those
likely to be attacked in serious warfare. In nearly all of them, he
says, some important structure, such as a large artery, is close to the
surface and would be liable to injury if the skin were penetrated. They
would thus be highly vulnerable regions, and consequently those which
would be singled out for attacks by teeth or claws. He argues that the
same relation holds in the case of animals which attack one another in
the same way as man. The regions of special ticklishness in their case,
too, appear to correspond, roughly at least, with vulnerable regions.
Indeed, in the young chimpanzee and the young ourang these ticklish
areas are approximately the same as in the child. {181}

From all this he concludes that ticklishness, being bound up with the
mimic warfare which fills so large a space in the life of many young
animals, has its utility. The strong liking to be tickled, which
children and, apparently, some other young animals express, serves, in
combination with the playful impulse to carry out this gentle mode of
attack, to develop mimic attacks and defences which are of high value
as training for the later and serious warfare.

These applications of the evolution theory are certainly interesting
and promising. I think the idea of relief from parasites might be
worked out further. May it not be that the light touches given by the
fingers of the parent, or other member of the ancestral family when
hunting for parasites on the surface of the young animal, have, by
association with the effects of relief from the troublesome visitors,
developed an agreeable feeling-tone? As we have seen, the laughter
of tickling has a distinctly mental antecedent; it appears in the
child, only when he is beginning to enjoy laughingly little pinches
on the cheek, and otherwise to show a germ of a sense of fun. The
light touches, reminiscent at once of unpleasant settlers, and of
delivering fingers, would, one imagines, be exactly fitted to supply
that dissolution into nothing of momentary apprehension indicated by
our analysis of the mental factor in tickling.

With respect to Dr. Robinson’s hypothesis, it may be acknowledged
ungrudgingly to be a brilliant piece of hypothetical construction. But,
as the writer frankly confesses, the facts, here and there, do not
point in its direction. A very serious objection is the fact that the
sole of the foot and the palm of the hand are not taken into account in
his attempt to establish a correspondence between the ticklish areas
of {182} the surface and a high degree of vulnerability. In Stanley
Hall’s returns it is the sole of the foot which is most frequently
mentioned as a ticklish area; and, as we have seen, it was the first to
give rise to laughter in the case of one child at least.[116]

There is another and more serious objection to Dr. Robinson’s theory
as an explanation of laughter. One may urge that the occurrence of
such violent movements would, by shaking the body and by inducing
fatigue much earlier than need be, pretty certainly be detrimental to
that prolonged practice of skill in attack and defence, to which Dr.
Robinson attaches so much importance.

The supposition that tickling is a variety of play developed by natural
selection among combative animals is, I think, highly probable. The
play of animals, like that of children, is largely a form of social
activity involving a playmate; and is apt, as we know, to take the form
of attack and defence, as in chasing, throwing over, pretending to
bite, etc. These playful attacks are, as we have seen, closely related
to teasing; indeed, teasing may be viewed as merely a play-imitation
of the first stage of combat, that of challenging or exciting to
contest.[117] Tickling pretty obviously finds a fitting place among
the simpler forms of playful combat which have a teasing-like
character. Moreover, these forms of social play all seem to show, in
a particularly clear manner, the utility referred to in the preceding
chapter. {183}

Now, this idea will, I think, help us to understand how loud and
prolonged laughter came to join itself to the combative game of
tickling and being tickled. If play—pure, good-natured play—was to
be developed out of teasing attacks, it would become a matter of the
highest importance that it should be clearly understood to be such.
This would mean, first of all, that the assailant made it clear
that his aim was not serious attack, but its playful semblance; and
secondly, that the attacked party expressed his readiness to accept the
assault in good part as sport. It would be of the greatest consequence
to the animal that chanced to be in the play-mood and wished to make
overtures of friendly combat that he should be sure of an equally
gamesome attitude in the recipient of the challenge. One may see this
by watching what happens when a dog, unwisely trying to force a frolic
on another dog, is met by a growl and possibly by an uncovering of
the canine teeth. Now, what better sign of good-temper, of readiness
to accept the attack as pure fun, could nature have invented than
the laugh? The smile is, no doubt, a pretty good indicator in some
circumstances. Yet one must remember that the rudimentary smile of an
ape-like ancestor may, now and again, have been misleading, as our own
smiles are apt to be. A laugh would presumably be less easy to affect
in such circumstances than a smile; and, in any case, it would be far
less liable to be overlooked.

In saying that the laughter which accompanies tickling and other
closely allied forms of play in children owes its value to its being an
admirable way of announcing the friendly playful mood, I do not mean
that other signs are absent. Dr. L. Robinson reminds us that a tickled
child will roll over on his back just like a puppy. The laughter and
the rolling over seem to be two congenitally connected {184} modes
of abandonment to the playful attack. In the young of other ticklish
animals, _e.g._, the puppy, the rolling over may of itself suffice to
give the friendly signal.

It seems not unlikely that this consideration, the utility of laughter
as a guarantee to a playful challenger that his overtures will be
received in the proper spirit, applies to the evolution of all
laughter which enters into such forms of social play as the pretence
to attack, to frighten, and generally what we call good-natured
teasing. It has been suggested that teasing might well be taken as the
starting-point in the evolution of play.[118] By adopting this idea,
and by regarding laughter, in its elementary form, as essentially a
feature of social play, we might set out with this consideration of
utility in constructing our theory of the evolution of laughter. One is
tempted, too, to follow this course by the fact, recognised in common
language, that much, at least, of the later and more refined laughter
is analogous to the effect of tickling.[119]

Nevertheless, as we have seen, the best evidence attainable points to
the conclusion that this simple form of the laughter of social play
was preceded by, and grew out of, a less specialised kind of laughter,
that of sudden accession of pleasure. We may conjecture that the
laughter provoked by tickling was reached in the evolution of our race
soon after this reaction passed out of its primal and undifferentiated
form as a general sign of pleasurable excitement, and began to be
specialised as the expression of mental gaiety and of something like
our hilarity. The fact, noted above, {185} that children only laugh
in response to tickling when they are in a pleasurable state of mind
seems to confirm the hypothesis that the love of fun, which is at the
bottom of tickling and makes it perhaps the earliest clear instance of
mirthful play with its element of make-believe, first emerged gradually
out of a more general feeling of gladness.




Having examined the earliest and distinctly hereditary germs of the
laughing impulse in the child, we may pass to the consideration of its
expansion and specialisation during the first years. Although, so far
as I am aware, the new child-study has not yet produced a methodical
record of the changes which this interesting expression of feeling
undergoes, we may by help of such data as are accessible be able to
trace out some of the main directions of its development.

Two closely connected problems are involved here: (_a_) how the
expressive movements, the laugh and the smile, themselves change
and get differentiated; and (_b_) how the psychical process which
precedes and excites these expressive movements grows in complexity
and differences itself into the various forms of gaiety or amusement
enumerated above.

In dealing with these early manifestations we shall, of course, look
for reactions which are spontaneous, in the sense of not being due to
imitation and the lead of others. Yet it will not always be easy to
determine what are such. It has been pointed out above that laughter
is one of the most contagious of the expressive movements. Children,
therefore, who are much given to imitation may be {187} expected to
show this contagiousness in a particularly clear manner.

The difficulties are, however, not really so formidable as they might
at first seem to be. If a child is, on the one hand, highly susceptible
to the contagion of laughter, there is, on the other, no expression
of his feeling in which he is more spontaneous. The swift directness
of the “natural” or spontaneous laugh may be readily discriminated by
a fine observer. Not only so, but a difference may be detected in the
tone of the laughter when it is perfectly natural and real, and when
it is merely imitative and artificial. The note of affected laughter
is well known to careful observers of children. It is particularly
plain where a child is not merely reproducing the laughter of others
at the moment, but has it suggested to him by others that a thing is
laughable. Miss Shinn’s niece developed at the end of the second year a
forced laugh on hearing the word “funny” employed by others.

The best safeguard against this error is to choose an only child who is
well isolated from mirthful surroundings. This need not be so cruel an
experiment as it looks. In the social world of the merry little Ruth,
nobody, we are told, was a “laughing person”. This circumstance gives
great value to the observations made on this child. Her laughter was
probably as purely self-initiated as anything in child-life can be.

It may be added that, even if we could not eliminate the imitative and
the artificial element, there would still be a pretty wide field for
careful observation in the child’s own freer type of mirth. For, as
all his friends know, his hearty laughter is frequently a response to
things which leave us dull “grown-ups” wholly unaffected, or affected
in quite another way. {188}

With regard to the development of the expressive movements themselves
I can find but few data at hand. These are enough, however, to show
that the process of differentiation commences during the first year.
Mrs. Moore tells us that her boy in the thirty-third week acquired a
new form of smile “which gradually but not entirely supplanted the
(earlier) broad open-mouthed smile. . . . The nose was wrinkled up, the
eyes nearly closed. . . . This smile seemed to express an extreme and
more conscious enjoyment.”[120] Preyer remarks that his boy developed
in the last three months of the first year “a more conscious movement
of laughter,” which, presumably, had a different character as an
expressive movement. In the case of the boy C., of whom I have written
elsewhere, a new and clearly differenced note was detected in the laugh
of defiance (to be referred to later) which appeared early in the
second year. Mrs. Hogan says she noticed a “mischievous laugh” at the
age of fifty-five weeks, whereas Preyer remarks that the first “roguish
laugh” occurred in his boy’s case at the end of the second year. A more
precise record of the phonetic changes in laughter during the first two
or three years is greatly to be desired.

The movements of laughter are subject to the laws of movement in
general, Repetition and Habit. They tend to perfect themselves by
practice; and the result probably involves a strengthening and an
expansion of the wide-ranging organic commotion which makes up the
reaction. A child of four will laugh on being tickled much more
vigorously than one of two.[121] Moreover, the effect of repeated
exercises of the function would seem, as already {189} hinted, to
involve the setting up in the motor-centres, from which the discharge
in laughter issues, a condition of high instability, so that a very
slight application of the stimulus, or (as in the case of tickling) the
mere threat to apply this, suffices to evoke the reaction. Lastly, this
work of organisation will plainly involve a fixing of the connection in
the brain-centres between the effect of the stimulation and the motor
reaction. We say that the impulse of laughter has become associated
with a definite kind of sense-presentation. The instant response of
a child to the threatening fingers is a clear example of the result
of such an associative co-ordination. Other examples are seen when a
particular sight or sound takes on permanently a funny character. A
child that has come to regard a figure in a picture book or an odd
sound made by the nurse as funny will laugh whenever this recurs or is
spoken of, provided that the mood of the moment is favourable. This
is a noteworthy illustration of the way in which the action of the
novel and unexpected—which, as we all allow, has a large _rôle_ in
the excitation of laughter—may be replaced by that of an antagonistic
force, namely, habit, which itself appears to secure the hilarious

It may be added that so far as Habit comes in, reducing the importance
of the initial psychical stage, and rendering the reaction automatic,
the theory of Lange and James applies fairly well. The feeling of
genial hilarity is in this case largely the reflex mental effect of the
movements themselves, including the whole organic commotion brought

Coming now to the development of the psychical element in laughter, we
may, by way of introduction, refer to certain principles which ought to
be useful.

(_a_) To begin with, any variety of emotional reaction {190} excited
by a particular kind of presentation appears, as it is repeated,
to undergo a process of development, taking on more of fulness and
complexity. A feeling of attachment to a person or to a place, or of
admiration for a cherished work of art, grows fuller and deeper with
the establishment of a relation of intimacy. Dimly realised resonances
of former like experiences melt into, and deepen the feeling, and new
elements are woven into it by associative complication, and by growing
reflection. This increasing complexity affects both the ideational
basis of the emotion and the closely connected emotional tone

At first sight we might be disposed to think that the feeling of sudden
joy at the back of a merry explosion would prove to be an exception
to this law. Since an element of novelty, a sense of joyous mental
collapse under a sudden, yet harmless stimulus, runs through all our
laughter, there might seem to be no room for any increase of depth and
volume. But this is not so. A child’s feeling of the “fun of it” at
the approach of the tickling hand seems to gain in volume and force
with the repetition of the experience. The zest of the enjoyment of a
laughing romp with the nurse, or, better, with the father, of watching
the funny ways of a kitten, and so forth, grows fuller because of the
increasing complication of the psychosis behind the laughter.[123]

(_b_) In the second place the development of an emotion is essentially
a differentiation of it, not merely into a more definite kind of
experience as a whole, but into a number of {191} distinguishable
sub-varieties of feeling. In other words, the reaction is called forth
by new excitants and new modes of stimulation which give rise to
mental complexes somewhat different from those caused by the earlier
excitants. Thus, as we mentally develop, admirations having a richer
ideational structure and more complexity of feeling-tone take the
place of the first simple ones, which last die out or survive only as
rudimentary processes.

This enlargement of the field of exciting objects, with the concomitant
differencing of the emotional state into a larger and larger number of
shades, is the outcome of the whole process of mental growth. It means,
first of all, the growing differentiation of the child’s experience,
that is, of his perceptions and ideas, as well as the expansion of
his reflective processes. In this way a modified admiration attaches
itself to a new kind of object, _e.g._, works of art, virtuous actions,
when these come to be perceived and reflected on in such a way as to
disclose their admirable side.

In all such extensions the emotional reaction remains in its essential
elements one and the same experience. We may say, if we like, that
the expression has been “transferred” to a new situation or a new
experience, through the working of a force which has been called “the
analogy of feeling”.[124]

This process of extension by analogy of situation and attitude may
be seen to be a constituent in the development of laughter. Taking
its primitive form to be the expression of a sudden raising of the
feeling-tone of consciousness to the level of gladness—which elevation
may be supposed to {192} involve at least an appreciable sense of
relief from a foregoing state of strain or oppressive dulness—we may
readily see how the reaction is passed on, so to speak, to analogous
mental attitudes which are developed later.

Let us take as an example a child who, having reached a dim
apprehension of the customary behaviour of things begins to laugh at
certain odd deviations from this. Here the transition appears clearly
to be a kind of transference mediated by the identity of the mental
attitude with that of the laughter of an earlier stage, say at the
sight of the new and entertaining baubles. Similarly when, after the
consciousness of rule is developed, a child roguishly “tries it on” by
pretending to disobey, we may regard the new outburst of the spirit
of fun as a natural transition from an earlier variety, the laughing
pretence of running away from mother or nurse.

Nevertheless, we have to do here with more than a mere transference.
Such extensions always involve some amount of complication and
enrichment of the mirthful experience. These later forms of mental
gaiety depend on the development of more complex psychoses, both on
the intellectual and on the emotional side. The first amusement at the
sight of the ill-matched, the inconsequent, implies the advance of an
analytic reflection up to the point of a dim perception of relations.
A large part of the extension of the field of the laughable depends
on this intellectual advance, a finer and more precise apprehension
of what is presented, in its parts and so as a whole, as also in
its relations to other things. With respect to the other condition,
expansion of the emotional life, it is enough to remark that certain
forms of laughter which fall within the first years of life arise
directly out of a deepening of the emotional consciousness as a whole,
_e.g._, the awakening of the “self-feeling,” as seen {193} in the
laughter of success or triumph; or, on the other hand, of tenderness
and sympathy, as illustrated in the first rudiments of a kindly humour.

We see, then, that, as a feature in development, differentiation
into a multiplicity of forms is inseparably connected with another
feature, complication. The gradual appearance of a number of laughters
variously toned, such as that of slightly malicious elation at collapse
of dignity, of entertainment at an intellectual inconsequence, and
of a kindly amusement at a petty disaster, means that the elemental
feeling of joy is getting modified by accretions or absorptions of new
psychical elements.

A final remark is needed to prevent misapprehension. Among the several
processes of complication which underlie this differentiation of the
laughing psychosis, some tend to arrest or tone down the reaction.
It is thus that, when sympathy comes to be united with the laughing
impulse, the gaiety of the latter is apt to become subdued into
something between a smile and the gentlest of laughs. In addition to
this inhibitory effect of heterogeneous emotional elements we have that
of new conative attitudes. A child soon finds out that a good deal of
his rollicking laughter is an offence, and the work of taming the too
wild spirits begins.[125]

With these general considerations to help us, we may now look at the
course of development of the laughing experience during the first three

It may be premised that the smile and the laugh only become gradually
differentiated as signs of qualitatively dissimilar attitudes. In the
case of Ruth the two expressions remained for a time interchangeable,
and frequently {194} alternated in the same fit of joyous delight. But
about the 129th day the smile, it is remarked, began to take on one of
its specialised functions, the social one of greeting.

Coming now to laughter, we have found that it begins at an early date
to pass from a general sign of sudden increase of pleasure or good
spirits into something akin to mirthful play. This has been illustrated
in the early responses to tickling, and, a little later, to simple
forms of a laughing game (_e.g._, bo-peep).

By what process of change, one may ask, does the impulse to laugh when
the heart suddenly grows glad pass into the laughter of play? Allowing,
as seems certain, that the play-impulse is inherited, can we point out
any psychological connection between the two?

The answer has already been given in substance in our general analysis
of the causes of laughter. A sudden rise of pleasurable consciousness,
when it possesses the mind and becomes gladness, say the infant’s flood
of delight at the swinging coloured baubles, necessarily dissolves, for
the time, the tense, serious attitude into a loose, play-like one. The
child’s consciousness is now all gladness in face of his bauble; and
play is just another way of effecting this dissolution of the serious
attitude into a large gladness. Not only so, but the elemental mood
of laughter resembles the play-mood, since it finds its satisfaction
in pretence or make-believe. The gladdening object divested of all
serious interest becomes a play-thing, a mere semblance of the thing
of practical account which the child observed in the serious moments.
Its greeting by the senses may be described, indeed, as a kind of play
of these senses. Hence, the specialisation of the primal laughter
of delight into that of fun would appear to be one of the simplest
processes in the whole development of the emotion. {195}

We may now briefly trace out some of the phases of development of these
two primal forms of laughter.

With regard to the laughter of delight and jollity, we find, to judge
from the careful record of Ruth’s emotional utterances, that there
is a rapid development during and after the fourth month.[126] In
this month, we read, the child was thrown into a state of vivacious
delight—which expressed itself in smiles, in movements, in cooing and
crowing—by the faces and voices which may be said to have “played”
to her as she sat at table. The advent of the meal was that of a new
joyous world, and, if the child could have spoken, she would probably
have exclaimed, “Oh, what fun!” The large change effected by the return
of a familiar face and voice after an absence was only another way of
transforming her world into a merry one.

Towards the end of the fifth month, the note-book speaks over and
over again of “jollity” and “high spirits,” of the child’s “laughing
with glee when any one smiled or spoke to her,” of “being exceedingly
jolly, smiling, kicking and sputtering,” and so forth. This growing
gleefulness seemed to be the outcome of new expansions of the
pleasurable consciousness, of a pure “Lebenslust”. No doubt it had its
obscure source in a pleasurable cœnaesthesis, the result of merrily
working digestive and other processes of organic life. Yet it had its
higher conditions, also, in the expansion of the life of the senses and
in the growing range of the muscular activities. Laughter and shouts of
joy would, we are told, accompany not merely the inrush of delightful
sights and sounds, but the new use of bodily powers in exploring and
experimenting. {196}

This gaiety in taking possession of her new world showed itself in the
greeting of friendly faces. The new appearance of her grandfather after
an absence excited her laughter on the 133rd day. By about the middle
of the year, the child had, like Preyer’s boy, developed a jubilant
greeting for her social belongings, nodding a friendly nod with all the
signs of huge delight.

These outbursts of laughing joy may sometimes be seen to have been
preceded by a distinctly disagreeable state of feeling. In the case
of Ruth, we are told that the fit of jollity broke out, on one or two
occasions, upon “instantaneous relief from great general discomfort”.
Again, on the 222nd day, having awoke and felt timid, she laughed with
joy and a sense of relief when her mother came into the room. I have
other evidence to show that this laughter of overflowing gladness is
often to some extent a relief from constraint. Thus, a boy of one and
a half years who had a new nurse, and for some days behaved with great
gravity when with her, was during the same period “extremely hilarious”
when alone with his parents.

The gladness of the world grew larger to this happy girl when, towards
the end of the seventh month, she was taken into the open air, and,
shortly after, allowed to lie on a quilt and roll on the ground. The
wooing of the passing freshness, the play of sun and shadow, the large
stir of life in moving and sounding things, all this possessed her and
made her “laugh and ejaculate with pleasure”. With this may be compared
a note on a boy nine months old, who, lying in a clothes-basket in
a garden one summer’s day, looked up at the leaves dancing in the
sunshine and laughed with “a hearty noisy laugh”.

The development of bodily power in this same half-year brought our
little maiden much gleeful laughter. {197} Any experience of movement,
passive as well as active, filled her with noisy hilarity. To ride
on anybody’s foot brought out, at the end of the fifth month, the
unmistakable signs of hilarious rapture. A month later, the gleeful
explosion was called out by the new frolicsome experience of being
jumped and tossed. Similar expressions of mirth occurred when new
active movements were accomplished. In the record of the middle of the
ninth month, we are told of a medley of movements, tumbling on the
floor or lawn, sitting up and lying down, raising herself on the feet
and hands, etc., which brought her “singular joy”.

A part of the gleefulness of this widening experience of movement
is due to its unexpected results. It seems probable that the first
successful experiments in crawling, climbing and the rest may give
rise to new complexes of muscular and other sensations which come as
a joyful surprise. Such delightful surprises grow more varied and
impressive when the arms and hands begin to experiment. For example,
a little girl, aged two and a quarter years, happened when throwing a
ball at random to jerk it over her head, and was seized with a spasm of
hilarity. The gleeful outburst is apt to occur, too, later on when a
child first achieves the feat—half-wonderful, half-amusing—of walking,
of running and of jumping.[127]

In these expanding processes of jollity or gleefulness we may detect
the beginnings of more specialised forms of laughing enjoyment. Thus,
in the outburst of merriment which winds up a successful attempt to
climb, we recognise the germ of that mode of reaction which is apt to
follow at the moment of sudden relaxation of tension on the attainment
of an end. We may be sure that a child {198} of nine months finds the
effort to stand a very serious and exhausting strain; and may infer
that the laughter which occurs in this case is largely due to momentary
relaxations of this strain.

But again, these experiences clearly supply conditions favourable to
the emergence of that “sudden glory” which enters into successful
effort. The “shouting and laughing” of little Ruth (forty-five weeks)
on completing the magnificent exploit of climbing the staircase
had, as her aunt’s epithet “exultant” recognises, something of the
free-breathing jubilation of the successful mountain-climber. We are
told further that, in the tenth month, Ruth would break into the same
exultant laugh after some successful mental effort, such as pointing
out the right picture when this was asked for.

Here, then, we have the laughter of a joyous feeling-tone complicated
by new elements. These include, not merely the delightful feeling
of relief after prolonged effort, but some dim form of an agreeable
consciousness of growing power and of an expanding self. In the glee
on mastering a new movement, _e.g._, riding on somebody’s foot, we see
traces of a more distinctly playful mood. We may now follow out the
development of this large variety of gamesome mirth.

The overflow of the health-filled reservoirs of muscular activity
begins at an early stage to wear an unmistakable aspect of playfulness.
The first exercises in crawling, accompanied by various sounds of
contentment and gladness, are indeed recognisable by all as a kind
of play. As the forces of the organism establish themselves a more
manifest bent to a romping kind of game appears. This, as a game
in which co-operation enters, involves a development of the social
consciousness, and its gleefulness comes {199} in part from the
reverberations of mutual sympathy. A good example of the hilarity of
a romping game is Ruth’s uproarious delight, in the seventh month,
when dragged about on a carpet, an experience which involved, of
course, much loss of equilibrium and some amount of awkward bumping.
That the bumps were of the essence of the enjoyment is confirmed by
the fact that, in the tenth month, she would like to stand, holding
on to a chair, and then deliberately to let herself go so as to “come
down sitting with a thud,” winding up the performance by “looking up
laughing and triumphant”. Another game involving exciting jolts was
liked in the middle of the twelfth month. The child was shot in her
carriage, now from the aunt to the mother, and now back, each little
ride ending up with a jolt, over which she grew very merry. Later on,
(at the end of the twentieth month) she laughed heartily on being
knocked down by her dog in a too pushful bit of play; and she enjoyed
in like manner some pretty rough play at the hands of a nine-year-old
boy companion.

This mirthful treatment of romps, which must have involved a palpable
amount of discomfort, is interesting as showing how laughter plays
about the confines of the serious. This little girl seems, up to the
age of three, at least, to have been curiously indifferent to pain.
Yet she was not wanting in the common childish timidity. It looks,
then, as if the fun of these rather rough games turned on dissolutions
of nascent attitudes of apprehension, and, consequently, the laughter
expressed something of a joyous contempt of fear. Indeed, it seems
likely that an element of this joyous rebound from a half-developed
state of fear entered into much of this child’s laughter, already
illustrated, on succeeding in a rather risky experiment, such as
climbing the staircase. We read that, like other vigorous {200}
children, she was a keen pursuer of new experiences, even in cases in
which she knew that some pain was involved. The passion for trying new
experiments seems to have urged her on, in spite of nascent fear; and
the final shouting and laughing may well have announced, along with
the joy of successful effort, a sense of triumph over the weaker timid
self. The ability, illustrated in these hardy experiments, to turn
situations suggestive of danger into “larkish” play, was a singular
proof of the firm foundation on which this child’s prevalent mode of
gaiety reposed.

In some cases Ruth’s play would take on a form which clearly involved
a triumphing over fear. Thus, we are told that when, on the 429th day,
she was asked to find “auntie” in the dark she at first stood still
and silent. Then, when her head was touched by somebody’s hands, she
broke into laughter and started off by herself to explore in the dark.
Later on, with the growth of a bolder spirit, this laughing triumph
over fear extended itself, so that in the twenty-ninth month she played
at bear with her uncle, going into a dark room, with her hand in her
aunt’s, and enjoying “the exhilaration of unreal alarm”; and when the
uncle sprang out from his dark hiding-place, growling fearfully, she
“laughed, shrieked and fled all in one”. If the uncle went a little too
far in the use of the alarming she would check him by saying, “Don’t do
that again”.

In these cases, it is evident, we have a complex psychosis with
alternating phases. The awful delight which vents itself at once
in a laugh and in a shriek and a flight is certainly of a mixed
feeling-tone. The laughter is the note of a triumphant spirit, and yet
of one in which, in the moment of triumph, the nascent fear leaves its

In these laughing games we have clearly an element of {201}
make-believe. A firm persuasion, low down in consciousness, of the
harmlessness of the coming bump and of the human bear in the blackness
keeps the little girl’s heart steady and turns the adventure into fun.
At the same time, the play as “pretending” would seem to involve at
least a half-formed expectation of something, and probably, too, a
final taste of delicious surprise at the fully realised nothingness of
the half-expected. In some forms of play-pretence this element of final
annihilation of expectation becomes more conspicuous and the distinct
source of the hilarious exultation. When, for example, in the eleventh
month, Ruth sitting on the floor held out her arms to be taken up, and
the mother, instead of doing this, stooped and kissed the child, there
was a perfect peal of laughter again and again.

The increase of muscular activity shown in the laughing romps leads
to the extension of mirthful enjoyment in another way. A vigorous
child, even when a girl, grows aggressive and attempts various forms
of playful attack. As we have seen, to tickle another is merely one
variety of a large class of teasing operations, in which the teased as
well as the teasing party is supposed to find his merriment. Regarding
now the child as teaser, we see that he very early begins to exercise
at once his own powers and others’ endurance. The pulling of whiskers
is one of the earliest forms of practical jokes. Ruth took to this
pastime in the first week of the fifth month. By the end of the sixth
month the little tormentor had grown aware of her power, and “became
most eager to pull, with laughter and exultant clamour, at the nose,
ear, and especially the hair, of any one that held her”. The boy C.,
at the same age, delighted in pulling his sister’s hair, and was moved
by her cries only to outbursts of laughter. As intelligence develops,
these practical jokes grow more cunning. Another little {202} girl,
of whom I have written elsewhere under the initial M., when seventeen
months old, asked for her father’s “tick-tick,” looking very saucy;
and as he stooped to give it, she tugged at his moustache, “and almost
choked with laughter”.

With this teasing of human companions we have that of animals. When
sixteen months old, Ruth would chase the cat with shouts of laughter.
Another child, a boy, about the same age, went considerably further,
and taking the toilet puff from its proper place went deliberately
to “Moses,” the cat, who was sitting unsuspectingly before the fire,
and proceeded to powder him, each new application of the puff being
accompanied by a short chuckle.

There is no need of reading into this laughter the note of cruel
exultation over suffering.[128] Ruth’s mischievous doings would take
forms which had not even the semblance of cruelty. There was merely
impish playfulness in the act of snatching off her grandmother’s
spectacles and even her cap, with full accompaniment of laughter, in
the twenty-second month when lifted to say good-night. In much the same
spirit the other little girl, M., delighted, when two years old, in
untying the maid’s apron strings and in other jocose forms of mischief.

The laughing mood in these cases is understandable as a rioting in
newly realised powers, a growing exultation as the consciousness
of ability to produce striking effects grows clearer. Ruth, in her
eleventh month, blew a whistle violently and looked round laughing to
her aunt and the others present. Here, surely, the laughter was that of
{203} rejoicing in a new power. This sense of power implies a clearer
form of “self-feeling”. A child may grow keenly conscious of the self
in such moments of newly tried powers, as he grows in “the moments of
intense pain”. This laughter, then, furnishes a good illustration of
the sudden glory on which Hobbes lays emphasis.

I have assumed that in this laughing mischief we have to do with a form
of (playful) teasing. The little assailant enjoys the fun of the attack
and counts on your enjoying it also. The indulgence of others, even
if they do not show an equal readiness for the pastime, removes all
thought of disobedience, of lawlessness.

Yet things do not commonly remain at this point of perfectly innocent
fun. The gathering energies of the child, encouraged by indulgence
in games of romp, are pretty certain to develop distinctly rowdyish
proceedings. Ruth, for example, when about twenty-one months old,
scrambled defiantly on to the table at the close of a meal, seized on
the salts, and scampered about laughing. About the same time this new
spirit of rowdyism showed itself in flinging a plate across the room
and other mutinous acts. Little boys, I suspect, are much given to
experiments in a violent kind of fun which they know to be disorderly.
One of them, aged two years eight and a half months, was fond of
“trying it on” by pulling hair-pins out of his mother’s hair, splashing
in the puddles in the road, and so forth, to her great perplexity and
his plainly pronounced enjoyment.

In these outbursts of laughing rowdyism we see more than an escape of
pent-up energies, more than a mere overflow of “high spirits”; they are
complicated by a new factor, something of the defiant temper of the
rebel. A child of two has had some experience of real disobedience,
and may be said to have developed simple ideas of order {204} and
law. We may reasonably infer, then, that in this turbulent fun there
is some consciousness of setting law at defiance. The presence of this
new psychical factor is seen in the alteration of the laughing sounds
themselves. In Ruth’s case, we are told, they were “rough” and unlike
the natural and joyous utterance. It is further seen in the method of
the fun, for, as Miss Shinn observes, Ruth “tried repeatedly to see how
far she could go safely in roguish naughtiness”.

I think we find in this behaviour a clear instance of laughter becoming
an ingredient in the attitude of throwing off a customary restraint.
It is the early analogue of the laughter of the rowdies bent on
window-smashing, of the riotous enjoyment of the people at festal
seasons when the lord of misrule holds sway.

The degree of conscious defiance of order may, no doubt, vary greatly.
In much of what we view as the disorderly mirth of a child this
ingredient of the laughing mood may be small and sub-conscious; yet
at times it grows distinct and prominent. Thus, Ruth, in the eleventh
month, developed a special expression for the attitude of defiance
when disobeying, namely, a comical face with a wrinkling of the nose,
together with laughter. The boy C., early in the third year, would give
out a laugh of a short mocking ring on receiving a prohibition, _e.g._,
not to slap his dog companion. He would remain silent and laugh in a
half-contemptuous way. Sometimes in his moods of defiance he would go
so far as to strike a member of his family and then laugh. His laugh
was sometimes highly suggestive of the mood of derision.

In this note of warlike challenge we have a point of kinship with the
“crowing” laughter of the victor. Yet it is doubtful whether a child
at this early age reaches the {205} mental attitude of a mocking
contempt. Preyer tells us that he has never observed scornful laughter
within the first four years.[129]

When the consciousness of the unruly in these “high jinks” becomes
distinct and begins to be oppressive, the laughter will be less
boisterous and express more of playful pretence. The child learns to be
satisfied with making a feint to rebel, with a make-believe unruliness.
Ruth, on the 236th day, laughed when pretending to disobey by biting
off the petals of flowers, and on the 455th day, by stuffing buttons
into her mouth. The boy C., when about the same age, had his little way
of turning disobedience into a game. In the seventeenth month, when he
was bidden by his mother to give up a picture he had got possession
of, he walked up to her and made a show of handing over his unlawful
possession, and then drew his hands back with much laughing enjoyment.

A more complicated psychical attitude appears when such laughing
pretence at disobedience takes on a “roguish” aspect. Here we have, not
only an element of slight uneasiness, but one of self-consciousness,
which together give a distinct complexion to the whole mental attitude
and to its expression.

This ingredient of a timid self-consciousness or shyness under the
scrutiny of others appears, as we know, some time after the simpler
forms of fear. In Ruth’s case it seems to have showed itself on the
123rd day in a distinctly “roguish” attitude. When at dinner and spoken
to by her grandfather, she turned her head as far as she could. On the
141st day, too, when held in her nurse’s arms, she {206} smiled at her
grandfather and others and then ducked her head. This expression of
roguish self-consciousness had more of the look of a nervous explosion
in the eleventh month, when the girl laughed on being set on her feet
in a corner where she was much noticed; and again, in the thirteenth
month, as she tumbled about and showed herself off. This laughter,
with something of the _gêne_ of self-consciousness in it, was, we
are told, not to be confounded with the expression of a complacent

The element of an awkward shyness comes into much of the early playful
“trying it on”. In the case of the boy C., just mentioned, it was
seen in the sly, upward look of the eyes and the short, half-nervous
laugh, when he was face to face with authority and disposed to play at
disobedience. The fuller roguish laugh occurs frequently along with a
risky bit of play, as when a boy of one and a half year would point to
himself when asked for a finger-recognition of somebody else. In such
cases the laughter seems like an attempt to get rid of the element of
risk. When the masking of the impulse of fun by timidity is greater,
the expression reaching only to a tentative smile, the roguishness of a
child may easily wear a look of kinship with our grown-up humour.[130]

A full account of the development of laughter during these first years,
as an ingredient of the play-mood, would be of great value. It would,
in particular, help us to see how the reaction comes to be definitely
co-ordinated with the sense of make-believe, and the attitude of
throwing off the burdensome restrictions of reality. The vocal mirth
of children, as they give reins to their fancy, attests to {207} the
weight of this burden and to the intense delight which comes from its
momentary abandonment.

In seeking for the first traces of the laughter of play and of
defiance, we are not greatly troubled by the interfering influence of
others. No doubt this influence is at work even here. The nurse and
the parents are pretty certain to laugh at much of the roguish “trying
it on”; and this laughter will react upon the child’s own merriment.
In play, too, in which others usually take some part, there is this
action of older persons’ laughter. Still, in the main, the utterances
are spontaneous, and at most are reinforced by way of some sympathetic
rapport with another.

It is otherwise when we come to consider the first instances of
laughing amusement at the presentation of “funny” objects. The lead of
others now complicates the phenomenon to a much more serious extent.
The recognition of an object as “funny” implies some detection of a
quality which acts on others as well as on the self;[131] consequently,
it presupposes a certain development of the social consciousness.
Hence, some cautiousness is needed in noting the first clear examples
of a perception of the quality. Before language comes and supplies
a means of self-interpretation, we cannot safely say that because
a child laughs in presence of an object there is a recognition of
something objectively “funny”. As we have seen, such laughter may be
fully accounted for by supposing that the object has an exhilarating
or gladdening effect on the child’s feeling. On the other hand, when
language is added we have to cope with the difficulty, already touched
on, that a child’s pronouncements are apt to be controlled by what
others laugh at and call funny. Nevertheless, here, too, the child’s
spontaneity and his way of discovering his own {208} sources of
amusement may enable us to overcome the difficulties.

Our study of the conditions of the perception suggests that a true
enjoyment of presentations as oddities is not to be expected at a
very early date. And this, first of all, for the reason that the
new, especially if it is strange, even though fitted to draw forth a
joyous laugh, may easily excite other and inhibitory attitudes. An
infant, during the first year of life, if not later also, is apt to
be disturbed and apparently alarmed at the approach of new objects,
so as to be unaffected by its rejoicing aspect; or, if he feels this,
the laughter may be accompanied by signs of fear. Ruth, on her 254th
day, greeted a kitten which her father brought to show her with “all
gradations from laughter and joy to fear”. In the second place—and this
is of more importance—the recognition of an object as funny presupposes
the work of experience in organising a rudimentary feeling for what
is customary. This, again, involves a development of the social
consciousness and of an idea of a common order of things.

Now all this requires a certain amount of time. It hardly seems
reasonable to look for a true apprehension of the laughable till some
time after the appearance of an imitation of others’ laughter and
play-gestures, which was first observed, in the case of the boy C.,
in the ninth month. Nor could it well be expected until after a child
had acquired some understanding of others’ language, so as to note how
they agree in naming and describing certain objects as funny, which
understanding only begins to be reached in the second half of the
year. Hence, I should hesitate to speak of a clear recognition of a
laughable object as such before the last quarter of the year. It seems
to me, for example, a little rash to say that a boy of five months, who
always laughed inordinately when a very jolly-looking physician, {209}
the image of Santa Claus, paid him a visit, displayed a “sense of

When once the idea of objects of common laughter begins to grow clear a
child is, of course, able to develop perceptions of the funny along his
own lines. This he certainly seems to do pretty briskly. The freshness
of his world, the absence of the dulling effect of custom which is seen
in the perceptions of older folk, renders him an excellent pioneer in
the largely unknown territory of King Laughter.

Among the sense-presentations which awaken the infantile laugh are new
and queer sounds of various sorts; and they may well be selected for a
study of the transitions from mere joyous exclamation to a hilarious
greeting of what is “funny”. Early in the second half of the first
year, a child in good health will begin to surmount the alarms of the
ear, and to turn what is new and strange into fun. About the 222nd day
brave little Ruth was able to laugh, not only at such an odd sound as
that produced when her aunt rattled a tin cup on her teeth, but at that
of a piano. Preyer’s boy, later in the year, was given to laughing at
various new and out-of-the-way sounds, such as that of the piano, of
gurgling or clearing the throat, and even of thunder.

Odd sounding articulations appear to be especially provocative of
laughter about this time. As early as the 149th day, Ruth laughed at
new sounds invented by the aunt, such as “Pah! Pah!” Queer guttural
sounds seem to have a specially tickling effect.

After words and their commoner forms have begun to grow familiar,
new and odd-sounding words, especially names, are apt to be greeted
with laughter. The child M., when one year nine months old, was much
impressed by the {210} exclamation “good gracious!” made by her mother
on discovering that the water was coming through the ceiling of a room;
and the child would sometimes repeat it in pure fun “shaking with
laughter”. When she was two years seven months old she laughed on first
hearing the name “Periwinkle”.

In these and similar cases of the hilarious response to sounds we
seem to have, well within the first nine months, a germ of a feeling
for the odd or droll. The early development of this sense of the
funny in sounds is aided by their aggressive force for the infant’s
consciousness, and by the circumstance that for the young ear they
have pronounced characteristics which are probably lost as development
advances, and they are attended to, not for their own sake, but merely
as signs of things which interest us.

The psychical process involved in the transition may be described as
follows. Sounds, while by reason of their suddenness and unexpectedness
they are apt to take the consciousness off its guard and to produce a
kind of nervous shock, are of all sense-stimuli the most exhilarating.
The sudden rousing of the consciousness to a large joyous commotion
is the fundamental fact. Nor will the jar of the shock, when the
sense-organ develops and becomes hardier, interfere with this. On
the contrary, it will add something in the shape of an agreeable
rebound from a nascent attitude of uneasiness.[133] The laughter of
the child at the first sounds of the piano, which have frightened
many a child and other young animal, is, in part, a shout of victory.
There is here, too, an element of “sudden glory” in the rejoicing, as
the new expanding self is dimly conscious of its superiority to the
half-alarmed and shrinking self of the moment before. {211}

In this case, it is evident, we have to do with a greeting of the
laughable which will vary greatly according to the psycho-physical
condition of the child. The same child that laughs at a new sound
to-day will to-morrow, when in another mood, be disturbed by a quite
similar surprise of the ear.

But more is involved in this laughter. The sudden and slightly
disturbing attack of the ear by new sounds is apt to wear for the
child’s consciousness a game-like aspect. We have only to think of
the nursery rhymes, alluded to by Miss Shinn, in which the excitement
of fun is secured by an explosive shock at the end, games closely
analogous to the rides which terminated in a good bump. In these rhymes
the fun lies in the shock, though only half-unexpected—a shock which
has in it the very soul of frivolous play, since it comes at the end of
a series of quiet orderly sounds. May not the new sounds, the guttural
utterances and the rest, affect a child in a like manner as a kind of
disorderly play? For a child’s ear, pitched for the intrinsic character
of a sound, they may hold much which is expressive of the play-mood.
This will apply not only to utterances like the “Pah! Pah!” which are
clearly recognised as play, but to many others produced by a nurse or a
mother who is given to entertaining. Perhaps the gurgling sounds which
moved the mirth of Preyer’s boy appeared laughter-like.

This tendency to look on certain sounds as a kind of play seems to
supply a psychical link in the development of a feeling for the odd
and out-of-the-way as such. We have seen how the play-impulse “tries
it on” when the restraints of rule grow too irksome. I suspect that
the mirthful appreciation of the queer and out-of-the-way grows out of
this inclination to a playful disorderliness or law-breaking. A child
is apt to feel oppressed with the rules of propriety {212} imposed on
him. By these rules quite a terrible multiplicity of noises is branded
as “naughty,” and the prohibition tends to fix the playful impulse
precisely in the direction of the forbidden sounds. Children have a
way, moreover, of projecting their experiences and their inclinations
into things which we call lifeless. What more natural, then, that they
should feel these incursions of violent and quite improper-sounding
noises to be a kind of playful throwing aside of order and rule?

In the domain of the visible world, suddenness of presentation rarely
reaches, perhaps, the point of shock or joltiness. Yet there is ample
scope, here, too, for the working of the unexpected on the child’s
sensibilities. The first visual excitants of laughter, the sudden
uncovering of the face in bo-peep, the unexpected return of the
familiar face after an interval of absence, the instant transformation
of the accustomed features when the mother “makes a face,” show how
directly the surprisingly new may act on the young muscles of laughter.

Here, too, we may see how the hilarious enjoyment of the new and
out-of-the-way emerges out of play-mirth. The distorted face of the
mother produces a laugh when it has ceased to alarm and is taken as
fun.[134] According to one observer, this making of faces grows into
a standing pastime towards the end of the second year.[135] Is not
the greeting of the baby-face in the mirror, which in Ruth’s case
occurred on the 221st day (eighth month), and in that of Preyer’s boy
at the end of the ninth month, a kind of accost of a newly discovered
playmate? Perhaps the laughter of a little boy, of one and a half
year, already referred to, at the jumping of a ping-pong ball and at
a {213} spring-blind going up or coming down with a run, expressed a
recognition of something play-like.

This co-operation of the play-inclination in the perception of the
laughable in visual presentations is still more plainly illustrated
in the effect of actions and postures. The quickness of the eye of
mirth for expressions of the mood of romping play is seen in a child’s
laughter, already referred to, at the gambols of a horse or other
animal. Ruth was much entertained on her 441st day by the antics of
a dog. Especially enlivening is the appearance of quick, play-like
movements in grave elders addicted to decorous deportment. The girl
M., at the age of eighteen months, broke into boisterous laughter on
seeing her father as he ran to catch a train, with his handkerchief
hanging out of his pocket. This sudden revelation of the playful temper
may come to the child by way of postures and expressions. The awful
laws of propriety soon tend to give the look of playful licence to
certain bodily postures, especially that of lying down. The boy C.,
when twenty months old, laughed heartily on seeing his sister lying
on the ground out of doors. Making faces, pouting lips and the rest
become playful just because they are felt to be improper, the sort of
thing one only does in a disorderly moment, playful or other. May not
the drolleries—to the child’s consciousness—of animal form, for example
the long neck of the giraffe, owe something to suggestions of improper
jocose actions, such as trying to stretch oneself into Alice-like

In this blithe recognition of the irregular in others’ behaviour we
have the rudiment of an appreciation of the laughable, not only as
a violation of rule but as a loss of dignity. This is apparent in
such cases as the boy’s laughter at the prostrate form of his sister,
illumined as {214} it was by the observation that, at the age of
twenty-six months, he expressed great contempt at the spectacle of a
Japanese gentleman stretched on the grass in the suburban Heath, which
was the child’s daily resort, and which he seemed strongly disposed to
subject to his own code of manners. Possibly, too, there was a touch of
this appreciation of lowered dignity when the same boy, at the age of
twenty-eight months, laughed greatly on seeing his father batter in an
old hat. The laughter, complicated now by a new element of conscious
superiority, probably took on a crowing note, though our dull ears may
not be equal to a clear detection of the change. Not only so, it is
possible that the laughter of children, common in the second year, at
signs of disorderliness in the hair or dress of others, and especially
superiors, implies a perception of something like lowered rank.

In this effect of the new in the visible world different tones of
mirth are no doubt distinguishable. As the higher forms of perception
begin to develop the primitive laughter of joy may persist and combine
with later and more specialised kinds. Ruth’s voicing of merriment,
in the thirteenth month, on having a new pair of mittens put on her,
was largely an outburst of joy, though some dim sense of the oddity of
the thing probably combined with this. On the other hand, the laughter
called forth in the little girl M., at the age of twenty-one months, by
the spectacle of a doll that had lost its arms presumably had in it,
along with a sense of something weirdly absurd in the mutilated form, a
pretty keen sub-consciousness of dollish proprieties set at defiance.

Other directions in the development of this early laughter at
entertaining spectacles may be said to have their origin in the fun of
play with its pretence or make-believe. Mrs. {215} Hogan’s boy, at the
age of two years and two months, would laugh at his nurse’s pretended
efforts to put on his shoes, which, instead of getting on, flew away
wildly into freedom. This laughter was evoked at the fun of the thing,
and probably involved an interpretation of the nurse’s action as play.
Yet it had in it also, I think, the trace of an appreciation of the
absurdity of the farcical collapse of effort. This is borne out by
the fact that the boy, about the same time, would also laugh when the
nurse, not in play, tried by jumping to hang a garment on a nail just
too high for her. He may, of course, have regarded this, too, as but
a continuation of the play. Yet it seems reasonable to suppose that
the merry current had one of its sources in the perception of the
amusing aspect of failure, of effort missing its mark and lapsing into

I confess to have been surprised at what looks like the precocity of
some children in the matter of honouring the proprieties of conduct.
The little girl M., when only fourteen months old, is said to have
laughed in an “absurdly conscious way” at a small boy who stood by
her perambulator asking for a kiss. That kiss, we are told, was not
forthcoming. Was the laugh merely an incident in a mood of nervous
shyness, or did it signify a dim perception of “bad form” on the part
of the proposer? Much care is needed in the interpretation of such
expressive reactions. A small boy of eighteen months laughed when
his pants slipped down. But this may only have resulted from a sense
of the fun of the irregularity of the proceeding, aided perhaps by
others’ amusement. A true feeling of shame is, of course, not developed
at this age; yet a child may have caught from instruction a feeling
of the shocking impropriety of an ill-timed casting aside of the
clothes-trammels. {216}

We may find in the laughter of the child, within the period of the
first three years, pretty clear indications of the development of
a rude perception of amusing incongruities in dress and behaviour.
The young eye has a keen outlook for the proprieties in the matter
of clothes. Ruth, who was in the thirteenth month amused at seeing
her new mittens put on, showed amusement about the same date when
her pink bonnet was put on her aunt’s head. In this case, the
play-significance of the action for the child’s consciousness is
apparent. It seems fairly certain, indeed, that this higher form of a
recognition of the laughable grows out of the play-interpretation. When
at play children not only throw off rules of decorum and do improper
things, they put aside ideas of appropriateness and launch out into
bizarre discontinuities and contrarieties of action and speech. The
play-attitude, as lawless and free, tends to inconsequence. Hence the
readiness with which a child interprets such inconsequences as play.

It is the same when a child laughs at droll stories of the doings of
animals and persons. He may take fables and other fancies seriously
enough at times, but if his mind is pitched for merriment, he will
greatly appreciate the extravagant unsuitabilities of behaviour of the
heroes of his nursery books. The little girl M., when two years seven
months old, laughed gaily at a passage in a story about kittens, in
which they are made to say, “Waiter, this cat’s meat is tough;” asking
in the midst of her merriment, “Did you ever saw such funny tits?”

Along with this rudiment of merry appreciation of the spectacle of
the incongruous, we have the first crude manifestation of the closely
related feeling of amusement at the absurd. Children are said to have
no measure of the probable and possible, and to accept the wildest
fancies in {217} unquestioning faith. Yet experience begins her
educative work during these first three years, and one may detect
sporadic traces of a feeling for what is gloriously incredible. A boy,
already alluded to, aged about one and a half year, laughed as his aunt
asked him what the waves, which he was gravely observing, were saying.
The boy C., when twenty-two months old, grew quite hilarious over the
idea of flying up into the air. Some one had suggested his flying like
a bird, and he proceeded to cap the suggestion, adding, “Tit (sister)
fy air,” “gee-gee (horse) fy air”. The last idea of a flying horse
especially delighted one innocent, as yet, of Greek mythology.

Lastly, a bare allusion may be made to the early development of an
appreciation of word-play and the lighter kind of wit. That this grows
out of the play-element, the love of pretence, is at once evident.
Verbal fun, “trying it on” with an incorrect use of words and so forth,
is a common outlet of the rollicking spirits of childhood. Mrs. Hogan’s
boy, at the age of one year eight months, developed a fancy for calling
things by their wrong names, a knife a “fork,” for example. Ruth did
the same towards the end of the third year. The fun derived from
punning seems to be immense in the case of many children at the close
of our period, as when a boy on hearing his mother say she had just
called on Mrs. Fawkes asked, “Did you call on Mrs. knives too?” This
easy childish mode of satisfying a jocose bent is seen also in the use
of false statements, not seriously, but “in fun,” as the child has it.
Ruth had a fit of such merry fibbing at the end of the third year. A
child will often “try on” this kind of verbal game, when called up for
a moral lesson.[136]

This same roguish impulse to “try it on” with the {218} authorities
leads to something like a play of wit in repartee. The merry
interchange of intellectual attack and defence, which relieves so many
serious relations of adult life, grows naturally enough in the case
of children out of their relation of subjection to the grown-ups. The
playful experiment in the direction of disobedience is frequently
accompanied by pretty exercises in verbal fencing, the joke of which
the perpetrator himself, at any rate, greatly enjoys. Such sportive
dialectic may arise, too, by way of meeting serious correction. A girl
of two and a quarter years was told by a foolish nurse that if she put
out her tongue she would get spots on her face. After listening gravely
she turned on her instructress and, putting her finger on a little
pimple on the latter’s chin, asked with “a most mirthful smile,” “How
Lizzie (the nurse) det dat ’pot dere den?”

Enough has been said, perhaps, even in this slight examination of
children’s laughter, to show that within the first three years all the
main directions of the mirth of adults are foreshadowed. Humour itself,
which is supposed only to come with maturity of feeling and reflection,
begins to announce itself in a modest way during this period. The boy
C., in his twenty-first month, had managed to twist his india-rubber
horse, so that the head was caught between the tail and the legs. He
laughed out loudly at first, then waxed tender, saying in a pitiful
tone, “Poor Gee-gee,” and so swung from the one emotional attitude to
the other.[137]

This appearance of the two feelings, distinct though contiguous, is,
of course, a very different thing from the highly organised sentiment
which we call humour. Miss Shinn {219} tells us that, in the case
of Ruth, the period of infantile gaiety has been followed by one of
serious practicality, into which humour does not enter. Perhaps it will
come later. In any case we have to recognise in this laughter of the
first years something far removed from the humour of the adult. It is
a pure primitive gaiety, uncomplicated by reflection and sadness. It
is enough for my purpose if it can be seen to disclose faint embryonic
tracings of the main lines of differentiation in the development of
human laughter.




In the last chapter we took a glance at the primitive forms of human
laughter as illustrated in children. We may now supplement this by a
brief inquiry into the merriment of the childhood of the race, so far
as this is reflected in the laughter of those savage tribes which have
come under the direct observation of the civilised man.

We shall expect the two domains to disclose similar features,
spontaneity, absence of reflection, whole-hearted simplicity. At the
same time we shall expect the study of the laughter of savages to
bring us more directly in touch with the social conditions which help
to determine the directions of mirth. The study of the savage mind is
the study of a collective mind, that is to say, of a typical form of
ideas, sentiments, and psychical tendencies generally, running through
a community. Its modes of merriment, like its more serious emotional
manifestations, have been observed as common traits of members of a
tribal society.

A word may be said at the outset with respect to the sources of our
information. It is a commonplace that civilised man finds all his
powers taxed when he tries to get into touch with the mind of a
savage. The difficulties of this access will naturally be greater
when the trait to be observed is an emotion which, while it is wont
to display itself with an instinctive directness so long as the {221}
surroundings secure freedom, tends to hide itself as soon as anything
strange appears which induces a feeling of _gêne_. The presence of
strangers, so far removed from the plane of life of savages as the
missionaries or officials of a civilised nation, would, one supposes,
act as such a check to their risible impulses. It is possible,
too, that the stranger who visits a savage tribe may supply, quite
unknowingly perhaps, in his look, dress, and manner of behaviour, a
number of provocatives of laughter which are resisted from a feeling of
what is due to a guest.

That there is some hiding of the merry mood here is not a mere matter
of inference, since travellers distinctly testify to the fact. The
undisciplined savage will now and again show a degree of self-restraint
comparable with that which an educated Frenchman will show when in
a Paris street he is addressed by a hardy British youth in what the
latter cheerfully supposes to be the language of the country. The
following story may serve as an example. A public meeting was being
held in a native village in Africa. An Englishman who was present got
up on a recumbent trunk of a tree, which is used as a seat in native
villages. The log rolled and the Englishman fell heavily. Yet the
whole meeting looked as grave as if the accident had been a part of
the programme. An uninstructed observer might have hastily inferred
that the tribe was wanting in a “sense of humour”. The narrator of
the incident knew better, and gives the incident as a proof of the
great power of self-restraint displayed. The same writer observes that
African savages, while allowing a European traveller to humour them and
treat them as children, will “amuse themselves at his expense after he
is gone, and, indeed, while he is present, if they know that he cannot
understand their speech”.[138] {222}

These considerations will prepare us to understand how some have
regarded savages as dull creatures, who know not how to laugh. That
this view is commonly held by those who have not visited them is
suggested by a passage in one of Peacock’s stories. In _Crotchet
Castle_ Mr. MacQueedy puts forward the thesis that laughter is “an
involuntary action developed in man by the progress of civilisation,”
and adds that “the savage never laughs”.[139]

It is only fair to say that travellers themselves have not been so
foolish as to uphold this view. At the same time, some of them have
drawn hasty conclusions from the fact that they happened never to have
heard members of a particular tribe indulge in laughter. A curious
illustration of this reasoning from inadequate negative evidence is
the dispute that took place, not so long ago, as to whether a people
of Ceylon, known as Weddas (or Veddas), came into the category of
the laughing animal. It was confidently asserted by a certain Mr.
Hartshorne that they never laughed, even when they were experimented
upon, and were confronted with the spectacle of others convulsed.
Another visitor may help us to understand this by his remark that
they vary “between a taciturn and almost morose mood when hungry, and
a laughing reckless mood when not hungry”. Hartshorne must evidently
have observed them in a hungry mood. Could it have been that, unlike
Mary Kingsley, as some of us remember her playfully observing, he had
something about him which kindled appetite?[140] {223}

Other illustrations of a too confident basing of a conclusion on
failure to observe may be found. Thus it is said by one traveller,
Bates, that the Brazilian Indians are of a phlegmatic, apathetic
temperament. A more recent visitor, Von den Steinen, gives us a
different impression, remarking in one instance that “the silent Indian
men and women continually chattered, and Eva’s laughter sounded forth
right merrily” (lustig heraus).[141]

These apparent discrepancies in the notes of different observers point,
I suspect, to something besides such accidents as the particular mood
in which the tribe is found. The ability to provoke laughter is not
possessed by all: witness the failure of many meritorious attempts
by adults to excite children’s merriment. Something of the easy
good-nature which disarms timidity, of fraternal sympathy, and of
the knack of making your audience believe you are like themselves,
seems needed to draw forth all the mirthfulness of these children of
nature.[142] We must always allow for this factor in the personal
equation of the observer of savage ways. It is refreshing to find that
missionaries have so often succeeded in getting at the lighter moods of
the heathen. It speaks well for their genial humanity.

The general impression one derives from these accounts is that
savage tribes are certainly not given over to a sullen despair, but
on the contrary have a large and abundant mirth. Like children, they
appear to express {224} their emotions with great freedom, and their
laughter and other signs of good spirits are of the most energetic
kind. Darwin tells us that his correspondents, missionaries and others,
satisfied him on this point. Loud laughter accompanied by jumping
about and clapping of the hands, and frequently carried to the point
of a flooding of the eyes—these are conspicuous characteristics to be
met with among the Australians and other savage tribes.[143] Other
testimony supports Darwin. Sturt, for example, tells us that the
natives of Central Australia are a merry people, and sit up laughing
and talking all the night long.[144] The more recent observations of
Lumholtz support the view that the natives are “very humorous”.[145]
The Maoris (of New Zealand) are said by one traveller to be “remarkable
for their natural gaiety: they are merry fellows: always laughing
and joking, especially during the adventures of a journey”.[146] Of
the Tasmanians we read: “There is not a little love of fun in the
despised aborigine”.[147] Similarly, the South Sea Islanders are “more
accustomed to jesting, mirth and humour than irritating and reproachful
language”.[148] The natives of Tahiti, again, “jest upon each other
with greater freedom than the Europeans”.[149] So, the Tongans have
“a strong sense of the ludicrous” which they show in “the ordinary
intercourse of life”.[150] Mr. Ling Roth, writing of the natives of
Borneo, speaks of “the chaff and fun so dear to the heart of every
Kanowit”.[151] {225}

In other regions, too, and among other races we light on the same
exuberance of mirth. This is true of the natives of Africa, when they
are unspoiled by Europeans. The Kafirs were said, by one who knew them
earlier, to be generally speaking a good-humoured people with a keen
relish for amusement, and ready to join in a jest.[152] Visitors to the
Gold Coast found that the natives dearly loved a joke, and had a most
lively sense of the ludicrous.[153] Miss Kingsley, as is well known,
found in the West Africans a people still given to mirth and jokes. In
a letter to me she writes: “I think the West African, unadulterated,
the most humorous form of human being there is, and this makes him
exceedingly good company for me”.

Nor is this joyous exuberance confined to the natives of warm climates.
We find examples of it in the chilly North. One who visited the Indians
of the Canadian Red River (the Chippewas) about forty years ago
says, that they are “full of frolic and fond of relating anecdotes;
they laugh immoderately at any trifling joke or absurdity and seem
thoroughly to enjoy existence”.[154]

These recurring statements of travellers about the mirthfulness of
savages are to some extent supported by other evidence. The writer on
the Tasmanians, already quoted, gives us a number of their different
local names for fun. When a people—and especially a savage people—has a
name for a thing, it is a fair inference that it has some considerable
acquaintance with the thing itself.

To say that this or that tribe is given to laughter and joking does
not, of course, imply that the merry temper is {226} the constant or
even the predominant one. We are told, indeed, in certain cases that
the mood is a changeable one, and that these undisciplined men and
women resemble children in their rapid transitions from grave to gay.
Thus one traveller to the Gold Coast remarks that the inhabitants
will change suddenly from reckless gaiety to despondency.[155] On the
other hand, as may be seen from our quotations, the predominance of
the gay temper, as expressed in the habitual smile and readiness to
laugh, seems to be a distinguishing trait of certain savage peoples.
One traveller, writing of the Patagonians, tells us that their faces
were “ordinarily bright and good-natured,” and that two of them in
particular, whom he knew intimately, “always had a smile on their

On the other hand, there is reason to think that some tribes stand
out from the general run of good-natured, merry folk by a habitual
preponderance of the grave and austere in their bearing. Rengger, for
example, remarks of the Indians of Paraguay that they are serious
and gloomy (düster), laugh only rarely, and never break into loud
laughter.[157] There are probably serious savage tribes, as there are
serious children in England and other civilised countries. It would be
strange, too, if the treatment of American Indians and other aboriginal
races by their civilised conquerors should not have developed now and
again, even in naturally merry folk, something of a gloomy demeanour,
at least in presence of the white man. Hence, these exceptional cases
do not seem to impair our general conclusion, that laughter has a large
dwelling-place among the uncivilised peoples of the earth. {227}

The descriptions of the movements expressive of mirth, given by these
visitors to savage tribes, are not as a rule full or exact. This might
be taken to mean that the laughter of a savage is much like our own.
Yet this would be a rash inference; for we must remember that it is not
easy for one untrained in the finer kinds of observation to note with
precision movements so complex and so rapidly changeful as those which
express gladness and mirth. The apparatus of the photographic camera
and of the phonograph has not as yet, I believe, been made use of for
the purpose of registering these presumably primitive forms of laughter
ere they vanish from the earth.

Darwin, as we have seen, has satisfied himself as to the flooding
of the eyes. The concomitant movements of hands and feet seem to be
common. A more precise account of these movements is given by Ling
Roth. The Tasmanians, he tells us, accompanied their loud bursts of
laughter with movements of the hands to the head and quick tapping
movements of the feet.[158] The loud, deep-chested character of
the men’s laughter is sometimes specially noted. A recent visitor
to Central Africa regrets that, under European influence, the
deep-chested, hearty laughter of men is being replaced by what is known
as the “mission giggle” in the younger folk.[159]

I have come across, too, one attempt to describe with some exactness
the expression of a happy mood when it flows on more quietly. The good
spirits of the Andamanese, it appears, show themselves in a sparkling
of the eyes, and a wrinkling of the surrounding skin, also in a drawing
back of the corners of the mouth which remains partially open.[160] It
may be concluded that the facial movements and {228} other changes
correspond broadly with what we have seen to be the characteristic
expression in the case of the children of civilised races; though
differences of racial physique undoubtedly introduce a slight amount of
dissimilarity into the expressive movements of laughter.[161]

Much of this savage laughter is just the outcome of a “gladsome
mind,” a flow of good spirits undisturbed by the thought of care
or trouble. This persistent “cheerfulness,” to describe it by our
inadequate language, stands their possessors in good stead. The natural
gaiety of the Maoris, we are assured, comes to their aid when they
encounter hardship. They are full of fun even when short of food on a

But the laughter of savages does not appear merely as a general sign
of gaiety and rollicking spirits. It has become specialised into the
expression of particular mental conditions and attitudes similar to
those which are expressed by the laughter of our own children.

For example, we find instances of laughter occurring as a recoil from
something like timidity or shyness. Two boys, relates a missionary,
had had the small-pox and had not seen one another for a month. When
they met in the missionary’s house they began by shyly hiding from one
another their disfigured faces. At last they summoned courage, and
after many side looks at one another they faced round and burst out
laughing, the elder boy saying, “We are alike marked”.[163] Here escape
from _gêne_, from a feeling akin to shame, was the primary condition of
the laughter, though this was no doubt reinforced by a sense of triumph
as each discovered that he was, at least, not worse off than the other.
A writer tells us that in East Africa {229} “a slave never breaks a
thing without an instinctive laugh of pleasure”.[164] This laugh is set
down to the love of destruction; yet it may be, in part at least, like
that of a naughty child, a laugh of bravado hiding a consciousness of
naughtiness, a mode of drowning a nascent sense of shame; for it is
presumable, from what this same writer tells us, that an East African
slave does not destroy his owner’s property with impunity. At the same
time, one must allow that the process of destruction in itself may be
to a savage, as alas it often is to an English boy, an easy way to the
attainment of a “sudden glory”.

Savages appear to resemble children more clearly in their introduction
of jocose attack into their play. Here we see an analogy between the
mental attitude of a savage and that of an older child. Nothing comes
out more plainly in the reports on these uncivilised peoples than their
fondness for teasing, including practical jokes.

The love of teasing is testified to by more than one writer. A good
authority tells us that savages “tease one another much more freely and
jokingly (scherzhaft) than Europeans”.[165] This fondness for teasing
comes out strongly in their mimicries of one another’s defects, a
point to be illustrated presently. In certain cases, the teasing, as
with our own boys, is apt to take on a decidedly rough form. A lady,
writing of the inhabitants of Funafuti, observes: “It is thought a good
practical joke in Funafuti for a girl to saw an unsuspecting youth with
a pandanus leaf,” which produces a very painful scratch: “a good deal
of laughter on the one side and volubility on the other is the usual
result of this joke”.[166] {230}

Practical jokes grow out of the teasing instinct: they are new
inventions which take the victim by surprise, if they do not distinctly
mislead. The savage intelligence is quite boyish in the fecundity of
its invention in this domain.

The younger folk seem to practise rude jokes very like those carried
out by our own youngsters. Here is an instance. A young African negro,
seeing an old woman carrying a pumpkin, approached her and shouted that
there was something on her head. She forgot all about the pumpkin,
shrieked at the thought of some hideous object on her head, and ran
forward, allowing her tormentor laughingly to pick up the prize she had
let fall.[167] As is natural, these practical jocosities are sometimes
directed, with a certain caution, of course, against the European. A
young savage of Tasmania once slyly removed a bag of shell-fish laid
down by a sailor at the foot of a rock, and let him search for it in
vain, and, when tired of his joke, replaced the bag, showing himself
“highly diverted” at the trick he had played the European.[168]

As with ourselves, these practical jokes are wont to be paid back, and
with “interest”. A story is told of certain Hottentots who played off a
joke on some sleeping companions by shooting a couple of arrows close
to them, which made them start up and hurry for arms to their waggons,
where they were received with a shout of laughter. The victims of this
false alarm afterwards paid out the perpetrators. They succeeded in
terrifying them by a skilful imitation of the roar of a lion, which
drove them into camp screaming with terror.[169] In other cases the
{231} practical joke may be retaliative of some serious annoyance,
and may even be inflicted on some European “superior”. Miss Kingsley
relates how some of her West African “ladies” had been piqued by the
employee of a trading company, who tried to get them apart, when
planting manioc, so as to hinder them from talking. They took their
playful revenge by making a haycock over their tyrant and shouting:
“Get along, white man! I ’spectable married woman,” and so forth. She
gives another instance of this disposition to playful punishment in her
ladies. A young black official had been rude to some of them, whereupon
they resorted to the broader joke of throwing him into “the batter that
passes for ‘water’”.[170]

Closely connected with these modes of teasing, we have the practice of
taking off bodily defects by mimicry and by nicknames. These modes of
playful attack appear to be directed most commonly against outsiders,
but instances are given of a discreet mimicry of a fellow-tribesman
in his absence. It seems probable, though I have not found the fact
brought out explicitly, that much of the amusement derived by these
simple folk from their nightly talks, which are made gay with laughter,
consists in teasing attacks on the bodily defects or peculiarities of
certain members; though, from the evidence forthcoming, one would infer
that a choral laughter over the stranger is the more usual feature in
these social entertainments.

In all this mirthful teasing it is easy to see much that strikes us as
cruel, or, at least, as unfeeling. It is only natural that the hilarity
of peoples low down in the scale of culture should now and again take
on this aspect; as when, for example, they are said to laugh exultantly
at {232} the struggles of a drowning man.[171] Yet, on the whole, the
merriment of these peoples, when the butt is a fellow-tribesman, though
undoubtedly rough and often very coarse, does not seem to be so brutal
as one might expect.

We can understand the diversion of so large an amount of savage mirth
into these practical channels—teasing, bantering and playing-off jokes
upon members of ones tribe, by reflecting that laughter is a social
process, and plays, as we shall see presently, a large part in the
smooth working, if not also in the very maintenance, of the social

In order to see the meaning of this teasing laughter, we must note the
way in which it is accepted. There is no doubt, to begin with, that
savages have by nature a lively dislike to being laughed at. It would
be strange indeed if this were not so, seeing that both the monkeys
below them and the white men above them display this aversion. This
seems to have been specially noted in the case of certain races. The
Weddas of Ceylon, who, as we have seen, have not impressed all visitors
as laughter-loving, show a marked displeasure at being made the butt
of a joke. We are told that they are much provoked (gereizt) when they
are laughed at (ausgelacht). It is related of one of these men that,
when during a dance he was thus treated by a European, he shot an arrow
at the laugher.[172] Poor old folk among ourselves will, we know, do
much the same when they are jeered at by {233} incautious boys, and
even a youth has been known to shy a stone at a too robust jeerer. This
dislike of being made the object of a facetious attention holds good
of other savages as well. A writer tells us that a common fireside
amusement among certain savages is to tease the women till they become
angry, which always produces great merriment. The teasing, it is added,
is of a rough and not very decent kind.[173] Further evidence of this
distaste for the douche of a voluble laughter is supplied by the
curious ordeals of the Greenlanders, to be spoken of presently.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence to show that the rough
jocosities of the teasing game are, as a rule, accepted in good part.
The youth who bore the biting satire of the pandanus leaf seems to
compare favourably in this respect with a London policeman, who
recently complained in court of the soft attentions paid him by a lady
of the East End in tickling some part of his official visage with her
dainty feather. Sometimes we are distinctly told that jokes are taken
in good part, so long as they are seen to be intended as such. So of
the African Hottentots and Kafirs, according to the authority already
quoted.[174] Of the Tahitians it is said that the jests played off at
their expense are never taken in ill part.[175]

It is evident that the rougher kinds of jocosity here described allow
considerable scope for something of the spirit of superiority and
contempt. One fears that this was felt to be present, for example, by
the women victimised by the men’s coarse teasing. As with boys, so with
savages, we may suppose that playful attack does not always respect its
limits, but that now and again it allows itself {234} to be infected by
the brutish element in man. Nor is this surprising when we remember how
much of so-called humour in civilised men owes its piquancy to the same
brutish ingredient.

This attitude of superiority and contempt seems, as one might have
expected, to be more apparent in what may be called the extra-tribal
direction of jocosity, more particularly in the common laughter at
members of other rival and possibly hostile tribes. In certain cases
we are told that this is of the nature of mockery and ridicule. Among
savages and early communities, writes one authority, when their
chieftain sat in his hall with his warriors, they amused themselves
by turning enemies and opponents into mockery, laughing at their
weaknesses, joking on their defects, giving them nicknames, and so
forth.[176] The savage—again like a boy—is apt to be a vain sort of
fellow, and to think that his ways are a lot better than those of
the rest of mankind. Hence he will, with something of contempt in
his heart, laugh at the bungling efforts of men of another tribe to
kill a turtle, and will give a nickname to the white man or take off
with admirable mimicry some of his crazes, such as his passion for
road-making or for bartering.

Yet it would, I think, be an error to treat this laughter at the
outsider as a form of serious ridicule, with its feeling of the
corrective superior. It is, even when lightly touched with contempt,
savage play, and has for its chief ingredient the love of fun, and that
delight in the mere contemplation of what is foreign and odd which the
savage shares with his ethnic betters.

One characteristic of this savage jocosity is so frequently referred
to by travellers that I cannot pass it by. We have seen that the
teasing of the women is apt to take {235} on an indecent form. We are
told, again and again, that savage jokes are commonly low and immoral.
The coarser the joke, we are informed, the better it is liked by
the natives of the Gold Coast.[177] The jests of the natives of the
islands in the Pacific are said to be “low and immoral to a disgusting

Possibly the European is not permitted to know the worst of this
aspect of savage mirth. It is easy, however, to give it too serious
a significance. To the simpler feeling of savages, untrammelled by
the laws of decency as civilised people know them, there may be no
suggestion here of a delight in the immoral as such. Their laughter may
well indicate the fact that for them an undisguised reference to what
we insist on hiding up has in it nothing improper; that they are just
within sight of the stadium of culture at which convention begins to
brand such references as obscene. Young children among ourselves will,
I believe, often laugh at such open and direct mention of unmentionable
things and much in the same way. It is hardly more in many cases, I
surmise, than a little bravado, a glorying in doing something unusual
which they are beginning to suspect is forbidden, though this is no
doubt apt to be accompanied by a perception of the indignity done by
this uncovering to the person involved.[179]

We may now turn to those forms of savage laughter which involve a more
disinterested contemplation of things, and a rudimentary sense of their
ludicrous phases. There {236} is no doubt that the enjoyment of the
droll side of their world fills a large place in the life of savages.
One may conjecture that it is a larger pastime in their case than in
that of most boys; for though the intellect of a savage may not surpass
that of a boy, his experience and matured good sense enable him to
judge of the unseemly and the incongruous with considerable skill and
quickness, and to derive much mirth from the contemplation of them.

The simplest form of this merriment, serving, as in the case of
the child, as a bridge from joyous expansion under a new sensuous
excitement to an appreciation of the odd, is the common laughter of
savages at what is strikingly new to them, and at the same time takes
their fancy. For example, the natives of Borneo were very much amused
at a piano, and when they saw the dampers of the keys jumping up and
down they “fairly laughed aloud”.[180] In like manner the Indians of
Hudson Bay took a compass for a toy and laughed at it, refusing to
accept the owner’s account of its use.[181] These are pretty clear
examples of a mirthful delight at something which is new, devoid
of import, and appealing to the play-appetite. The later stages of
the laughter at the lively little compass-toy were, perhaps, more
expressive of a dim sense of the absurdity of the suggestion that a
dear wee play-thing could do such marvels. This gleeful greeting of
what is at once new and exhilarating to sense answers in the case of
these simple people to what in ourselves is joyous admiration. Thus,
we read of certain African ladies, wives of a king, who expressed
their delight at European works of art by repeated loud bursts of
laughter.[182] Our own children show us now and again how the new, when
it not only captures the sense by its novelty, {237} but holds it by
its charm, may evoke this purely mirthful greeting, as free from the
stiff attitude of curiosity as it is from fearsomeness.[183]

It is a good step from this childish abandonment to the fun of a new
toy-like thing to the recognition of something as foreign and opposed
to the tribal custom. In these simple communities the unwritten laws
of custom play a most important part. Violations of them on the part
of any tribesman are apt to be dealt with seriously. This at once
tends to limit the range of savage laughter; the pressure of custom is
too tyrannical to allow of a full display of the odd and irregular in
human behaviour. These elements of the amusing have accordingly to be
supplied from without; and they are supplied in good measure, partly by
other neighbouring tribes whose manners are observable, and to a still
larger extent by the Europeans who visit them with a virtuous intention
to reform and civilise.

Let us first take a glance at the hilarious appreciation of the _other_
tribe’s ways. The spectacle of the foreigner will grow particularly
entertaining when he seems to bungle in doing something which is
perfectly familiar to the observer’s own tribe. The Tahitians, it
seems, are laughed at by the dwellers in the neighbouring islands
when they try to kill a turtle by pinching its throat. As may be
supposed, the trick, so useful to the beast, of drawing in the head
gives a veritable look of the absurd to these attempts. So, too, the
enlightened people of one island drew voluminous amusement from the
news that those of another island who had just come into possession
of the novelty, a pair of scissors, tried to sharpen them by baking
them.[184] These two illustrations show a dim apprehension of the
fitness of things as {238} determined, not by the relative standard of
“my way,” but by an objective standard.

The field in which they cull most of their facetious enjoyment of
the doings of outsiders would seem to be the ways of their white
visitors. There the differences, the departure from “our way” and
the inability to acquire this are great enough to appeal strongly to
their crude sense of the ludicrous. They see the odd white people
do a number of things which strike them as extraordinary and quite
useless. If the Englishman laughs at the foreigner for not taking
his morning tub, the simple savage will turn the tables by making
merry over our elaborate washings. Thus the Fuegians, though living
much in the water, have no idea of washing themselves; accordingly
“when Europeans first came among them, the sight of a man washing his
face seemed to them so irresistibly ludicrous that they burst into
shrieks of laughter”.[185] Here is an example of a rather more complex
feeling in presence of new-fangled European ways. It seems that a
South African Prince, presumably as a compliment to the white man’s
custom, wished to shave himself and, as our youths frequently do on
first attempting the feat, cut himself. He then asked his European
visitor to perform the office for him. The natives present “stood mute
with admiration during the whole performance, gazing with the utmost
eagerness in their countenances, and bursting at length into a general
peal of laughter—this being their customary mode of expressing delight,
astonishment, nay even embarrassment and fear.”[186] The last part of
this statement is a little loose, since, as we have seen, it is not so
much the astonishment, the embarrassment, or the fear in itself, which
laughter expresses, as a relaxation of the strain involved in these
attitudes. {239}

The laughter excited is of a rather more intellectual kind when the
action of the white man presents itself as absurd, not merely because
it rudely diverges from the customs of the natives, but because it
involves something out of the range of their comprehension, and so
appears incredible. It is then that the white man shows his superiority
in evoking laughter: his arts, his apparatus—when like the photographic
camera they do not excite fears—are apt to evoke incredulous laughter.
A traveller in South Africa had learned some sentences of the speech
of a tribe (the Sichuana language) from his man. He then wrote them
down and read them off before the man. This simple fellow laughed
“most heartily” when his white master told him that it was the marks
he had made in the book which showed him what he was to say.[187] A
child would pretty certainly join the savage in laughing at the idea
of getting sounds out of the inert, stupid-looking word-symbols, if it
were suddenly introduced to him in this way.

When the white man’s doings are not absolutely new, he may expose
himself to the laughter of these merry folk by the odd manner of them.
One would like to know all the jokes which the natives of South Africa,
of Polynesia, and the other abodes of the mirthful “Naturkind” have had
over the dress, the gestures, and the speech of their white visitors.
Yet this would be hard to get at. We do know, however, how they are
wont to greet some of our highly civilised performances. This is the
way in which some Tasmanian women behaved on a first introduction
to the European manner of singing. They listened attentively while
it lasted; then some applauded by loud shouts; others laughed to
splitting, while the young girls, {240} no doubt more timid, remained
silent.[188] This laughter was, presumably, more than the expression of
a wild delight. Those who laughed may be supposed to have been the most
susceptible to the absurdity of this unheard of manner of song. In the
case of the closely allied art of dancing, we are distinctly told that
our highly approved style may appear ridiculous to the savage onlooker.
The Sumatrans, writes one authority, have very slow dances which are
thought to be ludicrous by Europeans. Yet, funnily enough, they think
our customary dances “to the full as ludicrous”. They compared our
minuets to the fighting of two game cocks.[189] Did they also see a
galop, one wonders, and if so, what did the lovers of slow dances say
about this? The “refinements” of the arts of civilised men are ever apt
to appear laughable to those lower down.

The laughter of these uninstructed people grows loud when the clever
white man fails to achieve one of their own simple accomplishments.
More particularly, his inability to pronounce the sounds of their
language seems to be a prolific source of merriment. The Tasmanians,
writes one whom we have quoted more than once, often laughed to
splitting when, wishing to repeat their words, “I made mistakes or
pronounced them badly”.[190] Another traveller, speaking of the natives
of the West Coast of Vancouver’s Island, writes: “That they had some
standard of correct speech is evident from the readiness of the
children to ridicule a stranger who mispronounces native words”.[191]
A third example comes from Borneo. The girls, a visitor reports, made
Europeans repeat sentences of their language after them, and burst
out into loud laughter “either at our pronunciation or at the {241}
comical things they had made us utter”.[192] Nothing, perhaps, more
clearly exhibits the ludicrous value of the violation of a perfectly
uniform custom than a mispronunciation of language.[193] Nor is this
all. It seems absurd to a savage, just as it does to an average English
child, that the foreigner should fail to do what seems to him not
merely to require no effort, but to be something one cannot help doing,
like laughing itself or crying. No doubt some feeling of superiority
to the foreign ignoramus enters into the enjoyment here. Perhaps the
children of Vancouver’s Island felt this superiority most of all. In
some cases, however, we are distinctly told that the ineptitude of
Europeans, when it provokes laughter, calls out also the soothing
accompaniment of kindly encouragement.

The exhibition of another kind of incompetence to do the thing “we do,”
highly provoking to the hilarious mood, is a breach of good manners;
for here there comes in something of the sense of social superiority,
and something of the joyous momentary relief from the burden of rules
of etiquette. Just as “Society” gets nearest to a genuine laugh when
confronted with the vulgarities of Midas as he pushes into her inner
circle, so the savage keenly enjoys his opportunity of detecting
_gaucherie_ and want of _savoir faire_ on the side of his white
visitors. Indeed, he seems ready, when he is sure of not offending,
to treat these breaches of etiquette with good-natured merriment. A
traveller tells us that on visiting the house of an Indian chief in
Canada he sat down on what he took to be a bundle of buffalo robes. The
composure of mind proper to a guest of royalty must have been slightly
disturbed at the discovery that the robes began to move and undulate
beneath him, till to his utter confusion {242} he felt himself
projected into the middle of the tent among the embers. The chief, his
three wives and the other native people in the tent “shrieked with
laughter” at the catastrophe. The full measure of the good humour that
lay behind this laughter revealed itself to the white visitor when he
saw emerging from the heap of robes the fourth and youngest wife of the
chief, who, to her credit be it said, joined in the hilarity.[194]

Something of the reflective element seems to peep out in one variety
of this laughter at the odd ways of the white man. A missionary, one
of the discerning ones as it would seem, found the Sea Dyaks disposed
to treat the idea of our religious services as a joke. They were
curious to learn what was required of the religious worshipper, and
particularly wanted to know whether he was forbidden to laugh; and
they explained their inquisitiveness by confessing that, like Mr.
Barrie’s “Humorist,” they were far from sure of being able to restrain
themselves.[195] Solemn ceremony with its severe demands will be apt,
when its meaning is hidden, to provoke in savages and in children alike
a keen desire for the relief of a laugh.

A palpable ingredient of mind appears in the laughter of savages at
the white man’s ideas about the beginnings and the endings of things.
The inquirer into their beliefs may present himself to them as a
quite unreasonable sceptic, grubbing at the very roots of things
which sensible men accept as self-explanatory. The members of a tribe
in Central Australia (Arunta tribe) were immensely tickled by the
question how their remote ancestors came by the sacred stones or sticks
which they had handed down to them. The idea, that anything could
have existed before these {243} original ancestors, struck them as
ridiculous. The ultimate explanation of any custom of the tribe was,
“Our fathers did it, and therefore we do it”. To try to go behind
tradition was to challenge its sufficiency, and so to put forward
an absurd paradox.[196] Here we have a mental attitude at once like
and unlike that of our children; for the latter are conservative of
tradition and disposed to accept authority, but at the same time very
energetic in pushing back inquiry into “what came before”.

Intelligence would seem not merely to be stirring, but to be capable
of adroit play when the savage detects the ridiculous in the white
man’s ideas of the future of his race. How many of the simple savages
who are instructed in the dogmas of the Christian religion accept them
unquestioningly it would be hard to say. Many, perhaps, fail to put
any definite meaning into what they hear. Now and again, however, we
meet with an instance of a daring laugh at what strikes the hearer as
utterly absurd. A teacher of the native Australians had once tried to
explain to an intelligent black the doctrine of the immateriality and
immortality of the soul. He afterwards learned that his pupil had gone
away from the lesson to have a hearty fit of laughter at the absurdity
of the idea “of a man’s living and going about without arms, legs,
or mouth to eat”.[197] The crass materialism of this tyro’s effort
to assimilate spiritual ideas was much the same as we observe in our

In this laughter at our ways and our ideas we superior people are
inclined to see merely the ignorance and narrowness of mind of the
laughers. Yet it is possible that the savage may, once and again,
in making merry at our {244} expense show himself really our
superior. His good sense may be equal to the detection of some of
the huge follies in the matter of dress and other customs to which
the enlightened European so comically clings. And he has been known
to strike the satirical note and to look down upon and laugh “at the
stupid self-satisfied Europeans who preached so finely but practised so
little what they preached”.[198]

We may now glance at the intra-tribal activity of the mirthful impulse.
That this fills some place in the life of savage communities has been
illustrated in our account of their teasings. We must not expect to
find here a large field for the play of what we call the comic spirit.
As we shall see presently, this spirit only begins to fly bravely when
the movement of civilisation introduces more diversity of class, and,
further, a greater liberty of utterance—for women as well as for men.

A pretty clear illustration of laughter directed to fellow-tribesmen
is supplied by the merriment that is said to accompany athletic and
other competitions in which skill is tested. Among the natives of
Victoria, we are informed, a favourite amusement of the young men is
the throwing of the spear and other similar exercises. The trials of
skill are accompanied by a good deal of laughter, notwithstanding that
the older men are present to instruct the boys and that some effort is
made to preserve discipline.[199] This merriment is no doubt largely
the counterpart of our schoolboys’ laughter in the playground. It is
the expression of a keen enjoyment of the triumphs of the game. At
the same time {245} if, as one may assume, it is directed against
blunders it has a sociological significance. It becomes a “social
sanction,” which urges a youth to do his best in the field. Another
example illustrates the impulse to laugh at a comrade’s failure to
accomplish a feat for which he is totally unprepared. A member of a
European party which was visiting the Weddas could move his ears. A
native was asked to do the same; and the others, knowing what was to be
done, watched him attentively. The man singled out for the feat looked
blankly towards the sky, his ears remaining “as if nailed to his head”;
at this moving spectacle one of the onlookers suddenly broke out into
laughter, the others at once joining in.[200] Here we have laughter at
a fellow-tribesman, in face of Europeans too, exactly similar to that
which is directed against the European himself. Doubtless, there is
much of this kind of laughter at those who make an exhibition of their
limitations, especially when the attempt is preceded by a display of
vanity and boastfulness. In this respect, too, savage laughter has the
ring of the merriment of the playground and of the circus.

One of the first forms of a reciprocal mirthful attack or bantering
between classes is that between the Sexes. Savage life supplies us
with clear cases of inter-sexual jocosity besides that of the teasing
which, as we have seen, is a two-sided game. In a collection of sayings
and stories of West Africa we find the following: A woman left her
husband to look after a “pot-au-feu”. On returning she found that he
had skimmed off the bubbling foam and hidden it in a calabash, naïvely
supposing that this was the cream of the dish. She twits him with
it and discovers to his slow wits that the savory scum has melted
into nothing.[201] This {246} reminds one of many a story of the
Middle Ages, and shows how wide-spread is the exposure of the male
incompetence to the lash of woman’s merry wit.

These jocose thrusts at the opposite sex are interesting as
illustrating the differentiation of class-standards. If the male is
laughed at for his bungling at the mysteries of cooking, how much
more when he actually fails to keep up with the women folk in his own
domain! Mr. Ling Roth, whose eye seems to have been specially focussed
for records of the mirthful utterances of savages, tells us that a
boat-load of women who had been gathering oysters rowed a race with a
visitors’ crew and managed to beat them; whereupon there was a fine
outburst of feminine hilarity and much quizzing of the men who had
allowed themselves to be beaten by women.[202] Here, surely, was a
touch of a higher feeling, a dim perception at least of the permanent
and universal forms of the fitness of things.

The clearest example, I have met with, of what we should call a dry
humour is to be found in the work just quoted. It seems that a stupid
old soothsayer once called together a large concourse of chiefs to deal
with the problem of naming his children. These, he contended, were
not properly his, but had been begotten by certain spirits (the Antus
or Hantus). One of the chiefs did not enjoy having to come many miles
to listen to this sort of stuff, so “he pretended in the midst of the
soothsayer’s discourse to faint away, and fell back gasping for breath,
kicking his legs spasmodically in the air at the same time”. This
interruption brought the tedious proceedings to an end, and so saved
the chief from further boredom. But this was not all: the disappointed
humbug had to pay the chief {247} who had spoilt his performance some
fowls as a punishment for allowing the spirits to attack him.[203] The
story is instructive as illustrating the tendency, as soon as classes
begin to be marked off, to score off a man of another class. Perhaps,
indeed, we have in this jocose imposition on the imposer a suggestion
of the merry-making of kings and peoples at the expense of the clergy
which was so marked a feature in mediæval hilarity.

A word may well be expended on the subject of the organisation of the
laughing propensity into regular amusements among savage tribes. One of
the things which a white man can learn from these much-misunderstood
peoples is the art of social entertainment. Without luxurious salons,
without plate and rare wines, without the theatre and the concert
hall, they manage to obtain a good deal of genuine, unpretentious
conviviality. When, writes one traveller, they are relieved of the
presence of strangers they have much easy social conversation. Round
their own fires they sing and chat, and older men lie and brag about
feats in war and chase. “Jokes pass freely and the laugh is long if not

A standard dish in these social entertainments is taking off the
peculiarities of other tribes and of Europeans. Mimicry, the basis
of the actor’s art, is often carried to a high degree of perfection
among these uncouth savages; and it is highly prized. When, writes a
missionary of the tribes of the remote part of Victoria, a native is
able to imitate the peculiarities of some absent member of the tribe,
it is very common to hear all in the camp convulsed with laughter.[205]
The Indians of Brazil hold the peculiarities, _e.g._, the beard, of
other tribes up to laughter by means {248} of a lively pantomime.[206]
This mimicry, as might be expected, embraces the odd ways of the white
man. The natives of New South Wales used to be so skilful in this
art that one wrote of them: “Their mimicking of the oddities, dress,
walk, gait and looks of all the Europeans whom they have seen from
the time of Governor Phillips downwards, is so exact as to be a kind
of historic register of their several actions and characters”.[207]
The same authority tells us that the Tahitians are acute observers of
the manners, actions, and even looks of strangers; and if they have
any singular imperfections or oddities, they will not fail to make
themselves merry at their expense.[208] Another traveller certifies
to the fact that the aborigines of Victoria were splendid mimics, and
would, after attending the white man’s church, “take a book and with
much success imitate the clergyman in his manner, laughing and enjoying
the applause which they received”.[209] A turn for mimicry is found
also among the North American Indians. The Californian Indians gave
to the American whites the name “Wo’hah,” formed from “whoa-haw,” the
sound they heard the early emigrants produce when they drove their
oxen. “Let an Indian see an American coming up the road, and cry out to
his fellows: ‘There comes a wo’hah,’ at the same time swinging his arm
as if driving oxen, and it will produce convulsive laughter.”[210]

Along with this skill in mimicry, savages show considerable readiness
in the verbal arts of descriptive caricature, witty sayings and
repartee. In practising these, we are told, they make ample use of the
instrument of irony.

The possession of these rudiments of talent naturally leads {249} to
a certain amount of specialisation. It is attested again and again
that our uncultured savage communities possess their professional
pantomists, jesters and wits. Indeed, we read of crude forms of a
comic art among savages so low in the scale as the Australians and
the Tasmanians. Thus, Lumholtz writes of the pantomimic dances of the
Australian blacks,[211] and Ling Roth assures us that the Tasmanians
have their drolls and mountebanks, who exhibit the peculiarities of
individuals with considerable force.[212] Among the Sumatrans, again,
are to be found “characters of humour,” who by buffoonery, mimicry,
punning, repartee and satire are able to keep the company in laughter
at intervals during a night’s entertainment.[213] In some cases jesters
are appointed by a chief, just as a fool used to be selected by one of
our kings. In Samoa every chief has his regular clown, a privileged
person who, among other liberties, is allowed that of taking the food
out of the chiefs mouth.[214] A privileged buffoon in Kanowit, who had
been given an old gun, told the Resident that he had killed fourteen
deer with one bullet. The Resident being puzzled, he explained that
he had cut the bullet out each time.[215] Here we have the exact
counterpart to the trick of the European clown of the circus.

Among the Eskimo of Greenland, it seems, there is a regular performance
in which the aspiring “funny men” compete for popular favour. After a
repast they get up, one after the other, each exhibiting his musical
resources by beating a drum and singing, and adding a touch of the
actor’s art by making comical gestures, and playing ridiculous tricks
with the face, head and limbs.[216] Much the same kind of contest
takes place {250} in connection with their peculiar ordeals, already
referred to. Each of the two litigants tries to make the other
ridiculous, by singing satirical songs and relating misdeeds; and the
one who succeeds in getting the audience to laugh most at his jibes or
invectives is pronounced the conqueror. Even such serious crimes as
murder are often expiated in this merry fashion.[217]

In one or two cases we read of more elaborate entertainments. Thus,
some of the natives of the Western Pacific have a regular masquerade
performed before the King, into which may enter a histrionic
representation of a British sailor with his cutlass, acted by a leading
buffoon, who combines with the _rôle_ of a “premier” the “fool’s”
privilege of breaking through the strict laws of decorum by pointing
to the King and asking ironically if that was the King—amid shouts of

Other traces of a rudimentary art of the comic are to be found in the
amusing songs and stories which can be traced to savage invention.
The Australians had songs in which the peculiarities of Europeans
were caricatured, the chorus being sung amid shouts of laughter.[219]
Another comic song, heard among some of the aborigines of Australia,
took off the bodily peculiarities of some men—presumably of another
tribe—in the graceful lines:—

    Oh, what legs, oh, what legs!
    The Kangaroo-rumped fellows.
    Oh, what legs, oh, what legs![220]

In these crude forms of art we probably find traces of the influence
of European models. There are, however, stories {251} which seem to
be a perfectly spontaneous growth. Of these it is enough to refer to
the originals of the delightful tales of Uncle Remus, the substance of
which, as their author tells us, he obtained from the blacks in the
American plantations.[221] Miss Kingsley writes to me of these: “I know
the tales are not made up. I struck the Tar Baby Stories in the Lower
Congo”. It may be added that the device of the tar baby is to be found
in its essentials in a collection of African stories.[222]

Our study seems to tell us that savage laughter is like our own in
representing different levels of refinement. Much of it is just naïve,
unthinking gaiety, like that of the little girl spoken about in the
preceding chapter. Co-existing with this infantile gaiety we have the
coarse brutal forms of laughter which we associate with the rougher
kind of schoolboy. Along with these lower forms we find higher ones,
in which some amount of reference to social standards is discoverable.
Lastly, we may detect here and there, as in the story of the man
tickled by the idea of dead men going about _sans_ arms, legs, etc.,
and of him who jocosely stripped a humbug of his disguise, germs of
a more thoughtful laughter; and on the other hand, in the kindly
tempering of the laughter of the girls at the Englishwoman’s inability
to make mats, a movement towards sympathetic laughter. In other words,
we detect the dim beginnings of that complex feeling or attitude which
we call humour. It seems probable that the quality, if not also the
quantity, improves as we pass from the lowest and most degraded to the
higher savage tribes.[223] {252}

Hence, no doubt, the difficulty which has been felt by travellers
in describing the common characteristics of the hilarity of savage
tribes. Miss Kingsley writes to me with respect to the humour of the
West African: “It is peculiar, it is not child-like—it is more feminine
in quality, though it is very broad or coarse. It is difficult to
describe. I can only say what seems to me an excellent joke seems
so to him—there are many jokes neither of us can see the point of:
others, we chuckle over, superior persons look down on and would call

One practical reflection to close with. Any civilised community which
has much to do in the way of managing the “lower races” would surely
be wise to take some heed of their love of fun. And this, because it
has been found that appeals to this side have been more effective than
the harsher measures to which even a gentle Briton may think himself
sometimes driven. An African missionary, already quoted, writes that in
cases where a disposition to quarrel shows itself “one joke is worth
ten arguments”.[225] This is borne out by one who has not much good to
tell of his savages, when he says of the East African that he delights
{253} in a joke “which manages him like a Neapolitan”.[226] In a
letter to me Miss Kingsley writes: “I have always found I could chaff
them into doing things that other people could not get them to do, with
blows—I could laugh them out of things other people would have to blow
out of them with a gun”.




In the two preceding chapters we have followed the earlier stages of
the development of laughter in the individual and have glanced at
its counterpart in the life of savage communities. If now we try to
push the psychological inquiry farther, and ask how the mirth of the
child develops into that complex sentiment which in these days we call
humour, we find ourselves forced to pause. One thing is clear, however.
No one of us would ever have acquired this valuable endowment but for
the educative action of that advanced stage of social culture which
is our intellectual and moral environment. It seems to follow that
we shall need to look for a moment at the movement of social culture
itself, to consider the impulse of laughter as one of the features in
the life of a community, and to inquire how it has become transformed,
almost beyond recognition, by the movement of social progress.

To attempt to give an exhaustive account of these social changes would
clearly lead us very far. It may be argued with force that every one of
the great directions of social evolution, such as that of intellectual
conceptions, of moral sentiments, of political and social liberty, of
wealth, of the differentiation of classes and ranks, has involved as
its effect some change in the intensity, the mode of distribution,
and the manner of expression in daily life and in {255} art, of the
laughing impulse. But we do not need to consider so deeply. It will
be enough if we briefly retrace those phases of social evolution
which appear to carry with them as their immediate accompaniments
considerable modifications of the mirthful spirit.

We must in this inquiry begin by defining the social aspect of
laughter. This was touched on in the last chapter in connection with
our study of the mirth of savages. We have now to examine it more

One of its most obvious characteristics is its contagiousness, already
referred to.[227] The potent appeal of laughter to a mechanical
imitativeness is significant in more ways than one. It suggests how
large a part of human hilarity is nothing but a kind of surface
resonance, as empty of ideas as the infectious yawn or cough. But
it suggests also that laughter is social in the sense that it is
essentially choral and so uniting. A gathering of yokels at a fair
laughing at a clown tends for the moment to become a coherent group;
and the habit of laughing together will tend to consolidate the group.

When the conjoint laughter is less automatic and issues from community
of ideas and sentiments, the contagious property still plays a part. It
is as if the swift response of others’ laughter, the drowning of one’s
own outburst in the general roar, effaced for the time the boundaries
of one’s personality. To rejoice together in the full utterance of the
laugh, though it moves us less deeply than to weep together, is perhaps
no less potent in cementing a lasting comradeship.

The social side of laughter comprehends, however, much more than this.
It is commonly recognised that the feeling expressed has something
human for its object. Now those {256} who directly or indirectly serve
as the butt are all the world over disposed, till the grace of a genial
tolerance has been added, to dislike and resent the part thrust on
them. So far, then, laughter would seem to be anti-social and dividing,
and, alas, the history of literature will furnish the student with
notable illustrations. Yet this hurtful edge in laughter becomes one
of its valuable social properties. As the despised Greenlanders may
teach us, laughter supplies a mode of punishment which combines with
effectiveness, economy and humanity, a good deal of enjoyment for the
onlookers. In all societies, if not exactly in the Greenland fashion,
it has been accorded an important place among the agencies which, by
castigating vices and follies, seek to lower their vitality.

The sharp edge of laughter represents, however, only one of its
effects on the sensibilities of the butt. Savage life has given us
illustrations, not only of its disagreeable consequences turned to
judicial purposes, but of its agreeable consequences in cajoling others
out of attitudes of hostility and stubbornness. This curious effect, as
it may seem, of a mode of treatment which is primarily hurtful is to be
explained in the main by its playful function. To substitute a joke for
argument or coercive pressure is, like tickling, to challenge to play,
and tends to call up the play-mood in the recipient of the challenge.
The mutual teasings of savages serve, as we have seen, as a training,
an ἄσκησις, in simple and estimable virtues, such as the maintenance
of good temper, toleration, and the setting of comradeship above one’s
private feelings.

One other social aspect of laughter illustrated by savage life needs to
be touched on. In the instinctive tendency of the savage to ridicule
the customs and ideas of outside folk we have one expression of the
self-protective attitude of a {257} community against insidious
outside influences. Just as the Hebrews ridiculed the religious ideas
of the worshippers of Baal and so helped to keep their national faith
intact, so these tribes low down in the culture scale have in their
laughter at what is foreign a prophylactic against any contamination
from outside peoples. No doubt this tendency in laughter will help to
preserve once useful tribal characters when altered circumstances,
introduced, for example, by the coming of the white man, require new
adaptations. In this we see the essentially conservative function of
laughter in the life of societies. On the other hand, as we have seen,
novelties in dress introduced by the white man may attract and delight.
In dealing with the connection between social progress and laughter, we
shall need to consider very carefully the attitude which the mirthful
spirit takes up towards social changes.

Now these aspects of laughter point, as we have seen, to a social
utility in laughter. As offspring of the play-impulse, it might,
indeed, be expected to share in those benefits which, as recent
research has made clear, belong to play. In our study of its
development and persistence in the life of progressive communities, we
shall have occasion to illustrate this utility much more fully. That
laughing is good, physically and morally, for its individual subjects
has become a commonplace, at least to the student of literature. Here
we shall be concerned with its distinctly social advantages, such
as the maintenance of customs which from the point of view of the
community, or of some class of the community, are to be regarded as
good, the keeping down of vices and follies, and the furtherance of
social co-operation.

The question how far this utility extends is one which cannot be
answered simply. It will be found that societies, {258} so far from
universally recognising laughter as a useful habit, have taken vast
pains to restrain it. Indeed, our study of the fortunes of mirth in
the advance of social life will show us that it has had throughout to
struggle for its existence.

From what has just been said it will be clear that we shall have to
consider the history of laughter and the movement of social evolution
as inter-connected. Not only does a change in ideas, sentiments or
institutions tend to modify the expression of the mirthful mood, there
is a reciprocal influence of laughter upon ideas, sentiments and
institutions. Such interaction holds good generally between amusements
and serious pursuits; the recreations of a community serve in important
ways to determine the measure of the vigour thrown into serious
activities. In the case of laughter this reciprocal influence is much
more marked, owing to the circumstance that mirth has been wont to play
about serious things, to make these the target for its finely tipped
shafts, now and again going so far as to shoot one into the midst of
the solemnities of social life.

In the savage tribe we find but little of class division. The
perception of what is unfit and the laughter which accompanies this
are directed, for the most part, to members of other communities. The
laughter is choral because it is that in which the whole tribe joins
or is prepared to join; but for that very reason it has a monotonous
sound. Some differentiation of groups within the community seems
necessary, not merely for the constitution of a society, but for the
free play of the laughing spirit. Diversity in thought and behaviour is
a main condition of the full flow of social gaiety.

The germ of such diversity is present in the lowest {259} conceivable
type of human community. The institution of male and female in which
Nature, as if to combine divine work with human, at once joins together
and puts asunder, has been with us from the beginnings of human
society; and it might be an amusing pastime to speculate how the males
of our ape-like ancestors first gurgled out their ridicule of female
inferiority, and how the females managed to use their first rudiment
of speech-power in turning the tables on their lords and masters. Some
differentiation of rank, too, must have been found in the simplest
human societies in the contrast between the old and the young, and the
closely connected opposition of the rulers and the ruled. But it would
be hazardous to reason that, in the early stages of social evolution,
much in the way of exchange of fun passed between those who were
presumably kept solemnly apart by the sense of their relative station.

It is only when we move on to a society with a considerable amount of
class differentiation that its relation to the nurture and distribution
of the spirit of mirth grows apparent. In glancing at these divisions
we may conveniently adopt M. Tarde’s expression, “social group”.
Such a group may be either a class, the members of which have like
functions and a common character connected with these, such as priests
and traders; or it may be a set constituted merely by community
of knowledge and taste, as the members of a society standing on a
particular level of culture. Although this double way of dividing
social groups necessarily leads to overlapping, it seems desirable to
adopt it here, so as to give an adequate account of the relation of
group-formation to the particular directions of social laughter.

The development of distinct groups within a community influences the
behaviour of the laughing impulse, first of {260} all, by introducing
diversity of occupations, abilities and intelligence. In this way it
enlarges the field for those relative judgments about competence and
fitness with which, as savage laughter illustrates, simple forms of
mirth have so much to do. Thus, the establishment of distinctions of
employment and mode of life between the sexes has contributed copiously
to that mirthful quizzing of each by the other which seems to have
been a prime ingredient in human jocosity from the lowest stages
of culture. The slightly malicious laughter of the male at female
incompetence, which is seen in the schoolboy’s treatment of his sister,
is illustrated throughout the course of literature. And good examples
are not wanting of a turning of the tables by the female on the male.
The story of King Alfred’s misadventure with the cakes—of which we have
found the counterpart in savage life—is an example of the more shrewish
criticism of the male ignoramus by the female expert. When the sense of
injury is less keen, and the impression of the folly of the performance
fills the soul, the shrewish note is apt to fall to the genial pitch of
laughter. The differentiation of industrial and other employments, such
as those of countryman and townsman, of landsman and seaman, of soldier
and civilian, serve to develop new centres of concerted laughter, and
new points of attack.

The formation of social groups further enlarges the material and the
opportunities for laughter by introducing noticeable and impressive
differences of behaviour, dress and speech. In this way the field
of the odd, the absurd, that which contradicts our own customs and
standards, has been made wide and fertile. A mere difference of
locality may suffice to generate such differences. Not so many years
ago, one could hear in the West of England the {261} jibes which the
people in one small town or district were wont to hurl at those in
another. We read that in the Middle Ages, when local differences of
dress and speech were so much more marked than now, satires on people
of particular localities were not uncommon—though probably much more
than a perception of the laughably odd was involved in these rather
fierce derisions.[228]

The immediate utility of this mirthful quizzing of other sets would,
like that carried out by one savage tribe on another, consist in the
preservation of the characteristics of one’s own set. But the play of
laughter about class-distinctions illustrates another of its benefits.
When one set gets used to the distinctive ways of another, it tends to
regard them as right and proper for the latter; and it may carry its
regard for their propriety so far as to support the inner sentiment of
the other group by deriding those members who do not conform to their
group-customs. Distinctive customs have been conserved not only—to
adopt ethical terms having a somewhat different meaning—by “internal
sanctions” in the shape of serious penalties as well as ridicule
administered by fellow-members of the set, but by “external sanctions”
in the shape of outside mockery. The imposing soldierly attitude has
perhaps been kept up quite as much by the merry quizzing of civilians
as by any military discipline and _esprit de corps_. A poor tottering
hero in uniform could, one opines, never have escaped the eye of
citizens lying in wait for the laughable.

The finer opportunities for this mirthful screwing up of men of
other groups to their proper moral height would occur when the
peculiarities of the mode of life imposed a special rule of behaviour,
and, particularly, when this rule was a severe one. The hollow hero,
trying to hide the {262} poverty of his courage in braggadocio, has
been a favourite figure in comic literature, classic and modern. A
notable illustration of this situation is the laughter heaped on the
clergy by the people during the Middle Ages. The caricatures of the
monk—representing him, for instance, as a Reynard in the pulpit with a
cock below for clerk, and the many _Contes_ which exposed his cunningly
contrived immoralities, and frequently visited them with well-merited
chastisement, show pretty plainly that the popular laughter in this
case had in it something of hate and contempt, and was directed in
part to the exposure and punishment of the celibate class. This may be
asserted, even though it must not be forgotten that in these _Contes_
the holy man by no means infrequently emerges from his dangerous
experiment unscathed: a fact which suggests that in the popular
sentiment there lurked, not merely something of the child’s mirthful
wonder at daring cunning, but a certain sympathetic tolerance for a
caste, on the shoulders of which was laid a somewhat weighty yoke. The
mental attitude of the narrator rather suggests here and there that of
an easy-going Englishman when confronted with the spectacle, say of a
drunken sailor or soldier.[229]

Another class having high pretensions, which has come in for much of
the “screwing-up” kind of laughter, is the physician. Next to the
healer of the soul, he undertakes the most for mortals. In _Gil Blas_,
in the comedies of Molière, and in other works, we may see how his
ancient methods and his pedantries were apt to affect the intelligent
layman with mirthful ridicule. {263}

So far nothing has been said of the rank of the groups thus formed.
The differentiating of a higher from a lower caste, with more or less
of authority on one side and subserviance on the other, will turn out
to be the most important feature in social grouping in its bearing on
the calling forth of social laughter. As we have seen, our merriment
has much to do with dignities, with the claims on our respect made
by things above us; while, on the other hand, the contemptuous laugh
which has had volume and duration implies a relation of superior
and inferior—if only the fugitive one created by the situation of
quizzer. All stages of group-formation seem to involve something of
this distinction between an upper and a lower class. The simplest
conceivable structure of society includes a head and ruler of family,
clan or tribe, and subjects. Hence, the vast significance of social
grouping as a condition of choral laughter.

How far persons in positions of authority have gratified their sense
of superiority by derisive laughter at those below them, it would, of
course, be hard to say. When power is real and absolute there are other
ways of expressing contempt. Literature undoubtedly furnishes examples
of the ridicule by the social superior of the ways of a lower class,
as in the Provençal poem of Bertran de Born (_c._ 1180) in which the
villains are treated contemptuously. Yet the larger part of literature,
not being produced for a ruling caste, does not throw much light on
this subject.[230] One can only infer with some probability, from
the relations of parents and adults, generally, to children, and of
white {264} masters to their coloured slaves, that power has always
been tempered by some admixture of good-nature, which composition has
produced a certain amount of playful jocosity, at once corrective and

The derisive laughter of the superior is particularly loud in certain
cases where the authority is not so real as it might be. Man’s ridicule
of his not too obedient spouse may be said almost to shriek adown the
ages. We may read in papyri of Egypt of the fourteenth or thirteenth
century B.C. of the misfortunes of a husband, named Anoupou.[231]
The Greek comedians thought no abuse of the sex too bitter or too
coarse.[232] In Latin literature we have satirical portraits of
different types of women, drawn under the figures of various brutes, a
fox, a mare, etc.[233] In mediæval society, the low opinion of women
entertained by their lords is illustrated in the firm persuasion that
the only way to treat them was to beat them—watching them was quite
vain—so that they might be occupied all the day with crying.[234]
Sometimes, as in the _Arabian Nights_, this contempt takes the form
of bitter denunciation; but, for the most part, it has laughed in the
brighter key of comedy. Even the satire here is wont to lose all trace
of savageness, and to assume the tone of a good-natured acceptance of
the incurable.

While the formation of social ranks has thus secured a wide range
for supercilious mocking of inferiors, it has guaranteed these ample
opportunity of avenging themselves by laughter at the expense of the

How soon in man’s history any such laughter became {265} possible, it
would be hard to say. In the simpler types of community, the severe
restraints laid on youths by the men of the tribe must, one supposes,
have been fatal to any indulgence by sons in laughter at the expense of
fathers, such as is illustrated in comedy both ancient and modern. The
penalties attached to breach of ceremonial rule must have stifled any
impulse of laughter, if it happened to arise. It is said that when the
chief of a certain tribe chanced to stumble, his subjects were bound to
pretend to stumble in order to cover up his defect.[235] The utility of
this quaint custom may have lain in its effectual suppression of the
risible impulse. This theory, however, postulates a kind of courtier
widely removed from the modern, of whom it seems safe to say that
he might be trusted to see stumblings and worse without feeling an
over-mastering temptation to laugh.

One can only conjecture that men began to discern and enjoy the amusing
side of authority and its solemn ways of asserting itself, in their
free moments, at a safe distance from tell-tale eyes.

What is known of the hard-worked slave of antiquity is suggestive not
merely of play after toil, but of a safe turning on task-masters.
When, as we read, the Egyptian workman got fun “out of the smallest
incident in the day’s work—an awkward apprentice cutting his finger,
a comrade sleeping over his task whom the overseer lashes to awaken
him,” and so forth, did not something of a spirit of malicious crowing
over the overseer express itself too? The analogy of the judiciously
half-smothered laughter of the English schoolboy in playground or
dormitory suggests the answer. We must not wonder if these dangerous
excursions of the spirit of fun have failed to be recorded. {266}
Still more significant is another picture from the same hand,
representing a tussle between overseer and workmen in which “the stick
vainly interferes,” so that “at least an hour elapses before quiet
is re-established”.[236] This looks like the rollicking laughter of
schoolboys at the spectacle of an orderly ceremony suddenly turned
to disorder. The interpretation is borne out by the fact that these
same Egyptians were able to enter into the fun of a loss of dignity
in a solemn function, for example, the upsetting by a collision of
the richly supplied table in the funereal boat, and the falling
of a mummy on a priest during the ceremony of conveying it to its

The return of contemptuous laughter from the slave to his master
was certainly allowed to some extent among the Romans. It became a
well-recognised privilege during one of the chief annual festivals
(Saturnalia). The slaves in the plays of Plautus treat the tyranny
under which they live “in a spirit of gay bravado”.[238] Nor need
we be surprised at these liberties if we remember that the modern
schoolmaster must almost be perfect if he does not find it expedient,
not merely to permit his pupils _desipere in loco_, but to allow them
now and again to have a mild joke at his expense. The cajoling by
means of jokes, which Miss Kingsley found so serviceable for managing
the West African, may of course stop short of this, and its virtue
lie in the substitution of a light, laughing treatment for bullying.
Yet genial laughter, when the contempt has been vaporised out of it,
necessarily tends at the moment to a levelling of planes, as is seen
in the immediate assertion of {267} the right of reciprocity. This is
perhaps the main reason why the schoolmaster is, in general, chary of
introducing the method of jocosity. His laughter is apt to sound as if
it held some of the gritty deposit of contempt.

The really delightful illustration of the turning of the tables on
masters by those in subjection is to be found in woman’s retort on
man’s contemptuous treatment. She has again and again managed to outwit
him, as we have found him dolefully admitting, and has had her full
laugh at his cumbrous attempts to manage her. The mediæval _fabliaux_
are certainly disposed to award success in strategy to her, rather
than to her lord. Her ways of befooling him, too, have often been so
simple—as when she persuades him that he has been dreaming what he
fancies he has observed—that the poor dupe ought, one supposes, to have
died of chagrin. And, when there has been a call for the finer sort of
manœuvring, she wins the unprejudiced reader to her side by displaying
an admirable ingenuity and subtlety of invention, qualities which Mr.
Herbert Spencer would probably regard as secondary sexual characters
evolved during ages of marital tyranny. Of her modes of turning on
him in these latter days there is no need to speak. The shout of
contemptuous laughter seems to have passed from the one side of the
eternal fray to the other. But this hardly belongs to the present
division of our subject.

It may be added that the laughter of the laity at the clergy
illustrates, in addition to the impulse already dealt with, the itching
of spirited mortals to turn on oppressors. The denunciations and
anathemas of this class, backed, as they asseverate, by supernatural
sanctions, have always been trying to untamed men and women. And the
appetite of our ancestors for stories disgraceful to monks and priests
drew some of its keenness from this rebelliousness of {268} the
natural man against spiritual tyrannies. Here is an illustration of the
feminine retort: A woman was chatting with a gossip of hers in church:
bidden by the preaching friar to hold her peace she exclaimed, “I
wonder which babbles most of the two?”[239]

Still another variety of social laughter springs out of this
distinction of superior and inferior groups. The impulse of exalted
persons to assert themselves and to strike their inferiors with
awe—an impulse by the way which the peacock and other birds will
betray in the presence of their inferior, man—is apt to be disallowed
by those for whom the display is intended. It is one thing, they
feel, to acknowledge true authority, another to bow down to the
exaggeration of its claim, to the boastful exhibition of power and
rank. Hence, perhaps, some of the quickness of the mirthful eye
for the entertainment latent in all braggadocio. The soldier who
needlessly emphasises the fact that he possesses the height and spirit
of his calling by strutting, by imposing vociferation and the rest,
has probably always been a source of comic merriment, as the _Miles
gloriosus_ of Plautus and the Bobadil of Ben Jonson may remind us.

It will be evident that all this laughter of inferiors at superiors,
whether these are so really or merely in their own opinion, must, so
far as it has got home, have had a valuable corrective function. If
the derision of the lord helps to keep in place his inferior dame or
vassal, much more does the laughter of his inferior serve to hold him
to what befits his rank. _Noblesse oblige_ is a rule largely maintained
by the demands of those below who are expected to pay homage. These,
as we know, have been much employed in claiming modest rights from
their “betters”. The curbing of a king’s tyrannies may have required
a rebellion {269} of his barons, or a riot of his people: yet a good
deal of checking of tyrannic propensities has been carried out by
the unalarming expedient of ridicule. Even in a free and enlightened
country we may observe in officials a tendency now and again to inflate
their dignity unduly; so that one infers that the restraining force of
the laughter of inferiors still counts.

The results of this spirited turning of the worm have been
considerable. The impish spirit of mirth has taken up its abode with
the common people, and instructed them in the rich sources of the
laughable which lie in all rank and dignity. On the other hand, the
“high and mighty” have, from a true instinct of self-preservation,
waged fierce war with this irreverent attitude of the multitude. The
struggles between the two will be spoken of presently.

The scope for laughter which, given the disposition, these divisions
of group and of rank bring with them is further widened by the vital
circumstance that, as groups in the same community, they have to
enter into various relations with one another. A judicious mixture of
opposition and harmony of interest seems to be most favourable to a
rich production of mirth. This is illustrated even in such masterful
relations as that of the overseer and the commanding officer, who may
find that the compulsion of the rod is inadequate to the extraction
of the required amount of work, and so have to cast about for other

The good effect of a skilful use of the cajoling laugh has already
been illustrated. It is seen with particular clearness in the relation
of husband and wife; for the fun of the situation is that, in spite
of profound differences of taste and inclination and of a sharp
antagonism, the necessity of {270} common interests and ends holds
them together in daily association. This necessity, ever present to the
wiser of them, has tempered the contempt and forced the derider to at
least a pretence of good humour. The same may be said of the relation
of the sexes in general. The quality and range of the fun which is wont
to lighten a talk between a young man and a young woman on a first
introduction are pretty closely determined by the consciousness of
sexual relation on either side. Shyness, a disposition to regard the
other suspiciously as opponent, together with the instinct to please
and win admiration, and the desire to strike on points of sympathy—all
this helps to bring about, and is reflected in the peculiar wrigglings
in which the mirthful spirit expresses itself on such an occasion.

One of the best examples of the combined effect of hostility and a
desire to agree is to be found in the humours of the market place. The
relation of buyer and seller seems to be pregnant with opportunities
for merry fooling on either side. The direct and sharply felt
opposition of interest is apt to beget a good deal of the rough sort of
“taking down”. Not only will the tongue be stirred to derisive attack,
the situation may even beget retaliations in the shape of practical
jokes. The merchant, as the expert, has always had the upper hand
in the contest of wits. His customer has had to find consolation in
satires on the cheat, such as those which were common in the Middle
Ages.[240] On the other hand, the need of coming to an agreement
has served to bring into the haggling process a good deal of the
conciliative kind of laughter. The vendor has always known the value
of good-natured banter as an instrument {271} of persuasion. This
overflow of the spirit of fun into the channels of serious business
may still be seen as a faint survival in front of a cheap-Jack’s van.
George Eliot has given us a charming picture of the play of this spirit
in the south in her chapter on “The Peasants’ Fair” in _Romola_.

The same intrusion of fun as an auxiliary into the business relations
of groups is seen in many other cases where opposition has to be toned
down and a _modus vivendi_ arrived at, as in that of opposed political
parties, religious bodies and the like. The appearance of the laughing
imp, if only he behaves himself, in these rather warm encounters of
groups serves to cool the atmosphere and to temper animosity by at
least a momentary experience of genial contact. It does much, indeed,
to tone down the uneasy and half-suspicious attitude which members of
any group are apt to take up on first having to do with those of a
strange group, especially one of higher rank.

We may now summarise the chief social utilities of the reciprocal
laughter of classes at the ways of other classes. In the first place,
it helps, like the laughter of the savage tribe at the ways of other
tribes, to counteract any tendency to imitate the manners and customs
of foreign groups. What we have laughed at, we are not likely to adopt.
This is the self-protective function of laughter. To laugh at the ways
of another group is, moreover, in most cases at least, to indulge in a
feeling of our own superiority; and this attitude would have a further
conservative tendency, especially when it is the laugh of the expert in
his own department at the outside ignoramus.

Let us now glance at the effect on the group whose ways are being
laughed at. To be the object of another set’s ridicule, especially when
we have the right of retort, so far from necessarily weakening our
hold on that which is {272} ridiculed may strengthen it. When we are
strongly attached, others’ laughter may make us cling the more firmly
to what we cherish. Laughter in this case is, indeed, as we have seen,
an excellent training in a good-natured suffering of others’ ridicule,
a training which has in it the virtue of a moral tonic.

Yet this inter-groupal laughter is not wholly subservient to the
maintenance of characteristic differences. In all the higher forms of
society, at least, such ridicule has an assimilative action as well.
It manages to some extent, by inducing self-criticism, to get rid of
useless excrescences. Thus, it helps to keep down class-vanity, the
professional narrowness which cries, “There’s nothing like leather!”
a narrowness which is so delightfully satirised by Molière in the
wranglings of M. Jourdain’s professors.

The correction of this exclusive feeling of self-importance of a group
by outside laughter has always been at work, helping to keep groups in
friendly touch, and hindering the sectional or professional _esprit de
corps_ from overpowering the larger social consciousness which we call
national sentiment, and the common-sense of the community. Of this last
more will be said presently.

So far, we have illustrated the bearing on the ways of laughter of what
may be called the structural features of societies. There has been no
reference to the effects of social movements, of all that is meant by
the successive changes of fashion in manners, dress and so forth, and
of those more persistent movements which make up what we call social
progress. The least reflection will show that in this continual flux
of things social, the unceasing modifications of the head-covering and
the rest, and the trampling down of old beliefs and institutions by the
resistless “march of intellect,” we have at least as large a field for
the gambols {273} of the laughing spirit as in the distinctions and
oddly combined relations of classes.

We may best begin by referring to the movements of fashion. These may
be defined as changes in dress, manners and so forth, which are marked
off from the improvements entering into progress by two circumstances:
(1) that they are capricious, not the products of a rational choice of
the best; and (2) that they are of comparatively short duration. When
we call a mode of doing a thing a fashion, we imply, quite unknowingly
perhaps, that it has not the cachet of a change for the better, and
that as such it has no security of tenure.

A fashion differs from a custom in being essentially communicable
from one group to another, and even from one nation to another. Its
development thus belongs to a comparatively late period of social
evolution. Its hold on men and women is explained by the fact that it
appeals to two of their strongest instincts, the craving for novelty
and the impulse to imitate superiors.

Keeping to the intra-national diffusion of manners, we note that
the movement of fashion is normally from the highest rank or ranks
downwards. This movement may well have commenced far back in the
evolution of communities where class-distinctions were rigorously
enforced. The attitude of reverence towards superiors has for its
psychological concomitant the impulse to imitate. Just as children
will copy the voice and gestures of one whom they look up to, so
savages will copy the ways of Europeans who manage to make themselves
respected. In the ceremonies of primitive tribes and even of highly
complex societies, _e.g._, church ritual, a good deal of scope is
offered for this flattery of imitation. We may infer, indeed, that the
impulse to adopt the ways of exalted personages must always have {274}
been at work. In the earlier stages of human history this impulse
was checked by the force of custom and of law, _e.g._, sumptuary
laws. This imitation from below must strike at the root of those
external differences, such as style of dress, between group and group,
observance of which has helped greatly to maintain class-distinctions.
It could only have made way against these barriers gradually. So
difficult, in sooth, does the feat appear to be, that Mr. Herbert
Spencer suggests that fashion, as the imitation of those of high rank
and authority, began in a change of custom; as in the rule already
alluded to that when the king slipped the onlooking courtiers should at
once imitate his awkwardness.

It is probable that the imitation of what is distinctive and fixed in
the costume and manners of the higher class preceded by some interval
the imitation of the changes we call fashion. How the two are connected
does not seem to be quite clear. Did the rulers and those immediately
about them, piqued at the adoption of their ways by the vulgar, try
to steal a march on imitation by changing their customs? To judge
from what takes place to-day, one would answer “yes”. I am told that
ladies strongly object to go on wearing a fashionable hat as soon as
it becomes generally worn by factory girls, or other inferior group.
However this be, it seems certain that the “leaders of society,” while
they reserve for special ceremonial occasions a distinctive dress,
mode of speech and the rest, choose to alter these from time to time
for other purposes. Such alterations may be the result of the caprices
of a “leader,” guided by some inventor, or they may take the form of
an assimilation of a foreign mode. Lastly, the leaders may include
others besides the Court people: the universities are accredited
with the origination of many of the pretty bits of slang, the use of
{275} which is supposed to betoken a certain social altitude and

In the midst of these changes of fashion something of custom may be
seen still to persist. Taking the dress of woman to-day, we note that
in spite of experiments like those of the Bloomers, skirts continue to
be a permanent feature in female attire. Fashions in respect of width,
and even of length, may come and go, but the skirt as skirt seems to go
on for ever.

Even when the impulse to adopt the dress and behaviour of the upper
class was allowed a certain play, it was probably long before it acted
on all ranks. Each rank, whilst keen in its imitation of the ways of
the class above it, would naturally resist any further descent of the
imitative movement.

In this descent of fashion from higher to lower ranks we see a mutual
modification of fashion and permanent custom. In some cases imitation
from below may be stopped pretty early through lack of means for giving
effect to it. The joy of wearing pearls, or other precious stones in
fashion at the moment, is denied the young seamstress. Yet there are
solaces here in the shape of “imitations”. Again, the lower middle
class, not to speak of the cottagers, are, for obvious reasons, not
likely to be affected by a craze for the Queen Anne style in domestic
architecture. Even in the case of dress, fine limitations which
the “mere male” might find it hard to define, seem to be imposed,
for example, on the architecture of the hat, when a new style is
assimilated by lower ranks. Here, again, fashion is clearly restrained
by class-custom. Ideas of neatness, of an unaggressive quietness appear
to be valued, in theory at least, in milliners, domestic servants, and
others who minister to the wants of the titled and the wealthy. The
very {276} expression “the fashionable world” implies that the full
magnificence and luxury of fashion is a monopoly.

The imitation of the manners of high life by the middle class is in
most cases a pretty clear acknowledgment of a superior social quality.
One of the most amusing examples of this thinly-veiled snobbism is
the elevated hand-shake lately in vogue. A fashion like this easily
reaches the eye of the vulgar, focussed for the first appearance of
a new characteristic of “high life,” by way of the theatre or of the
illustrated paper. A point worth noting here is the exaggeration of
what the imitators regard as of the essence of the new “mode”. It would
be curious to hear what symbolism (if any) those who appeared so eager
to get the hand-shake up to the level of the eyes assigned to this
fashionable rite.

This eager and almost simian mimicry of the ways of society’s leaders
must, it is evident, tend to the obliteration of recognisable
class-distinctions in ordinary life. We only need to compare the
spectacle of a crowd in London to-day with that of a mediæval city
crowd, as represented in a drawing of the time, to see what a
depressing amount of assimilation in dress the forces of fashion have
brought about.

The connections between these movements of fashion and the spirit of
laughter are numerous and pretty obvious. Even the primal movement,
the adoption of a fashion by the head of a community from abroad,
offers a rich spectacle for those who lie in wait for the coming of the
ludicrous. How finely the folly that lurks in a slavish submission to
fashion grins out at us from the story of those New Zealand chiefs who,
goaded by the fashion set by others of giving great feasts, would often
push their feast-givings to the point of causing a famine among their
peoples![241] The following {277} of a foreign fashion by a court has
in it, moreover, always something to prick the spirit of malicious
laughter in the subjects. Not so terribly long since, the importation
of customs from one European court to another, and a reciprocation of
the loan, by way of family connections, was the subject of a rather
malicious laughter in each of the countries affected.

It is, however, in the downward rush of fashion from rank to rank, and
the incidents which attend it, that the seeker for the laughable will
find his satisfaction. The eagerness of persons to be in the van of
the movement will of itself produce a crop of ludicrous aspects: for
the first sudden appearance of a large and capturing novelty, say in
a high-branded bonnet or manner of speech, brings to us something of
the delightful gaiety which the sight of the clown brings to a child.
It is a huge folly, which we greet with the full, unthinking roar of
hilarity. Never, indeed, does the inherent non-rationality of a large
part of human behaviour reveal itself so directly and so unmistakably
as when a fashion which has reigned long enough to become accepted
as right is thus rudely thrust aside in favour of an interloper:
whence the laughing contempt poured on new fashions by comic poets and

Nor is this all, or the best. The behaviour of the ardent aspirant
has its absurd aspect even for dull souls. The form of self-assertion
which consists in stepping out of one’s rank is always viewed by
those of the deserted rank with an acidulated amusement; and those
who are too manifestly eager to appropriate a new fashion are wont to
be regarded as persons who are trying to get above their set. If the
{278} fashionable cosmetic is laid on thickly, as it pretty certainly
will be by those seized with the more vulgar form of social ambition,
the fun will wax still greater. The display in this case adds to the
delightful transformation of the clown a touch of the bombast of the

New possibilities of mirth arise out of the collision between the
imitative impulse to be fashionable, and respect for the customs of
one’s group. An exaggeration of something in dress or speech which
savours of an attempt to break through class-barriers cannot but amuse
the onlooker disposed to mirth. Middle-class house-wives are, one
hears, wont to enliven the dulness of their Sunday afternoons by a
stealthy quizzing of their “maids” as they set out for their parade.
The maid’s village acquaintance—if it could succeed in stifling envious
admiration—would doubtless draw a more rollicking enjoyment from the
spectacle. In general, any appearance of craning one’s neck so as to
overtop one’s set is greeted by a slightly malicious laughter; and
the bold donning of fashionable array is the most easily recognisable
manifestation of the craning impulse. For a more purely disinterested
spectator, too, the situation has its entertaining drollness. The
struggle in the panting bosom of a young woman, whether of white
or of coloured race, as the passionate longing for some bewitching
novelty—recommended, too, by the lead of her superiors—is sharply
confronted with the sense of what befits her, and possibly a vague fear
of being plunged by a fiery zeal into the morass of the laughable, has
its comic pathos for the instructed eye.

One further contribution to the fun of the world made by this hot
eagerness to pay homage to rank is perhaps worth a reference. Like the
verbal kind, the flattery of imitation is often visibly hollow. When
the soul of man or woman is held captive by the necessity of doing
what is done by {279} others—especially by others higher up—there is
no room for thought of sincerity: whence, among many results, this
one, that for him who can be pure spectator responsive to the amusing
aspects of things, the spectacle of a great national demonstration of
loyalty cannot fail to have its diverting aspect.

No doubt the pushing worshippers of fashion, if they only wait long
enough, get their chance of laughing back. As soon as the new thing, so
charged with rollicking gaiety at first, settles down to a commonplace
habit, there comes the moment for ridiculing the belated imitator. That
popular figure on the stage, the “old dowdy,” is commonly represented
as ridiculously behind the times in respect of attire. Yet the range of
jocosity inspired by respect for mere newness, on the value of which
reason has had nothing to say, is evidently limited.

We may now turn to those deeper currents of change which together make
up social progress; including all distinct advance from lower to higher
forms of intelligence, sentiment and character, as well as from lower
to higher types of social life; and, along with these, the growth of
institutions in which these changes express themselves.

We may assume that these progressive changes arise, either from the
adoption of the products of superior mental capacity appearing in
individuals who are members of the community, or from the propagation
of ideas, inventions, institutions from one country to another.

To say precisely how the production and circulation of a social
improvement takes place is not easy. Men of imaginative minds, with an
exceptionally large mechanical, legislative, or other insight, or with
a fine feeling for the subtle things of beauty or of the moral order,
there must be. Against all attempted innovation, however, whether {280}
from within or from without, the attitude of conservatism sets itself
as a serious obstacle. Here, too, we seem to perceive the charm and
influence of rank. It is only when some recognised authority proclaims
the value of the new discovery that the multitude, which was perhaps a
moment before doing its best to trample on it, turns deferentially and
kneels. The free adoption of it as true or as good commonly follows
much later.

A startlingly new idea, whether in science, religion, or the utilities
of life, finds in its intrinsic reasonableness no defence against the
attacks of malicious mirth. The ordinary mind when it laughs, just as
when it is serious, judges things by the standard of what is customary.
What violently jars with this is viewed as legitimate game for
ridicule. The history of ideas and of the social movements growing out
of them is one long illustration of this truth. The idea of a larger
freedom and higher functions for women was treated by the theatre of
ancient Greece as matter for wild hilarity. The idea came up again and
again after this, thanks to the zeal and courage of isolated advocates.
But it continued to excite the loud laughter of the crowd. And less
than half a century ago, when J. S. Mill advocated the spiritual and
legal emancipation of women, the response was at first largely an
expression of amusement. Only to-day is a part of the civilised world
beginning to recognise the naturalness and fitness of the idea that
women should have their share, both in the intellectual gains of the
more advanced education, and in the larger work of the world.

We may see by this illustration how mighty a force every new idea of
a large revolutionary character has to meet and to overcome. Darwin’s
idea of the evolution of man seemed in the sixties to the mass of
Englishmen, including a bishop {281} of Oxford and many another high
up in the scale of intellectual culture, very much as some of the
teachings of our missionaries strike a keen-witted savage. The figure
of the monkey, which is, by the way, one of the oldest symbols of
caricature, rendered excellent service to those who, naturally enough,
greeted the proposed topsy-turvyness of Darwinism with boisterous

It is much the same with the attitude of the crowd towards the
first use of practical inventions. Much merriment accompanied the
introduction from abroad by the gallants of the Restoration of
so simple an innovation as the use of the fork[243]—a fact to be
remembered by the English tourist abroad when he is disposed to laugh
at the sight of a too lavish use of the knife. In such cases, the first
adopters of the novelty are laughed at very much as in the case of a
new fashion. The absurdity of the adoption in either case turns on the
delightful freshness and the glorious irregularity of the proceeding.

On the other hand, we meet here, too, with a recoil of laughter upon
the laugher. Though a respect for the customary prompts us at first
to ridicule any sudden and impressive change in ideas or habits
of life, yet, when the change is in a fair way of becoming fixed,
the same feeling will urge us to make merry over those who show an
obstinate prejudice in favour of the old. Laughter finds one of its
chief functions in ridiculing worn-out ideas, beliefs that have been
proved illusory, and discarded habits of life. Nowhere, perhaps, is the
elation of mirth more distinctly audible than in this ridicule by an
advancing age of survivals of the discarded ways of its predecessors.
Art gives us many examples of this merriment over what is decaying and
growing effete. Every age of stir and {282} commotion has probably
had its satirical literature, striking with boisterous mirth at the
disappearing phantoms. The broad and genial comedy of Aristophanes
pushed against the tottering mythology of his time, and the fall evoked
a large outflow of mirth. The great work of Cervantes and the satires
(pasquins) of the same period poked fun at the sentimental clinging to
the decaying order of chivalry and feudalism.[244]

Merry-making over the death of outworn ideas and institutions has
frequently been reinforced by the deep and refreshing expiration which
accompanies relief from pressure. This elemental form of laughter
has entered into all those happy moments of national life when the
whole people has become closely united in a joyous self-abandonment.
Plautus, the comedian of the people, reflects in his broad merriment
the rebound of the spirit after the second Punic War from a long
continued state of tension, and the craving of the masses for a more
unrestrained enjoyment of the pleasures of life.[245] The popular art
of the Middle Ages, in which the demons seem to play the harmless part
of the policeman in a modern pantomime, illustrates the rebound from
an oppressive superstition. A like relief of tension and outburst of
pent-up spirits are recognisable in the literature of the Reformation
and of the English Restoration.

The same exhilarant aspect of the vanishing of the outworn moves us
in a quieter way when we ridicule the survivals of customs and rites
which have lost their significance. This form of hilarious enjoyment,
which implies a piercing through of appearances and a searching into
meanings, will be more fully considered later on.

It seems to follow from what has been said that laughter {283}
reacts in a double manner upon changes of social habit. First of all,
it resists the wildness of the craving for the new (neomania). As
schoolboys are wont to treat a newcomer, it applies its lash vigorously
to a proposed innovation, in order to see what “stuff” it is made of,
and whether it can justify its existence. In this way it moderates the
pace of the movement of change. On the other hand, it completes the
process of throwing off an outworn habit by giving it, so to speak,
the _coup de grâce_. It thus combines the service rendered to a herd
of sheep on the march by the shepherd who walks in front, with that
rendered by the sheep-dog which runs back again and again to the
laggards. It seems to be enforcing Goethe’s maxim:—

    “Ohne Hast
    Aber ohne Rast.”

We may now glance at some of the workings of this complex movement
of social progress on the formation of social sets, and on their
reciprocal attitudes.

It is evident that, by introducing much more subdivision of employment
and exclusive knowledge of experts, progress will tend to widen the
area of mutual quizzing and chaffing, already dealt with. It is of more
importance to point out that the advance of a community in knowledge
and culture will lead to the formation of new groups involving certain
differences of rank. The importance of this kind of group-division
shows itself in classic comedy. Juvenal expresses the lively contempt
of the urban citizen for his provincial inferior,[246] and our own
comedy of the Restoration, taking town life as its standard, pours
ridicule on the country gentry.[247] It is illustrated also in the
relation of the clergy {284} as the learned class, to the ignorant
laity. As the _contes_ amusingly suggest, a large part of the authority
of the clergy during the Dark Ages rested on this intellectual
superiority. If we view culture widely we may speak of an indefinite
number of levels composing a scale of intellectual dignity. These
levels are commonly supposed to coincide with such groups as the
professional class, the man of business (Kaufman), and the lower
class. But no such coincidence can be assumed when once education has
become a common possession. A large portion of our “upper” class—which
is determined no longer by descent but to a considerable extent by
wealth—is neither cultured nor even well-informed. A clerk will often
be found to have more general knowledge and literary taste than his
well-dressed employer, and a working man, in spite of the limitations
of poverty, may know more about such subjects as philosophy and history
than the great majority of the middle class. We see then that the
strata representing gradations of culture are largely independent of
commonly recognised divisions. These older distinctions may, indeed,
be very much toned down by the culture-movement. The ancient line of
division between the superior man and his inferior spouse has been half
effaced by the admission of women into the higher culture circle. The
culture divisions are real social groups, each being bound together by
a large community of ideas, tastes and interests; and their importance
in the system of social grouping tends to increase.

The development of culture groups introduces a new and important change
in the standards of fitness, to which laughter is, so to speak, tied.
When superiority is lacking in a clearly recognisable basis of reason,
its ridicule of inferiors can only have its source in a pride which
may be, and often is, of the most foolish. When, however, it resides
{285} in the possession of greater spiritual wealth, more refined
ideas and a more acute sense of the fitting, the laughter itself
shows a finer quality. It is less boisterous, more discerning, and
more penetrating. As such, we need not wonder that, though it is felt
to be irritating, it is not understood. The _nouveau riche_, whose
vulgarity reveals itself as soon as he appears in a society having
refined manners, may wince under the half-repressed smile, though he
seems for the most part well protected by an insensitive tegument. As
Schopenhauer has observed, the man of mediocre intelligence very much
dislikes encountering his intellectual superior; and it so happens, for
the gratification of merry onlookers, perhaps, that social ambition not
infrequently precipitates its possessor into a sharp encounter with
those who have a whole world of ideas of which he knows nothing.

Not but that the inferior here, too, may now and again have his chance
of laughing back. The possession of ideas and of an exacting taste
is apt to appear affected to one wanting in them. Midas, accustomed
to measure values by incomes, and to identify intelligence with the
cleverness of the money-maker, not unnaturally regards a habit of
appealing to ideas as an eccentric superfluity; and so laughter may
come consolingly to him who is utterly beaten in the encounter of wits.
The “common-sense” of the average Briton scores many a loud laugh in
its confident self-assertion against any proposed introduction of ideas
into the sphere of practical affairs.

A further effect of the movement of culture on group-formation is seen
in the divisions into sects, a phenomenon which seems to be conspicuous
in the communities built up by our race. This tendency to a minute
subdivision of religious, political and other bodies introduces a new
kind of relation. We cannot well say that one section surpasses {286}
its rivals in intelligence. This may or may not be the case, but the
rules of the social game require us to leave the question open. On the
other hand, this differentiation of organised opinion into a number of
particular creeds or “views,” the shade of opinion being often fine,
leads to a new bifurcation of “higher” and “lower” groups. The “higher”
here is the mass or majority which naturally laughs at tiny minorities
as faddists and cranks. Yet again, the fine impartiality of the god
of laughter, to whom, since mankind for the greater part is other
than wise, the difference of the many and the few may hardly count,
occasionally gives the despised minority its chance; for minorities do
sometimes represent ideas which are born for sovereignty.

While the progress of a nation in ideas and institutions thus serves in
a manner to multiply groups, and so to introduce new opportunities for
the indulgence of group attack and retaliation, it tends on the whole
to break down their barriers. It does this by means of the pulpit, the
press, and the educational agencies which help to circulate new ideas
through all classes. These conduce, both directly and indirectly, to
a certain assimilation of groups; and assimilative action is going
on rapidly to-day. Yet, as we have seen, it leaves ample room for
different grades of culture, since natural differences of coarseness
and fineness in the intellectual fibre will always secure the broad
contrast of the cultured and the uncultured.

The spread of knowledge and culture through all classes acts indirectly
on group-distinctions by throwing open the occupations of one class to
members of others, and more particularly of “lower” ones. The workman’s
son who has a brain and cultivates it may, as we are often told, find
his way to the university and take his place unchallenged {287} among
the lawyers, the doctors, or the exalted “dons” themselves.

Now all sudden changes in class, especially such as involve elevation,
are apt to appear laughable. Even when promotion comes by royal favour,
we feel the leap into a higher sphere to be anomalous, and are wont to
examine the grounds of the new title with some care. The conservative
instincts of men oppose themselves laughingly to the appearance of
new dignitaries very much as they oppose themselves to the appearance
of new ideas, and some temporary unfitness in the person for his new
social niche is to be expected. In the comedy of the Restoration, we
are told, “no measure is kept in pouring contempt on the mushroom
growths of yesterday, the knights of recent creation”.[248]

Something of this impression of the incongruously new is produced for
a moment even in the case of a well-earned rise in the social scale.
The young aspirant’s family and connections, living on in the less
brilliant light, will perforce laugh, though perhaps with something of
sympathetic admiration, at the oddity of the sudden elevation; and the
rising young man will be singularly fortunate if he does not now and
again betray an amusing unfamiliarity with the ways of the company he
has joined.

Yet the confusion of ranks due to the universalising of education is
small and unimpressive when compared with that arising from another
cause. The great destroyer of fixed class-boundaries is the force which
tends to transmute a community into a plutocracy. This tendency may, no
doubt, illustrate in a measure the effect of a diffused education; for
the successful fortune-builder will sometimes have attained success by
scientific knowledge skilfully {288} applied. Yet the presence—or the
absence—of other qualities than the intellectual seems to have much to
do in these days with sudden elevations in the plutocratic scale.

As the comedy of Molière may tell us, the spectacle of a man standing
at the foot of the social ladder and looking up wistfully at its
higher region has something entertaining in it both for those on his
actual level and for those on the level of his ambition. Later, when
the wistful glance is followed by actual climbing, the unrehearsed
performances may grow mirth-provoking even to the point of tearful
mistiness. Nor does the attainment of the goal make an end of the fun,
since the maintenance of a decorous equilibrium at the new altitude may
turn out to be even more precarious than the climbing, especially when
relatives and other accidents of the humbler state persist in their

On the other hand, these climbings exhibit much in the way of amusing
imposture; for men, as Schopenhauer tells us, have been known to push
their way, unqualified and impious, even into literary circles, and
snatch a kind of reflected distinction by the use of arts at once
ancient and vulgar.

The spectacle of changing one’s class exhibits the amusing aspect of
fraud in another way. When leaders high up in “society” pay homage to
the deity of the climbing money-maker by betaking themselves to trade
under assumed names, the mirth of Midas and of his whole despised caste
may find its opportune vent.

We may now briefly indicate the general effect of the social movements
just sketched upon the quality and the mode of distribution of the
hilarious moods of a people.

(_a_) To begin with, the advance and wider spread of the wave of
culture will clearly tend to effect a general raising {289} of the
standard of taste, and to develop an appreciation of the quality of
the ludicrous. This result, though effected in part by the development
of art and the extension of its educative influence, is in the main
the direct outcome of intellectual progress and of that increase in
refinement of feeling which seems to depend on this progress. One
may describe this change by saying that the standard of ideas tends
gradually to gain ground, hemming in if not narrowing that of custom.
The primal laugh, void of intellectual content, becomes less general,
the laugh of the mind more frequent. This effect of an introduction
of ideas holds good in the case of members of all classes in so far
as they enter into the higher culture group. In this way particular
standards of locality and of social group begin to count less in our

This effect of expansion of the intellectual view is reflected in all
the more refined varieties of comic art. Any manifest insistence on
dignity of rank, more especially when the group is not of imposing
aspect, whether the _petite noblesse_ in a small “Residency” town on
the Continent or the families which compose “Society” in an obscure
town in England, is felt to be on the verge of the ludicrous. On the
other hand, a magnifying of the dignity of a person or a class by those
below, when accompanied by a cringing demeanour, is apt to take on the
amusing aspect of flunkeyism, the due appreciation of which presupposes
a certain maturity of the laughter of the mind.

The general tendency of this advance of ideas is as yet very
imperfectly realised. The march of mind, like some military marches,
is not quite so uniformly triumphant as it is wont to be represented.
A considerable part of the laughter among what are called the educated
classes is still {290} but little influenced by the finer and deeper
perception of ludicrous quality; while, as for the uneducated majority
of all social grades, it would be hard to find in their mirth any
distinct traces of a deposit from the advance of the culture-stream.
One might venture on the supposition that the appreciation of the
ludicrous shown to-day by the frequenters of a “high class” Music
Hall in London is, both as to its intellectual penetration and as
to its refinement of feeling, but little, if anything, above that
of a mediæval crowd which gathered to see and hear the jokes of the
_jongleur_. So slow a process is the infiltration of refining influence
from the higher strata of culture downwards.

(_b_) This change in the quality of social laughter through an
infusion of ideas has undoubtedly been accompanied by a change in its
quantity, as seen in a decline of the older, voluminous merriment of
the people. This fall in the collective outburst, already touched on,
and recognised by all students of the past, is largely due to a toning
down of the simpler and heartier utterances of the common people. This
change is so important as to call for a short investigation.

In simpler types of society, the more hearty and voluminous laughter
probably came from the lowest strata. It is enough to recall the mirth
of the Egyptian and the Roman slave. Later on, the large scope for
indulgence in laughter was supplied by an _organisation_ of mirth in
the shape of shows and other popular entertainments. There was possibly
the germ of such an organisation in the annual celebration “in honour
of the most jocund god of laughter” referred to by Apuleius.[249] One
may instance the merry-makings at the harvest and vintage festivals
out of {291} which Greek comedy took its rise, and the rollicking fun
of the multitude at fairs and festivals during the Middle Ages. That
the people were the true experts in the secrets of laughter is further
suggested by the fact that slaves, both Greek and Roman, were selected
as jesters and wits by well-to-do people. The fools kept by Orientals
were probably from the same class.[250] The later “fools” of European
courts were drawn from the simple folk.

The characteristics of this early type of popular mirth can be summed
up in the word childishness. The slave or other oppressed worker
could without effort throw off ideas of toil and chastisement in his
play hour. Towards his master and his treatment of him, his attitude
seems to have been on the whole the resignation of a life-long habit.
He might, not improbably, enjoy a quiet joke at the expense of his
overseer, but he seems to have entertained towards him none of the
deeper animosity.

This naïve form of popular laughter gave way to a less childish type
when “the common people” began to include a goodly number of free-men
who were able to form opinions of their own, and bold enough to
assert the right of expressing these. It follows from what has been
said above that the newly gained freedom would naturally give rise to
some laughter-bringing criticism of authorities. This tendency of the
mirthful mood of the crowd was instantly perceived by the authorities
who waged war against it, using the weapons of a repressive censorship.
We have an example of this censorship in the police regulations which
hampered the introduction of comedy from Athens into Rome. It was
required by the authorities that the scene of the play should always
be laid outside Rome as if to guard against a direct attack on Roman
{292} institutions and persons.[251] A like hostility to the pranks of
a free and quite unfastidious mirth was shown by the mediæval church.
This may well have been in part the outcome of honest moral reprobation
of the scurrilities of the songs, the _contes_ and the rest. Yet it
looks as if the prohibitory enactments originated for the most part in
the alarm of the ecclesiastics for the security of their hold on the
mind of the people.

It was not, however, an easy matter to silence popular laughter when
this had once heard itself and recognised its force. Aristophanes
and his laughing public were, for a time at least, stronger than
the demagogue whom they ridiculed. No doubt the civil and the
ecclesiastical power have again and again succeeded in half-stifling
for a time the ruder sort of laughter. Yet the complete suffocation
of it in free communities has proved to be impossible. In the Middle
Ages, we are told, the atmosphere of fun would rise now and again to a
kindling heat, so that holy men themselves would join in the not too
decent songs.[252] The modern history of Political Satire abundantly
illustrates the force of popular laughter. Thus, in the Stuart period,
satires were produced which were a popular protest against the
grievance of monopolies.[253] How firmly it maintained its ground is
illustrated by the fact that the politicians, when they have failed
to oust it from the stage, have endeavoured to turn it to their own
ends.[254] If the more scurrilous sort has now been driven from the
stage, political caricature {293} flourishes vigorously and has dared
to attack royalty itself within a measurable period.[255]

The people has undoubtedly been the upholder of the wholesome custom of
mirth. Taking the peasantry, the workmen, and the lower middle class as
representing the “people” of to-day, one has to confess that its merry
note seems to have been lost. The reservoir which in the past supplied
the stream of national gaiety has certainly fallen and threatens even
to dry up. But of this more by-and-by.

(_c_) As a last effect needing to be emphasised here, we have
underlying the laughter of a people a curiously composite attitude.
By this I mean an agglomeration of mental tendencies involving
different _manières de voir_, and different standards of the fit and,
consequently, of the laughable.

In the preceding chapter we saw how the choral laughter of the savage
followed the directions of the self-conservative tendencies of his
tribe. This unconscious self-adaptation of the mirthful mood to
the ends of the tribal life has persisted through all the changes
introduced by the play of fashion and by the movements of social
evolution. We of to-day who travel so much more than our ancestors in
foreign lands, and may even learn to speak their languages, retain the
tendency to resist the importation of what strikes us as un-English. In
certain seasons, say when the war-temper heats the blood and foreigners
criticise, this feeling for what is national grows distinct and vivid,
and reflects itself unmistakably in the manifestations of such mirth as
seems to be compatible with the mood of the hour.

This point of view of the tribe has always coexisted with {294} the
narrower and more relative one of the group, illustrated above, though
it has in ordinary circumstances been less prominent in men’s mirthful
utterances. The mediæval laughter at the priest, one may conjecture,
was now and again directed from the national or patriotic point of
view, as the people began to discern in him the servant of a foreign

Not only so, but in much of a people’s laughter at what it deems the
“absurd”—the laughter of “common-sense,” as we may call it—it is the
point of view of the tribe or society which is still adopted: and
this holds good of the larger part, at least, of a community in the
van of the march of civilisation. When we smile at what appears to us
a far-fetched view, or a quaint habit of life, we are really guided
by the standard, “what people round about us say and do and expect
us to say and do”. This contented reference to a vaguely formulated
custom, without any scrutiny of its inherent reasonableness, holds
good, indeed, of the judgments passed by ordinary men on the laughable
aspects of the immoral. Promptness in paying one’s debts, for example,
will for most men wear a reasonable or a foolish aspect according
to the custom of their tribe—though here two class-standards make
themselves distinctly felt; and so the laugh may be turned, as the
custom changes, from him whose tardiness in discharging liabilities
suggests straitened means otherwise carefully concealed, to him who
displays an ungentlemanly haste in matters of a contemptible smallness.

It seems to follow that the adjustments of laughter to more universal
norms, to ideas of an inherent fitness in things, are a kind of
artificial addition to deeper and more instinctive tendencies. The
ordinary man, even when he enjoys the spectacle of some laughable folly
or vice, {295} hardly transcends the point of view of custom, from
which what all men do is seen to be right. It is only when a higher
culture has made apparent the universality of the laughable, as of
its opposite the reasonable, that a conscious resort to ideas becomes
frequent. This clarifying of our laughter by the infusion of ideas is,
in a special manner, the work of experts, namely, the moralist, the
literary critic, and, most of all, the artist whose business it is to
illumine the domain of the ludicrous. This function of art will form
the subject of a later chapter.

       *       *       *       *       *

In this chapter we have dealt merely with what I have called choral
laughter, that of groups, smaller or larger. There is, however, another
kind, the private laughter of the individual when alone, or in the
company of sympathetic friends. This also has its pre-conditions in the
processes of social evolution just touched upon.

Such independent laughter would, it is evident, be impossible in
the lowest stages of this evolution. In the savage or quasi-savage
state an oddly constituted member of a tribe—if such a being were
possible—liable to be seized with a spasm of ridicule at the
absurdities of tribal ceremonies would certainly encounter serious
risks. It has needed ages of social progress to establish the
conditions of a safe individual liberty in the indulgence of the jocose

This freedom in choosing one’s own modes of laughter has gradually
asserted itself as a part of all that we mean by individual liberty.
Perhaps, indeed, it may be regarded as the highest phase and completion
of this liberty.

This is not the place for a full inquiry into the complex conditions on
which the development of a freer individual laughter depends. It may
be enough to point to the need {296} of an advance in ideas and the
capability, among the few at least, to form individual judgments, which
this advance implies. A man who would laugh his own laugh must begin by
developing his own perceptions and ideas.

A fuller understanding of the pre-conditions of an independent
laughter will only be possible to one who has carefully examined its
characteristics. In the following chapter I propose to analyse that
variety of the laughing temper which seems in a peculiar way to be
an attribute of the developed individual. This attribute is what is
specially designated in these days by the term humour.




In the preceding chapter we have seen how the advance of civilisation
has tended to still the louder choral voice of laughter. Yet man’s best
friend is not of the sort to take an affront too seriously. Driven
out from the crowd, he has known how to disguise himself and to steal
back into the haunts of men, touching here and there a human spirit
and moving it to a quieter and perfectly safe enjoyment of things
laughable. This new endowment, this last inspiration of the mortal by
the god, is what we mean by Humour.

Perhaps hardly a word in the language—and it seems to be exclusively
an English word—would be harder to define with scientific precision
than this familiar one. It is often used with the greatest degree of
looseness, as when a man is endowed with humour because he laughs
readily.[256] Yet any one who takes pains in using words knows how far
this is from being accurate. A chronic garrulity of laughter, typified
in what Mr. Meredith calls the “hypergelast,” stands, indeed, in marked
contrast to what careful speech indicates by “humour”. As its etymology
might teach us, the term connotes, not so much the common endowment of
{298} “risibility,” as a certain kind of temperament, a complexion
of sentiment, nay, more, a mode of psychical organisation. We cannot,
therefore, think of the race as humorous, and should even find it
difficult to generalise the endowment so far as to speak of humorists
as a class. The humorous man or woman is so, primarily and essentially,
by the unpurchasable possession of an individual mind.

This fact of a quite peculiar mixture of elements in the humorous
person must never be lost sight of. It dooms this person to a
comparative solitude in the vocal expression of a feeling which is
primarily social and communicative. The idea of a large unison of
utterance among humorous persons is not entertainable. A man who has
developed his humorous bent will be thankful if he finds in his social
circle one or two who can understand, and, now and again, join in his
quiet chuckle.

Yet, though essentially in every individual case a unique blend
of elements, humour has certain common characteristics. What sort
of temperament and mind are we thinking of when we agree to call
Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goldsmith, Sterne, Lamb, Dickens, and George
Eliot humorists?

One thing we can say confidently, that it is wanting in certain
characteristics of the more diffused laughter. It is far removed from
the swift reflex gaiety of the child and the unthinking adult. Its
laughter is not only quieter but has a slower movement, and it is
charged with a deeper meaning. Again, its utterance differs in tone
from the old brutal and contemptuous shout. It voices itself in low and
almost tender tones. It is the laughter altogether farthest removed
from the standpoint of the interested person: there is in it nothing
of the crowing over the vanquished, hardly anything of a consciousness
of the {299} superiority to which the uplifting of laughter may at
the moment make valid claim. Hence, one may hesitate to apply the name
humorist to a writer in whose laughter—though it is commonly spoken of
as humour—a note of derisive contempt begins to grow prominent.

These contrasts point clearly enough to certain positive
characteristics of the moods of humour. A quiet survey of things, at
once playful and reflective; a mode of greeting amusing shows which
seems in its moderation to be both an indulgence in the sense of fun
and an expiation for the rudeness of such indulgence; an outward,
expansive movement of the spirits met and retarded by a cross-current
of something like kindly thoughtfulness; these clearly reveal
themselves as some of its dominant traits.

At first it seems impossible to view this subtle and complex mental
attitude as a development of the naïve and rather coarse merriment of
earlier times. Yet a slight examination of the choicest examples of
what the discerning call humour would suffice to show that it finds its
pasturage very much where the Greek or the mediæval populace found it.
Topsy-turvyness, especially when it involves the fall of things from
a height; stumbling and awkwardness of all kinds; human oddities when
they grow to provocative dimensions; all self-inflation with a view to
force a reluctant notice; the manifold masqueradings of mortals; the
unfitnesses of things to the demands of circumstances; extravagances,
perversities, and the multitudinous follies of men; these which move
the rough man to his unconsidered cachinnation move also the humorous
man to his slower and _sotto voce_ note.

As our great woman humorist has it: “Strange as the genealogy may
seem, the original parentage of that wonderful and delicious mixture
of fun, fancy, philosophy and {300} feeling, which constitutes modern
humour, was probably the cruel mockery of a savage at the writhings of
a suffering enemy—such is the tendency of things towards the better and
more beautiful!”[257]

In asserting that gentle humour has its descent from such an uncouth
ancestry, we must not be supposed to imply that its genesis has been
a sudden or a simple process. As has been suggested, the sentiment
is highly complex. It presupposes in its possessor the presence of a
particular assemblage of qualities which may be expected to be rare;
and a study of the development both of the individual and of the race
tells us that this grouping of qualities is, of all the products of
nature’s laboratory, one of the most delicate, one exacting from her a
very special effort of preparation.

Although humour is correctly described as a sentiment, its most
apparent, if not most important condition, is a development of
intelligence. It is plainly an example of what Mr. Meredith calls
“the laughter of the mind,” an expression which makes the large
presupposition that we have this mind. It thrives best at the level
of ideas. Yet the element of intellect which is vital to humour does
not imply subtlety of mind, still less the presence of ideas remote
from the plane of ordinary men’s understanding. What is needed is a
mind given to musing on what it observes—it may be that of a shrewd
housewife—having a sufficient life and independence of movement to rise
above the dull mechanical acceptance of things, to pierce these with
the ray of a fresh criticism.

The distinguishing intellectual element in humorous contemplation is
a larger development of that power of grasping things together, and
in their relations, which is at {301} the root of all the higher
perceptions of the laughable. More particularly, it is a mental habit
of projecting things against their backgrounds, of viewing them in
their complete settings—so far as this involves those relations of
contrariety which, as we have allowed, are of the essence of the
ludicrous, in the stricter sense of the term. This comprehension of
the setting is dependent on a process of _imaginative reflection_; for
the background which humour requires is not the same as the visible
background, but has, to a considerable extent, to be reinstated, or
rather to be constructed.

This introduction into humour of something in the nature of a thinking
process or reflection has this curious consequence, that it does not
merely play about the realm of the serious, as the earlier and simpler
laughter does, but comprehends, assimilates, and becomes toned down
into half-play by something of the weightier import of things, of their
value and their bearing on our welfare. This is the paradox, the secret
of the humour-loving soul, irritating at once to the merely serious
person and to the light-hearted trifler. In order to understand how
this is effected, we shall, as will be seen presently, need to look
at other elements besides the intellectual. Yet we shall do well to
note the fact that the possibility of this meeting of the playful and
the serious in the mood of humour has its intellectual condition in an
enlarged mental grasp of things.

Our analysis of the objects which entice the laugh from man has
suggested that the risible aspect nearly always coexists with other
aspects. The kind of physical defect which is amusing may also be
wrong æsthetically or hygienically, and so on of the rest. And though
writers from Aristotle to Bain have been careful to point out that the
laughable defect or degradation must in its magnitude be below the
threshold of the painfully ugly, the {302} blameworthy and so forth,
it is perfectly clear that given a quick and comprehensive perception,
and a turn for musing on what is perceived, the serious tendency in
that which amuses us will come into the margin of the field of vision.

In this way, in the case of those who have developed the requisite
combining organ, a kind of binocular mental vision has become possible.
We enjoy pensively the presentation of Don Quixote, of Uncle Toby,
and the other great humorous characters, just because we are in a
mood in which, while giving ourselves up to an amusing spectacle, we
nevertheless embrace in our reflective survey, and are affected by,
something of its deeper meaning.

A full account of the humorous way of regarding things would trace
out all the subtle interpenetrations of merry fooling and serious
inspection, of a light and merry fancy and a sober reason. A hint,
only, on their modes of combination, can be given here.

A finer appreciation of contrasts, and of relations generally, will
often serve to enrich the impression given by a palpable instance of
the laughable. A small plump child falls on the floor with sonorous
effect: the sudden flopping down is fraught with entertainment for
all men. The observer who can contemplate thoughtfully, enjoys the
fall also, but more quietly and with a larger process of mental
assimilation. His mind discerns in the trivial incident such things,
perhaps, as the compact sturdiness of nature re-establishing itself
by vigorous efforts duly announced by grunts, and the harmlessness of
falls when bones and joints are young, as compared with those of the
old, of which in many respects the child’s fall may remind him. It is
a train of ideas of this kind, though only half-consciously pursued,
which gives to the thumping fall much of its value for the humorous
observer. {303}

Again, the development of the intelligence to a large and varied
activity will, by quickening the faculty of seizing relations, open up
new and spacious fields for the humorist’s quiet contemplation. To one
bringing a mental eye focussed for the amusing juxtaposition, and a
temper disposed to muse on what he sees, how much of the entertaining
may reveal itself in common sights, such as that of a thin wheezy man
joining in shouts of a full-blooded Jingo crowd, or that of a woman,
whose head has just been pommelled by her rightful lord, turning
upon and “slanging” the bystander who has foolishly tried to curb an
excessive assertion of marital rights.[258] The possession of ideas,
again, will help a man at once sympathetically to realise and to
transcend limited points of view when they come into collision, and so
to gather much ruminating amusement. How large a scope, for example,
for such quiet entertainment opens up in the rejoinder of Mrs. Flynn,
an Irish lady who had been brought before a magistrate for assaulting
her husband, and commiserated by that compassionate functionary on
her sad plight with one eye closed and the head bandaged: “Och, yer
worship, just wait till yez see Flynn”. The recognition of the real
proportions of a zest for battle and a taste for compassion in the
stalwart Irish dame, unsuspected by kindly magistrates, at once gives
us the point of view for a half-serious, half-amusing contemplation of
human relations.

As these illustrations suggest, the point of view of the humorous
observer is not a fixed one. Sometimes the freshness, the sense of
liberation from the stupidly commonplace, will come by applying a
rational idea to things which are not accustomed to the treatment. At
other times, when the intelligence happens to be more sprightly, the
new point of {304} view is reached by a flight of fancy which loves
to perch itself on some outlook far from that of a rational criticism.
The humorous sort of mind delights in the play of inverting ordinary
arrangements, say, of making man and beast, father and son, exchange
places, or, as in Lewis Carroll’s delightful instance of an ideal
experiment, of putting the sane people in asylums and allowing the
lunatics to go at large.[259]

It follows that humorous contemplation will have many shades of
seriousness. In some instances, the proportion of the rational element
leads us to speak of it as wisdom laughing,—“ridentem dicere verum”;
in others, in which the predominance of a capricious fancy brings the
expression near that of sportive wit, to describe it rather as laughter
sobered by a word of wisdom. Yet it may be said that in every state
which we describe as one of humorous enjoyment the rational element
itself, affected by its alliance, puts on a half-festive attire, so
that after all the whole mind may be said to join in the play.[260]

The humorous state is, however, much more than a peculiar modification
of the processes of intelligence. It cannot be constituted by a
mere train of cold perceptions and ideas. It means that the whole
consciousness is for the time modified by the taking on of a new
attitude or mood. The play of young fancy about the grave elderly form
of reason, which is half-coaxed to play too, comes from this new tone
of the whole mind.

This mental tone involves a peculiar modification of the conative
processes. All laughing scrutiny of things, as a play-attitude, is
a sort of relaxation of the set concentration {305} of a conative
purpose. Whenever we laugh, if it be only with a child at the
jocosities of a clown, we are freed from the constraining force of the
practical and even of the theoretical interests which commonly hold and
confine our minds when we observe closely. In such moments we abandon
ourselves to the tickling play of the object on our perceptions and
ideational tendencies. In humour this self-abandonment takes on a shade
of seriousness, not because the relaxation of the conative effort is
less complete, but because the self-abandonment is that of a mind so
habitually reflective that, even when it is at play, it does not wholly
lose sight of the serious import of the thoughts which minister to its
entertainment; because it dimly recognises the worth of the standard
ideas, by the lightest allusion to which it is able to indulge in a
playful criticism of what is presented.

The deeper secret of the mood of humour, however, lies in a peculiar
modification of the feeling-tone of consciousness. In this, it is at
once evident, we have to do with a special example of complexity.
The laughter tinged with something akin to sadness is a mixture of
feeling-tones; of tones, too, which seem directly opposed and likely to
be mutually repugnant.

The gaiety of laughter begins to be complicated with an undertone by
the half-intrusion into consciousness of the serious import of things.
To be aware, however indistinctly, that the world has its serious
side, is to lose the child’s note of pure mirth, is to have a touch of
sadness added to our laughter.

The more serious complication comes, however, when the regrettable side
of the laughable object makes itself felt. The effect of this on the
humorous person has nothing in common with that of the exhibition of
folly on {306} the contemptuous person. It is the very opposite to the
feeling of one who rejoices in another’s discomfiture as such. It is
a sense of the implicated “pity of it”. A person completely humorous
is essentially sympathetic, skilled in the humane art of transporting
himself to others’ standpoints, of comprehending men’s doings and words
in the warm light thrown by the human affections. By some, indeed,
sympathy is regarded as the great distinguishing characteristic of
humour.[261] But it seems well to add that it is the infusion of a
proportionate amount of the sympathetic into our blithe survey of
things which carries us far in the path of humorous appreciation. A
sympathy of a step too quick for the sense of fun to keep abreast in
friendly comradeship will, as Flaubert says happened in his case in
later life,[262] make an end of laughter.

It is but a step from this recognition of the regrettableness of what
amuses us to a discernment of what, in its turn, tones down the sadness
of regret, of the fine threads which attach the laughable defect to
elements of real worth. Humour, of the richer kinds at least, certainly
includes something of consideration, of a detection, in the laughable
quality or its attachments, of suggestions of what is estimable and

The disposition to think well of what amuses us may come in the first
instance from an impulse of gratitude. So ready are we in general to
acknowledge another’s entertainment of us that, even when the pleasure
bestowed is known to have been given quite unwittingly, we cannot quite
check the impulse to tender thanks. {307}

Again, that which amuses us will often, when thoughtfully considered,
show itself to be bound up with what is really estimable. It is
exaggerations of good qualities which are so amusing, especially
when through sheer obstinacy they tend to become the whole man, and
to provoke while they entertain. Comedy will sometimes—in the figure
of Molière’s Alceste, for example—exhibit to us this clinging of the
laughable to the skirts of excellence. But it is only to the more
reflective mood of humour, to which comedy, as we shall see, does not
appeal, that this coexistence of the quality and its defects, fully
discloses itself.

Sometimes, too, even though we fail to discern its partial redemption
through an organic connection with a worthy trait, a laughable defect
may take on the appearance of a condonable and almost lovable blemish
of character. Thus it is with the small imperfections seen in men
recognised to be substantially good, imperfections which bring them
nearer to us and so make them comprehensible. Thus, too, is it with the
ignorances and simplicities of children, which, even while they bring
the smile, disclose their worth as pure expressions of child-nature.

By speaking of a sentiment of humour we imply that the kindly feeling
somehow combines with the gaiety of laughter in a new type of emotional
consciousness. This combination, again, seems to involve a simultaneous
presence in consciousness of the two elements, and not merely a rapid
alternation of two phases of feeling. It is this simultaneous rise and
partial fusion of a gay and a sad tone of feeling which differentiates
humour proper from the feeling of ages to which the proximity of the
laughable and the pathetic in things was familiar enough, as we may
see, for example, from Pope’s lines on Addison:— {308}

    Who but must laugh if such a man there be?
    Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?

Again, as a harmonious blending of elements the sentiment of humour
contrasts with that mere mixture of pleasurable and painful ingredients
which Plato thought he detected in all laughter.[263]

The psychology of the emotions is still in a backward state, and we
know very little about the laws of their fusion.[264] One or two points
may, however, be touched on.

It must be remembered that two feelings simultaneously excited may
clash and refuse to combine in a peaceful whole. This commonly happens,
indeed, when they are repugnant in kind, _e.g._, pride and tenderness,
and when both are powerfully excited. Emotional fusion means that this
repugnance is somehow overcome, that the constituent emotive processes
combine in some new current of consciousness. Not that the elements
need be wholly submerged in the product; they may remain as tones
remain in a chord, half-disclosed, though profoundly modified by their
concomitants. Such a state of partial fusion may be illustrated in our
moods of memory, in which delight in the recovery of lost experiences
is tempered with regret.

The conditions of such a peaceful, harmonious confluence of dissimilar
feelings are various. The effect may be furthered by the presence of
points of affinity among the elements; whence the sentiments which
dignify their objects, such as love and admiration, readily combine.
This holds good to some extent of the constituents of humour, since
amusement and something like tender regard for him who amuses us are
plainly allied. Yet this {309} consideration does not seem to help us
in understanding how the two polar moods of hilarity and sadness should
be able to combine.

We may be helped here by setting out from the fact of a simultaneous
appeal to the dissimilar feelings by the same presentation. When this
occurs again and again, it is probable that organic modifications may
be effected by the simultaneous action of the double stimulus. Nobody
begins by feeling amused and sorry at the same moment. The boy and the
savage may have a moment of mild pity for an ugly piece of deformity;
but this moment comes after the laughing is over. The co-presentation
of the sad and the amusing had, we may be sure, to be repeated during
many generations of men before the two currents could join in one
smooth flow.

Those who find the core of an emotion in a widely diffused organic
process may reason that such repetitions of a complex emotional
stimulation may modify the nervous system in some way, so as to allow
of the combination of some parts at least of the bodily resonances
characteristic of the emotional constituents. For one thing, the fact,
already alluded to, that there is a certain community of physiological
process in the case of laughter and of the expression of grief, may
help us, to some extent, to understand the combination.[265] Yet
mutual inhibition by the two sets of organic processes involved seems
to be the principal agency in the case. The more energetic movements
of laughter are without doubt restrained by an admixture of sympathy.
Perhaps if we understood the physics of organic processes, we might
speak here of an “interference,” or, at least, of some antagonistic
action between the motor-impulses of the laugh and of the sigh. {310}

One other condition seems to be important. Where emotions are widely
dissimilar and likely to be antagonistic, it is necessary that they
should not both be excited in a high degree. We may succeed in getting
a blend between a gentle laugh and a mild pity, though certainly not
between a state of mirthful excitement and one of deep compassion. The
moods of humour run in low keys, laughter and kindly sentiment being
each toned down as if for smoother confluence. This need of a reduction
of the force of consorting emotions may, too, find its explanation in
the conditions of the organic processes which have to be combined.
This does not imply, however, that the two feelings which unite in
humour are of equal strength. As hinted above, humour seems always,
even when an almost poignant sadness pierces it, to maintain itself at
the level of a quiet enjoyment. It answers to the mood which has been
called the luxury of pity, in which the sense of pain has shrunk away
to a scarcely heard over-tone, while the ground-tone of alleviating
tenderness sounds out clear and full.

This analysis may help us to understand why Mr. Meredith has called
the laughter of Shakespeare and Cervantes “the richer laugh of heart
and mind in one”.[266] It may help us, too, to interpret some things
said by the German metaphysicians about laughter. Kant, for instance,
redeems the poverty of his general theory by a memorable passage on
the amusing aspect of a naïveté of behaviour which does not know how
to hide itself. He allows that in this case there is mingled with
the laughter—which he supposes to arise from an annihilation of the
expectation of the customary—something of earnestness and of respect,
as we reflect that what is infinitely better than accepted codes
of manners (Sitte), namely, purity of natural {311} disposition
(Denkungsart), is not wholly extinguished in human nature.[267]

Our analysis of humour may help us to understand some well-recognised
facts. It teaches us that a sentiment, at once complex and implying
a mature reflection, must not be looked for in the young; it is the
prerogative of the years which have hoarded experiences and learned to
reflect. Nor, as implied in what was said above, is it to be sought
for in the youth of the world. That humour is—in its clearest and
fullest utterance at least—the possession of modern times, the period
ushered in by the appearance of the great trio, Rabelais, Cervantes and
Shakespeare, is explained by saying that, like music, it fits itself
into the ways of our new spirit.

The apprehension of this complex basis of humour helps us, further,
to understand somewhat the curious variations of the attitude among
races and peoples. There are regions of civilisation where, so far as
literary expression gives us the key, laughter seems to remain at, or
at most only a little above, the level of the child’s simple merriment.
This appears to be true of certain portions of the East, where a
considerable love of fun coexists with a predominant gravity of mind
without interpenetration, almost without contact.[268] Among certain
races of Southern Europe, too, which have produced a rich literature of
amusement, the blending of the serious and the playful, which is of the
essence of humour seems to be but very imperfectly reached. The gaiety
of the mediæval _Conte_ is the gaiety of the Frenchman who, {312} in
spite of one or two literary exceptions, likes to keep his thinking
and his mirth distinct, in their original purity and _netteté_.[269]
Frenchmen, such as M. Taine and M. Scherer, have fully recognised the
fact that what we mean by humour is a product of the _triste nord_.
What racial characteristics have served to further its growth in this
region, it may not be easy to say. Perhaps, the closest approximation
to an explanation may be found in the hypothesis that a vigorous germ
of laughter fertilised by a disposition to brooding melancholy always
tends to generate something of the nature of humour; and that, as we
shall presently see, utility does something for its preservation.

The consideration of the complexity of the sentiment may throw
light, further, on its modifications among the peoples which are
correctly spoken of as endowed with it. These differences are roughly
accounted for by saying that the proportions of gravity and gaiety,
of serious reflection and playful fancy vary indefinitely. They are
certainly different, let us say, in the case of the Englishman, the
American, the Scotchman and the Irishman. Yet this consideration does
not account for all the dissimilarity. Since humour is playfulness
modified by the whole serious temper of a man, we should expect it to
differentiate itself into many shades according to the trend of the
ideas, interests, impulses and the rest which distinguishes one sort
of mind or character from another. We can only fully understand the
contrast between American and English, or between Irish and Scotch,
humour, when we understand the differences {313} of character. An
amusing Irish or Scotch story, one, that is to say, which is produced
for home-consumption, seems to be redolent of the whole temperament,
mind and character of the people. It is this complexity of the
sentiment which makes the amiable effort to illustrate the humour of
other peoples by published selections a pathetic futility. How can
one expect, for example, the ordinary Englishman to get into touch
with that fine product of child’s fun, quick fancy, alert sympathy,
open-heartedness, and a deep brooding sentiment which meets him in the
humour of the Irishman? It is enough to remember how he is wont to
laugh his superior laugh at an Irish bull, as if this were necessarily
an unconscious “howler,” whereas it may be, in reality, a charming
expression of a most amiable trait of character.[270]

A due recognition of the complexity of the sentiment discloses to us a
point of capital importance: humour, in the sense of a perfect fusion
of play and gravity, of the aggressiveness of laughter and kindly
consideration, is, as already hinted, pre-eminently an endowment of
individuals rather than of races. It presupposes a basis of temperament
which, though it may be favoured by certain racial characters, is only
realised where nature hits upon a particular proportion among the
elements by the mixing of which she produces an individual; and so nice
an operation is this mixture, that humour, of the full rich quality at
least, is perhaps less frequently handed down from parent to child than
specific forms of talent.

The old writers treated humour by help of their general {314}
theory of temperaments as compounded of certain physical elements.
The learned Burton, for instance, in the chapter already quoted,
discourses agreeably of pleasant vapours which break from the heart,
and thinks that these may explain why the melancholy are witty, as
Aristotle suggested. The passage is valuable as indicating that
antiquity recognised the connection between laughter and the melancholy
disposition. Modern testimony might be added. Thus Savage Landor
remarks that genuine humour, as well as true wit, requires a sound and
capacious mind, which is always a grave one;[271] and Tennyson notes
that humour “is generally most fruitful in the highest and most solemn
human spirits”.[272]

The need of this deep and massive seriousness, if not of a marked
tendency to sombre reflection, seems to be borne out by what we know
of the great humorists. Sainte-Beuve regards Rabelais, who was a grave
doctor, and who worthily represented in his public lectures at Lyons
“the majesty of science,” as writing with the quite serious purpose of
throwing out in advance certain ideas of deep import (_de grand sens_)
“dans un rire immense”. Much the same is true of Cervantes, who is
said—though the assertion has been challenged—to have conceived of his
delightful romance in the dreary surroundings of a sponging-house.[273]
The germination of a mirthful sense in the soil of a serious character
has been noted, indeed, in the case of some who represent the lighter
moods of comedy—a fact which points to the more general relation of
laughter to seriousness spoken of in an earlier chapter. Thus {315}
Sainte-Beuve, writing of Molière, says that he was called “the
contemplative”; and was wont to be taken with sadness (_tristesse_) and
melancholy when he was alone.[274] Victor Hugo has somewhere spoken of
him as “ce moqueur pensif comme un apôtre”. It was remarked of Sheridan
and other dealers in the mirthful by those who knew them that they
seldom even smiled.

It is easy to see that the transformation of laughter which we find
in humour will carry with it a large modification of the range of
enjoyment. While, as has been admitted, the changes of feeling and
mental attitude involved will tend to restrain the earlier reckless
merriment, they will also add vast regions to the territory of the

With regard to restriction, one must protest against the common
misapprehension, that the development of humour spoils the taste for
simple modes of mirth. I have known sad-looking humorists who were well
endowed with the valuable capability of joining in children’s fun. What
humour does undoubtedly restrain is any tendency in laughter which
smacks of the brute and the bully in man.

On the other hand, the field of objects over which humour wanders
bee-like gathering its honey is vastly greater than any region known
to the rougher and more brutal merriment. The introduction of a
reflective element and of higher points of view expands the horizon to
an incalculable extent.

This change in point of view means at once that we penetrate below
the surface of things, reaching the half-veiled realities, and that
we envisage them in a network of relations. The former is illustrated
in the humorist’s finer contemplation of behaviour as a revelation
of character. {316} An amplitude of enjoyment is secured by the
circumstance that, even in the case of the self-vigilant, intellectual
and moral weaknesses have a way of peeping out which is most convenient
for a humorous onlooker who has his mental eye duly accommodated.
When, for example, a young teacher, asked by an examiner to explain
“congenital tendency,” wrote, “It is the tendency to be congenial and
pleasant: children vary in this characteristic,” the entertainment
of the error for the reader lay in the naïve disclosure of the
preoccupation of the writer’s mind with the chequered fortunes of her
profession. Or again, when another candidate from the same class,
in describing the qualifications of a teacher, wrote: “He should be
as intimately acquainted with the workings of a child’s mind as the
engine-driver is with the engine,” the fun of the comparison for the
reader came from the detection of an unscientific habit of mind,
natural enough in an over-zealous worker, intruding, unobserved, into
theoretic reflection.

These innocent self-revelations meet the watchful eye of the humorist
everywhere in the haunts of men. They lie like hoar frost in the sun
on his surroundings, on which he unwittingly casts a reflection of
the habits of his mind and of the directions of his taste; as when
in a large town bizarre juxtapositions of the vulgar heroic strike
the observer’s eye in the names of streets, or of loose engines on a

To this finer penetration the humorous faculty adds a vision for
relations which distinguishes the higher kind of judgment. What we call
the ludicrous in character is, indeed, always to some extent a matter
of relations. As implied above, it is the view of some trait set in
a particular milieu which brings the smile. The hidden weakness may
entertain because of its juxtaposition with something that {317} is
worthy, or at least has an appearance of worth. In a certain kind of
impulsive person, for example, there discloses itself to the humorous
eye an almost admirable consistency in the recurring inconsistencies;
while, on the other hand, in another sort of character, that eye will
rather spy an inconsistency within the limits of a quality, as when
a person, on the whole generous, lapses into a kind of niggardliness
in certain small particulars of expenditure, as if to show that even
a moral quality, firmly planted, needs the sunlight of intelligence.
In many cases the entertainment in observing character comes, not so
much through a perception of the juxtaposition of something worthy and
something slightly unworthy, as through a detection of some discrepancy
between the character and the _rôle_ assumed at the moment, as when
a self-assertive sense of justice, in “a child of larger growth,”
reveals itself in the quaint exaggeration of doing more than justice to
oneself. No better terrain, indeed, for a chase after the imperfectly
masked will be found than that of the manners of persons who are quite
above suspicion of serious fault. Perhaps it is a certain kind of woman
who shows the greatest skill in this humorous reading of character,
as when she sets herself to decipher the palimpsest of manners in one
educated rather late in life, detecting traces of the earlier cramped
hand below the thin caligraphy of a later culture.

To a finer perception of relations, again, must we ascribe the
readiness to enjoy the large and variegated presentment of
unsuitabilities of men to their circumstances. The situations in which
the merry god, who seems to arrange the puppet show, often chooses to
place us are pregnant of ironical suggestion to the contemplative eye
of humour. The necessity of confronting what nature never intended
{318} that we should confront makes us an amusing spectacle to the
twinkling eyes above us. How delightful for example is the variety of
social juxtaposition which brings embarrassment to the encounterers.
When it is not accident but a man’s foolish impulse, unmindful of
limitations of capability, which pushes him into the awkward situation,
as when his civility plunges him into discourse in a foreign language
with a fellow-traveller, or when the most undecided of men attempts
to make a proposal of marriage, the value of the situation for the
humorous observer is greatly enhanced.

As with the topsy-turvyness of momentary situation, so with more
permanent incongruities between character and surroundings. In this
case a more special gift of humorous insight is needed; for to the many
what lasts grows seemingly right by its mere durability. You may make
a highly unsuitable person a bishop, or the editor of a comic journal,
and you will find that, for most onlookers, time will soon begin to
invest the position with a sort of suitability. Even an ill-matched
connubial pair will take on something of mutual appropriateness through
this influence of the customary on human judgments. But the eye of the
humorous onlooker, guided by ideas, entertains itself with stripping
off the trappings of convention and use.

This humorous quizzing of the characters and of the revealed mental
processes of those about us has grown, in the case of a few, into a
chief pastime. The development in these days of a keener interest in
character, which is partly reflected in, partly the product of, modern
fiction, has led these few to something like a sustained and methodical
survey of their acquaintances and their friends, in which the quiet
laughter of the humorist may find ample room. A part of the temperate
mirth in this case springs out of the delightful surprises—the result
of the complexity of organic {319} products and of the limitations
of our powers of prediction. The appearance of a moral metamorphosis
when a man comes under the influence of some new force, say a wife, or
the invasion of his social world by a war-craze, may amuse a humorous
observer much as the semblance of a physical transformation amuses
him. In this habitual contemplation by a humorous person of those
he knows, there is, evidently, a blending of amusement with kindly
interest. That is, indeed, the note of much of the “psychologising” at
which many, instructed by the best fiction, now try their hand. The
combination of the playful with the respectful attitude is nowhere
more plainly seen than in our new estimates of diversity of character
and of individuality. The contemplation of the result of some new
experiment of nature in the variation of the human type, will always
bring something of the gaiety which is provoked by the sight of a fresh
oddity; yet our new regard for individuality, as discriminated from
eccentricity, brings down the mirthful utterance to the low tones of

There is another way in which the development of the humorous faculty
enlarges the sphere of the risible. In the simple nature of children
and uncultured adults, fun and seriousness tend to dwell apart. The
introduction of a serious element into the mood of amusement, which
is at the basis of humour, makes a breach in the dividing wall. As a
consequence, the humorist, though a profoundly serious person, will
show a readiness in the midst of grave occupations to digress for a
moment at the prick of some ludicrous suggestion. Good talkers and
letter-writers, including women with the quick ear for the bubblings of
fun, are thus given to momentary interruptions of serious discourse by
side-glances at amusing aspects, and many persons who take themselves
to be humorists are apt to be shocked at {320} the proceeding. Yet, in
truth, the extent to which a man succeeds in making laughter permeate
the sphere of the serious, without loosening its deep-laid foundation
of gravity, is one of the best measures of the vitality of his humour.
It is this resolute yet perfectly respectful invasion of the domain of
the serious by humour which has made a good deal of modern literature
possible. Of this, more anon: it may suffice for the present to call
attention to a work of a friend of mine dealing with a subject which
might well seem to be dismally serious—logic itself, a work which
attempts with conspicuous success, while maintaining the dignity of the
science, to relieve its heaviness by a good number of amusing remarks
and illustrations.[275]

Yet the expansion of the range of enjoyment when mindless mirth gives
place to humour is not wholly due to the absorption of a serious
element. One chief limitation of the more common kind of laughter
arises from the circumstance that it is apt to be disagreeable to the
person who is its object. This dislike, again, is due, as we have seen,
to a natural feeling of resentment at being taken down and treated as
an inferior. So long as the laughter retains a distinct vibration of
the old note of contempt, we must resist it; but when it grows mellow
and kindly we are ready to withdraw the objection. There is nothing
so terrible in having fun poked at our foibles, or even at our petty
misfortunes, so long as we know that a friendly face is hiding behind
the laughing mask. If a person only gives the assurance in his way of
laughing that contempt is drowned in a more genial sentiment, he may
laugh at his children, aye at his parents, too, even when they grow old
and infirm. Nor is a previous knowledge of friendly disposition always
needed. There are a few whose mellow {321} laughter will instantly
disarm resistance in a stranger—in the street boy, for example, though
he has the double sensitiveness of the poor and of the young.

From this frank acceptance of others’ overtures of a friendly laughter
to the practice of a humorous self-criticism, there would seem to
be but a step. If humour always involves some degree of sympathetic
self-projection into the object of contemplation, it should not
be difficult to turn the humorous glance upon one’s own foibles.
Self-inspection is a thing of various kinds, and there are varieties
of it (for example, the performances of the “moi spectateur” in
the case of that curious young lady, Marie Bashkirtseff) which are
removed by the amplitude of the sky from humorous self-quizzing. The
last is perhaps the most rarely practised. Before he can accomplish
it, a person must not only have developed a “higher ego” capable of
criticism in the light of ideas, but have learned to see himself as
others—especially humorous onlookers—see him, a feat hardly less
difficult than that of getting a glimpse of the crown of one’s head.

That the doings of the lower ego, or rather cluster of egos, are
fitted to afford an ample supply of the amusing goes without saying.
Human nature is so oddly compounded, even in the best of us, that it
only needs the clear vision to detect incongruity and the masking of
the real. Thus, it is frequently easy to spy the stealthy advances of
rudimentary tendencies which seem hardly to belong to us, and which we
are disposed to disown; still more frequently, to light on a whole crop
of little inconsequences which are due to the complexity of our soul’s
workings, and to the irremovable circumstance that, however predominant
some better part of us seems to be for the moment, the suppressed
forces turn out to be only half-suppressed. It is well when such {322}
self-scrutiny can be carried on without any risk of encountering forms
of ugliness and of ill omen, which would make speedy end of the amusing

The quiet fun that may be enjoyed by occasional glances at ourselves
is so palpable, that it hardly seems conceivable how any true humorist
should fail to pluck the tempting fruit. Yet when one finds a man who
is wholly incapable of accepting another’s playful laughter, it seems
a fair inference that he will be found lacking in the disposition to
amuse himself with conning his own doings. The resentment which a
distinguished purveyor of mirthful entertainment will sometimes exhibit
at being treated with a humorous freedom, say by a lady interviewer
whose overtures have been rejected with needless emphasis, suggests
that a mind may train itself in the detection of the ludicrous in the
larger show outside, and yet remain blind to all the comic aspects of
the microcosm within. Perhaps every humorous contemplator of things has
some “blind spot,” of the existence of which he is just as ignorant as
of his retinal blind-spot; and if this failure of sensibility chances
to render invisible the whole of the humorist’s own behaviour, the
contraction of the field of vision is certainly a considerable one.

We have seen that the earlier forms of human laughter have their uses
as contributing to the stability or the improvement of a society or
social group. When, however, we turn to the milder and more complex
sentiment of humour we appear to lose these social benefits. As has
been implied, the development of the sense of humour in any vigorous
and fruitful form is a rarity, so much so as to condemn its possessor
in a large measure to a solitary kind of satisfaction. The change may
be expected to effect a transformation of the serviceable function of
laughter, to {323} make it, in the main, a thing wholesome, refreshing
and edifying of character, to the individual himself.

It is true, no doubt, that a refined humour is capable of being turned
at times to the same social uses as its ancestor, the elemental
laughter of the people. One may see, in the journalism and literature
of the hour, foibles, exaggerations and other amusing things dealt
with in a humorous or quasi-humorous temper. The gentleness to which
humour inclines allows, indeed, of attacks on parties, schools and
personalities which would otherwise run the risk of being condemned as
“bad form”. Yet something of a serious practical purpose, namely, to
hold up to ridicule, can always be detected in this kind of writing:
whence it is correctly designated, not as humour, but as “social

On the other hand, the moods of humour are admirably fitted for that
_indirect_ adaptation of the individual to social conditions which we
call self-criticism. This humorous self-quizzing may be started by the
spectacle of comedy, as Lessing and others suggest; yet this, as we
shall see later, is not to be counted on. If a man wants promptly to
detect the first flecks of dust on the bright surface of character, he
must be habitually ready to note this surface.

This office of humour in helping us to nip evil tendencies in the bud
may be viewed, in part, as the vicarious discharge by the critical self
of the restraining function of the community on the individual. None of
us can safely wander far and long from the point of wholesome contact
with the community, that is to say, with the good sense and the right
feeling embodied in a community. To master the not too easy art of
seeing ourselves as others—for whose judgment we should care—see us is
surely {324} eminently fitting for those who desire to laugh at what
is objectively laughable.

Nevertheless, it must not be supposed that in such private
self-correction we are always at the social point of view. Humour is
the outgrowth of a pronounced individuality; its possession seems
always to imply that a person forms his own ideas of the value of
things, guided of course by the world’s teachers, but caring little
whether his views agree with those which happen to obtain in his
community at the moment. Here, again, in the high service rendered by
a vigilant humour, we find the work of reflection carried out by the
help of ideas or ideal conceptions, which are in part a product of
the individual mind. The laughing rebuke administered to some folly,
which lifts its head once more after many repressive blows, comes from
the ideal self; which, though it must have nourished itself in some
“communion of saints,” becomes in the end free and self-legislative.
“Correction” seems too strong a word to use for this prophylactic
function; for, as we have seen, humour does not readily lend itself as
an instrument to serious purposes. What the habit of a quick humorous
perception does for its subject here is best described, perhaps, as
the fostering of a pure and wholesome atmosphere in the soul, in which
disease-germs must perforce die of inanition.

We may now turn to those uses of humour, into the conception of which
the thought of a practical aim can hardly intrude. Humour as amusement
is something agreeable and cheering. It has the refreshing properties
of primitive laughter and much more; for, as a mood that feeds itself
on reflective contemplation, it is consolatory and sustaining in a way
in which mere gaiety, even when it persists as a temper of mind, cannot
be. Apropos of Voltaire’s saying that heaven had given us two things to
counterbalance the many {325} miseries of life, hope and sleep, Kant
remarks: “He could have added laughter, if the means of exciting it in
reasonable men were only as easily attainable, and the requisite wit or
originality of humour were not so rare” (as some other endowments).[276]

When the humorous bent is lively and “original,” it will stand its
possessor in good stead in more than one way, amid the toilings and
moilings of life. Seeing that laughter is always in a measure a
throwing aside of serious pressure, we should expect it to come to
our aid in the workaday hours. But it is only when the eye for the
sparkling of fun in things has been instructed by humorous reflection
that the alleviating service of mind-play is fully realised.

For one thing, the possession of a large humorous insight will
greatly extend the scope of the conciliative function of laughter.
All cajoling must be good-natured, or at least conceal the sting
of laughter; but the finer disarming of men by banter requires the
reflective penetration of the humorist. One may easily see this in the
art of conciliating opponents, political and other. The winning force
of a manifested good-nature will sometimes act on those who are far
from appreciating the play of mind involved. The _gêne_ introduced
by an awkward situation,[277] the tendencies that make for loss of
interest, for weariness, for a falling away from a perfect sympathetic
touch, in all human relations—these things find their most effective
counteractive in occasional intrusions of the humorous spirit. I think
here of one no longer among us, with whom I once had the privilege of
co-operating in a long and difficult piece of public business; and of
how all weariness was kept out of {326} sight by laughing side-glances
at threatening absurdities, frequent enough to have suggested a
premeditated plan had they not been so delightfully spontaneous.

Perhaps, the stoutest obstacle to the smooth flow of social intercourse
is the tendency in men to lay stress on their personal importance.
The superior airs, which seem with some to be as much _de rigueur_ as
their correct attire, are sadly inimical to companionship, whether the
would-be companion be a man’s wife or a contributor to his journal. The
one sure safeguard against the stupid clogging of the social wheels,
which this chronic stiffening of the figure introduces, is the gift
of a lively humour, whose alert eye would at once note a possible
laughableness of deportment for onlookers. One may see this function
of humour illustrated in that instinctive readiness of one who has had
a perfect social training to dismiss laughingly from conversation the
first appearance of an allusion to himself and his claims.

In all this, though there may be no conscious aiming at an end, social
utility is not wholly wanting. Yet just because it is an individual
temper, humour confers its chief benefits on its possessor in the
privacy of life. Its solacings and its refreshings come to him through
the channel of a new and genial manner of reflecting on his mishaps and
his troubles.

Most men who have developed any appreciable fund of humour must know
how the petty annoyances of life can be laughed away, almost as soon
as they are seen advancing. When, for example, your lost pencil is
discovered in its hiding-place between the leaves of a rarely consulted
book; or, on the other hand, after endowing it with various sorts of
mischievous flight, you perceive it lying close by you on the desk,
where it has been dutifully {327} complying with its proper law of
inertia; you may snatch a compensating laugh from a moment’s reflection
on the small ironies of things, or on the vast wastefulness of the
world in the matter of hypotheses. Your vexation at the children who
are at play in the road in front of your bicycle and refuse to retire
till your bell rings a third time, instantly gives way to an agreeable
smile as you sympathetically shift the point of view by recalling the
fact that they are on their proper playground. The dreary ugliness of a
London street in winter will now and again be lit up as with sunshine
for you if your eye is focussed for the amusing, as when the driver
of a slow van goes on nodding in blissful ignorance, while the driver
of your ’bus behind, justly proud of his vehicle’s speed, pelts him
mercilessly with the most awakening of epithets.

It is much the same with the small vexations inflicted by our social
world. We may no doubt feel hurt just for a moment when, at a concert,
we see a big hat thrust itself betwixt our eyes and a face which has
held them captive, wearing a look of the tragic muse as it leans
yearningly over the violin from which it seems, like a mother’s face,
to draw the sobbing tones. Yet, even as the nerve smarts, we may
half-seize the glorious absurdity of the hat and its bobbings. Or,
again, when an untimely call interrupts some bit of nice thinking and
leaves the nerves tingling, we may smile for a moment as we catch a
glimpse of the simple faith of the visitor in the supreme importance
of the cause he pleads, a glimpse sufficient to make us half-aware of
a like “subjectivity” in our own estimation of selected tasks. Social
bores are vexations which, perhaps, ought not to be called petty.
Humorous persons, one suspects, are specially exposed to their attacks,
since they are a tolerant folk, preferring on the whole to suffer
rather than to hurt others. {328} But here, also, the humorous have
their remedies. It suffices, for example, to reflect for a short moment
on the droll pathos of the circumstance that persons, between whom and
ourselves we find no attaching sympathies, should select us for their
importunate attentions. Even when the destinies throw us together with
men and women from whom we instinctively recoil, as from creatures of a
species at once closely akin to ours yet sundered from us by impassable
boundaries, a reflective humour may devise alleviations. The aggressive
self-assertion of a plutocrat, with his “buy-you-up” sort of stare, and
the rest, may wound for half a moment; but a laughing solace comes on
the heels of worry; for there is a quiet pleasure in looking back and
discovering the clumsy construction of the vulgar “snub;” and in any
case a playful half-glance at higher measures of worth restores the

Even greater troubles may, to the trained humorist, disclose amusing
aspects or accompaniments, so that refreshment reaches us even while
the blow still hurts. The relieving smile may come by way of a playful
contemplation of ourselves as pitted against our mighty superior,
circumstance; for it is possible to find something amusing, as well
as irritating, in the ironies of destiny. The idea of a struggle
with fate, which gives the zest of life to brave hearts, helps, too,
to bring the reflective mind back to the play-mood. The readers of
Miss Kingsley’s _Travels_ need not to be reminded of the fecundity
of amusing reflection which her humour showed in circumstances which
would have depressed many a man.[278] It was with a like readiness to
smile that Goldsmith’s genial spirit faced the blows of destiny, giving
back, as his biographer has it, in cheerful {329} humour or whimsical
warning what it received in mortification or grief. In his celebrated
character, Mark Tapley, Dickens has no doubt illustrated how in the
rough waters of his youth he learned to draw humorous entertainment
from massive troubles. It is this playful shimmer of a light thrown by
an entertaining idea on the surface of a misfortune which rids it of
the worst of its gloom.

By a line of humorous reflection already suggested, we may in all
cases of worry and moral disturbance reach the consolatory idea that
the trouble has, in the first view of it, been grossly exaggerated. At
the moment when the sensitive tissue is lacerated the shock of pain
blinds us to dimensions; our disappointment fills the outlook, like a
thunder-storm. The healthy nervous organism will show its vitality in
the rapidity of the recuperative process; and this is often effected
by a quick turning of the thoughts to other and brighter parts of
the scene which the trouble has for a moment blotted out, and to the
proportions of the one to the other. A trouble—like the all-enveloping
thunder-storm—begins to retire almost smilingly as soon as we discern
its boundaries.

In much of this alleviating service of humour the laugh which liberates
us from the thraldom of the momentary is a laugh at ourselves. Indeed,
one may safely say that the benefits here alluded to presuppose a
habit of reflective self-quizzing. The blessed relief comes from the
discernment of a preposterousness in the forcing of our claims, of a
folly in yielding to the currents of sentiment which diffuse their
mists over the realm of reality. The coming of the smile announces a
shifting of the point of view; the mal-adjustment, which a moment ago
seemed to be wholly on the side of our world, showing itself now to be
on our side as well. {330}

How far humour will help a man in throwing off troubles one cannot say.
Even when the flash of bright reflection fails to dispel the darkness,
it may secure a valuable moment of respite. When the trouble has real
magnitude, the dismissive smile grows hard for all save the elect. Few
of us, perhaps, could rise to the height of serene irony attained by a
German musician whose wife had eloped with his master.[279] Many might
be disposed to think that the woman who, after nursing her husband
through a fatal illness, remarked that it was only a sense of humour
which had kept her from failing, was less than human. Yet it is highly
risky to infer, from the fact of an intrusion of the humorous temper
into calamity, the existence of a low degree of moral sensibility. It
may rather be that those who suffer most are beholden in an exceptional
degree to this kind solacer of men’s woes.

This service of humour, at once consolatory to suffering and corrective
of one-sidedness of view, is perfected by a development of that larger
comprehensive vision which is reached when the standpoint of egoism
is transcended. Even the beginning of humour implies some getting
away from the point of view of the individual, so far as to gain a
momentary comprehension of others’ points of view. The great educative
value of being laughed at is that it compels attention to the fact of
a multiplicity of such points. How good a lesson, one thinks, it must
have been for the Scotch professor to hear his disgusted caddie remark:
“Anybody can teach Greek, but gowf needs a heid”.

There remains for brief illustration another service which humour
renders its possessor, though in truth it may turn out to be only a
further development of the one just dealt {331} with. Laughter at
things, being primarily an accompaniment of observation, remains in its
highest forms chiefly an amusement at outside spectacles. The resources
of a mature faculty of humour may lend themselves to the end of an
enjoyable contemplation of one’s social world, both in its parts and
as a whole. The value of humour to the individual can, indeed, only be
rightly measured when the large possibilities of entertainment which
lie in criticising one’s surroundings are borne in mind.

The enjoyment which a humorous observer is able to gather from the
contemplation of the social scene implies that he make his own
standpoint, that he avoid the more turbulent part of the social world
and seek the quiet backwaters where he can survey things in the calm
light of ideas. One who lives wholly in the giddy throng will never
be able to see things in the perspective which humorous appreciation
requires. Nor is this all; if he live, move and have his being in the
commotion, he will be forced to repress mirthful impulses and to show
the hurrying figures about him a certain respect, since any generous
indulgence in the joys of laughter would be likely to bring him into
unpleasant collisions.

That there is much in the social spectacle which falls only to the
eye of one half-retired is certain. The vagaries of “society,” in the
conventional sense of the term, are one of the traditional matters of
laughter; our comic journals have enlightened even dull minds on this
point. It is pleasant to a humorous contemplation to note the high
pretensions of the “fine world”; how naïvely, for instance, it assumes
that it holds all the men of brains and all the good talkers in its
service;[280] pleasant, that is {332} to say, to one who bears in mind
some of the characteristics of this world, such as a certain emptiness
in the matter of ideas, together with something of the readiness of
a certain kind of dog to follow any self-appointed leader, and an
amiable impartiality in crowning any sort of “hero” that happens to be
trumpeted, whether potentate from the East or showman from the West. It
is entertaining, too, to note how enclosed it remains within its purely
arbitrary standards, being rather shocked, for example, to find when it
travels that there can be such a thing as “society” in Italy which is
not a “dining society”. This, and much more, will often draw the eye of
humour, oddly enough, in the same direction as that of an awe-struck

It is an agreeable pastime, too, for our half-retired observer to
watch the fierce struggles of men and women in these days to gain a
footing within the charmed circle. Here, surely, the gyrations of the
moral figure reach the height of absurdity. Nowhere does there seem
to reflection to be quite such a disproportion between effort and its
doubtful reward as in these labours of the hot and panting to win a
footing on the fashionable terrain.

What makes the scene the more pathetically droll is that success never
seems to satisfy; the necessity of getting in is followed by a no less
dire necessity of keeping oneself visible in the tightly-packed crowd.
The sensitiveness of men of high position to the least sign of neglect
in their goddess is something that cannot fail to tickle a humorous
fancy. It is said that high officials once passed unhappy days and
nights waiting for an invitation to dinner. The occasion was a national
festival, when some inventive dames, taking themselves apparently
quite seriously as representative women of the age, proceeded each to
invite a representative male. So do the gods give {333} us harvest of
laughter by sowing vanity with its small spitefulnesses in the minds of
men, and setting “society” to lure them to her thraldom.

To the dispassionate eye of reason, no “society” which is founded on
birth or on a mixed basis of birth and wealth has seemed quite worthy
of this servile attitude. Certainly in these days, when, as the Berlin
Hofschneider is said to have observed to Prince Bismarck at the Opera
Ball, society is rather mixed (_ein bischen gemischt_), rational men
might be expected to leave this kind of homage to the weak-minded. No
doubt men of mind caught in the snare have been ready to admit this;
yet it may be questioned whether, when they set down their endurance
of the boredom of the diner-out to the social ambition of their wives,
they evade the laughter of the gods.

Pity may find a place at the side of laughter when she visits these
absurd scenes. A peep behind the masks will, it has been said, show
here, too, the thinnest pretence of gaiety. Dull with something of the
dulness of death are many of the older faces, even when they force
themselves to produce grimaces and spasmodic cacklings, thin and anæmic
like themselves. It looks as if it were a dram of excitement, and not
pleasure, which these loyal worshippers of society are seeking; only to
find, perhaps, that the hope of excitement itself has grown illusory.

Yet, in speaking of the entertaining aspects of the social spectacle,
one need not confine oneself to the fashionable scene. “Society,”
charmingly irrational as she is, has no monopoly in the matter of the
incongruities. The doings of the Great Middle Class and even of the
Masses have their amusing aspects for the unprejudiced eye. All phases
of social life, indeed, may yield rich entertainment to one who has the
mental vision justly accommodated. {334}

What first strikes the eye here, perhaps, is the fine display of
human oddities. The newspaper, fully alive to the value of things
new, gives welcome to the self-revelations of human folly, perverted
ingenuity, and uncontrollable vanity. The struggle for its coveted
column seems hardly less violent than that for the fashionable
gathering. Apparently, the supreme necessity is to show yourself,
to win the pestered and rather jaded eye of a crowd, if only for an
instant. Many and wonderful are the movements and sounds to which
children, feeling themselves overlooked, have been known to resort in
order to compel notice: yet the frantic efforts of men and women to
advertise themselves to the public eye are, surely, not less numerous
or less strange. Even when they have left the social scene these
self-advertisers will sometimes still try to seize your eye by sending
you an autobiography, consisting largely, it may be, of an account of
all the dinner parties attended—a priceless thing for the historian,
perhaps, if only the writer had happened to be a politician.

The vanity in this self-advertisement does not always lie on the
surface, a partial self-blinding being of the humour of it. A person
may be pushed on to the advocacy of a bottomless craze by a belief in a
special mission so earnest, as completely to hide from him the inflated
self-estimation which lurks in the attitude; and the recognition, by
the quiet onlooker, of this malicious way of Nature’s, in hiding from
men so large a part of their own motives, draws back the corners of the
mouth yet farther.

The absurdity of this forcing of oneself on the notice of the public,
like that of pushing one’s way into “society,” grows clearer when we
reflect on the real value of the object of pursuit. It is the fashion
just now to deify public opinion. Yet spite of the classical dictum,
it is not always {335} flattering to the deity to identify the two
voices. A modern democratic society is apt to exhibit very much the
same plasticity to the hand of the crafty moulder as that on which
the wise Greek sprinkled his dainty irony. To be able to see through
the pretty pretence that the demos “forms” its opinions, and that its
verdicts on statesmen, generals and other notabilities are consequently
sacred, is to have one chief qualification for enjoying the fun of the
show. How entertaining, for instance, is the proceeding when an editor
invites a census of opinion on books, or other things which postulate
some discernment. In this case, too, the humour of it lies in the
circumstance that the good people who are lured into the trap honestly
think that they are giving their own individual judgments. Still more
delightful do these performances become when an editor, with his
sense of the value of names fully awake, applies to celebrities, and
entertains us, say, with a church dignitary’s conception of the ideal
Music Hall, or with a popular jockey’s views on the proper dimensions
of a scientific manual.

These exhibitions of authority for the guidance of the public
sufficiently testify to its docility before any kind of proffered
leadership. The very bigness of the modern demos, assisted by its “holy
simplicity” of mind, lays it open to the wiles of the charlatan. How
can one expect the worthy tradesman reading in the solitude of his
back parlour to gauge the authority of his newspaper guide? It is more
than he can do, perhaps, to take the measure of his Sunday instructor.
He who reflects thus will find much to entertain him in the way of
make-believe, when he examines the foundations of imposing reputations,
or of the proud boast of political leaders that they carry “the
Country” with them.

The newspaper, highly respectable institution as it {336} undoubtedly
is, entertains those in search of humorous enjoyment in other ways too.
Its very standpoint as issuer of news leads to an amusing exaggeration
of the importance of anything which happens to thrust its head up at
the moment. An idea, aye and a fallacy too, old as the ages, will
secure attention if only somebody with a name happen to bring it up
anew. Whence comes the neomania which we see on all hands, the absurd
exaltation of the latest novel and the rest. Yet more exhilarating to
humorous inspection is the naïve assumption of the newspaper and its
clients that everything happens in order to furnish them with news.
I remember a paper, not of a low class, seriously contending, when a
disagreeable _cause célèbre_ had to be re-tried, that, since everybody
had made up his mind on the case, a new trial was most regrettable.
The frank suggestion that the proceedings of our law courts have their
final cause in the satisfaction of a craving for news in readers of
journals was, doubtless, an editorial slip; yet the assumption is often
discoverable to a penetrating eye. The point of view reminds one of the
joyous antics of the Italian children who follow the cavalcade of the
diligence and its “supplements” as it descends southwards to the level
of the olive-groves, sure in their glee that the rattling procession,
and the “soldi” too, have come for their delight. In view of the
entertainment afforded by the press in these days, one may sometimes
wonder whether the expression “comic journal” is not growing into a

Humour will keep at our elbow, too, if we push deeper, and, lifting
the wrappings of convention, insist on seeing the realities. The
involutions of public utterance when, say, a dubious appointment has
to be defended, are in themselves no less entertaining an exhibition
of naïveté disclosed through elaborate wrappings than the romancings
of a {337} naughty child beating about for an excuse. No kind of
spectacle, perhaps, is more uplifting to a spirit given to the right
sort of reflection, none too which has a larger promise of unwearying
variation, than the wrigglings of the human mind when tangled in
awkward appearances, and forced to find something which looks like a
way of logical escape.

As all who read are aware, the vagaries of “society” and the drolleries
of public life are no new spectacle. Other times and patterns of
society have had their entertaining aspects fixed for us by the
half-retired chronicler. Yet there is much to suggest that the social
scene of to-day bears the palm, as illustrator of the volume and the
many-sidedness of the laughable. The bigness of our social scheme, its
instability and “go-aheadness,” its reckless activity—these and other
features, aided by the eagerness of people to gain publicity for their
doings and a corresponding readiness of journals to accord it, appear
to secure for the quiet onlooker to-day the enjoyment of an exuberant
crop of personal oddities, pushful pretences, disparities between
position and qualification, and the other amusing features of the
social scene.

Much of the drollery of the social spectacle here touched on may be
enjoyed with a certain detachment, and even with a _soupçon_ of the
malice which characterises the laughter of those outside the social
group, within which the merry showman is erecting his stage. The
kindlier note of humour enters here only as a subordinate element,
as a good-natured toleration of folly, supported by a more or less
distinct comprehension of it under the head of worthy qualities
sadly perverted. It must be otherwise if the bizarre and provocative
spectacle of folly’s head obtrudes itself into a season of national
storm and stress, say of war-commotion, {338} when the observer of
things cannot, unless he be an unsocial cynic, any longer consent to
be detached. The very possibility of a laugh, or even of a smile,
might seem to be excluded as a desecration. If it is possible, it
can only be through the discovery of a _modus vivendi_ between the
mirthful impulse and some of the deepest and most absorbing of our
feelings and impulses. Our analysis of humour has prepared us for a
considerable penetration of the mellowed kind of mirth into the heart
of the serious, for a fine and rapid detection by the practised eye of
amusing aspects of situations and experiences which appeal directly and
powerfully to the acuter feelings and to the sterner attitudes. We may,
perhaps, find the crowning illustration of this interpenetration of
the serious and the playful in the possibility of a humorous glance at
things which must stir the heart-depths of every true citizen.

The truth, that a state of war will develop in citizens much that is
good and admirable, has, perhaps, been sufficiently recognised; while,
on the other hand, its ravages and its sufferings have been a frequent
theme of the eloquent lip and pen. Less attention has, for pretty
obvious reasons, been paid to those aspects and accompaniments of the
state which seem to some, when regarded from the point of view of the
normal type of consciousness, to illustrate human folly in one of its
larger manifestations. These aspects which, when seen if only for an
instant by the qualified observer, must entertain, may be said to grow
in distinctness as a community rises in the scale of civilisation.
Since, moreover, the humorous person has trained himself in the swift
detection of the accompaniments and the relations of the objects which
he inspects, and has a habit of looking at the neglected sides of
things, it may be expected that he will be found now and again among
those who in the troubled {339} atmosphere preserve something of the
faculty of clear observation.

The fundamental factor in the situation for a humorous observer is the
temporary hypertrophy of the most powerful of man’s instincts, having
its roots deeply seated in the primal impulse of self-conservation,
appearing in the organic _milieu_ of a higher type of social
consciousness with its fixed habits of estimating and judging things.
The state of hypertrophy gives rise to a group of extravagances which
have something of the dimensions of a burlesque. The many expansions of
the boastful, self-sufficing temper, the exaggerated forms of hatred,
with its brood of suspicions, denunciations and vilifications, the
swollen dimensions of credulity, and of a correlative incredulity, with
regard to things which touch the patriotic passion—this and much more
is probably an inseparable accompaniment of the national psychosis,
certainly so if the dignity of “our cause” is challenged, whether from
within or from without.

In these larger manifestations of the war-temper such organic _milieu_
as the surviving normal consciousness can supply takes but a small
part. What movements of intelligence are observable are pretty plainly
of an intelligence subjugated by the dominant passion, and made to work
for it by foraging far and wide for food-stuffs to satisfy its appetite
for provocatives and solaces.

Yet this is but a small part of the humorous aspect of the situation.
It is the collision between the new temper and the habit of feeling
and judging nursed into vigour and endurance by a long course of
civilisation which introduces the really amusing feature. For the
quaint thing is that drowsy intelligence will now and again try to
sit up and give a nudge to its rather noisy bed-fellow. It is the
juxtaposition and interaction of two tendencies of widely removed
{340} moral levels, and quite disproportionate in their strength
which supplies the rich variety of the entertaining. In this way, for
example, we obtain the droll spectacle of an over-confident advocate
of the cause suddenly brought to silence by a foggy suspicion that his
hearer is not responsive enough, a suspicion which instantly brings to
light the residuum of the normal man’s desire for others’ support. Or
again, the powerful impulse to belittle the enemy—older than the age of
Goliath—may, when it runs away with a patriot, carry him to the point
from which he dimly discerns the edge of a dialectic precipice, the
fatal concession that victory is robbed of all its glory. Or the fancy
portrait of the enemy—preferred to a study from life because it is so
dear to the war-temper—may bring its possessor into the quandary that
he finds himself quite incapable of carrying out the necessary business
of understanding that enemy’s aims and methods.

A slight examination will show that the spectacle will illustrate most
of the forms of the laughable recognised in a previous chapter. The
whole situation may tend to assume the look of a big “mess,” from which
the participators vainly seek to extricate themselves. The high-strung
emotional and conative attitude is certain to lead to futilities, as
when confident predictions strike against the hard substance of fact.
The situation will, further, be prolific of contradictions, including,
not only the fundamental one already dealt with, but the discrepancies
of statement which arise as the ratio of the intensities of the normal
and the abnormal varies within the limits indicated above.

That the psychological situation will give rise to a large display
of pretence, has been already suggested. The survival of a partially
stupefied intelligence in the bellicose patriot will, indeed, be
chiefly manifested in the somewhat {341} onerous task of covering the
unsightly faces of things with veils, bespangled ones if possible, in
dignifiying the aims and the methods of the war. These efforts will
plainly show themselves, to calm observation, for the most part, at
least, not as conscious hypocrisies, but as self-deceptions following
from the interaction of the two selves so strangely forced to consort.

It is hardly needful to say that disorder, topsy-turvyness, confusions
of _rôle_, and, generally, inversions of normal relations, form an
essential feature of the spectacle. A world so altered from the
normal pattern that men given to a golden silence take to a speech
which is hardly silver; that “leaders” assume the droll aspect of
shepherds forced onwards by unruly flocks; that a certain kind of moral
inconsistency appears to have won its place among the virtues; and
that those versed in the divine have to assume the inverted part of
justifying the ways of men to God, cannot fail to look disordered to a
calm eye trained by the orderly. There would seem to be no room in such
a scene, where men are wont to divest themselves of their individual
characteristics, for a display of personal oddity. Yet a closer
observation will show that, in spite of the powerful tendencies which
make for uniformity of behaviour, shreds of individuality survive. The
prevailing temper seizes on men, as a fever seizes on them, according
to their individual constitutions; and one may watch the process of
assimilation of parties, sects, and individuals to the type of the
hour, much as a shrewd physician might watch the quaint modifications
of a malady in a case of strongly marked family or individual

It was said above that the possibility of this humorous observation
implied the discovery of a _modus vivendi_ with the serious and more
sensitive part of us. This means that {342} the observation can be
no quiet, prolonged pastime, but must rather resemble the momentary
intuitions of the amusing side of things, which help us when we
battle with life’s worries and encounter its greater troubles. Such
appreciation of the laughable as is possible in the case is rightly
called humorous when it accompanies a complex serious attitude which,
on the one hand, discerns both the hurtfulness and the pitifulness of
the folly that brings the smile, and on the other, makes an effort to
hold fast to that which repels and to descry estimable qualities hidden
away under it. The smile will bring a momentary relaxation of strain,
as in other cases where mental and moral tension is high. The humorist
will suffer it to steal upon him because reflection enables him, in a
sense, to comprehend, by recalling, for example, what Plato, Montaigne
and others tell us as to what is likely to happen when men are captured
by a crowd. He will be more inclined to be tolerant, if history comes
to his aid, as the history of a patient may come to that of an anxious
physician, assuring him of recovery and resumption of normal functions;
still more, if a time of civic division, lacerating to the social part
of him, has brought him near men and women whose gentleness seems to
sweeten the ferment of the hour, and whose faces will henceforth appear
to him in comforting vision—earth’s angel faces whose smile comes not
with the brightening morn but with the deepening blackness of night.




We have traced the development of laughter in the individual and in
the community with as little reference as possible to the influence of
Art. It has been assumed that the feelings which move us to laughter
are primal, and capable of expanding and deepening independently of
this influence. At the same time, it is certain that the educative
lead of the artist has been at work from a very early stage of human
development. We have found even in savage life the figure of the
“funny man,” the expert in lifting the sluice gates of social laughter
by means of jest and pantomime. Within the historical period, the
practice of engaging jesters for banquets, and social entertainments
generally, appears to go back to remote times and very simple social
conditions.[281] The finer and more methodical exercise of men’s gift
of laughter by these skilled choragi must have been a potent factor
in its development. We may now glance at the evolution of art on its
amusing and comic side.

This is no occasion for probing to its dark bottom the {344} problem
of the function of art. If we keep to the beginnings of the art of
ministering to men’s laughter, as we may study them among savages and
our own children, the theories which look to art for the expression
of an idea, or even of an emotion seeking for resonance, seem to have
but little relevance. It looks as if the amusing art grew out of that
simple social act which I have called a play-challenge, as illustrated
in the game of reciprocal tickling. Hence, the play-theory of art
serves particularly well for our present purpose. The quality of
beneficent productivity which is an essential of art may be supposed
to have grown distinct, as soon as an individual of superior cunning
in playing on the mirthful organ found himself _vis-à-vis_ with an
audience. No social impulse of an art-like character strikes out its
visible and audible effect more directly and more impressively than the
desire to raise a laugh.

Taking this view, we see that the art which moves us to mirth
illustrates the conative process in art-production. To amuse men, to
raise their spirits to the treble pitch of gaiety, pre-supposes the
desire to please. In all simple art-performance, this essentially
social motive works consciously and directly: the partly unconscious
art of the “fool” being here, of course, overlooked. In higher forms,
the will to move men merrily is, I believe, always present in normal
cases, and controls the whole art-process, though it may not be
consciously realised at every moment. In the case of the comic actor,
at any rate, a volitional control of his own feeling and its expression
seems to be a prime necessity. This is sufficiently illustrated in the
solemn aspect commonly assumed by the popular jester, in order to add
to the mirthful effect of his utterance.

It would be an interesting inquiry, if our limits allowed {345} of it,
to examine the means which art, as a whole, possesses for moving us to
laughter. This would open up the curious question of the symbolism of
colours and tones, and of their combinations, as expressive of mirthful
feeling and of jocose intention.

That laughter has for its proper excitant men and their doings, at
once suggests that only those arts which represent human ideas and
actions on a large scale have a considerable field for the exhibition
of the ludicrous. Architecture, apart from sculpture, is heavily
handicapped here. Music, as the expressive art _par excellence_, has a
certain though narrowly limited range of effect, as may be seen in the
characteristic rhythms, such as combinations of light staccato with
deep-pitched notes, incompleted phrases and so forth, which do duty
in comic opera. Some of this tickling effect is certainly due, not
to an expression of jocose feeling, but to the bizarre aspect of the
combination of sounds. And the same is probably true of the slightly
amusing effects of such grotesque combinations of colour as are common
in the costume of the harlequin, of the prince of mockers, and of
other more or less comic figures. The grotesque and amusing in dress,
that of the clown for example, is manifestly based on its suggestions,
especially those of wrong sex, wrong age and the like.

Passing by the comic directions of pictorial art, including the
highly developed process of modern political and other caricature,
the great _rôle_ in stimulating men’s laughing susceptibilities falls
to literature, and pre-eminently to dramatic literature and its
interpreter, the stage. Here, only, can the procession of human follies
display something of its variegated amplitude. Hither must we come, if
we would fain laugh our fill and know what resources art possesses for
playing on the whole gamut of our “risibility”. {346}

It would be well if we knew the beginnings of jocose literature. It
may be that the jest-books preserve for us forms resembling those
which these beginnings have taken. A short descriptive story of some
practical joke, or of some smart bit of repartee, may have grown
naturally enough out of the evening fire-side talk and become fixed
and handed down to new generations. The Mediæval Contes (fabliaux) may
be viewed as a slight expansion of such stories and fragments of talk.
This short anecdotal story would allow a certain scope for mimicry and
a crude art of elocution. A rudimentary form of comic acting, with its
mimic gestures and its facetious dialogue, would naturally take its
rise in the rehearsal of such a story by an acknowledged expert. The
bits of dialogue, at least, would enforce a certain amount of mimicry
of tones and gestures.

The beginnings of comedy, so far as we can get back to them, bear
out these conjectures. The humble birthplace of Greek comedy was the
village revel—a sort of merry harvest home—of the vintagers. At first,
we read, there was no actor, only a leader “who let off coarse and
scurrilous impromptus”.[282] Or, as another writer has it, Greek farce
began with mocking songs and ironical speeches during processions, the
Greeks being quick to mimic and to improvise.[283]

The dawn of our own comedy shows a somewhat similar process. It was in
an atmosphere of mirth that the child, half-seriously quizzing things
in order to laugh the more, was born. This may be seen by a reference
to the mirthful societies and their riotings which were a feature of
mediæval English life. The “feast of fools” was the great occasion for
satirical songs, and, later on, for dramas in which the {347} clergy
were more especially taken off. No doubt, as we shall see, there
existed in the old miracle-plays and moralities a simple dramatic form
capable of being transformed into comedy. Yet this transformation was
made possible by the spirit of mirth and revelry, which had some time
before rudely broken into the solemnity of the miracle-play.[284]

The full rise of the comic drama has had its social conditions. Mr.
Meredith has pointed to some of them, particularly the existence of an
intelligent middle class, and the recognition of woman’s status; to
which one may add, that of her conversational wit.[285] To these social
conditions might be added a national mood of gaiety, coming from some
new sense of lightened shoulders and a freer breathing.

The value of comedy as chief ministress to our laughter may be seen
by a mere glance at its many resources. It seems able to present to
the eye and ear all varieties of the amusing. As a show, it carries
on the fun of children’s make-believe play. It can set before us the
most grotesque aberrations of dress, carriage and manners. In its human
figures, again, it presents to us in forms of its own choosing the
full variety of laughable traits of mind and of character. Lastly, it
can exhibit in its plots the whole gamut of teasing and practical joke
which amuses ordinary men in real life.

We may defer illustration of the comic treatment of laughable traits of
character, and look for a moment at the ways in which the incidents of
comedy carry on the movements of primitive fun.

A glance will tell us that these incidents are woven out {348} of the
play and the practical jokes of merry youth. The boisterous fun of
the spectacle of a good beating, for which the lower savages have a
quick sense, and which is a standing dish at the circus, is a frequent
incident in comedy, both in the popular and boisterous variety of
Aristophanes and Plautus, and in the quieter and more intellectual one
of Molière.[286]

Another variety of amusing incident drawn from child-play and the
popular fun of the circus is a repetition of words, gestures or other
movements. These repetitions grow particularly funny when they take the
form of an alternate going and coming, or of ending and recommencing
a discourse. Amusing already in their semblance of purposeless play,
they sometimes grow more droll by assuming a look of irrepressibility,
as when the philosopher Pancrace in _Le Mariage forcé_ is again and
again pushed behind the coulisse and returns to renew his discourse. It
has been pointed out that such movements have something of the amusing
character of the toy known as Jack-in-the-box.[287]

Another class of repetitions, which we may call imitations, also
frequent on the comic stage, seems in like manner to reproduce easily
recognisable features of child’s play. Nothing is more characteristic
of the play-mood in young animals and in children alike than an
imitative {349} propagation of movement. The child’s game of making
faces is an excellent example. The liking of the stage for these
imitations shows how closely it remains in touch with primitive fun.
This is plain enough when the action imitated is disorderly, as we may
see in the rebuffs and counter-rebuffs of the circus. The repeated
beatings of the wife-beater in _Le Médecin malgré lui_ have something
of this diverting effect

The amusing repetitions wrought into the mechanism of comedy are, as
Molière may tell us, commonly far less aggressive. The reproduction of
the series of exclamations of Cléonte on the perfidy of his mistress by
his valet, Covielle, in _Le Bourgeois gentilhomme_, and the counterpart
to this, the slightly varied repetitions of the reproaches of Cléonte’s
mistress by her maid, are quite delightfully suggestive of a plot on
the part of Love to reduce his victims to one level of imbecility.[288]

Comedy, both ancient and modern, is full of trickery and dupery.
A whole play may be one big piece of fooling, ending for the most
part in a merry scene in which the deluded victim or victims come
to their senses again. The spectator, who is in the secret, enjoys
sympathetically the laughter of the plot-maker.

One of the simplest and earliest comic devices, another outgrowth from
child’s play, seems to be a disguise. The figures of comedy towards
whom our laughter is guided are not gifted with the finest of visions,
and a small amount of disguise, especially when it meets and flatters
their desires, suffices for complete deception. Classic comedy and that
of Shakespeare make large use of such trickery. {350}

But a strange dress and other means of disguise are by no means always
necessary for the befooling. When the credulous mood is on, the victim,
whether fish or man, will rise to the crudest of artificial imitations,
and comedy fastens on its victims when they are in this mood, as in the
case of Malvolio, M. Jourdain and the rest.

Sometimes the comedian prepares for the needed deception by throwing
its victim into a fit of absent-mindedness. A good example may be found
in the scene between Arnolphe and the notary in Molière’s _L’École
des Femmes_, where the tongues of the two make a pretence of running
on together, while the two brains that move them remain in a state
of perfect mutual misunderstanding. It is another kind of amusing
self-deception when the comic figure, again showing his descent from
the clown, undertakes to do something, and instantly displays a
complete inability to carry out his undertaking. This is illustrated in
a less obvious manner in _Le Bourgeois gentilhomme_ by the behaviour
of Cléonte, who, after quarrelling with his mistress, and begging his
valet to “lend a hand” to his spite and to sustain his resolve to bear
down any remains of his foolish love, instantly afterwards protests
against the obedient servant’s depreciations of the lady.

The comic person must be mercilessly attacked now and again, if the
spectator is to get his fill of merriment. Molière again gives us the
illustration. The scene in which the miser’s son, Cléante, playfully
holds the father as in a vice, as he takes off the ring from the old
gentleman’s finger and offers it as if in his behalf to the lady they
both desire to wed, has the full flavour of the retaliative joke.

The laugh which is “malicieux” though not “amer” comes in a large
wave when the deception is a kicking over of traces which have become
galling. The tricking of the {351} severe guardian, parental or other,
illustrated by Terence in the _Adelphi_, and by Molière in _L’École
des Femmes_, _L’École des Maris_ and other works, yields a lusty
gratification as a practical joke directed against an oppressor.

A good deal of the fun of comedy may easily be seen to flow from
a bizarre placing of a person, especially the setting of him in a
situation where he has to do what he is not accustomed to do. If false
appearances have to be kept up, so much the better. The tricks by
which the sham doctor Sganarelle tries to play up to his part in _Le
Médecin malgré lui_ are of the broadly comic. A diverting situation
may be obtained in other ways, as when lovers who have fallen out and
are in the most doleful of moods have to meet. The subjection of the
arch-hypocrite Tartuffe to the watchful eye of Orgon’s son is pregnant
of comic effect.

As already hinted, comedy reflects those movements of social laughter
which have been dealt with in a previous chapter. The works of
Aristophanes are a storehouse for one who seeks illustrations of
the popular attitude towards the new, when this lends itself to a
buffoonish inflation. The comic stage is conservative in the sense that
it is ready to ridicule whatever wears the look of a bizarre novelty.
The importation of foreign dress and manners has been a well-recognised
source of merriment in modern plays.

With grotesque innovations may be set the affectations of superior
manners, fashions of speech and the rest, for which the laughter-loving
public has had a quick eye. The exposure of an excessive fondness
for using fine expressions, especially foreign ones, has always, one
suspects, had an exhilarating effect on an educated audience. The
preciosity of Molière’s dames lives as the great example of a culte
of “the fine shades,” carried to the point of the irresistibly droll.

The well-recognised social antagonisms, again, lend to comedy all their
store of the amusing. The droll side of the bloodless feud between man
and woman comes into view in all stages of the development of the art.
It will, of course, vary in its mode of presentment with the social
conditions of the time it represents, and more especially with the
status of woman. In the comedy of Aristophanes, the mutual chaff of
the sexes is a constant source of incidental effect and a main motive
of two plays.[289] Yet the part taken by woman in the dialogue is
exceedingly small.[290] The Greek assumption of her inferiority meets
us with a charming frankness. The notion of her rising to a higher
place in civic life is handled with a buffoonish extravagance which
must have delighted conservative husbands. When the poet wishes to
show up the folly of the Athenian war-party he invents a revolt of
the dames, who by certain effective measures, connubial and other,
manage to the lasting shame of their betters to bring about peace.
The triumph of the inferior here reminds one of the hilarious victory
won by the savage women in the art of rowing. The Greek comedy as a
whole treated women, including hetaerae, with copious abuse;[291] yet
in Latin comedy, at any rate, the woman now and again gets the better
of the man. In the _Asinaria_ of Plautus, an amorous old man, one of
the favourite figures of comedy, is finely chastised by the wife who
surprises his secret.

The interminable contest of man and woman carries with it the rivalry
of the home and the tavern—or, as we should say to-day, the Club. In
Plautus, who goes for a large {353} licence in pleasure, the opposition
is emphasised. Terence, by introducing a more becoming conception of
feminine nature and married life, prepared the way for a more equal
intercourse between man and woman. It is, however, only under the
improved conditions of modern family and social life that the verbal
duel of the sexes in comedy has grown keen and brilliant.

Another and primitive relation, that of old and young, or, in its
special form, of father and child, amply displays its possibilities
of fun on the comic stage. In the newer Attic comedy, we are told,
representations of the old became frequent, now as austere and
avaricious, now as fond and tender-hearted.[292] The contrast of the
severe “Governor” and the fond “Papa,” which we have seen illustrated
in Terence and Molière, clearly points to the fact that comedy, as play
designed expressly for merry youth, favours the son’s case, and seeks
to relax the paternal leading strings.

Just as the too weighty rule of a father is apt to be laughingly pushed
aside by comedy, so is that of the master. The intriguing, cheating
valet of Latin comedy is the ancestor of many a domestic swindler,
down to the Mr. Morgan whose sudden disappearance was regretted by
Major Pendennis. The outwitted master, like the outwitted husband,
is a comic figure that excites but little pity; perhaps, because the
getting the better of one in power by his subordinate is never wanting
in the agreeable look of a merry equalising of things. Other “humours”
of social groups, that of trader, money-lender, and their clients, for
example, are, as suggested in an earlier chapter, reflected in comedy.

The same flavour of fun, the same kinship to child’s play, is
recognisable in the speech of the comic stage. {354} Word-play here
is merely the lighter interlude in what as a whole has much of the
character of a game, the contest of rapier-like tongues in comic

Men have written weightily on the nature of wit and its relation to
intellect in general and to humour. Their discourses seem hardly
to capture its finer spirit. Locke started the discussion by his
well-known distinction between wit and judgment, the former consisting
in a bringing together of ideas with quickness and variety wherein can
be found any resemblance or congruity; the latter in discriminating
and separating ideas.[293] Addison, who accepts this definition in
the main, is bound to add that, though wit is generally produced by
resemblance and congruity of ideas, it is very often produced by their
opposition.[294] Hazlitt follows Addison in including likeness and
opposition. Wit, according to him, “is an arbitrary juxtaposition of
dissonant ideas, for some lively purpose of assimilation or contrast,
generally of both.”[295] All this, though it hints at a distinctive
manner of intellectual activity, misses the mark by busying itself in
the main with the question of a particular kind of relation of ideas.

The rather solemn treatment of puns by these serious writers is
characteristic. Addison deals with them under the head of false wit,
and bravely attacks the ages for upholding the practice.[296] For thus
spurning the humble pun, he was rendered blind by the god of laughter
to the real nature of wit, as essentially a mode of intellectual play.

As the etymology of the word suggests, wit is not so much a special
faculty concerned with a particular class of relations, as an attitude
or manner of behaviour of the {355} intelligence as a whole. It
illustrates her most lively and agile gait, and is characterised by
readiness of mind, quickness of perception, ingenuity in following
out hints of quite unexpected contrasts, similarities, aims, causes,
reasons, and the other apparent belongings of an idea. As tending to
sportiveness, it loves an intellectual chase for its own sake, and
revels in sudden transitions, doublings, and the whole game of verbal
hide and seek.[297]

According to this view, wit is a talent which has been especially
developed by a proper exercise of one of the chief functions of the
social animal, conversation. This has its light and entertaining
variety, talk, which when it reaches the perfection of an art becomes
a kind of game. A subject is tossed out like a ball and each side then
tries to strike it in turn and so keep the game going. Something of
serious purpose may be behind, as a half wish to illumine the subject,
but the main interest lies in the game itself, in the exhilarating
pleasure of crossing the intellectual foils with a worthy opponent.

Yet, though a game, talk is commonly carried on by persons who are not
merely fellow-players. As we have seen, witty dialogue flourishes when
some force of repulsion as well as of attraction is involved, as that
between a would-be seller and his needy yet stand-off buyer, or between
a wooer and a woman concerned not to make winning too easy. Where, as
between two rivals, the situation is conducive to warmth, the wit will
be apt to grow pungent. As Addison reminds us, wit is often developed
in an unequal game, between a “butt” and his assailants, the butt
knowing now and again, like Sir John Falstaff, how “to get the laugh of
his side”.[298]

The art of witty exchange, like that of using foils, clearly implies
self-restraint; and in both cases the desirable {356} coolness is
greatly furthered by the presence of the impartial spectator. It is
possible that husband and wife first learned to spar jocosely by having
to carry on disputes in the presence of outside hearers.

Taking this view of wit, we may see how word-play inevitably comes
into it. The pun of childish years, which merely tricks the ear by an
accidental doubleness of meaning, need not be considered here. It is
only when the ambiguity has value for laughter, when it can be turned
to some merry purpose, that it comes under the eye of art. Word-play
clearly tends to run into thought-play. Some of the best-known “mots”
will be found to involve the double-sense of the pun, like the praise
awarded by the witty King to one of his courtiers in the remark that
he was never in the way and never out of the way. It is the deep sense
discernible through the verbal appearance of a self-contradiction which
charms and entertains here.[299]

It seems to follow that the laughter excited in spectator or reader by
a display of wit is slightly complex. It has in it something of the
child’s laughter of admiration at what is new, rather startling, and
fine, of his gay response to a play-challenge, and of a sympathetic
rejoicing with the combatant who, by showing his skill, obtains an
advantage over his antagonist.

The dialogue of comedy and of the fiction which adopts the comic point
of view will make use of these verbal sports, these doublings of
the intellectual chase, at the hint of ambiguous language. They are
refreshing, they enlarge the scope of the witty combat, and they help
to maintain the mirthful temper of the spectator. Their use may be
{357} illustrated throughout the history of comedy. Thus, we find in
the comedy of Aristophanes much chaffing of the sexes and punning. The
same is true of Plautus. In the merry comedy of Shakespeare we have
still an abundance of puns, also a great advance in the art of the
verbal foils, especially as crossed by man and woman, more particularly
on the side of the latter. Molière’s quieter and more thoughtful
discourse, though now and then it finds room for a pun, illustrates the
finer art of witty combat, in which the foils seem to have been tipped
with a softer button.

We have so far dwelt on those elements of comedy which seem plainly
derivable from simple forms of fun, as seen in child’s play and the
laughter of primitive folk. There remains what is in some ways the most
interesting feature, the comic presentation of character in action and

It is customary to classify comedies into those of Incident, of Manners
and of Character. Such a division must not, however, mislead us.
The three ingredients are present in every comedy. If Aristophanes
depends largely on incident, he only gets his fun by choosing comic
characters—the sophist, say, or the commercial explorer endowed with
wings. In the so-called comedy of Manners of Congreve and his school,
the persons, such as they are, undoubtedly form a main support of the
entertaining action. Molière, though he relies chiefly on character,
can only give us comedy by inventing situations in which his figures
will have flashed on them the droll light of the comic stage. What
is meant by the above classification is pretty plainly that in some
comedies the characters are more central, are more finely evolved, and
attract a much larger attention.

That the evolution of comedy has, in the main, been an advance in the
presentment of character, as judged {358} both by the variety and
the complexity of the personalities depicted, and by the fulness and
definiteness of the presentation, is just what we might have expected.
It seems certain that, with the progress of civilisation, men and
women have grown more complex and more varied, both intellectually and
morally, and further that the interest in character and the capability
of understanding it have developed concurrently.

A word on the general conditions of a presentation of character in
comedy. For one thing, dramatic construction, as compared with that
of prose fiction, has certain obvious limits set to the delineation
of character. The art is too wise to attempt a full presentment of so
complex a group of traits as we find in a developed individuality.
It illustrates, however, degrees of fulness in the presentation of
personality, and the finer art of drama may produce its impression
of a concrete person very much as a skilful painter does within the
limits of a rough sketch by a few master strokes. Yet without the
actor’s visible embodiment of the part, the full impression of a
concrete individual would be difficult within the limits of dramatic

In the case of comedy, moreover, there is another reason for the
limitation of the art of developing individual character. The
superlative æsthetic value of the ludicrous aspect of character imposes
on the writer an unusual degree of simplification, of something like
a reduction of the concrete personality to an abstraction. The comic
entertainment afforded by the presentation, say, of a swelling vanity,
springs from our keeping the mental eye fixed in merry expectation of
the coming developments of the laughable trait. If, then, only this
core of the character, as the mood of the spectator estimates it, is
clearly presented and sufficiently illustrated, {359} both in its
immediate manifestations and in its effects on the rest of the man, a
very shadowy reinstatement of this remainder will suffice.

This conclusion seems clearly borne out by the common way of speaking
of the great comic figures as “types”; for to view a character
as typical means that we are interested in the person, less as a
particular individual, than as an example of a certain sort of person.
The common practice of writers of comedy, ancient and modern, of
marking their characters by appropriate names, the Braggadocio, the
Miser, the Misanthrope, and so forth, shows that authors recognise this
typical function.

Such comic representation of type will always have in it something of
the nature of exaggeration. The laughable trait, in order to raise the
tide of merriment to its full height, must itself be raised to a higher
power and displayed in the hypertrophic volume it tends to assume when
the balancing forces of the normal man are greatly reduced. Yet, to
say this is not to say that the common distinction between a lifeless
abstraction and a living character has no meaning in comedy. There
is a vast difference between the rigid abstractions of early modern
comedy, before the art had extricated itself from the leading strings
of the morality plays, and the relatively full and freely moving
figures which we encounter in Molière’s plays. On the other side, the
always controlled expansion of an amusing trait in the comic character
is to be clearly marked off from that forcing of expression up to the
dimensions of a distortion which is the essence of caricature.

A glance at the history of comedy will show us how, with its
development, there has grown a finer recognition of the comic value of
character and a corresponding skill in the presentation of it. {360}

The comedy of Aristophanes illustrates the art of comic
character-drawing in its infancy. Here, where the comic muse has not
yet left behind her the Bacchanalian rout; where the scene is apt to be
violently transported, now to mid-air, now to the abode of the gods,
and now to Hades; where the boisterous fun in its genial onslaught
spares neither deity, poet nor statesman; and where the farcical
reaches such a pass as to show us competitors for the favour of Demos
offering to blow that worthy’s nose; there would seem to be no room for
the portrayal of character. And, in truth, the problem of constructing
character was in a way obviated by calling in living or historical
personages familiar to the spectators. Yet even in this riotous
atmosphere, where the eyes of the spectator must have been half-blinded
by laughter, we may discern the dim beginnings of the art of comic
portraiture. Not only have we now and again, as in the litigious old
gentleman in the _Wasps_, hints of a typical comic figure, we have
illustrated in the historical figures themselves, Socrates, Cleon,
Euripides, a rude art of type-delineation.[300]

In the later Greek and the Latin comedy we find ourselves in a less
turbulent scene where the air is clearer, and things can be viewed with
some steadiness. In Plautus, the poet of the masses and the taverns,
the spirit of riotous buffoonery proved itself to be still alive. Yet
the confinement of the scene not only to earth but to its familiar
haunts, and the introduction of the love-motive, even though in its
baser form, gave new scope for the exhibition of comic varieties of
character. Even in Plautus we find sketches, not, indeed, of a moral
type as we find elsewhere, but of a representation of some social
class or calling, with {361} its characteristics forcibly set forth,
as in the boastful soldier, the cheating servant, and the stingy
money-lender. An approximation to the illustration of a moral type may,
perhaps, be detected in the amorous old man in the _Asinaria_. It is,
however, in the work of Menander and his Roman adapter Terence that we
must look for the real advance. In the plays of Terence, written for
the educated Romans, the figures assume something of respectability.
Thus the father ceases, as with Plautus, to be a sort of football
for filial buffoons to kick about, and grows into a character worthy
of study; and the contrast between a foolish excess of authority and
a wise lenience, given us in the two fathers in the _Adelphi_, has
been the model for more than one modern writer. In Terence, too, the
family begins to come by its own in its tussle with the rowdyism of
the tavern, and this is no small gain for the comic delineation of

The circumstance that modern comedy took its rise in the moralities,
with their personifications of evil and the rest, readily explains how
certain broad types of ignoble character were set in the forefront of
its scene. These appear already in the later moralities, for example,
“Like will to Like”. In the work which marks the full transition from
the interlude of the didactic morality to the comedy, “Ralph Roister
Doister” (_c._ 1550), we have outlined one of the valuable figures in
the comic world, the vainglorious cowardly man, the victim of the most
entertaining of delusions.[302]

In the comedy of the Elizabethans, Ben Jonson and Massinger, it is
easy to trace this influence, disguised though {362} it is sometimes by
that of classical comedy. In Jonson’s “Every Man in his own Humour,”
said to be the first important comedy of character in our literature,
the source of entertainment is laid, not in a merry plot, but in the
presentation of a variety of characters which display themselves in
odd fashions and novelties of conduct. It may be roughly true, as
Taine says, with Molière present to his imagination, that the method
pursued is to take an abstract quality and put together all the actions
to which it gives rise.[303] In other words, the object-lesson of the
morality is still too near, and the dramatist has not learned how to
make his comic characters move and grow under the spectator’s eye. Yet,
if we compare Bobadil with a braggart of Plautus, we may see that real
progress has been made in the comic grasp and manipulation of character.

In the comedies of Shakespeare a superficial reader might, so far as
drawing of purely comic characters is concerned, suppose himself to
be moving backwards. The glowing air of romance, the removal of the
scene from the workaday world, the partial abandonment to the moods of
poetry and dream-delight, all this would seem to exclude the setting
up of well-defined figures fitted to entertain the mood of a gay
contemplation. The supposition would not be utterly wrong. The “mixture
of tones,” which comes into the poet’s comedies as well as into his
tragedies, does undoubtedly tend to limit the portrayal of purely
comic traits.[304] The romantic background cannot, like the fixed
arrangements of homely society, throw the follies and perversities
of the figures into sharp relief. Think for a moment how different
æsthetic significance and value {363} would have attached to the
figure of the melancholy Jaques, if it had been encountered, not in the
solitary forest, but in one of Molière’s orderly homes.

The mixture of tones introduces a softening, transforming influence
which affects our attitude towards the queer figures themselves.
Benedick and the other men who are gently brought to reason by
schooling women have in their very perversity something amiable. Even
Malvolio and the other figures, whose folly is exposed with something
of the unsparing extravagance of an older comedy, catch a saving
ray from the warm glow which is diffused over their world. We laugh
heartily; yet the pre-dominant sentiment of the play moves us at the
same time towards tender condonation.

Must we then say that because he rarely allows us to look on folly and
vice in the pure attitude of amused observation, Shakespeare is no
comic poet? It does not greatly matter how we answer the question so
long as we reflect that in the world he has here created for us, at
once beautiful and touched with a tender melancholy, and yet charged
with the electric current of mirth, we possess something quite as
delightful as the well-defined comic scenes of a Molière. Now and
again, moreover, where the rosy warmth of romance gives place to the
colder light of realities, as in “The Merry Wives” and “The Taming of
the Shrew,” we see how keen an eye our poet could turn to the comic
possibilities of character. Nor must we forget how great a contribution
he made to comic character-drawing in his dialogue, where the man and
the woman, at once attracted and repelled, use their witty tongues with
excellent effect, and where woman, though now and then chastised, has
a large part assigned her in curing man of his follies and developing
what is best in him. {364}

For the comedy of character, in its highest and purest form, we are
told, and rightly told, to go to Molière. In his world, not only is the
uproarious, dust-raising mirth of classic comedy silenced, but the fun
of extravagant plot with its disguises and errors, though not absent,
is kept within measure. It is the familiar domestic world, into which
we can readily transport ourselves. It is peopled for the most part
with the sober and sensible. Upon this orderly scene is brought one or
more of the great typical representatives of human folly. In some cases
it is an old entertaining figure revived, the exacting and anxious
miser, for example, or the voluble braggart. But the comic idea also
incarnates itself in a rich variety of new forms, such as the _faux
dévot_ and his victim, the critic of society who turns a sour face on
its conventions, the wrong-headed educator of woman, the ready-tongued
quack, the crazy pedant and the others.

Nor is the enlargement of the gallery of portraits the only or the
chief advance in the comedy of Molière. The fineness of the drawing
is what fixes the eye. All trace of the old rigid abstractions has
disappeared. Typical they all remain, as is their function: yet they
are individualised in a way that satisfies all the conditions of the

Molière’s supremacy in the comic use of character is seen, first of
all, in the selection of his types, which have each a large amusing
aspect inherent in the character itself, and capable of being set
forth in a sufficient variety of manifestation. We see this at once by
comparing his best-known characters with those of his predecessors. In
Molière we have, what Coleridge tells us is wanting in Ben Jonson, the
presentation of the laughable defect as “a prominence {365} growing
out of, and nourished by, the character which still circulates in
it”.[306] The simple-minded ambition of the Bourgeois gentilhomme,
the pious over-confidence of Orgon, the intractable misanthropy of
Alceste—these, as traits broad-based in the character, offer large
possibilities of comic development.

The next point to be noted in this new art is the mode of presentation
of the character which is to hold the eye in amused contemplation. The
pointing effect of contrast is present, as in all good art; what is
noteworthy is the admirable simplicity of the method of contrasting.
This is rendered possible by the type selected and the point of view
adopted. To Molière, the man taken with vain conceit, the opinionated
prig, the unsociable critic of society and the rest, are aberrations
from a normal type, the socially adapted person. The Harpagons, the
Orgons, the Arnolphes, the Alcestes, the Sganarelles and the others,
have their amusing lop-sidedness, their characteristic tendency swollen
to the ridiculous proportions of a tumor, defined from the first by the
antithesis in which they are set to the normal members of society. The
orderly world, pleading for a reasonable accommodation to the usages of
men, is sometimes represented by the judicious friend, _e.g._, Alceste,
Arnolphe; not seldom by the wife, _e.g._, Madame Jourdain; at other
times by the brother, _e.g._, of Sganarelle; and, now and again, even
by the privileged and saucy maid, _e.g._, of Orgon, of M. Jourdain.

In this juxtaposition the comic poet exhibits clearly enough the
anti-social tendency of the inflated characteristic. The outrage
to woman in the rigorous treatment of their wards by Arnolphe and
Sganarelle, the harshness of Alceste’s demands on the high-spirited
girl he woos, {366} the menace in Jourdain’s craze to the stability
of the home, the cruel bearing of Harpagon’s avarice on his son—all
this is made quite plain to the spectator; and the exposure of this
maleficent tendency in the perverse attitude serves somehow to
strengthen the comic effect.

In thus presentating the hypertrophy of a moral tendency, Molière
gives movement to the embodiment by disclosing the organic action of
the disordered part on other parts of the man. The avarice of Harpagon
renders him fearful of a theft, as if this would ruin him. He takes it
as an insult that he should be called rich, asserting that “nothing
is more false”. This points to that effect of perverted passion which
Molière everywhere emphasises, intellectual blindness, the result
of a mastery of the mind by compulsory ideas (_idées fixes_). The
often-quoted indication of mental deafness in Orgon, when, to the
servant’s announcement that his wife is ill, he dreamily iterates the
ejaculations “Et Tartuffe?” and “Le pauvre homme!” illustrates the full
comic value of such a detachment of mind from the realities which are
seen by others to be rapping at the doors of sense.

This state of the intelligence reduced to something resembling
“mono-ideism” carries with it a loss of the normally clear
self-consciousness. The foolish Arnolphe, who, in order to guard
himself against the risk of a faithless spouse, subjects the girl he
means to wed to intolerable restraints, has the delusion that he is a
great reformer, striking the hyper-pedagogic note when he says that a
woman’s mind is soft wax.[307] Here and elsewhere the spectator is made
to see that the queer creature is acting like a somnambulist, quite
unaware of the consequences of his actions. It thus {367} becomes an
exhibition of human folly, and of the droll obliquity and bombastic
extravagance which are folly’s inseparable concomitants.

There is, no doubt, somewhat of abstraction here. To give a tendency
complete dominance and to reduce intelligence to the menial position of
its servant is to destroy the organic complexity of the man. All the
same, this method of uncovering the drollness of moral obliquity is not
adequately judged when it is called abstract. The simplified mechanism
still lives, in a sense. One might say that the mature mind is reduced
to the level of the child’s. There is, indeed, something suggestive
of the child in a lull of naughty temper in Harpagon’s inquiry of his
coachman, what people are saying about him. A still more striking
approach to the childish occurs when M. Jourdain shows off to his wife
and his maid his newly acquired superiority through the discovery of
the meaning of “prose”.

It may be added that an escape from the rigidity of the abstract is
secured by the development of the obliquity itself. As long as things
are seen to grow, they are taken to be alive. The expansion of the
ridiculous ambition of M. Jourdain endows him with a certain plenitude
of life. It may all be very one-sided, and, by comparison with the life
of a normal man, remind us of the inflexibility of a machine; yet it is
still a deranged organism that acts, and not a mechanism.[308]

It is to be noted, too, that though they resemble distinctly morbid
aberrations from the normal pattern, these characters do not reach to
the full height of mania. M. Jourdain, no doubt, gets near the boundary
that separates sanity from {368} insanity in the closing scenes of the
play;[309] but the comic intention is careful to keep the droll figure
on the right side of the boundary.

A frequent termination of the action in this comedy is a climax,
in which the folly of the comic character rises to an outburst so
voluminous and torrent-like as to throw the onlookers in his world into
uproarious mirth. The final befooling of M. Jourdain is an example.
Molière was too good an artist, and too wise a man, to try in every
case to compass the end of “poetic justice” by giving to society in
its struggle with a mighty and obstinate perversion of humanity more
of a victory than the laugh. Unhappy Alceste has to rush into the
desert without his Célimène amid the hilarity of onlookers. Arnolphe
and Sganarelle are no doubt found out and disappointed; and Tartuffe is
unmasked and gets into trouble. Yet there is no evidence of a general
intention to punish. Orgon, though he is cured of his pious delusion
by a rough surgical operation, receives no more chastisement than M.
Jourdain receives for having brought alien interests and an alien
master into the home. Nor does even that embodiment of an ugly vice,
Harpagon, get anything worthy of being called a trouncing.

In all this, the master shows us how well he knew how to keep at the
point of view which he had selected as the comic. Let us try to define
this after our study of his plays.

When we contrast the world, quiet and orderly for the most part,
presented in these comedies with the hurly-burly scenes of a play of
Aristophanes, we are tempted to say, as has been said, that Molière
sets before our eyes the realities of everyday life. Yet the comic
figures blown out into {369} ridiculous volume are certainly not taken
straight out of our familiar world. They are always transformations,
to this extent, that they are the simplified embodiments of fully
developed tendencies which only show themselves in germ-form, and
complicated more or less by balancing tendencies, in the real world
which is said to be imaged here. We seem thus to have an element of the
unreal thrown against a background of the real.

There is no anomaly here when once we get at the comic point of view.
In Molière’s plays, the source of laughter lies in this very intrusion
of the ill-shapen into a community of well-rounded forms. It is the
intruder on whom we fix the eye, for whose unpredictable antics in a
world for which he is not made our expectation is set. The serious
background is there, but does not take a strong hold of our minds: we
are not greatly moved, for example, by the spectacle of the sufferings
of the daughters and the wards of testy old gentlemen, or even of the
wearing housewifely anxieties of Madame Jourdain. The proper world,
into which the absurdly ill-fitted is here pitchforked, is but a
background, rendering the valuable service of backgrounds by throwing
into relief and so sharply defining the form for which the spectator’s
eye is accommodated.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the whole plot of one of these
comedies consists in the showing up of the grotesque unsuitability
of the comic character to its environment. It groups its persons and
arranges its scenes as if with the intention of demonstrating the
futility of the attempt of this droll figure, lop-sided, and of an
awkward gait, to move about in our ordered world. This helps us to
understand why Molière, though, as observed above, he now and again
resorts to older and more elemental sources of mirth, is able to be
so economical in the use of disguise {370} of improbable encounters,
and of the other mechanical devices of the entertaining show. The
situations themselves as well as the action seem to arise out of the
fundamental facts, the given characters and their relations. Thus,
one is hardly surprised to find Harpagon in the ignoble part of a
money-lender, to whom the son he has pinched betakes himself.

The enjoyment of the comedy here provided presupposes a trained
faculty. There must be the quick observant eye that catches in
side-glance all the relations, and yet remains accommodated for the
laughable. There is no place for a mixed tone, for a blend of laughter
with melancholy sentiment. The serious is envisaged less as the
serious, than as the framework within which the comic figure moves.
The mood is one of a purely gay observation, which has no room for
pity, indignation, or any other emotion; which is brightly and coldly
intellectual; which is content with just looking and being amused.

For a right understanding of the scope of laughter in comedy, we need
to glance at another of its developments. In the so-called “Comedy of
Manners,” as illustrated in the English plays of the Restoration, we
have undoubtedly to do with a very special trend of the comic spirit.

In the art of Molière we have for the most part the presentation of an
individual grotesquely transformed from the common social type which
surrounds him. It is only in a few comedies, as _Les Femmes savantes_
and _Les Précieuses ridicules_, that we have spread out for mirthful
contemplation the characteristics of _a set_ of persons. In these, the
moderate sensible world, against which the cultivation of “the fine
shades” looks so entertaining, is still indicated, though, of course,
less immediately and fully.

In the plays of Congreve and his contemporaries, we meet {371} with
a comic treatment of more widespread “manners” of the hour. The
sources of their fun are pretty obvious. There is something of the
utter abandonment to disorder and revelry which we met with in the
works of Aristophanes.[310] The ordered world, with its interaction
of normal characters, seems blotted out of existence. The plot is, as
with Plautus, a love-intrigue, and has much of the coarseness and the
degradation of situation which mark the popular Latin comedy. Yet it is
at least marked off by the feature that it frees men from the sordid
business of sending menials to bid for the prize, and sets them face
to face with the women they are bent on obtaining. The women, again,
are not shy maids, but range from experienced wives to the would-be
simpletons fresh from the country. They are, moreover, while saucy
and disposed to make good show of resistance, untrammelled by any
sentimental or other attachment to their chains.

It seems undeniable that this “artificial” comedy can make good its
claims to be entertaining. It has vivacity and stirring movement, the
full frolicsomeness of the practical joke, and it abounds in scenes
of voluminous gaiety. Its dialogue at its best has, along with its
coarseness, an unmistakable brilliance of wit.

But how are we to define the point of view where there is no ordered
world as background? There seems no question here of laughing at the
affectations of a few, who are viewed as comic aberrations from a
reasonable type. The whole world is affected with frolicsome disorder.

We are not now concerned with the mental attitude of the spectators
for whom these comedies were written. {372} To them, no doubt, the
spectacle was a merry one as bringing a sense of relief from the gloom
of the Puritan’s reign. It may, as Taine suggests, have been served up
as a kind of “Appetitsbischen” between meals, in order to stimulate
the palates of the gallants who frequented the theatre; though it is
difficult to attribute this function to what by common consent was
intended to provoke mirthful laughter. What is of more importance is to
get at the point of view of Charles Lamb and others who avow that they
find a true comedy here.

Lamb himself has told us what attitude a man should bring to the
appreciation of this comedy. He is to regard these “sports of a witty
fancy” as “a world of themselves almost as much as fairyland”. His
moral feelings are left at home with his morning suit. He goes to
the play in order “to escape from the pressure of reality”. For him
the figures that pursue one another across the stage have no moral
substance, and are proper subjects neither for approval nor for
disapproval. In other words, Lamb tells us that the comedy of Congreve
and his school is to be taken as a pure show, holding no relations to
the real, everyday world.

This view has been spurned by Macaulay, in a well-known Essay, as
subversive of morals. To him, the comedy of the Restoration is a thing
that is inherently anti-moral in spirit and intention; and he proceeds
to pound it with weighty invectives.

The argument would have been relevant if the question had been a
practical one of this kind: shall we put this comedy on the stage
to-day for our boys and girls to see it? As against Lamb’s plea it
seems to me to be a curious case of missing the point. When, for
example, Macaulay complains that in these comedies the husbands are
treated {373} as objects of contempt and aversion, whereas the
gallants are decked out with all the graces, he might have remembered
the old _Contes_ and bethought him that this was an elementary
condition of the artificial world, which is created solely for
amusement. His answer to Lamb, that recollections of morality do steal
now and then into this fantastic world, does not touch the latter’s
main contention, and only shows (so far as it is just) that the
creators were not perfect architects, and tried to combine incompatible
styles. The moral order is still in the background, dimly perceived,
even here: the fun of the thing is at bottom, as Lamb says, a sense of
momentary escape from rules which we know cannot be set aside in the
real world. But this idea of an escape implies that what we fly from
must not be dragged into the show.

Our study of comedy and of the sources of laughter has prepared us
to accept Lamb’s view. The comic spectacle appeals to the man in the
play-mood. When there, he may see the fun of the turbulent world of
Aristophanes and not be troubled by the thought of the undesirability
of its realisation. Even when he is entertained by a play of Molière
he does not take the background quite seriously, waxing indignant,
say, in sympathy with Harpagon’s ill-used son, or with M. Jourdain’s
ill-used wife. The least swerving from the point of view of comedy, a
turn of the mental “eye-glass,” would spoil all. He would begin, with
Rousseau, to protest against presenting so good a man as Alceste in a
ludicrous light. The Restoration comedy appeals to the same playful
mood simplified by the temporary inhibition of all outside tendencies.

It is, I conceive, a profound error to suppose that either the writer
of a comedy or his audience is at the moral point of view, envisaging
behaviour as morally {374} commendable or the opposite. Possibly, the
influence of the didactic morality on early modern comedy may have
helped to foster this error. It is true that Molière finds his comic
material in certain defects of character. Yet the selections made by
comic art are not determined by degrees of moral turpitude. As hinted
above, very small and comparatively harmless vices may be preferred
as having the drollest look on the stage.[311] Vanity, the richest of
all moral blemishes in its comic possibilities, and therefore greatly
employed by comedy, both ancient and modern, is not judged as heinously
immoral, like hatred and cruelty, for example.[312] This may suffice to
show how wide an interval separates the point of view of the spectator
of a comedy from that of the moral judge.

It seems to me to be much more correct to say, with M. Bergson, that
comedy takes up the social rather than the moral point of view. By
this I mean that the comic poet is thinking of the look of things to
the trained apperceptive organ of the social kind of person, according
as they appear to be well or ill adapted to the common practices
and opinions of society as discerned and interpreted by its more
intelligent representatives. Yet, in speaking of the social point
of view, I must not be taken to mean that either the author or the
spectator of the comic scene is seriously judging of the behaviour of
its figures by a reference to social values. There is, undoubtedly, an
approach to this, not only in the early modern comedy, but in the later
serious variety, including some plays of Molière; but the art-impulse
of the writer, where it is clear, prevents the approximation {375} of
points of view from becoming a loss of distinctness. Comedy addresses
itself to a mood of æsthetic contemplation which, though it has room
for keen penetration, and even for a dim discernment of a serious
import in the background of the puppet show, remains on the whole a
playful attitude. The spectator is agreeably occupied with the look of
things; and such social consciousness as is awake in him serves merely
to give to his perceptions a precise measure of the seemly, or at most
to enable him to glimpse something of a sharply corrective expression
in the puckered visage of the comic showman.[313]

In comedy, the moral comes into view as “mores,” as a part, and a
principal part, of the customary, as we have it in a civilised society.
Yet it is not disengaged and held up as moral. Molière, the Comedian
of Society _par excellence_, shows us clearly enough that he is not
trying to distinguish the more permanent and universal basis of society
in morality from the variable accidents which enter into the manners
of a particular society at a given date. The “gushing” mode of accost
adopted by mere acquaintances which irritates Alceste is accepted by
the poet as a standard of the fitting, just because as a fashion it is
a social institution, to be good-naturedly accepted by the social kind
of person. When M. Jourdain tries to step out of his bourgeois rank,
the laughter he provokes depends primarily on the unseemliness of his
ambition. Yet, at the end of the nineteenth century in Paris or London,
such ambition is so common and meets with so large a success that
we have almost forgotten to smile at it. Hence, when Taine talks of
Molière as a “philosopher” illustrating “universal truths,” he commits
an error which may be pardoned, as due to the natural inclination to
stretch the achievement of a great {376} compatriot.[314] What Molière
does is to secure for the rather oddly formed group of customs and
practices adopted by the particular society he is depicting, adequate
exponents, who, in their advocacy of the social system against the
socially perverse, not only disengage and give clearness to the
unwritten laws, but may—so long as they do not raise the question of
their deeper grounds—seek to recommend them by the most enlightened
presentment of the common-sense attitude.

Now, in substituting the social for the moral point of view, the
writer of comedy necessarily tends to slacken the cords that bind us
in society. Nothing comes out more plainly in Molière’s plays than the
good-natured accommodation of social requirements to human infirmities.
The author distinctly rejects the idea of going above this standard, of
trying to improve on social customs—for example, in the comic treatment
of Alceste and of Arnolphe. At heart, like his Roman predecessors, he
takes sides with indulgence against all irksome restraint. He has the
large tolerance, the readiness to excuse and to pass by, of the easy
man of the world. Célimène’s coquetries, for example, are accepted as
natural in one who “is twenty years old”. So it must be; for comedy is
written to put us into an easy frame of mind, in which we are perfectly
content with the world as it is.

From this point of view, we may see that the comedy of manners is
not, fundamentally, so different from that of character as is often
maintained. It breaks with the moral order of stable societies, no
doubt, and turns its back rather rudely on this order. Yet it may
still, in a sense, be said to adopt the social point of view. That is
to say, it envisages {377} the seemly as that which falls in with
the code of manners which happens to obtain at the time. Its standard
of fitness is, like that of the savage and of Molière, the customs of
the tribe. It is the sour-tempered and suspicious husband, for whom
Macaulay expresses so droll a concern, who in this inverted world
becomes the anti-social kind of person. The large indulgence of this
society is but an expansion of the indulgence common to Terence and to
Molière. A sub-conscious awareness of the topsy-turvyness of things is
with us as we look; and the quaint fancifulness of the inversion—if
only like Lamb we can refuse for a moment to take serious views—is
distinctly refreshing.

In saying that we go to meet comedy in the play-mood, in which our
habits of moral approbation and disapprobation, and even of estimation
of social values, are lulled to a sleep more or less profound, it is
not meant that these serious tendencies in us can be ignored by the
writer of comedy. As implied above, they mould our forms of the seemly,
unknowingly to us perhaps, even as we look. And more, though inhibited
by the play-like mood, they have force; and should the showman go too
far, say in the direction of stripping off the veil of decency, they
may wake up and make an end of the comic enjoyment. Just as tragic
fear and pity may give way to physical revulsion when horror obtrudes
itself, so when in comedy the unclean thrusts into view its ugly head,
a sort of physical revulsion may silence laughter. The latitude in
these matters conceded from time to time to comic art will, it is
evident, vary greatly with the particular ratio between the vigours of
the mirthful and moral tendencies.

The presentation of the comic aspects of men’s behaviour on the stage
is narrowly limited. As Sainte-Beuve reminds us, a whole people may
have a fit (_accès_) of mania. If {378} this happen to be the war-fury
we shall have given us, as pointed out above, unmistakable elements of
comic situation and character. Indeed, if a person who has just been
in the midst of a wild “Jingoism” without losing his head will read
Molière’s plays he will not fail to be struck by numerous resemblances.
And here, as in comedy, the figures have their comical contours and
poses thrown into relief by a social background, as much superior to
any single community at a particular moment, as a community to one
of its members. Yet no national comedy could in these days follow
Aristophanes and use such promising material, nor are we likely as yet
to have a comedy for the civilised world.

Before leaving comedy, we may glance at other forms of literature
which seem to approach its point of view. Of certain kinds of the
so-called serious comedy of recent times I do not propose to speak. It
seems more important to remark that prose fiction may now and again
draw near the comic point of view. It sometimes presents us with a
texture of fantastic situations and adventures which reminds us of
the Aristophanean burlesque, as in the “Tartarin” series of Alphonse
Daudet. This type of fiction gives us elemental laughter, uncomplicated
by anything in the nature of sad reflection—though a little of the
tenderness of humour may steal in. Or the tone of the story may
approach that of the more sedate comedy, making, indeed, the one hardly
distinguishable from the other, save through the narrative form. This
holds good, for example, of the novels of Miss Austen. The social
point of view is sharply defined and steadily adhered to, and critical
reflection is confined to the _rôle_ of giving a fuller and more lucid
interpretation of the standards of the society illustrated.

The comic point of view may intrude, too, and tend to become supreme
in fiction which has something of the {379} deeper and more thrilling
import. It seems to have been present, at times at least, to Balzac,
and to Thackeray. But it is in Mr. Meredith’s novels that we may study
a new and a finer employment of the comic attitude in connection with
the more enthralling kind of interest. The very subjects—for example,
the egoist entangled in the situation which makes large demands
for consideration; the father with a pedagogic system of his own
concoction; the tailor more successful in soaring than his client M.
Jourdain, with certain consequences to his family; the gallant cadet of
an ancient house affected with the zeal of radicalism—these sound like
the titles of comedy. And though the writer may allow the reedy tone
of humour to be heard now and again he gives prominence to the fluty
note of comedy, with its simplicity and clearness, and something of its
sound of sharp correction, too. Occasionally indeed, as in _Beauchamp’s
Career_, this characteristic note will be distinctly heard at the end
of a story which closes on a tragic disaster.

Yet a closer inspection will show that though the point of view of
these writers may approximate to that of the comic poet, it remains
distinct. This distinctness, moreover, is not due merely to the
presence of a large serious interest which gives gravity to the story.
It arises out of the circumstance that the writer of prose fiction, by
addressing himself to the reflective mood of a solitary reader, and not
to the apperceptive attitude of a spectator, will, even in presenting
the comic aspects of his subject, unavoidably tend to transcend the
standards of fitness adopted by a particular community, substituting
for these the ideal standards of a community of the wise and good.

In comedy we have the appeal to laughter in its purity, the child’s
laughter at the funny show guided by an intelligent grasp of social
customs. It addresses itself to the {380} many, united by common modes
of judgment and a common standard of fitness. Literature gives us,
however, appeals of another kind. The writer who amuses us may seem,
at least, to be very far from the social point of view, and the mood
he induces may be by no means that of pure gaiety. After what has been
said in the preceding chapter, a few words must suffice to indicate
these other literary expressions of the laughing spirit.

We may distinguish two main varieties of this mixed tone: (_a_) the
combination of laughter with the attitude of serious attack, as
illustrated in satire; (_b_) its combination with mellowing feelings in
what we have recognised as modern humour.

The distinguishing note of satire is the angry one of reprobation. Here
vices and follies are no longer set before us as a diverting spectacle,
but emphasis is laid on their moral indignity. The satirist is at the
point of view of the moral judge; only, instead of the calmness of the
judge, he has something of the fierce attitude of the prosecutor who
aims at exposing and denouncing the turpitude of an offence.

This being so, we see that laughter enters into satire as an expression
of contempt and as an instrument of punishment. It assumes its most
pungent and most dreaded form, ridicule or derision. It is thus less a
spontaneous feeling than a volitional process: the satirist wills to
mock. As satirist he controls his personal indignation by an artistic
purpose, such a presentment of his victim as will excite in his hearers
or readers the full laughter of contempt. Hence, the large license he
takes, in the employment of exaggeration and the devices of caricature,
in the invention of degrading situations, and in the appropriation of
humiliating comparison, figure of speech and the other resources of his
art. {381}

It is clear that the mirthful spirit when it thus lends itself to
the purpose of damaging attack becomes modified to the point of
transformation. To laugh with Juvenal or with Swift is to feel more
of a bitter malignity than of gaiety. We may say that satire takes us
back to the brutal laughter of the savage standing jubilant over his
prostrate foe. Or we may describe the laughter as a feeling of “sudden
glory” deeply tinged by the dominant angry attitude of the laugher.

Yet the intrusion of laughter into invective, just because it is the
solvent of all serious moods, tends, as we have seen, to develop, if
only for an instant, a lighter tone. Hence the gamut of dissimilar
tones in satire, which at the one end is furiously denunciatory, at the
other almost playful and good-temperedly jocular. The early popular
“farce” of the Greeks, with its mocking and ironical speeches, and the
satirical songs of the Middle Ages were apparently pieces of rollicking
fun, like the comedy of Aristophanes, in which the satirical note was
half-drowned in buffoonish laughter. Where, however, the composition is
palpably a satire, the serious purpose may be seen to dominate and to
colour the whole expression.

The characteristics of satire, thus roughly indicated, hold good alike
whether the vices exposed be those of an individual, of a social class,
of a society at a particular moment, or of mankind as a whole. In any
case, the point of view is clearly that of a supposed moral judge and

The presence of a purpose of serious exposure is not by any means
equally clear in all cases; whence the denotation of the term satire
is not sharply bounded. Comedy itself has been said to have a strong
satirical element, and this seems certainly true of the compositions
of Aristophanes, which, as Bergk remarks, contain in their mixture of
tones {382} a “biting scorn” and a “bitter irony”.[315] Romances, as
pictures of men and their manners, are often described as satirical,
presumably because a free delineation of human vices is taken to imply
the condemnatory attitude and the intention to castigate. Yet here the
castigation may be of the mildest, as in _Gil Blas_, which, according
to Sainte-Beuve, does not hold up men in the mass to ridicule as wicked
and foolish, but rather exposes their meanness and dulness.[316] M.
Taine finds the satirist’s lash laid on heavily in the English school
of fiction, even in the writings of Thackeray.[317] Yet judgments as
to a writer’s intention based on the prevailing tone of the world he
portrays are apt to seem subjective and capricious.

Satire proper, where the purpose of ridicule is confessed, is a
very different thing. We see this in the works of Juvenal, of whom
Prof. Tyrrell writes, “He is always in a rage and a laugh seems to
sit strangely on his lips”.[318] In this more serious and poignant
satire the laugh takes on a shrill note of malignity from its mental
_entourage_. The virulence of the satire of antiquity has since been
softened. This is frequently effected by allegorical disguise. The
mediæval satires, such as that on cunning and treachery in the fable
of the Fox, are examples. The satires of Voltaire and of the English
satirists, including the bitter and unsparing Swift, illustrate the
same tendency.

This throwing of a fierce attack, whether political or moral, into
the form of an allegory, though it seems to veil the direction of the
assault, really gives it more point. In the attacks of derision, at
least, a back-handed blow may often hurt more than one straight from
the shoulder. The reader’s satisfaction includes no doubt an {383}
element of admiration for the finesse of art: yet more seems to be
involved. Swift could not have shown us the absurdities in our social
and political institutions half as well by any direct attack on them
as he has shown us by the indirect attack in _Gulliver’s Travels_. The
indignity of a familiar vice or folly seems to be made palpable when
it is thus ridiculed under the guise of some new semblance. Further,
our laughter at the vice is reinforced by that which comes from the
detection of the make-believe of the allegory. The playful element
probably takes on something of malice from the prevailing tone of the
satire, and in the end we may laugh yet more cruelly at the victim who
is ever being anew detected, so to speak, under the literary mask.

Much the same kind of remark applies to the effect of simile, innuendo,
irony, and all that we mean by wit in satire. We have touched on
the playful side of wit under the head of Comedy. But this is only
a part of what the word commonly implies. Even in comic dialogue
there is something of attack, and the witty women of the Restoration
and other writers have now and again a rasping tongue. Yet it is in
satire that we see the deep malignity of wit. The witty sarcasms of
Voltaire and the rest seem to be imps of malice disguised as toys.
The sally of cruel meaning out of what looks harmless nonsense, or a
mere verbal slip—as in the polished rebuke of a Master of Trinity to a
too confident Junior Fellow, “we are all fallible, even the youngest
of us”—has a wounding force greater than that of a direct mode of
statement. The effect is still greater where failure and disgrace are
exhibited under a thin ironical veil of glorious achievement, as in
Pope’s lines on the Lord Mayor’s Show—said by Leigh Hunt to be the
finest piece of wit he knew:— {384}

    Now night descending the proud scene is o’er,
    But lives in Settle’s numbers one day more.

In all such ironical inversion the satirist manages by a suggestion
of the worthy and honourable to drive home with added force the
humiliating truth; as in the remark of Cicero, apropos of an elderly
dame who said that she was but forty years old: “I must believe her,
for I have heard her say so any time these ten years”.[319] The
presentation in this case of something hidden, immediately followed by
an uncovering, may evoke an echo of the “bo-peep” laugh of infancy,
which should, one supposes, tend to introduce a milder and playful tone
into the attack; yet, owing to the predominance of the attitude of
fierce derision, this very element of playfulness appears, somehow, to
give a new pungency to the satirical thrust.

Nothing could be more unlike the laughter of virulent satire than
that provoked by the expression of humour in literature. As our
analysis would lead us to expect, we find in the truly humorous writer
the mellowing influences of good nature and sympathy, and a large
understanding and acceptance of that against which he pokes fun. While
satire, sarcasm and their kind seem to be trying to push things away,
or at least to alter them, humour, curiously enough, looks as if it
were tenderly holding to the world which entertains it. Yet while all
humorous writings illustrate these tendencies, the subjective and
personal quality of humour is seen in the circumstance that every
writer brings to bear on what he sees a new temper and attitude.

The contrast of the satirical and the humorous point of view
may be conveniently studied by glancing at the current {385} and
much-discussed distinction between wit and humour. That these do not
logically make a pair of contrasting species has been implied in our
analysis of the two. Perhaps nowhere do we find the human mind to
have been more strangely misled by the fact of the existence of two
words than in this case. Wit, as essentially a manner of deportment
of the intelligence, can stand in no simple and direct relation to an
emotional mood like humour.

No doubt there are facts which give colour to the idea of an opposition
in this case. Thus, it is indubitable that whereas humour specially
favours certain kinds of imaginative and reflective activity, wit
seems always to prefer, even in its play, something in the shape of an
incisive logical process.[320] But I suspect that the deeper ground of
the distinction is to be found in the circumstance that the wit which
is most brilliant, of keenest edge, and most effective in its stroke,
appears always to grow out of, and so becomes associated with, those
moods of satire and mordant mockery, to which humour as good-natured
and tolerant is directly opposed. So it is with the wit of Voltaire and
of others of his century.

A closer examination will, however, show that there is nothing
incompatible between the humorous sentiment and the witty mode of
behaviour of the intellect. As play indeed, wit quite naturally allies
itself to the attitude of humour. It will be found that much that is
commonly described as wit discloses the softening effect of humour, and
might, indeed, just as well be called an illustration of humour. Those
who really know the Irish will sometimes hesitate whether to speak of
their wit or of their humour. The same applies, I feel sure, to a large
number of {386} Shakespeare’s “witticisms”.[321] In all such cases,
the wit, which when set in the fierce mood of the satirist has a nasty
sting, not only becomes harmless, but may take on something of positive
kindliness when it is tempered by an infusion of genial humour. The
remark apropos of a very correct person, “He has not one redeeming
vice,” may illustrate the point. It may even, in this harmless
form, come into a laugh which tells against the humorist, as in the
observation of an idler, “I don’t like working between my meals”.[322]

Yet though in their well-marked forms thus dissimilar, the satirical
and the humorous mood may shade one into the other in a way that makes
it difficult to draw the boundary line. Heine, in some of his writings,
_e.g._, the poem _Deutschland_, tempers his mockery with sentiment
and humour in such a way that one finds it hard to think of it as a
satire. In places, indeed, this genius, so simple-looking yet really
so profound, seems to become a consummate humorist, bringing out with
a single touch all the laughter and all the tears of things. Was Lewis
Carroll a satirist when he threw behind the fun of his children’s
stories some deeper meaning which for ever eludes us? or was this
semblance of a meaning a part of his fun, his playful way of punishing
the “grown up” for reading a child’s book? {387}

In modern literature, the interesting point to note is the growing
interpenetration of the laughing and the serious attitude, and the
coalescence of the mirthful spirit with sentiment. The two processes,
though distinct, may run on together, as we may see in Shakespeare’s
plays. The humorous element introduced by the fool in “Lear” and
elsewhere at once relieves the tragic tension, and gives a moment’s
play to that disposition towards a lighter laughing criticism which is
always active when we survey colossal folly, even though the mental eye
is at the moment focussed for its catastrophic effects. The laughter
is controlled and kept tenderly humorous and half-sad by a large
reflection, which does not lose sight, even at the relieving moment, of
the lamentable ruin. It is only another way of combining the “fun” and
the “pity” of it when the master brings a genial humour into comedy and
makes us, with his faithful follower Bardolph, half-love and more than
half-pity the faulty knight who so merrily entertains us.

As we have seen, prose-fiction may illustrate the comic spirit and
something of the fiercer temper of satire. Yet laughter comes into
it in another form. It has to accommodate itself to the presence of
serious interests, and of a plot which involves sympathetic fear and
strain. Hence it appears in stories which have a mixed tone, as it does
indeed in comedy when this is not pure—for example, “heroic comedy,” as
illustrated by M. Rostand’s _Cyrano_—in the guise of humour. That is to
say, its gay treble note is complicated by an undertone, a resonance of
the sadness of its _milieu_. One needs only to think how one laughs at
Moses and his purchase of spectacles in the _Vicar of Wakefield_, or at
the disfigurement of the hero in _Cyrano_.

A novel may, of course, present the grave and the gay in mere
juxtaposition, so that the interaction and {388} modification here
spoken of are only very imperfectly realised. The notion of a good
story entertained by many is of one that bears the imagination of
the reader swiftly through a series of diverse scenes, now grave
and pathetic, now gay and mirthful. A large part of modern fiction
satisfies this need. Stories of wild adventure from _Gil Blas_ to _Tom
Jones_ are “humorous” to the multitude in this sense. Even in the case
of a real humorist like Dickens, whose amusing figures are there to
touch the heart as well as to entertain the imagination, the perfect
harmonising of tones may sometimes seem to be wanting. A humorist of
another complexion, Laurence Sterne, seems to have missed the judicious
mixture of laughter and sentiment in his _Sentimental Journey_.[323]

The art of humorous writing consists in part in selecting characters,
incidents and the rest in such a way as to exhibit the intimate
connections between that which amuses and that which touches the
serious sentiments, respect and pity; and to develop the reflective
consciousness which sustains the mood of humour. Goldsmith’s history
of the Vicar and his family is one of the best examples. Scott’s
Antiquary and Fielding’s Parson Adams are characters which at once
entertain and win us. Such humorous types involve, as Leigh Hunt has
pointed out, a striking contrast within the characters, _e.g._, the
gullible and the manly in Parson Adams;[324] and the sharpness of this
contrast turns on that of the feelings excited by the constituents.
The characters selected by humorous fiction may be consciously
amusing, after the manner of the Merry Knight, or wholly unconscious
of their laughter-provoking power. A valuable part of this amusing
portraiture consists in bringing out {389} the fresh and odd-looking
characteristics not only of individuals, but of classes and even of

In addition to this objective presentation of the humorous aspects
of character and its relations, the writer may further the effect
by striking now and again undertones of quaint reflection and so
introducing an element of subjective humour. The notion that such
reflection is out of place in narrative art seems strange to a student
of the history of literature. If there was room for the comments of the
onlooking chorus in Greek drama, and for the yet deeper reflections
supplied by the acting onlookers in Shakespeare’s plays, there should
be room for it in a prose narrative. In truth, some of the best writers
of fiction, Fielding, Thackeray and George Eliot among others, make
excellent use of this reflective accompaniment. In the best works of
the last-named writer we have something of Shakespeare’s art of adding
a pregnant observation which, so far from disturbing, rather furthers
the mood needed for a due appreciation of the action.

In the great humorous writings, those of Rabelais, Cervantes
and—removed by an interval no doubt—Sterne, we appear to find presented
a largeness of subject and of treatment which makes direct appeal as
much to reflection as to perception. You must know the Middle Ages,
which are being laughingly kicked aside, before you will even care for
Gargantua; you must envisage Don Quixote and his squire, not as two
individuals or even as two types of character, but as embodiments of
two remote levels of culture, and more, of two opposed ways of looking
at the world, before you will begin to feel all the humour of these
juxtapositions. And so of the great contrast between Mr. Shandy and
his brother, the Captain. There is no need for the interpolation of
reflection: the scale, the breadth {390} of treatment, the wealth
of ideas poured out, these compel us to reflect. The laughter which
comes from the perceptions of the utter incongruity of the mental and
moral structures thus juxtaposed and attached is saturated with this
reflection. And more, so right, so likeable, so estimable even is
each of these contrasting characters, with its well-marked temper and
_manière de voir_, that our sympathies go out towards both. Thus we
leave the perceptual level and the relative point of view of comedy far
behind us, reaching a standpoint near that of the thinker who embraces
all particular points of view, and yet may manage to have his own laugh
in the end. When, as in Jean Paul’s _Siebenkäs_, and yet more clearly
in Carlyle’s _Sartor Resartus_, the contrast seems to open up the great
collision in human experience between sentiment and prosaic reality,
idealism and the earth-binding instincts of practical life, we stand,
indeed, on the border-line between the humour of fiction and that of

Humour has its place, a respectable one too, in essays and other forms
of literature which deal directly with reality and are products not
so much of imagination as of thought. In these, the contrast between
the serious and the playful appears in transitions from a perfectly
grave to a humorous kind of reflection. Marked differences of tone
are observable here also. The humorous remark may be but a momentary
diversion of the attention, a playful side-glance, in a serious
argument. In some writings, _e.g._, those of Sir Thos. Browne and of
Lamb, the humorous element hardly amounts to a digression, or even to
a momentary interruption, but is fused into and half lost to sight in
the serious argument.[325] Among more recent writers, too, including
some yet living, we have admirable examples of historical narrative
{391} and criticism lit up here and there with soft glow-worm points
of humour. In other cases, the humorous feature may be so large as to
modify the colour of the whole, as in Miss Kingsley’s _Travels in West
Africa_. An Essay, again, may be as a whole a _jeu d’esprit_ and the
fun seem to preponderate, while the manner is throughout that of grave
argument; or, in more subtle work, as some of Charles Lamb’s, it may
be best described as fun sandwiched in between a look of seriousness
on the surface, and a real seriousness of meaning below. The fusion of
tones leaves much to be desired in the case of many writers who are
popularly regarded as skilled humorists. A mere interruption of serious
thought by a sort of playful “aside” does not prove the existence of
the gift of humour, which is essentially the power of playing on moods
not only dissimilar but usually antagonistic in a way that avoids all
shock and sense of discontinuity.




Our study has taken us through various regions of research. In looking
for the germ of laughter we found ourselves in the wide and misty
plains of biological speculation. In tracing its development we took
a dip into the pleasant vales of child-psychology and anthropology,
and then tried to climb the winding paths of social evolution. Having
reached in this way the heights of modern civilisation, we made a
special investigation into the social organisation of laughter, as
represented in the art of comedy, and into the gradual appearance of
a new type of laughter, essentially individual and independent of the
social standard, to which is given the name of humour. Throughout this
voyage of discovery we have kept in view the question of the function
of the laughing spirit in the life of the individual and of the
community. It remains to determine this function more precisely.

In order to assign its proper place and its value to a large spiritual
tendency such as runs through human mirth, we must for a moment push
our investigation into a yet more difficult and obscure region, that
of philosophy. This is necessary for more than one reason. To begin,
we can hardly hope to reach a clear view of the worth of the laughing
impulse without the help of some clearly thought view of life as a
whole; and such a “Weltanschauung” {393} seems only to be attainable
at the level of philosophic reflection. There is, however, a second
reason for entering this more remote and private domain of knowledge.
Philosophy is a carrying forward to its highest point of development
of that individual criticism of life, with which, as we have seen,
the quieter tones of laughter associate themselves. It would thus
seem to be desirable to inquire how far along the road of philosophic
speculation this companionship of the mirthful spirit in her quieter
mood is possible. This inquiry may conveniently be pursued at once as
supplementary to our discussion of humour.

As pointed out in the chapter on the subject, reflective humour grows
out of a mutual approximation of two tendencies which seem to the
unexamining person to be directly antagonistic, namely, the wholly
serious turn for wise reflection and the playful bent towards laughter.
In philosophic humour, touched on in our survey of the laughable in
literature, this antagonism seems at first sight to be particularly
sharp. The plain man, to whom philosophic speculation presents itself
as something remote from all human interests as he conceives of them,
may well receive a shock when he hears that it holds potentialities
of a smile at least, if not of a laugh—for the person who engages in
the occupation, that is to say, and not merely for him who looks on.
It seems to be incumbent on us, therefore, to try to make this drawing
together of impulses which look so hostile a little more intelligible.

The humorist, as we have viewed him, is able through the development of
his individuality to detach himself from many of the common judgments
and much of the common laughter of the particular community of which
he is a member. He develops his own amusing mode of contemplation,
which involves a large substitution for the standards {394} of custom
and “common-sense,” of the ideal standards of reason. The habit of
philosophic thought may be said to complete this uplifting of the
individual to ideal heights, and its concomitant process, the expansion
of the view of the irrational, the essentially unfitting, the amusing.
A word must suffice to indicate the way in which it does this.

Philosophy, as we know, going boldly beyond the special sciences,
pushes on to a deeper knowledge of things, and of these in their
totality, of what we call the universe. In this effort it has to
envisage things in a way essentially different from that of everyday
observation. The modern philosopher may do his best to reach his
conception of the reality of things by a careful analysis of
experience; yet in the end his theory seems to have transformed our
familiar world beyond the possibility of recognition.

In this philosophic re-construction of the real world, man, his
relation to nature, and his history have to be re-considered. It
illustrates a powerful tendency to view human life and experience as
a phase of a larger cosmic movement determined by an ideal end. The
introduction of ideal conceptions, by lifting us above the actual,
seems to throw upon the latter an aspect of littleness, of futility,
of something like the dishonour of failure. The ideal requirement
proves hopelessly inapplicable to much, at least, of our everyday
world; so that, as long as we remain at its point of view, familiar
things—say the persons we happen to be thrown with, and a good deal
in ourselves, social experiments growing out of some passing trend of
“popular thought,” and even long periods of history—take on the aspect
of contradictions, of futile things that at least do not count, if they
do not actually delay the fruition of the ideal.

So, too, when philosophy becomes distinctly practical. {395} Whether
we take happiness or moral perfection or self-realisation as the
ideal end of men’s conduct, a large part of the conduct which unfolds
itself under our eyes, including much of our own, begins to look sadly
poor and shabby, as soon as we venture seriously to apply an ideal as
test. Much at least of what men praise as virtue shows itself to be
of doubtful value, and at any rate to have received a laudation quite
disproportionate to its true worth.

Lastly, this belittling effect of ideas on everyday realities is seen
when philosophy constructs for us the ideal type of human society, and
of that confederacy of civilised states of which, now and again, it has
had its dream. Under the searching rays of these ideal conceptions even
the “common-sense” to which “advanced” communities hold so tenaciously
may begin to look something compacted rather of darkness than of light.

The situation would seem to offer room for some of those modes of
transforming the aspects of things which we have found to be excitants
of laughter. If philosophic contemplation effects a reduction of
great things to littleness, of substances to illusory shadows, of the
elevated glories of men to the level of barely passable dignities,
it should, one may reason, help men to laugh. Yet the fact that a
philosopher has been known to the ages as the laughing one suggests
that mirth has not been a common characteristic of his kind.

In order to understand this, we must recall one or two facts. For one
thing, though seriousness _may_ combine with a taste for the laughable,
it is and remains fundamentally opposed to the playfulness of mirth.
Philosophers are serious persons: their constructive thought is of
the most arduous of human activities, and imposes on those who {396}
undertake it an exceptional amount of serious concentration. Little
wonder, then, if we so rarely find in them a marked fondness for the
playful. The great and ineradicable gravity of the philosopher has been
sufficiently illustrated in his theoretic treatment of our subject.

In addition to this general reason, there are others and variable
ones, differing with the kind of philosophic creed adopted, and with
the temperamental attitude of the individual towards it. To begin with
differences of creed, we must remember that a philosopher’s doctrine,
while it may invest our common world and our common life with an aspect
of indignity, may at the same time reduce these to mere semblances by
setting them in contrast to the ideal region which it regards as the
sphere of the veritable realities. In this way, as in Plato’s Idealism,
we may see a quasi-religious tendency to lift men above the follies,
deceptions and seeming evils of the world to the sublime verities.
Such a doctrine, if consistently held, reserves but a small place for
laughter—save perhaps for the happy smile of release or escape. Plato,
the thinker of many moods, was able to adapt his doctrine to attitudes
widely different from the half-poetic, half-religious one to which on
the whole he leaned; and some of these proved to be compatible with a
delicate vein of mirth. Perhaps one may find in Plato a reflection of
the different attitudes of the gods—to communion with whom his spirit
aspired—towards luckless and erring mortals: the serene indifference
of those on the height, and a mild good-natured interest in what is
seen below, which lends itself to the softer kind of ironical banter.
What is told us of the laughter of the deities is always, perhaps,
a little difficult to reconcile with their remote altitude and the
detachment of spirit which seems proper to this; being, either in its
mocking virulence, or {397} in its good-natured familiarity, rather
too suggestive of a close attachment to our race; for which reason, by
the way, philosophers, if they wish to soar god-wards and still to keep
a laughing down-glance on their fellows, should beware lest they soar
too high.

How high-pitched speculation tends to silence laughter by withdrawing
the philosopher too far from the human scene may easily be seen by a
glance at the historical schools. The Stoic and the Epicurean alike,
widely dissimilar as were their views of the good and their moral
tempers, took into seclusion the philosophic life which Aristotle
had bidden them combine with a discreet participation in the social
life about them; seeking, each in his own manner, to realise its
self-sufficiency and its consolations. There, no doubt, they reflected
much on the follies of the unwise who remained in the crowd. Yet the
Stoical temper, with its striving after a passionless imperturbability,
excluded the idea of a laughing, quite as much as of a pitying, survey.
On the other hand, the Epicurean, though his theory of life accentuated
the value of the tranquil pleasures, did not apparently find in
his Garden a corner for the quiet amusement of a laughter-bringing

In this way philosophy, by substituting a new and ideal mode of
thought and life for the common mode, is apt to dismiss it as void
of significance and unreal, and so to be unable to laugh at ordinary
humanity just because it has ceased to be interested in it. Yet all
philosophising does not thus belittle the realm of reality, as common
men regard it. Philosophers have been known to regard as realities the
same particular things that Plato contemned as mere shadows, and to
reconstruct and to justify as rational what the plain man accepts as
his world. When {398} this goes so far as to insist on the goodness of
things human, and to say that the world as a whole is as perfect as it
can be, and thus in a new way, as it would seem, to break away from the
common view, it seriously threatens the _locus standi_ of the laugher.
Nothing, indeed, in the way of a theory of life would appear to be more
fatal to a mirthful temper of the mind than an out-and-out optimism.
At most, laughter would take on the aspect of the serene gaiety of
a happy and thoughtless girl; as it does, I suspect, in the case of
Abraham Tucker, for whom Sir Leslie Stephen claims the character
of a “metaphysical humorist”.[326] It is true, as I have elsewhere
shown,[327] that a genial and tolerant laughter may predispose a man,
should he begin to philosophise, to adopt an optimistic theory of the
world. Nevertheless, I believe that a firm grasp of such a theory would
tend to reduce very considerably the scope of his laughter. It is just
as well, perhaps, that R. L. Stevenson—whose predominant inclination to
a hopeful and cheerful view of things is clearly shown in his idea that
every man carries his ideal hidden away, as the Scotch boys used to
carry lanterns in a silent ecstasy—did not go farther than his letters
show him to have gone, along the path of philosophic construction.

If, on the other hand, the manner of philosophic speculation at once
accepts the common facts of life as real, and yet as inherently and
hopelessly bad, laughter is even more effectually excluded. There
may, it is true, be room in the pessimist’s creed for a grim irony,
of which, indeed, we find a trace now and again in the writings of
Schopenhauer and his followers; but for laughter pure and simple, or
even for laughter mellowed by the compassion which the {399} pessimist
bids us cultivate, there seems to be no breathing-space. The state of
things is too tragic to allow even of a smile.

It remains to determine the relation of one other tendency in this high
thinking to the possibilities of laughter. In philosophic scepticism,
with its insistence on the relativity of our knowledge and on the
impossibility of attaining to rational certainty, we seem to find
a denial of all philosophy rather than a particular species of it;
nevertheless, as the history of the subject shows, it is the outcome
of a distinct and recurrent attitude of the philosophic mind. Now
scepticism does undoubtedly seem to wear a rather malicious smile. This
smile may be said to express an amusement at the spectacle of illusions
pricked, which tells at least as much against the high-soaring thinker
as against the man of common day who relies on the intuitions of his
“common-sense”. The sceptic’s attitude leans, indeed, more towards that
of common-sense, in so far that, while destroying the hope of absolute
knowledge, it urges the _practical_ sufficiency of such conjectural
opinion as we are able to reach.

Scepticism thus introduces another standpoint for the laugher and adds
to the sum of laughable things. This is the standpoint of the practical
man and of what we call common-sense, so far as this is knowledge
shaped for the guidance of men in the ordinary affairs of life. This
common-sense, as its name plainly tells us, is essentially a social
phenomenon. Here, then, within the group of tendencies underlying
reflection—that is to say, the kind of intellectual activity which
marks the highest development of the individual point of view—we
encounter the contrast between this and the social point of view.
So far as we are able in our philosophic moments to “see the fun of
it,” as R. {400} L. Stevenson says apropos of a modern philosopher,
we join the choir of common-sense laughers—the laughing realists as
distinguished from the laughing idealists.[328] From their point of
view, as the history of comedy plainly illustrates, all highly abstract
speculation looks amusing because of its quaint remoteness from their
familiar realities and interests; because, too, of a keen suspicion of
its being a vain attempt to soar above the heads of common mortals. To
pull down the speculative soarer to his proper footing on our humble
earthcrust is always a gratifying occupation to the lovers of mirth.
Even the soarers themselves will sometimes give one another a kick
downwards, the man of science loving to have his joke at the expense
of the unverifiable conceptions of the metaphysician, and the latter
being sometimes lucky enough to turn the tables by showing how physical
science itself may, by its abstract methods, manage to strip material
things, the properties and laws of which it sets out to explain, of the
last shreds of reality.[329]

A word may serve to define the relation of philosophic humour to the
tendencies just indicated. Humour, we have found, is characterised by
an inclination to reflect, and to take the large views of things which
embrace relations; further, by a mirthful caprice of fancy in choosing
for play-ground the confines of issues felt all the time to be serious.
It grows distinctly philosophic when, as in Jean Paul or his disciple,
Carlyle, the contemplation of things breaks through the limitations of
the viewer’s particular world-corner, surmounts “relative” points of
view, and regards humanity as a whole, with oneself projected into the
spectacle, as nearly as possible as disinterested spectator. {401}

We need not look for the philosophic humorist among zealous adherents
of the schools. In these, as elsewhere, a fervid devotion tends,
through its narrowing effect on ideas and its rigid fixation of the
point of view, to shut out humour, which even in its most serious vein
loves an ample reserve of space for free wanderings in search of new
aspects of things. The humorist is much more likely to be found among
students of philosophy who retain a measure of scholarly impartiality
in relation to the competing creeds.

A full development of humour in the philosopher seems to be impossible,
save where the amusing aspects of speculative soaring are dimly
recognised. This may come through a study of the history of the
subject; for it is hard not to smile at the spectacle of a man
refurbishing and possibly adding a new handle to one of the “systems”
which have had their day (and more, perhaps) and undertaking once
more to use it as a deadly weapon against the adversary. A dash
of the sceptical spirit, also an ability now and again to see the
pretentiousness of it all, would appear to be needful for a large
humorous enjoyment. One should have, too, at least a side-glance for
the fun of the proceeding when the human pygmy tries the giant’s stride
by offering us a definition of the absolute.

It would seem, then, as if the philosophic humorist needed to combine
two opposed points of view; that of the thinker who criticises actual
life in the light of ideas, and that of the practical man who takes his
stand on the fact of primal human needs and seeks an interpretation of
things which will satisfy these. He should be able to soar with the
Platonist to the realm of Ideas, so as to enjoy the droll aspect which
men’s behaviour assumes as soon as a glimmer of light is made to fall
on it from the Universal Forms; {402} and he should be no less capable
of taking up the standpoint of everyday reality and common-sense, so
far as to discern the element of a practical irrationality which lurks
in any undue insistence on these Ideas.

This combination in philosophic humour of two opposed tendencies is
illustrated in its attitude towards the question of the worth of life.
Since a humorist is characterised by a certain depth and range of
sympathy, he is not likely to accept the optimist’s easy way of getting
rid of the sufferings of humanity. At this point, at least, he will
be alive to the obstinate and inexpugnable reality of our concrete
experiences. Yet, just because he insists on never losing his hold on
his buoyant laughter, he will not sink into the pessimists depths of
complaint. He will see that even the large spectacle of human struggle,
in which there is much to sadden a compassionate heart, begins to wear
the shimmer of a smile as soon as we envisage it as a sort of game
played by destiny against our race. Just as a glimpse of the provoking,
almost malicious aspects of the circumstances which irritate us in our
smaller world may stifle the rising imprecation, by bringing up a smile
or even a _sotto voce_ laugh; so, when a philosophic humorist looks out
upon the larger human scene, he may find the starting sigh checked by a
glance at the playful irony of things. The reflective mind will indeed
readily find in the scheme of the world traces of an impish spirit that
must have its practical joke, cost what it may. With a fair appearance
of wise purpose, the destinies have contrived to combine just the
amount of bungling needed to convey an intention of playful though
slightly malicious teasing.

Thus, in the final evaluation of the world, humour may find its place.
Perhaps it is not too much to say that the {403} last word on man and
his destiny leaves an opening for the humorous smile. So quaintly do
the rational and the irrational elements seem to be interwoven in the
structure of our world, that a humorist, for whom, as we have seen,
the spectacle must always count as much, might almost construct a new
Theodicy and say: “The world is at least the best possible for amusing

We have spoken of philosophy as hovering aloof from our common life,
and this idea might seem to exclude all possibility of a utility in
the exercise of a philosophic humour. Yet even when men philosophise
and so appear to erect about them a new cosmos, they remain in their
human world and are doing something towards shaping their relations to
it; so that, after all, we may not unreasonably look here, too, for
some self-corrective function in laughter, some aid rendered by it to
that adjustment of the self to its surroundings, which is enforced
on us all—the exalted thinker no less, let us say, than his faithful
quadruped, whose world his master’s strange habits make sadly complex.

The first service of such a philosophic humour is to complete the
process of a laughing self-correction. It is only when we rise to the
higher point of view of a philosophic reflection and see our own figure
projected into the larger whole, that we are able to estimate ourselves
and our concerns with some approximation to justness. As we look down
the vast time perspective we first fully discern our flitting part in
the world. And the glimpse of the dwarfed figure we cut in the vast
assemblage of things, followed by the reflection how well it can work
out its {404} hidden purpose whether or not we happen to be on the
scene, may suffice fully to reveal to us the absurdity in the crude
exaggerations of our dignity, of our usefulness and of our troubles,
and bring to the lips the corrective smile, even if it fail to evoke
the yet more valuable self-purifying laugh.

A like helpfulness is brought us by philosophic humour when we
contemplate the whole human lot. In estimating our world as a
dwelling-place for man, there is surely room for the exaggeration
which comes from a natural indignation at what hurts us, or from a
natural impatience at being able to do so little to better our estate.
Similarly, when we undertake to pronounce on the moral worth of our
species. It is, after all, our world, and, so far as we know, our
only one; and a side-glance at the requirements of a practical wisdom
may suffice to bring the smile which instantly corrects a disposition
to decry it overmuch. Such a glance may save us alike from the
sentimentalities of the cultivator of _Weltschmerz_, from the foolish
bitterness of the misanthrope, and from the sadly unbecoming vanity
of the “philosopher” who teaches that the world and the institutions
of human society exist for the sake of the man of genius. A friend
of Carlyle tells me that the gloomy sage would sometimes, after
pouring out one of his long and savage tirades against things in
general, suddenly hold breath, and then let himself be swiftly borne
downwards to more familiar levels on the rapid of a huge laugh, almost
as voluminous, perhaps, as that of Teufelsdröckh, which he has so
vividly described for us. In this way, one conjectures, there came to
him a moment of perfect lucidity, in which he saw the absurdity of
the overstrained attitude likely to be produced by undue violence of
emotion, aided by an irrepressible turn for preaching to one’s fellows;
{405} a moment when, perhaps, the stubborn realities, which his
words had made a show of demolishing, were seen securely standing and
ironically smiling at his impotent rage.

In the foregoing account of laughter and its uses, we have sharply
separated the individual from the social point of view. Fifty years
ago, such a distinction would have required no justification. It
seems, however, just now to be the fashion to think of the individual
as merely an anatomical detail, too small to be really distinguished,
of the “social organism,” and of his part on the earthly scene as
consisting merely in making a small contribution, which at its best is
a negligible quantity, to the efficiency of this organism.

This is not the place to argue so serious a matter. At the risk of
appearing unfashionable, one may venture to keep to the old notion that
in counting human values we must assign a high one to individuality;
that, for the sake of the community itself, a proper freedom for
the full development of a man’s own mind, tastes, and character, is
something which should be secured even at great cost; and that, were
this not so, society’s claims on the individual have well-defined
limits, beyond which every man has the right, and owes it to himself
as a primal duty, to develop himself in the way which his natural
inclinations enlightened by reflection may suggest to him. To insist
further on this point would almost be to cast a slur on our literature,
which contains some of the masterly pleadings for individual liberty.

This freedom for individual self-development clearly includes a
perfect right to form one’s own view of one’s world, and to derive
as much amusement as one can from a humorous contemplation of it.
It could only be something akin to an awe-struck flunkeyism which
would make a {406} person hesitate here. To one who has cultivated
the requisite observation and taste in the fellowship of one or two
congenial friends, the following of the tortuous movements of the
laughable in all domains of human industry and of human indolence is
one of the crowning felicities of life: the fun is always old in its
essence, wherefore we respond so quickly; yet it is always new in its
embodiments, wherefore we go on relishing it with an unabated keenness.

The indulgence in this mode of amusing contemplation is, I readily
grant, in a sense anti-social, that is to say, opposed to what the
laugher’s community at the moment accepts as fitting and as good. When
a tranquil observer of his social world laughs at the pretences, at
the futilities, or it may be at the vagaries of its high dignitaries,
he may not improbably feel half-terrified at the sound of his laugh;
so firmly has our early schooling set in us a tendency to regard as
insolent upstarts all small things when they challenge big ones:
whether a “cheeky” schoolboy standing up to his big senior, or a small
country confronting a big one, or a “petty” anti-war minority facing
a “practically unanimous” people. Insolence it may be, yet perhaps to
the eye of reason not more contemptible than the genuine ὕβρις in which
great things are wont to indulge freely as well within their right. It
is indisputable, as urged above, that the verdicts of the many, when
they appear to fix the permanent demands of social life, or to store
away some of the precious fruit of experience slowly maturing with
the ages, are entitled to respect; and a wise man will not hastily
dismiss any popular opinion which promises to have persistence. On the
other hand, it is no less clear that the views of minorities—whether
singular or plural in number—are exposed to special risks of their
own. Yet this, and more, does not affect the contention that popular
opinion, just because it is {407} popular, is almost completely
relieved of that necessity of finding reasons for its assertions which
presses heavily upon a minority; and, what is more serious, is subject
to various and potent influences which are just as likely to lead
to error as to truth. An opinion which may be seen to result from a
mental process palpably warped by prejudice does not grow valid merely
by multiplying the number of those who adopt it; for the increase may
easily be the result, either of the simultaneous working of a like
prejudice, or of the contagion which propagates psychical states, as
well as physical, among perfectly inert members of a crowd.

At the risk of appearing insolent, then, one must urge that the
individual and the society have their reciprocal claims. The most
extravagant adulator of his community would, perhaps, allow that she
has her favourites, and that some of the obscure “Judes” have no
particular reason for bearing her affection. The limbs of the body
politic which find themselves emaciated by under-feeding, while the
belly is bloated with over-feeding, may perhaps be forgiven for not
joining in the pæans on the glories of the social organism. Yet one
need not urge this line of remark. Little chance, alas, of our Judes or
our starvelings betaking themselves to a laughter which even approaches
that with which we are now dealing. Those who would enter the gateway
of this haunt of quiet amusement must leave outside all grudging and
sense of failure. Happy he who having played the social game and lost
can, with a merry shrug of the shoulders, and at least half a laugh,
betake himself to such a calm retreat. He will find one into which the
garden of Epicurus may be said to open, where he can gather about him,
at any rate, the congenial friends who are always ready to hold sweet
discourse with him through their books; patient friends whom he cannot
offend by an {408} unwise interruption, though unhappily they are out
of reach of the gratitude which he would fain tender them. Here he may
now and again glance through the loopholes in the wall and see each new
day enough of the drolleries of the social scene to deepen his content.

The evolutionist has accustomed us to the idea of the survival of
the socially fit, and the elimination of the socially unfit sort of
person. But more forces are at work in the world than our men of
science dream of. There is, oddly enough, a force which favours the
survival of the unfit, widely different from that supplied by others’
preservative benevolence: the impulse to adapt one’s environment to the
peculiarities of one’s organism by turning the world into a plaything.
How many men in one of the highly civilised communities of to-day may
have learned to keep their heads above the water by the practice of
a gentle laughter, no one knows or will ever know. It is enough to
say that there are such, and that after fully cultivating their gift
of humour they have found a world worth coming back to, with their
part in which they will be perfectly contented. Some of these, who
would probably be called social failures by the faithful adherent to
conventional standards, have been known to me, and have been reckoned
among the most delightful of my companions and most valued of my
friends. Society’s neglect of them, or their neglect of society, has
at least permitted them to develop the gift of a wise and entertaining

I am far from suggesting, however, that this gay solitude—_à deux_,
or _à peu de gens_—is only for the social failure. Even in our
much-extolled age a philosopher will sometimes be found who is perverse
enough to hold with Plato that the mass of society are wrongheaded, and
that he will best consult his well-being by seeking a wall for shelter
from the {409} hurricane of wind and dust. Such an one may do worse
than betake himself to our retreat. And a wise man who, like Montaigne,
feels that he has lived “enough for others” and desires to “live out
the small remnant of life” for himself may appropriately draw towards
its entrance, not minding the shouts of “Old fogey!” which come from
behind. Nay, more, as already hinted, a man who feels that his place
is in the world may be advised now and again to enter the retreat, if
haply he may find admission as a guest.

It may, however, be objected that even when a man thus detaches himself
as spectator from his society he perforce remains at the social point
of view in this sense, that the critical inspection which brings the
coveted laugh involves a reference to an ideal community. The objector
might find colour for his statement in the fact that it is Frenchmen,
that is to say, members of the most sociable of modern races, who have
chiefly dwelt on the delights of retirement from the crowd. I am not
greatly concerned to dispute with such an objector; it is enough for
my purpose to say that the point of view of our supposed contemplator
is far-removed from that habitually adopted in any community which
one could instance. As such, it stands clearly enough marked off as
individualistic. To this it may be added that in that kind of laughter
at the social spectacle which presupposes philosophic reflection, the
point of view is no longer in any sense that of a particular community:
it has become that of a human being, and so a citizen of that system of
communities which composes the civilised world.

I do not doubt that during this laughing contemplation of the social
whole, of which at the moment he is not serious enough to regard
himself as a part, the individual will feel society pulling at his
heels. The detachment {410} from his community, though it fall far
short of the abandonment of the recluse, will, as already hinted, be
felt to be a revolt. When, glancing back at the crowd wreathing itself
in a dust-cloud, he laughs with his large laugh free from rancour, he
may catch a glimpse of the absurdity of his critical performances.
Here, again, we meet the final contradiction between ideal conceptions
and obdurate everyday facts. It is a droll encounter when the foot of
pure intellect, just as it is parting from the solid earth, strikes
against the sturdy frame of philistine common-sense, of “that which
subdues us all,” philosophers included. The individualism of the point
of view in a laughing contemplation of one’s social world is only
surmounted when a large philosophic humour thus draws the laughers self
into the amusing scene.

We may now better define the attitude of the humorist in its relation
to that of the comedian and of the satirist. The comic spirit, placing
itself at the social point of view, projects as laughable show an
eccentric individual, or group of individuals. Satire, when it attacks
the manners of an age, may be said to project the society, turning it
into an object of derision. Humour, as we have seen, sometimes does
the like, though in its laughter at the social scene it is neither
passionately vindictive nor concerned with the practical problem
of reforming a world. To this may be now added that as a sentiment
nourished by sympathy it tends, when something of philosophic width of
contemplation is reached, to combine the social and the individual mode
of projection by taking up the self into the spectacle of the whole.

       *       *       *       *       *

Enough has been said, perhaps, on the developments of individual
laughter. Its point of view seems on inquiry {411} to justify itself
as a distinct and a legitimate one. With some idea of the ways of this,
as well as of the larger laughter of societies and groups, we should be
able to form an estimate of the final significance and utility of the
laughing impulse.

Laughter, born of play, has been seen above to possess a social
character. Throughout the evolution of communities, from the first
savage-like tribes upwards, we have observed it taking a considerable
part in the common life, helping to smooth over difficulties of
intercourse, to maintain what is valued, and to correct defects. It
remains to ask under this head, what is its whole value to-day as a
social force, and what indications of the future can be discovered in
the tendencies which we note in its later social developments.

These questions appear to be best approached by a reference to the
results of our study of comedy. This, in its higher forms, has shown
itself to be the clear expression of the attitude of a community,
when it would laugh away something in its members which it sees to be
unfitting, though it may not regard it as serious enough to call for a
more violent mode of ejection. That which is thus lightly dismissed is
always something which looks anti-social, whether or not it takes on
for moral reflection the aspect of a vice.

A common tendency among writers on comedy is to claim for it the
value of a moral purgative, to attribute to it the power of effecting
directly a process of self-correction in the spectator. Even Congreve
and Vanbrugh, in their defence of their plays against Jeremy Collier,
pretended that they were reformers of the world.

This agreeable supposition will not, one fears, bear critical
inspection. One objection, just touched on, is that comedy {412} does
not deal a blow straight at the immoral, as the language of Aristotle
and of some of his citers appears to suggest. This circumstance seems
to stand seriously in the way of its effecting a moral purification.
Nor does the holding up to merry contemplation of the tendency of
men to stray too far from the customary social type, imply a serious
purpose of correction behind. Though she may wear a shrewishly
corrective expression, the Comic Muse is at heart too gay to insist
on any direct instruction of her audience. A glance at her stern-eyed
sister, Satire, will convince us of this. On the other side, we meet
with another and more fatal objection: the mental pose of the spectator
at the comic show makes it extremely unlikely that he should at the
moment apply the object-lesson so as to discern the laughable side of
his own shortcomings. One remembers here that a man is all too slow in
making such a self-application even in the serious surroundings of a
church, where a remark, pointed perhaps with a significant turn of the
finger (I speak of ruder times), is recognised by all but himself as
specially aimed at him; and if so, how can we expect a spectator at a
comedy, in the playful mood which has no room for any serious thought,
to rub in the moral medicament supplied him?

Such purification as is possible can, it is plain, be only indirect.
When Lessing writes “the whole of morality has no more powerful and
effective _preservative_ than the laughable” he seems to imply this
indirectness. So far as the provocative lurks in the immoral, we can
say that our laughter at the comic exhibition may serve as a useful
prophylactic. By tracing out, with the guidance of the comic poet,
the unsuspected developments and effects of a failing, we may be
furthering our moral salvation through the setting up of a new internal
safeguard. If the tendencies should {413} later on thrust up their
ugly forms in ourselves, the fact of our having laughed at them may
make a considerable difference in the swiftness and energy of the
movement of repression. The fear of becoming ridiculous, which grows
better defined and so more serviceable in one who has made acquaintance
with comedy, is a valuable side-support of what we call moderation and
reasonableness in men; and comedy is entitled to her modest meed as one
of our health-preservers.

Yet we may easily go wrong here, doing an offence to our gay
enchantress by taking her words too seriously. She looks, at any
rate, as if she wanted much more to please us than to improve us. In
considering her aim one is reminded, through a relation of contrast, of
what Aristotle said about the connection between pleasure and virtue.
The good man, he tells us, though aiming at virtue, will be the more
satisfied if pleasure comes by the way, giving a kind of unexpected
finish to the virtuous achievement. The art of comedy merely reverses
the order: she aims directly at pleasure, but is far too good-natured
and too wise to object to furthering virtue if this comes as a
collateral result of her entertainment.[331]

The comedy, at once wise and gay, of a past age seems to have parted
from us; and one would look in vain to newer developments of the art
for any considerable instruction in the lesser social obligations. Nor
is the corrective function of a large communal laughter likely to be
carried on by such new forms of art as our “social satire,” in so far
as these can be said to keep at the point of view of the good sense of
a community. The tendency to-day seems to be rather to force a laugh
from us at some bizarre extravagance of manners, which we could never
{414} think of as a possibility for ourselves; or, on the other hand,
to bring us near a cynical point of view, at which the current of our
laughter becomes shallow and slightly acidulated, a point of view which
has little, if any, promise of a moral stiffening of the self against
insidious attack.

In spite of this, laughter, or the potentiality of it, remains a social
force. A measure of faith enables one to believe that even a political
leader is sometimes checked by the fear of laughter—on the other
side. It is probable that the men of good sense in every community
are kept right more than they know by the faintly heard echo of the
“dread laugh”. If there is a danger just now of a conspiracy between
a half-affected over-seriousness on the one side and an ignorant
pretentiousness on the other, in order to banish the full genial laugh
of other days, we may be allowed to pray fervently for its failure.

We have seen a tendency to claim too much in the way of serious
function for the laughter of comedy. This desire to emphasise its
practical utility, which is to be looked for perhaps in a people too
pragmatic to seize the value of light things, is illustrated in a
curious and mostly forgotten dispute as to the fitness of ridicule
to be a test of truth. The debate was opened by Shaftesbury, who
maintained its fitness, and was carried on by Warburton, Karnes and
others. Much of it reads quaintly naïve to-day. Shaftesbury’s paradox
almost sounds like a malicious attempt to caricature the theory of
Prof. W. James, referred to in an earlier chapter of this work. To
suggest that we know a piece of folly, say that of Malvolio, to be
folly because we laugh at it, is surely to be thrusting on our laughter
a dignity which is quite unmerited, and, one may add, does not become
it. This point was not held to in the discussion, which, as I have
{415} shown elsewhere, soon became a contest about the rights and the
restraints of laughter.[332]

There is a like risk of exaggerating the useful function in estimating
the service of laughter to the individual. No deep penetration of mind
is needed for perceiving that a lively sensibility to the touch of the
ludicrous will expose a man to considerable loss. To all of us, so far
as we have to live in the world and consort with those who, being both
solemn and dull, are likely to take offence, if not with those who,
like Mr. Meredith’s entertaining ladies, cultivate the fine shades, a
quick eye for drolleries is likely to bring situations of danger. This
drawback must be considered in appraising the total value of laughter
to a man.

With respect to its function as aiding the individual in a healthy
self-correction, enough has been said. It is, in truth, no small
advantage to be able to blow away some carking care with a good
explosion of mirth. And if the world is much with us, we shall be
likely to need laughter now and again as a protection from contact
with much that is silly and much that is unwholesome. Yet, in this
case, too, the chief value seems to reside in its immediate result, the
gladdening and refreshing influence on the laugher, which has in it a
virtue at once conciliatory and consolatory. This it is which makes
it so good to step aside now and again from the throng, in which we
too may have to “wink and sweat,” so as to secure the gleeful pastime
of turning our tiresome world for the nonce into an entertaining
spectacle; amusing ourselves, not merely as {416} Aristotle
teaches,[333] in order that we may be serious, but because our chosen
form of amusement has its own value and excellence.

It is one thing to assign to laughter a definite ethical or logical
function, another to ask whether it has its place among the
worthier human qualities. We have seen how some have denounced it,
indiscriminately as it would seem, as a thing irreverent if not
unclean. That view does not come further into the present discussion.
We have only to ask what kind of dignity it has.

It is assumed here that we exclude the more malignant and the coarser
sorts of laughter. A considerable capacity for the pure mirth which the
child loves—and comedy may be said to provide for the man who keeps
something of the child in him—supplemented by a turn for the humorous
contemplation of things is, I venture to think, not merely compatible
with the recognised virtues, but, in itself and in the tendencies which
it implies, among the human excellences. This is certainly suggested
by the saying of Carlyle: “No man who has once heartily and wholly
laughed can be altogether irreclaimably bad”.[334] We may not be
able to rise to the point of view of R. L. Stevenson, when he wrote,
“As laborare so joculari est orare;”[335] yet we may be inclined to
think that it is impossible to construct the idea of a man who can be
described as decently complete without endowing him with a measure of
humour. Whatever our view of the “Good,” reasonable men of all schools
appear to allow some value to a capacity for pleasure, especially the
social pleasures, among which laughter, even when it seems to retire
into solitude, always keeps a high place. On its intellectual side,
again, as the {417} play of mind, the mirthful disposition has an
intimate relation to such valuable qualities as quickness of insight
and versatility.[336] In the light entertaining form of witty talk it
takes on a social quality of no mean value.

Best of all, laughter of the genial sort carries with it, and helps
to develop, kindly feeling and the desire to please. It is too often
forgotten that a mirthful spirit, though it may offend, is a large
source of joy to others. He who produces a laugh of pure gladness
brightens the world for those who hear him. Fertility in jests may
qualify a man to become one of the human benefactors; and it has been
claimed for Falstaff, with some reason, that he “has done an immense
deal to alleviate misery and promote positive happiness”.[337] It is
this implied wish to entertain which gives to laughter much of its
value as an educator of the sympathies. Nothing, indeed, seems to
promote sympathy more than the practice of laughing together. Family
affection grows in a new way when a reasonable freedom is allowed to
laugh at one another’s mishaps and blunders. One reason for this,
perhaps, is that the consciousness of our having laughed at our friends
and been laughed at by them, without injury to friendship, gives us
the highest sense of the security of our attachments. When a friend
laughs “as love does laugh”—to quote Mr. Meredith’s Rosamund—with the
laugh which only half-hides a kindly sentiment, say, a wish to help
you to laugh away what will vex or harm you, it binds hearts yet more
securely. Even our comparatively solitary laughter at things, when
no appreciative sharer is at hand, {418} may, if only it has the
tolerant good-natured tone, connect itself with and bring into play the
sympathetic side of us.

If there is in laughter this element of a deeper humanity, we shall do
well to view jealously any undue imposition of restraints. The history
of popular mirth points to the dangers of this.

That some regulation of the impulse, both external by social pressure
and internal by a man’s own self-restraint, is required, does not
need to be argued. The laughing impulse, when unchecked, has taken
on ugly and deadly forms. If men have endowed their deities with
mirth they have also endowed their fiends. Society is right in her
intuitive feeling that an unbridled laughter threatens her order and
her laws. Specific injuries done by ribald jests, _e.g._, to religious
convictions, may have to be dealt with by the magistrate. This all
men know, as also that society acts wisely when she seeks to maintain
the dignity of social converse by putting down with a gentler hand
all unworthy and unbecoming laughter, and to observe vigilantly the
“hypergelast”—a species that includes others besides Aristotle’s low
jesters (βωμόλοχοι)—who, if he does not, either maliciously, or through
sheer heaviness and awkwardness of gait, kick sharply against some
sensitive place, will at least weary decent men with all the weariness
of the bore and something more.

Yet it is well to bear in mind that such imposition of restraint by
external authority should be also self-restraining. If laughter has
its uses, not only for him who laughs but for him who is laughed at,
these should be borne in mind in determining the amount of restriction
desirable. This wise caution is especially needed when the laughter
which authority seeks to repress is likely to be directed against
itself. It would never do, for example, if the fine world {419} were
at liberty to put down satires on its vulnerable manners. Divines of
the solemnity of Barrow and Warburton might do much harm, if they
could succeed in silencing the ridicule of the half-believers and the
sceptics. Those in authority have a special reason for remembering
here the maxim “noblesse oblige”; and even should they be lacking
in a wise care for the well-being of the commonwealth, a measure
of shrewdness will advise them that they will do well to pass a
self-denying ordinance. Let them not be more afraid of laughter than
their predecessors, but rather welcome it, not merely as a symptom
of vitality in those who indulge in it, but as a sign of alertness
in citizens against surprise by stealthy-footed evil. Perhaps when
the story of the modern “emancipation of women” comes to be written,
it will be found that the most helpful feature of the movement was
the laughing criticism poured upon it; a criticism which seems not
unnatural when one remembers how many times before men have laughed
at something like it; and not so unreasonable to one who perceives
the droll aspects of the spectacle of a sex setting about to assert
itself chiefly by aping the ways of the rival sex. A statesman, having
a large majority behind him, would probably best show his wisdom by
discouraging the laughter of his own side and instructing it how to
welcome that of the despised minority. Yet the quaint look of such a
suggestion reminds one that the idea of adding wisdom to statesmanship
is as far from realisation to-day as in the time of the Greek

I have spoken of a community’s self-restraint in relation to the
laughter of its individual members. Of the duty of controlling its
own mirth in view of the feelings of other peoples who seem to have a
right to their slices of the planet there should be no need to speak.
It may be enough to hint {420} that a comic journal will do well, when
touching on international matters of some delicacy, to exclude from
its drawings irritating details, such as the figure of a monkey; not
only lest the foreigner consider himself to be insulted, but lest one
of the very gentlemen for whom it writes, stung in some old-fashioned
impulse of chivalry, feel tempted to give a too violent expression to
his indignation.

Of the control of laughter as a part of the self-government of a wise
man, little need be said. A keen relish for jokes, especially one’s
own, may entangle the feet even of a kind-hearted man in a mesh of
cruel consequences. The witty have been found to be trying to their
families, so importunate is the appetite of wit in its demand for
regularity of meals. There are the duplicities of laughter which may
sometimes impose even on one who is in general a kindly laugher, the
note of malice stealing in unnoticed. It is only when the lively
tendency to mirthful utterance is found in a sympathetic nature, side
by side with a cultured susceptibility to the pain of giving pain, that
an adequate self-regulation may be counted on. Each of us, perhaps, has
known of one man, at least, deserving to be called a laugher in whose
mirthful utterances one would look in vain for a trace of malice, and
who seemed never to be surprised by the temptation to risk a touch
on sore places. I cannot but recall here one already alluded to—one
who seemed to embody the ideal of his teacher Aristotle not only as
the just man, who of set purpose acts justly, but as the refined and
gentlemanly man who regulates his wit, being as it were a law to
himself—from behind whose wistful eyes a laugh seemed always ready
to break. If one knows of no such kindly laugher, one may study the
characteristics of the species in the _Essays of Elia_.

A perfect self-control in the matter of laughter {421} pre-supposes
much more than a dread of inflicting pain upon the hearer, whether he
be the object of the laughter or ready to identify himself with that
object. It calls for a fine sense of the seemly, of what is fair. It
is not too much to ask of one whose _rôle_ is the detection of the
unseemly in others that he should himself avoid unseemliness. He will
do well to remember that nothing is worse than a jibe at the wrong

    Risu inepto res ineptior nulla est.

When serious things are being discussed the attempt to hide poverty
of argument under what might flatteringly be called an “argumentum ad
risum” is one of the actions which belittle men.

The wariness proper to one who bears so keen-edged a weapon will go
farther and prompt him to ask whether the thing which entertains the
eye is meet for laughter. For example, our poor language being what
it is, the use of a form of words which may be shown by another’s
elaborate dissection to hide under its plain meaning a second meaning
derogatory to the speaker, does not, perhaps, make the latter quite
legitimate quarry for the former’s ridicule. It needs a fine sense of
justice to detect the line which divides what is fair from what is
unfair in such a case.

A perfectly wise direction of laughter will call for other fine
discriminations. A word or action may be quite proper game for laughter
when it smacks of conceit, though but for this it should have been
passed by. So rampant indeed is conceit among men, so noxious is it,
and so low a degree of sensitiveness in the moral integument does it
connote, that even the discreet laugher may allow himself unstinted
indulgence in view of one of its unmistakable eruptions. On the other
hand, a sense of the true values of things will {422} lead the wise
to abstain from laughter where some manifestation of the beast in man
obtrudes itself and requires a less gentle mode of expulsion.

Nor will a good man’s self-regulation cease when there are no hearers.
He will see how the habit of a reckless mirth may have a bad reflex
effect on his own nature; how, for example, it may rob him in one
moment of the perfection of an old reverence for something beautiful;
how, instead of sweetening the fountains of affection, it may introduce
a drop of bitterness; how it may smuggle in something of that pride and
that contempt which dissociate men.

I have here emphasised the higher moral reasons which will urge the
good man to restrain his laughter. One might add certain prudential
reasons. If, as has been maintained here, laughter is an escape from
the normal, serious attitude which living well imposes on us, its wise
cultivation means that we keep it within limits. Only where there is
a real earnestness and good feeling at bottom, will our laughter be
in the full sense that of the mind and the heart. To laugh in this
full way at a collapse of dignity means that we retain a respect for
the true dignities. If the laugh grows too frequent and habitual this
respect will be undermined, and, as one result of this moral loss,
our laughter itself will shrink into something void of meaning and
mechanical. The perpetual giggler, to whom nothing is sacred, never
knows the flavour of a good laugh.

The impulse to laugh will always take its complexion from the moral
nidus in which it germinates; and the good man, tender, and mindful
of the dues of reverence, ennobles the mirthful temper. It seems,
indeed, in such a moral _milieu_ to become an expression, one of the
most beautiful, of goodness. It assures us somehow of the genuineness
of virtue, and brings it nearer to us as {423} something human to be
loved. Free from all touch of pride and malice, it takes on the look of
a child’s joyousness made large and beneficent by expansive sympathies.

It is to be maintained, then, not only that a full rich laughter may
thrive in the soil of a good man’s soul, but that this soul will remain
incompletely developed without it. This doctrine seems flatly to
contradict great authorities, Pascal and the rest. Yet it may be shown
that there is really no contradiction here. The laughter which Pascal,
Addison, and the others denounce, is not the genial and humorous
kind, but the coarse and brutal sorts, and, what is hardly a jot more
sufferable, the reckless output of “the vacant mind”.

Laughter, then, may be claimed to be one of the possessions of men to
which they should jealously cling. It brings gaiety into what is always
tending to grow a dull world, and of which at times the onlooker is
disposed to say what Walpole said of the doings of the fashionable
æsthetes at Bath, “there never was anything so entertaining or so
dull”. It supplies diversion in youth and still more in age, and it may
with a few, as it did with Heine and R L. Stevenson, remain a bright
comrade on the sick-bed. It is the manna on which good fellowship
loves to feed. And, so many-sided is it, it may be recommended as
a planer for moral ridges, and it may add the last touch to the
character-picture which every man is engaged in painting. It will
graciously accompany us when we visit the nursery and try our cumbrous
hand at the art of entertaining childhood; and will not forsake
us—if we care for its company—when we betake ourselves to the graver

If this is true it would seem as if, instead of trying to put it down,
we should seek to promote the laughing {424} habit in ourselves and
in others. Yet here one must be careful. For one thing, the man to
whom it counts as a considerable ingredient of happiness can hardly be
expected to assist in an effort to render all men of an equal quickness
in mirthful response. He knows better than any one else that the
spectacle of folly, of make-believe and of self-inflation, on which his
laughter is fed, implies a lack of all the finer laughter of the mind
in the great majority of his fellows. It would be an act of suicidal
madness, then, on his part, to try to transform his social world into a
body of laughter-loving men and women. Happily for the “gelast,” such
a transformation is beyond the powers of any conceivable society of
laughter-promoters. Humorous men must continue with perfect serenity of
mind to put up with being a “contemptible minority”.

Not only in the interests of the lover of laughter is it well that
he cannot impose his merry habit on all men alike. The wise man will
remember that it takes all sorts to make our social world, and that
the desirability of the laughing capacity varies greatly with a man’s
disposition, habits of mind and circumstances. To those, for example,
who are of sensitive feeling and keen perception, especially if called
on to lead an oppressively dull life, or, like Goldsmith, to wrestle
with circumstance, a broad and quick appreciation of the laughable
may be a real need. Some hearts of many chords, resonant to all the
notes of life’s music, might break but for the timely comings of the
laughter-fay with her transforming wand. On the other hand, many
worthy people not only do very well without it, but might be at a
disadvantage by possessing the endowment. This seems to be true of many
excellent men and women whose {425} special bent is towards a rigorous
concentration of thought and moral energy on some mission. Such persons
appear ever to dwell in the subduing shadow of their cause; they bear
about with them a special kind of self-consciousness, a sense of their
indispensableness to the world. Laughter is not for these, we say
with half a sigh. Nor can it, one supposes, find the needed air and
sunlight in persons who hold imposing rank or office, and have to be
daily concerned with maintaining a proper awe in others; or in those
who have a deep-placed and imperturbable self-complacency, or those who
are solemnly preoccupied with the momentous business of raising their
social dignity. Probably nobody, save perhaps a waiter, has to be set
more securely above the temptation to laugh than a man qualifying for
his first dinner parties.

The case of these hopelessly confirmed “agelasts” is a very strong
one. Those of us who prize the free circulation of laughter as that
of a sea-air, and are disposed to object to the closeness of mental
atmosphere which seems to enfold the devoted, shall do well to remember
how much the world owes to a lack of humour in its citizens. If
Rousseau had been a great laugher we should certainly never have had
his picturesque and instructive attack on civilisation and all that
flowed from it. Would Dante and Milton and the other builders of the
vast and sombre architecture of verse have achieved their task if the
laughing imp had been pulling vigorously at their coat tails? How many
of our valuable social institutions would have been built up if the
beginners had been keenly alive to the absurd aspects of the bunglings
which are wont to characterise first attempts? Let those who laugh,
therefore, be ready, not only from an enlightened self-interest,
but from a becoming {426} esteem for alien virtues, to allow the
“agelasts” their place in the world.

The foregoing considerations suggest that in any effort to promote
laughter we should move cautiously. A man may waste much precious
time in trying the experiment on a member of his family. A waggish
schoolmaster, too—and to the credit of the profession he is to be
found—may, if he experiment in this direction, meet with nothing but
disappointment. Perhaps some good “tests of humour” would be helpful
here; but the daily papers have not yet succeeded in inventing a
satisfactory one, and the psychological laboratories have, wisely
perhaps, avoided the problem. Moreover, the business of testing would
comprise some examination of the quality of the “humour” expressed,
lest the pedagogue should be fostering in a boy a kind of growth which
he is much better without. Perhaps, indeed, this testing of quality,
were it possible, should be undertaken for more serious purposes: since
the saying of Goethe, that the directions taken by a person’s laughter
are one of the best clues to his character, may be found to apply,
differences being allowed for, to the raw stripling. In undertaking
any such investigation of youthful mirth, the investigator would need
to note the quality of the expressive sounds themselves; for one may
suspect that in these days of early sophistication a young laugh, as
pure and clear of tone as it is full and unhindered, is a rarity. For
a first attempt at gauging a boy’s humour the schoolmaster might,
perhaps, do worse than select the following test, suggested by a
remark of one of my most learned and most respected friends, that the
situation referred to is the one which, in his case, excites the most
hearty merriment: “Supposing you made a call, and having placed your
hat on a chair inadvertently proceeded to sit on it; how would you
feel?” {427}

A more manageable problem for the pedagogue would seem to be to try,
now and again, to force back the bolts of discipline and approach the
boy with a judicious overture of fun. It is refreshing to find that
this has recently been recommended by a highly respectable journal
of the profession which writes: “It is no inherent dislike to work
or to the teacher, but the absolute necessity of relieving a dull
lesson by a bit of fun, that is accountable for many a difficulty
in discipline”.[338] Next to this, the aim would be to encourage
boys to bear the discipline of others’ laughter, so that they fall
not below the moral level of the estimable savage. This part of the
schoolmaster’s business is certainly not neglected in our country, and
perhaps has even been a little overdone.

       *       *       *       *       *

The gift of humour will save a man from many follies, among others that
of attempting the office of prophet. This has its proper domain, for
example in astronomy, though even in certain ambitious departments of
physical science it begins to look like presumption. To bring it into
the region of human affairs smacks of a juvenile confidence which has
not begun to define its logical boundaries. Hence I shall not risk the
illustrating of my subject by a forecast of the future of laughter.

It may be enough to say that, at the fraction of a second of the cosmic
clock at which we happen to live, certain tendencies are observable
which appear to have some bearing on this question. The most cheerful
of men would perhaps hardly call the present a mirthful moment. We seem
to have travelled during a century or more very far from the serene
optimism which dwelt fondly on the perfectibility {428} of mankind. If
we grow enthusiastic about man’s future at all, we let our minds run on
the perfectibility of his machines. This fact in itself suggests that
we are not likely to find an exceptional exuberance of the mirthful
spirit. Writers, too, have emphasised the fact that the age, if not
dull, is certainly not gay. An essayist, not long taken from us, has
written sadly about the decline of the old frank social laughter;[339]
and another, writing of Falstaff says that, though by laughter man is
distinguished from the beasts, the cares and sorrows of life have all
but deprived him “of this distinguishing grace, degrading him to a
brutal solemnity”.[340]

That the old merry laughter of the people has lost its full resonance
has been remarked above, and it may be possible, while avoiding
youthful dogmatism, to conjecture to some extent how this loss has come

To begin, it seems fairly certain that the decline of popular mirth is
only a part of a larger change, the gradual disappearance of the spirit
of play, of a full self-abandonment to the mood of light enjoyment.
We may see this not only in the rather forced gaiety supplied by the
gorgeous “up-to-date” pantomime and other shows. It is illustrated in
the change that has come over our out-of-door sports. Where is the fun,
where is the gaiety, in the football and the cricket matches of to-day?
Could anything be less like an “amusement” than a match at Lord’s—save
when for a moment an Australian team, forgetful of its surroundings,
bounds into the field? Even the clapping of hands by the solemn-looking
spectators sounds stiff and mechanical.

This reduction of the full stream of choral laughter of a past age
to a meagre rillet may readily be supposed to be due altogether to
a growing refinement of manners in all {429} classes. Leaders of
the “high society” tell us, as we have seen, that loud laughter is
prohibited by its code of proprieties. The middle class, in which
the imitation of social superiors grows into a solemn _culte_, has
naturally adopted this idea from the upper class: and the classes below
may be disposed on public occasions to consider Mother Grundy so far as
to curb the froward spirit of fun. Still, the decline seems to be much
more than any such artificial restraint would account for. The evidence
available certainly favours the conclusion that, even when unfettered,
the people does not laugh long and loud as it once did.

This is not the place to attempt an explanation of a change which
is perhaps too recent to be easily explained. Yet we may hazard the
suggestion that it is connected with other recent social tendencies
which seem to be still operative. It is probably one phase of a whole
alteration of temper in the mass of the people. It looks as if only
the more solid material interests now moved the mind, as if sport had
to have its substantial bait in the shape of stakes, while comedy must
angle for popularity with scenic splendours which are seen to cost
money. Other forces lying equally deep may not improbably co-operate.
The mirth of Merry England was the outgoing of a people welded in
brotherhood. The escape from the priest, and later from his Spanish
champion, had begotten a common sense of relief and joyous expansion.
No such welding pressure has come in these latter days pushing all
ranks into a common service of mirth. The sharp class-antagonisms of
the hour, especially that of employer and employed, leave but little
hope of the revival of such a choral laughter of a whole people.

This decline of the larger choral laughter, including the reciprocal
laughter of social groups, appears to have for one {430} of its
consequences a falling off in the part played by mirth as a tempering
and conciliatory element in authority. Any gain arising from the
introduction of a “humouring spirit” into our government of the young
is, one fears, more than neutralised by the loss which ensues from
the banishment of the cajoling laugh from the relations of master
and workman and mistress and maid. Perhaps, too, in our terribly
serious purpose of conferring the blessing of an incorporation into a
world-wide empire upon reluctant peoples of all degrees of inferiority,
we are losing sight of the conciliatory virtue of that spirit of
amicable jocosity, the value of which, as we have seen, was known to
some who had to do with savage peoples.

The seriousness of to-day, which looks as if it had come to pay a
long visit, may be found to have its roots in the greater pushfulness
of men, the fiercer eagerness to move up in the scale of wealth and
comfort, together with the temper which this begets, the discontent—

    The weariness, the fever, and the fret

which kill the capacity for a whole-hearted abandonment to simple

So far as this is the case, what laughter survives may be expected to
take on the tone of a forced utterance with something of a sigh of
weariness behind it. It is as though men had no time to laugh. Even
at a social entertainment you will find men and women who meet your
playful challenge only with a niggardly giggle which they instantly
suppress: poor distracted souls unable for a moment to free themselves
from the chaos of social claims which haunts them.

A yet more sinister characteristic of this later social laughter,
reflected more or less clearly even in much of {431} what now passes
for comedy, is its cynicism. By this is meant more than the hollowness
of the laughter of the world-weary: it implies a readiness to laugh at
a new sort of thing, or at least at the old sorts in a new way. Thus,
we may hear the unscrupulous member of a profession laughing at some
“amusing” bit of conscientiousness in another member. The laughter has
its readily distinguishable tones: now the thin wiry note of contempt
which issues from the superior person, now the rough brazen sound
burred by the bolder lips of the roué. Such laughter is in the case
of an individual, of a class and of a nation alike, the revelation
of the attitude of a mind which has not yet completed the process of
discarding its old obligations.

The tendencies here touched on illustrate how closely the moral forces
encompass our laughter, how directly they determine its key and the
depth of its sincerity. They suggest, too, how much more the evil
inclinations menace the healthy vigour of our mirth than the good, even
though these should be cultivated up to the confines of the saintly.

These signs may well make the friend of laughter sad. There is nothing
unreasonable in the idea of a death of all the more joyous and
refreshing mirth. The utilities—on which, perhaps, I have insisted
too much—give us no pledge of a final survival of the merry impulse.
However considerable its benefit to a society, we have examples of
highly efficient communities which seem to do very well without it. And
the like is probably true of individual laughter. A few persons may,
as I have suggested, owe to it their persistence on the human scene;
yet the evolutional efficacy of this utility is probably very narrowly

In spite of these sinister indications, an eye patient in search may
descry others which point to the persistence of a wholesome laughter.
Even if comedy and satire seem {432} tired and slumbering, the
humorous spirit is awake and productive. We have in the literature of
more than one country the promise of a development of new tones of
quiet, reflective laughter. The growth of a wider appreciation of other
literatures than our own is overcoming the obstacles, already touched
on, to an international appreciation of flavours, so far at least as to
allow of a _rapprochement_ of the larger-minded members of civilised
nations in a reciprocal enjoyment of their humorous writings.

For the rest, we may put our trust in the growing volume of what I have
called private laughter. It is not unlikely that in the future, men
who think will grow at once more tenacious of their ideals, and more
alive to the ludicrous consequences which these introduce. If so, they
will become still less like gay-hearted children than they now are,
and will have to brighten the chamber of life, as it loses the blithe
morn-given light, with the genial glow of humour. They will be able to
keep the flame alive with fuel drawn from the storehouse of literature.
In this work of conserving human laughter they will do well, while
developing the thoughtfulness of the humorist, to keep in touch with
the healthiest types of social laughter, the simple mirth of the people
preserved in the _contes_ and the rest, and the enduring comedies. If a
few men will cultivate their own laughter in this way and do their best
to make their private amusement that of an inner circle of friends,
we may hope that it will not die—though the death of what we love
were less terrible to face than its debasement—but be preserved by a
few faithful hands for a happier age. They will have their reward in
advance, since pure and honest laughter, like mercy, blesses him that
gives, and him that takes.


[1] Article on “Humour” in the _Cornhill Magazine_, vol. xxxiii., pp.

[2] See B. Bosanquet, _History of Æsthetics_, p. 360, where we are told
that serious modern comedy, such as Molière’s _L’Avare_, is, according
to Hegel, wanting in this characteristic.

[3] _Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung_, Band II., Erstes Buch, Kap.

[4] _Le Rire_, published by Félix Alcan, 1900.

[5] See an article “Pourquoi rit-on?” by Camille Mélinaud, in the
_Revue des deux Mondes_, 1895 (Tom. 127, p. 612 ff.). The theory of
M. Mélinaud seems to resemble closely that of Jean Paul Richter and
others, which Lotze criticises, _Geschichte der Æsthetik_, p. 346.

[6] M. Bergson furnishes some striking illustrations of the forcing of
a theory on reluctant facts in his treatment of the laughable aspect of
the red nose and the black skin, _op. cit._, p. 41 ff.

[7] The references here are to one of a series of articles entitled
“Psychologie der Komik” in the _Phil. Monatshefte_, Bd. XXIV. See p.
399 ff. The articles have been elaborated in a volume, _Komik und
Humor_. The point here dealt with is touched on in this volume in Kap.
iv., s. 558.

[8] The point that when we judge two successive impressions to be
different we do not necessarily represent both simultaneously, has been
recently emphasised by G. F. Stout and T. Loveday, who quote the views
of Wundt and Schumann. See _Mind_, N.S., ix. (1900), pp. 1–7, and p.

[9] Dr. Lipps seems half to perceive this mode of interaction among
parts of a complex presentation when he says that the cylinder appears
to renounce its dignity (Würde) as man’s head-covering when it stoops
to adorn the head of a child (_loc. cit._).

[10] _Geschichte der Æsthetik in Deutschland_, p. 343.

[11] _Versuch einer Theorie des Komischen_ (1817), s. 23.

[12] See Darwin, _Expression of the Emotions_, p. 199.

[13] See among other authorities, Raulin, _Le Rire_, p. 28.

[14] See art. “The Psychology of Tickling, Laughing and the Comic,” by
G. Stanley Hall and A. Allin, _American Journal of Psychology_, vol.
ix., p. 1 ff.

[15] _Purgatorio_, Canto xi., lines 82–3; _cf._ Canto i., line 20,
where the fair planet (Venus) is said to have made the whole East
laugh—a figure copied by Chaucer, _The Knightes Tale_, line 636.
Addison touches on this poetical use of “laughter,” _Spectator_, No.

[16] Gratiolet, _De la Physionomie_, p. 116. Benedick instances as
interjections of laughing “ha! ha! he”! _Much Ado About Nothing_, IV.,

[17] See an article on “Organic Processes and Consciousness,” by J. R.
Angell and H. B. Thompson, in the _Psychological Review_, vol. vi., p.
55. According to these researches, a hearty laugh, causing sudden and
violent changes in the breathing curve, is accompanied by the sharpest
and most marked vaso-dilation, as tested by capillary pulse drawing;
though in one case the opposite effect of constriction was produced.

[18] _Anatomy of Melancholy_, Pt. 2, sec. 2, mem. vi. subsec. 4 (“mirth
and merry company”).

[19] Laughter is pronounced a “good exercise” by Dr. Leonard Hill in
his useful work, _Manual of Human Physiology_ (1899), p. 236. The
physiological benefits are more fully treated of by Dr. Harry Campbell
in his publication, _Respiratory Exercises in the Treatment of Disease_
(1898), p. 125.

[20] “_Positions_,” ed. by Quick, pp. 64, 65.

[21] Angell and Thompson in the article quoted above suppose that the
whole dilation of the capillaries during laughter is a secondary effect
of sudden changes in the breathing. This seems a reasonable conclusion.
Yet since, according to these writers, smiling as well as mild laughter
causes gentle changes of the same kind, it seems possible that we have
here, in a disguised form, the working of the general law stated by
these writers: that agreeable experiences are accompanied by dilation
of the peripheral blood-vessels.

[22] See _The Expression of the Emotions_, chap, vi., p. 163. It is
curious to note that Mulcaster and the recent physiologists referred
to above claim a beneficial influence for “a good cry” as well as for
laughter. But they do not seem explicitly to put them on the same level
as occasional exercises.

[23] Maria’s words in _Twelfth Night_, “If you desire the spleen,”
seem to point to some supposed organic disturbance due to immoderate

[24] _Op. cit._, pp. 207 and 213.

[25] Prof. James seems to admit this in his smaller work, _Psychology_,
p. 384.

[26] On the Contagion of Laughter, see Raulin, _Le Rire_, p. 98 ff.

[27] It has been pointed out by an ingenious French writer, L.
Dugas—whose work, _Psychologie du rire_, has appeared while my volume
is passing through the press—that even a wild, uncontrollable laughter,
“le fou rire,” in spite of its elements of suffering, remains to a
large extent a pleasurable experience (_see_ pp. 25, 26).

[28] The French language is particularly rich in its vocabulary under
this head, including expressions like “rire du bout des dents” and “du
bout des lèvres” (_cf._ Homer’s expression, ἐγέλασσεν χείλεσιν), “rire
dans sa barbe,” and others like “rire jaune”.

[29] _Sartor Resartus_, Bk. I., chap. iv.

[30] Article on “Ticklishness” in the _Dictionary of Psychological
Medicine_. He adds that ticklishness is not locally coincident with
sensitiveness to pain. On the other hand, Dr. Charles Richet remarks
that the parts most sensitive to tickling are the parts richest in
tactile nerves. Article “Chatouillement,” _Dictionnaire de Physiologie_.

[31] See Wundt, _Physiolog. Psychologie_ (4te Auflage), Bd. i., pp.
434–5. According to this authority the propagation of the stimulation
may be either direct from one sensory fibre to another, or indirect,
involving muscular contractions and muscular sensations.

[32] See Külpe, _Outlines of Psychology_, p. 148.

[33] See the article on “The Psychology of Tickling, Laughing, and
the Comic,” by G. S. Hall and A. Allin, in the _American Journal of
Psychology_, vol. ix., p. 1 ff. These returns do not make it quite
clear whether “ticklishness” is taken to mean the non-laughing as well
as the laughing varieties.

[34] My references to Dr. Robinson’s views are partly to the article
in the _Dictionary_ already quoted, and partly to notes of lectures
given before the British Association and the West Kent Medical Society,
which he has been so kind as to show me. I have made much use of his
interesting and often brilliant suggestions in dealing with the subject
of ticklishness.

[35] Both of these are included by Dr. Richet among the most sensitive
parts (_loc. cit._).

[36] How far the results are complicated by the action of the muscles
which serve to erect the separate hairs on the body, and are said by
Lister to contract near a tickled surface, I am not sure.

[37] _E.g._, Külpe, _op. cit._, 147.

[38] _Expression of the Emotions_, p. 201.

[39] In using the expression “ticklish period,” I do not imply that
ticklishness necessarily disappears after a certain period of maximal
intensity. Like play, it probably persists in a certain number of
persons as a susceptibility to which the laws of propriety leave but
little scope for exercise.

[40] _Op. cit._, pp. 201, 202. The restriction I have added enables us
to include the case of the sole of the foot.

[41] _Loc. cit._ Dr. L. Hill confirms the observation and offers the
same explanation.

[42] In this connection an observation sent me by Dr. L. Hill is
significant. His little girl first responded with laughter to tickling
under the armpits at the same age (two and a half years) as she first
showed fear by crying on being put into the arms of a stranger.

[43] G. Heymans, _Zeitschrift für die Psychol. und die Physiol. der
Sinne_, Bd. xi., ss. 31 ff.

[44] Heymans, _loc. cit._

[45] The abnormal forms of automatic laughter, including the effects of
stimulants, are dealt with by Raulin, _op. cit._, 2^{ème} partie, chap.
iv., and 3^{ème} partie.

[46] Given in the returns to Stanley Hall’s inquiries. This explosion
of laughter on receiving sad news occurs in cases of cerebral disorder.
See Dugas, _op. cit._, p. 16.

[47] Quoted by Dugas, _op. cit._, p. 12.

[48] Shakespeare makes Lady Macbeth perpetrate a pun in a moment of
intense excitement when Macbeth’s hesitation goads her into a resolve
to carry out the murder herself:—

    “I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal
     For it must seem their guilt”.

Did he mean to illustrate by this the way in which emotional strain
tends to lapse for a brief moment into laughter?

[49] _Op. cit._, pp. 163, 208.

[50] See _Les Passions de l’áme_, 2^{ème} partie, art. 25.

[51] Co-operative teasing, when it methodically “nags” a boy because he
happens, for example, to take the unfashionable side in some political
dispute, making his school-life a torment, had—with all deference to
apologetic headmasters, be it said—better change its name.

[52] Given by Stanley Hall in the article, “The Psychology of
Tickling,” etc., already quoted.

[53] Valuable beginnings may be found here and there; for example, in
the entertaining volume of a French comedian, _Le Rire_, par (B. C.)
Coquelin, cadet.

[54] _Iliad_, ii., 212 ff.

[55] _Loc. cit._

[56] There is, of course, often a reciprocal effect in these cases, the
non-compliant intruder serving to show up the absurd monotony of the

[57] See an article, “The Analytical Humorist,” by H. D. Traill,
_Fortnightly Review_ (N.S.), vol. lx., p. 141.

[58] Mr. Kipling suggests that the want of a proper nose in a family is
regarded as a disgrace among the Hindoos (_Kim_, p. 81).

[59] It may be well to add, by way of caution, that the feeble
semblance of laughter which a modern theatre-goer is apt to produce
when he sees something _risqué_ is not a simple form of laughter at the
indecent. It is the outcome of a highly artificial attitude of mind, in
which there is an oscillation of feeling between the readiness of the
natural man to indulge and the fear of the civilised man that he may be
carried too far.

[60] _Op. cit._, p. 45.

[61] Compare above, pp. 13 ff.

[62] As our mode of classification shows, we may regard these as
primarily instances of laughable degradation. Nevertheless, some
apprehension of contradiction is clearly involved.

[63] From a speech delivered by Sir John Parnell in the Irish House of
Commons, 1795. See W. R. Le Fanu, _Seventy Years of Irish Life_, ch.
xvi. (“Irish Bulls”).

[64] See Bergson, _op. cit._, p. 45.

[65] _Poetics_, v. i. (Butcher’s translation).

[66] A further and most important enlargement of Hobbes’ principle is
made by Bain when he urges that the spectacle of degradation works
upon us, not merely by way of the emotion of power or glory, but by
way of the feeling of release from constraint. This point will more
conveniently be dealt with later.

[67] Compare above, p. 100.

[68] Kant’s contribution to the theory of the ludicrous is contained in
a single “Remark” appended to a discussion of the Fine Arts and Taste.
See Dr. Bernard’s translation of his _Kritik of Judgment_, pp. 221–4.

[69] Article “On the Philosophy of Laughing,” by the Editor, _The
Monist_, 1898, p. 255.

[70] I find after completing this paragraph that the point dealt
with, namely, that surprise, in the sense of the effect of mental
unpreparedness, is not an invariable antecedent of our response to
the laughable, has been urged by a French writer, M. Courdaveaux. His
critic, M. Dugas, does not seem to me to have effectually combated it.
(See Dugas, _op. cit._, p. 63 ff.)

[71] See above, p. 6.

[72] Compare what was said above _à propos_ of the child and the hat,
p. 14.

[73] _Cf._ above, p. 114; also the article in _The Monist_ already

[74] _English Comic Writers_, lect. i., “Wit and Humour”.

[75] “The Physiology of Laughter,” _Essays_, i., p. 206.

[76] According to Fouillée, contrast is the formal element, faultiness
(“le défaut”), the material. See Dugas, _op. cit._, p. 85 ff.

[77] Hazlitt defines the ridiculous as the highest degree of the
laughable, which is “_a proper subject for satire_,” _loc. cit._

[78] Compare Ribot, _La Psychologie des sentiments_, p. 344.

[79] M. Bergson has a glimpse of the co-operation of “child’s fun” in
our laughter, _op. cit._, p. 69; but he fails to see the magnitude of
this factor.

[80] See _The Emotions and the Will_, “The Emotions,” chap. xiv., §§

[81] _Cf._ Dugas, _op. cit._, p. 128 ff.

[82] _Wit and Humour_, p. 7.

[83] See p. 76, ff.

[84] Prof. Groos does not, I think, bring out clearly enough the
distinction here drawn, though he may be said to half-recognise it when
he speaks of “joy in conquest” as the end of play combats (_Play of
Animals_, pp. 291, 292).

[85] This restriction sometimes takes on a look of a conative process
of self-control, _e.g._, when an older cat, not used to play, is
importunately challenged by a lively kitten.

[86] On this “divided consciousness” in play see Groos, _Play of
Animals_, p. 303 ff.

[87] On the uses of animal play see Groos, _The Play of Man_, Part
III., sect. 2, and Lloyd Morgan, _Animal Behaviour_, chap, vi., sect. 2.

[88] Among previous writers on the subject M. Dugas seems to be the
one who has had the clearest apprehension of the essentially playful
character of laughter (_op. cit._, chap. vi., especially p. 115 _seq._).

[89] Karl Groos connects both the tusslings and the tearings of young
animals with the instinct of sex-competition (_Play of Animals_, p. 35

[90] _The Psychological Review_, 1899, p. 91.

[91] _Descent of Man_, Part I., chap. iii.

[92] _Animal Life and Intelligence_, p. 407. The author strikes me as
almost excessively cautious in accepting these evidences of canine

[93] W. Preyer, _Die Seele des Kindes_, p. 197.

[94] Quoted by Lloyd Morgan, _loc. cit._

[95] _Expression of Emotions_, p. 208; _cf._ p. 132 ff.

[96] See Darwin, _The Descent of Man_, Part I., chap. iii.

[97] So in _The Expression of the Emotions_, pp. 211, 212. In the notes
contributed to _Mind_, vol. ii. (1877), p. 288, two infants are spoken
of, one of which smiled when forty-five, the other when forty-six days

[98] The references are to his work, _Die Seele des Kindes_, 4te

[99] Champneys and Sigismund are quoted by Preyer. Miss Shinn’s
observations are given in her work, _Notes on the Development of a
Child_, p. 238. Mrs. Moore’s are to be found in her Essay, _The Mental
Development of a Child_, p. 37. Dr. L. Hill writes that he noted the
first smile in his boy when he was three weeks old, and in his girl
when she was some days older.

[100] See especially what he says about an unusual expression,
including “a strongly sparkling eye” which occurred in the eighth week,
_op. cit._, p. 194.

[101] I am indebted to Miss Shinn for a sight of her complete original
notes; and some of my references are to these.

[102] It is regrettable that Preyer does not describe with some
precision the sounds produced by his boy on the twenty-third day.

[103] Miss Shinn insists that the laugh did not develop out of the
chuckle, since apparently it appeared, as many articulate sounds
appear, with something of a sudden completeness. But this is just what
we should expect if the laugh is an inherited movement.

[104] _Op. cit._, p. 197.

[105] Preyer puts this at the end of the first half-year, which seems
to me to be late.

[106] _Op. cit._, p. 96.

[107] On the point of the priority of the smile in the process of
evolution see Th. Ribot, _La Psychologie des Sentiments_, p. 346.

[108] Darwin, _Expression of the Emotions_, p. 133.

[109] A. Lehmann, in his interesting account of the development of
the emotions and their expression in the individual, suggests that
the first imperfect smile of the infant, which expresses the pleasure
of sweetness, is genetically related to the movements of sucking
(_Hauptgesetze des menschl. Gefühlslebens_, ss. 295, 296).

[110] Darwin, _Expression of the Emotions_, pp. 134, 135.

[111] As pointed out above, the French _e_ sound seems to be the common
one in children’s laughter. Preyer tells us that the corresponding
sound in German (_ä_) occurs in the first infantile babble
(_Development of Intellect_, p. 239).

[112] _Expression of the Emotions_, pp. 132–3.

[113] See the article already quoted on “The Psychology of Tickling,
Laughing,” etc., p. 33.

[114] See the article already quoted.

[115] Dr. Robinson considers that another agreeable effect of tickling
may be an inherited echo of the caresses of man’s progenitors.

[116] Stanley Hall also suggests that the most ticklish parts, which,
according to his inquiries, are _the sole of the foot_, the throat,
etc., are the “most vulnerable”. But he does not explain what he means
by vulnerable here, and certainly does not appear to use the word in
the sense given it by Dr. L. Robinson.

[117] Groos deals with the teasing of animals under the head of
“Fighting Plays” (_Play of Animals_, p. 136 ff.).

[118] H. M. Stanley, _Psychological Review_, 1899, p. 87.

[119] This idea, that when we laugh at ludicrous things the process is
fundamentally analogous to that of being tickled, has been made the
basis of a curious and suggestive physiological theory of laughter,
developed by a German writer. See Ewald Hecker, _Die Physiologie und
Psychologie des Lachens und des Komischen_.

[120] _Loc. cit._, p. 39.

[121] I am indebted for this fact to Dr. L. Hill. I believe a like
remark applies to all the laughter of play.

[122] The nature of the process of emotional development is more fully
treated, and the relation of its effect to that of the dulling action
of repetition is indicated, in my work, _The Human Mind_, vol. ii., p.
75 ff.

[123] Of course, increase of volume might arise through a widening of
the sensational factor in the experience, due to the larger diffusion
of somatic stimulation, which, as already remarked, is an element in
the expansion of laughter.

[124] This expression is commonly used only where an expression is
passed on to a palpably dissimilar feeling. But an essentially similar
process takes place, according to my view, within the limits of
development of what we call the same emotion.

[125] The application of the principle of arrest to the changes in
emotional states has been made with great success by Th. Ribot in his
volume, _Psychologie des Sentiments_, p. 260 ff.

[126] Miss Shinn’s observations are recorded in Parts III. and IV. of
her _Notes_.

[127] For a pretty reminiscent description of a first experience of
running and jumping, see Pierre Loti, _Roman d’un Enfant_, ii., p. 4 ff.

[128] The nearest approach I have met with to a suggestion of a wish to
inflict pain in this early practical joking is the following: The child
M. when two years old stood on her mother’s foot saying, “Oh, my poor
toe!” But it seems reasonable to say that in such moments of frolic
pain is quite unrepresentable.

[129] _Op. cit._, p. 196. I have heard of it occurring in a girl at the
age of three and a half. The point should certainly be determined by
more precise observations.

[130] Preyer first observed roguish laughter at the end of the
second year (_op. cit._, p. 196). He does not define the expression
“schelmisches Lachen”.

[131] Compare above, p. 83.

[132] See Mrs. Hogan’s _Study of a Child_, p. 18.

[133] _Cf._ what was said in chap. v., p. 142, apropos of Leigh Hunt’s

[134] Ruth’s laughter at the mother’s face was certainly very early.

[135] Hogan, _op. cit._, p. 71.

[136] See my _Studies of Childhood_, pp. 274–5.

[137] Most of the observations here quoted, on the laughter of the
boy C., have appeared before in a chapter of my volume, _Studies of
Childhood_. The reader who is familiar with this chapter will, I feel
sure, pardon the repetition.

[138] Rev. Duff Macdonald, _Africana_ (1882), i., pp. 266–7.

[139] It is true that this astounding proposition is answered somewhat
ironically by Rev. Dr. Folliott, who says, “Give him modern Athens,
the learned friend (Brougham) and the sham intellect Society—they will
develop his muscles”. Yet it seems odd that this confident assertor was
not taken to task for his amazing ignorance.

[140] The dispute may be followed by the curious by turning up the
following: _Indian Antiquary_, vol. viii., p. 316; cf. E. Deschamps,
_Pays des Veddas_, pp. 378–9; _The Taprobanian_, vol. i., p. 192
ff. The German visitor, Sarasin, upholds the writer in the latter
periodical, and says that the Veddas “lachen gerne,” though some of
them are bad tempered, and laugh but little. _Naturforschungen auf
Ceylon_, pp. 378 and 540.

[141] Carl von den Steinen, _Unter den Naturvölkern
Zentral-Brasiliens_, p. 61.

[142] This applies, of course, to the detection of the whole of the
social qualities which make up good-nature. F. Nansen attacks the
missionary Egede for his misrepresentation of the Greenlanders in
calling them cold-blooded creatures. See _Eskimo Life_, pp. 100, 101.

[143] _Expression of the Emotions_, p. 209.

[144] _Central Australia_ (1833), ii., p. 138.

[145] _Among Cannibals_ (1889), p. 291.

[146] Angas, _Australia and New Zealand_ (1847), ii., p. 11.

[147] Bonwick, _The Daily Life of the Tasmanians_ (1870), p. 174.

[148] Ellis, _Polynesian Researches_ (1832), i., p. 96.

[149] Turnbull, _A Voyage Round the World_ (1813), p. 372.

[150] Erskine, _The Western Pacific_ (1853), p. 159.

[151] _Natives of Sarawak and Brit. N. Borneo_, i., p. 84.

[152] Rev. Jos. Shooter, _The Kafirs of Natal_ (1857), p. 232.

[153] Cruickshank, _The Gold Coast of Africa_ (1853), ii., p. 253.

[154] Hind, _Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition_ (1860), ii., p.
135. Other examples of the mirthfulness of savages are given by Herbert
Spencer, _Descriptive Sociology_, Div. I., Pt. 2—A.

[155] Cruickshank, _Gold Coast of Africa_, _loc. cit._

[156] Musters, _At Home with the Patagonians_ (1873), p. 167.

[157] _Saugethiere von Paraguay_ (1830), s. 10.

[158] _Aborigines of Tasmania_ (2nd ed.), p. 38.

[159] Johnston, _British Central Africa_ (1897), p. 403.

[160] E. H. Man, “Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands,”
_Journal of Anthropol. Institute_, vol. xii., p. 88.

[161] See Raulin, _op. cit._, p. 94 ff.

[162] Angas, _loc. cit._

[163] Ling Roth, _Natives of Sarawak_, etc., i., p. 81.

[164] Burton, _Lake Regions of Central Africa_, ii., p. 331.

[165] Waitz, _Naturvölker_, 6ter Theil, s. 102.

[166] Mrs. Edgeworth David, _Funafuti_, p. 230.

[167] Shooter, _The Kafirs of Natal_ (1857), p. 232.

[168] Ling Roth, _Aborigines of Tasmania_ (2nd ed.), p. 29.

[169] Wood, _Natural History of Man_, i., p. 261.

[170] From an article, “West African Women,” contributed to the _Daily

[171] This is stated by Prof. Bain in his _English Composition and
Rhetoric_, p. 237. I have been unable to verify the statement; but Mr.
Ling Roth assures me that the statement is probably correct; and says
that he remembers having read recently an account of the amusement
of Chinese bystanders on such an occasion, one man putting out a
boat—merely to save a hat!

[172] Sarasin, _Forschungen auf Ceylon_, s. 537.

[173] Sproat, _Scenes and Studies of Savage Life_ (1868), p. 51.

[174] Wood, _op. cit._, i., p. 261, and Shooter, _op. cit._, p. 233.

[175] Turnbull, _op. cit._, p. 372.

[176] Wright, _History of Caricature and Grotesque_, p. 2.

[177] Cruickshank, _loc. cit._

[178] Ellis, _op. cit._, i., p. 97.

[179] How easily one may overcharge this indictment of coarse
immorality is illustrated by what Von den Steinen says of the laughter
of the Brazil Indian women when he asked them the names of the several
bodily parts. Some would have taken this to be the low joking of
brazen-faced women. He distinctly tells us that it was “just simple
innocent laughter,” _op. cit._, p. 65.

[180] Ling Roth, _op. cit._, i., p. 72.

[181] Barrow, _Hudson’s Bay_, p. 32.

[182] Lichtenstein, _Travels in Southern Africa_, ii., p. 312.

[183] Compare above, pp. 72, 73.

[184] Ellis, _op. cit._, i., p. 97.

[185] Wood, _op. cit._, ii., p. 522.

[186] Lichtenstein, _op. cit._, ii., p. 308.

[187] Burchell, _Travels in Southern Africa_ (1822), vol. ii., p. 339.

[188] Ling Roth, _op. cit._ (2nd ed.), p. 134.

[189] Marsden, _History of Sumatra_, p. 230.

[190] Ling Roth, _op. cit._ (2nd ed.), p. 36.

[191] Sproat, _Savage Life_, p. 266.

[192] Quoted by Ling Roth, _Sarawak and British North Borneo_, i., p.

[193] Compare above, p. 104.

[194] Hind, _Canadian Red River Expedition_, ii., p. 135.

[195] See Ling Roth, _Sarawak and British North Borneo_, i., p. 75.

[196] Spencer and Gillen, _The Native Tribes of Central Australia_, pp.
136, 137.

[197] Quoted from Gideon Lang by Bonwick, _Daily Life of the
Tasmanians,_ p. 174.

[198] Nansen asserts this with respect to the attitude of the Eskimos
towards the Danes who settled in Greenland in 1728. See _Eskimo Life_,
pp. 106–7.

[199] Brough Smyth, _Aborigines of Victoria_ (1878), ii., p. 278.

[200] Sarasin, _op. cit._, iii., p. 540.

[201] Burton, _Wit and Wisdom of West Africa_, p. 52.

[202] Ling Roth, _Sarawak and British North Borneo_, i., p. 83.

[203] Ling Roth, _op. cit._, i., pp. 83–4.

[204] Sproat, _op. cit._, p. 51.

[205] Quoted by Darwin, _Expression of the Emotions_, p. 209.

[206] Von den Steinen, _op. cit._, p. 71.

[207] Turnbull, _op. cit._, p. 88.

[208] _Op. cit._, p. 372.

[209] Brough Smyth, _op. cit._, i., p. 29.

[210] _North American Ethnology_ (J. W. Powell), vol. iii., p. 410.

[211] _Op. cit._, pp. 239, 291.

[212] Ling Roth, _Tasmania_ (2nd ed.), p. 38.

[213] Marsden, _op. cit._, p. 230.

[214] Quoted by Waitz, _Naturvölker_, 6ter Theil, p. 102.

[215] Ling Roth, _Sarawak and British North Borneo_, i., p. 84.

[216] Hans Egede, _Nat. Hist. of Greenland_, pp. 156–7.

[217] F. Nansen, _Eskimo Life_, p. 187; _cf._ Egede, _loc. cit._

[218] Quoted from Jackson’s Narrative (1840) by Erskine, _Western
Pacific_, p. 468.

[219] Bonwick, _op. cit._, p. 29.

[220] Grey, _Two Expeditions in Australia_ (1841), ii., pp. 307–8.

[221] J. Chandler Harris, _Uncle Remus and his Friends_.

[222] R. E. Dennett, _Folklore of the Fjort_, pp. 92–3.

[223] Mr. Ling Roth has pointed out to me that the laughter of the
Australian at the absurdity of the idea of a dead man going about
without legs, etc., occurs in a race usually placed among the lowest in
the scale. Yet this apparent exception does not, I think, affect the
validity of the generalisation in the text. The intellect displayed in
this ridicule is not of a high order; and, further, we are distinctly
told that the scoffer in the case was an “intelligent” native, that is
to say, one of more than the average intelligence of his tribe.

[224] Mr. Ling Roth writes me that he agrees with Miss Kingsley as
to the difference between the laughter of savages and of children. I
should be quite ready to accept this view so far as it concerns the
special forms and directions of the mirth. The differences of capacity,
experience and habit involved in the difference between the child
and adult will, of course, introduce many dissimilarities into their
manifestations of the mirthful temper. I hold, however, that as regards
the fundamental psychical processes involved, the similarity is real
and great.

[225] Macdonald, _op. cit._, i., p. 266.

[226] Burton, _op. cit._, ii., pp. 338–9.

[227] See p. 42.

[228] Wright, _History of Caricature and Grotesque_, p. 181.

[229] M. Jos. Bédier in his interesting study, _L’Esprit des Fabliaux_,
though he argues that the fabliaux in general had no social aim
(“portée sociale”), has to admit that in the case of the treatment of
the priests these “contes à rire en vers” betray a genuine hatred, a
hatred which (he adds) runs through other forms of literature of the
Middle Ages.

[230] Bédier points out in the work quoted that the writers of the
fabliaux, which issue from the burgher class, and are written for this
class, take sides with the weak villains rather than with the strong
knightly class (see p. 291 ff.). _Cf._, however, Wright, _op. cit._, p.

[231] See Maspero, _Les Contes populaires de l’Égypte_, Introduction
(“Conte des deux frères”).

[232] Percy Gardner, _Greek Antiquities_, p. 353.

[233] Tyrrell, _Latin Poetry_, p. 220.

[234] Bédier, _op. cit._, p. 279 ff.

[235] H. Spencer, _Principles of Sociology_, “Ceremonial Institutions,”
pp. 205, 206.

[236] Maspero, _Life in Ancient Egypt and Assyria_, chap. i.

[237] Wilkinson, _Manners and Customs of Ancient Egyptians_, iii., pp.
447, 429.

[238] Simcox, _Hist. of Latin Liter._, i., p. 46.

[239] Given in Hazlitt’s _New London Jest Book_, pp. 31, 32.

[240] Wright, _op. cit._, p. 133. A good story of a retaliative
practical joke, carried out by a bachelor on a tavern keeper who had
spilt some wine on serving him, is given by Bédier, _op. cit._, iii.,
p. 272 ff.

[241] H. Spencer, _op. cit._, p. 208.

[242] Curtius remarks of the Greek comic poets: “It was primarily
against the novel fashion of the day that they aimed their blows”
(_Hist. of Greece_, ii., p. 539).

[243] See Ward, _Engl. Dram. Poets_, ii., p. 401.

[244] Wright, _op. cit._, chap. xix.

[245] Sellar, _Roman Poets_, p. 167.

[246] Tyrrell, _op. cit._, p. 52.

[247] Ward, _Engl. Dram. Poets_, ii., pp. 398–9. The Restoration comedy
also made fun of the “cit” as the inferior of the West-end gentleman.

[248] Ward, _op. cit._, ii., pp. 399, 400.

[249] _The Golden Ass_, Bk. III., ch. 55.

[250] Doran, _History of Court Fools_, pp. 18, 37, 75.

[251] Tyrrell, _Latin Poetry_, p. 43 ff. The scurrility of the early
Greek comedy led to its being discountenanced by Pisistratus. As
Prof. P. Gardner remarks, “Tyrants have no sense of humour, and dread
ridicule” (_Greek Antiquities_, p. 666).

[252] Wright, _op. cit._, p. 44 ff.

[253] Ward, _Engl. Dram. Poets_, ii., pp. 392–3.

[254] Colley Cibber’s satire “Non-Juror” is said to have brought him
a pension and the office of Poet Laureate (Wright, _op. cit._, chap.

[255] George III. was caricatured again and again by Gillray (Wright,
_op. cit._, chap. xxvii.).

[256] This has no doubt arisen in part from the fact that no other
single English word expresses directly and clearly the subjective
feeling or disposition which lies behind laughter.

[257] George Eliot, _Essays_, pp. 82, 83.

[258] The opening scene of _Le Médecin malgré lui_ shows that Molière
had observed this quaint form of wifely loyalty.

[259] _Sylvie and Bruno_, Part II., p. 132.

[260] Hence Addison’s remark (_Spectator_, No. 35) that humour should
always be under the check of reason seems, in what one is tempted to
call a characteristic way, to miss the mark.

[261] See, for example, Höffding, _Outlines of Psychology_, pp. 294,

[262] Quoted by Dugas, _op. cit._, p. 98. Flaubert here indicates,
perhaps, one great limiting condition of the growth of the composite
sentiment of humour.

[263] _Philebus_, Jowett’s translation, iv., p. 94 ff.

[264] One of the best recent discussions of this subject will be found
in the work of A. Lehmann, already referred to; _see_ pp. 247–251 and

[265] _Cf._ above, p. 70.

[266] _Op. cit._, p. 95.

[267] For the whole passage, written perhaps with an unconscious
reminiscence of the Rousseau period, see the _Kritik of Judgment_, Dr.
Bernard’s translation, p. 227.

[268] The absence in the East of the comic spirit as expressing itself
in the art of comedy, a point noted by Mr. Meredith, is of course not
conclusive with respect to the existence of the humorous disposition.

[269] M. Bédier has a delicate characterisation of this French spirit
in the _Contes_; touching on its want of depth and _arrière-pensée_,
its spice of malice, its joyous good sense, its irony, which though a
little coarse is yet precise and just, _op. cit._, p. 278.

[270] This redeeming quality of the Irish bull is indistinctly
perceived by the Edgeworths in their essay on the subject, in which
they speak of the Irishman’s habit of using figurative and witty
language. See _The Book of Bulls_, by G. R. Neilson (in which the
Edgeworths’ essay is included).

[271] Quoted by Meredith, _op. cit._, p. 87.

[272] See his son’s _Life_, chap. vii. (vol. i., p. 167).

[273] The question is left an open one by his biographer, J.
Fitzmaurice-Kelly. See _Life of Cervantes_, p. 207.

[274] _Causeries du Lundi_, vol. iii., pp. 3, 4.

[275] _Logic Deductive and Inductive_, by Carveth Read.

[276] Bernard’s translation of _The Kritik of Judgment_, p. 226.

[277] Good illustrations will be found in the story of Mr. Bernard
Capes, _The Lake of Wine_, chap. ii. and chap. xxxii.

[278] See for one among many instances _Travels in West Africa_, chap.
ix. (“The Rapids of the Ogowe”).

[279] The story of Hans von Bülow’s almost superhuman behaviour under
these circumstances is told in the _National Observer_ of 17th Feb.,

[280] See, for example, a letter from a titled lady in _The Times_ of
the 1st June, 1894, in which this claim of “society” to the services of
“the pick of blood and brains” is prettily assumed.

[281] On the employment of buffoons and dwarfs in the palace of the
Egyptian king see Maspero, _Dawn of Civilisation_, pp. 278, 279. On the
Greek and Roman jesters (γελωτοποιοί, ἀρεταλόγοι, mimi, scurræ) see P.
Gardner, _Greek Antiquities_, p. 835; [_cf._ Doran, _Court Fools_].
On the mediæval jester or fool see Wright, _op. cit._, chap. vii.;
Lacroix, _Middle Ages_, p. 238 ff.; and Jusserand, _English Wayfaring
Life_, p. 187.

[282] P. Gardner, _Greek Antiquities_, p. 666.

[283] Bergk, Griech. _Literaturgesch._, iv., pp. 9, 10.

[284] See Wright, _op. cit._, chaps. xii. and xiv.

[285] _Essay on Comedy_, pp. 24–5 (on Molière’s audience); pp. 8, 47
and following (on the recognition of woman).

[286] Examples will be found in _Le Médecin malgré lui_, _L’Avare_
and others. A delightful introduction of the all-round beating of the
circus is that of the Professors in _Le Bourgeois gentilhomme_.

[287] M. Bergson, who gives a delightful account of these mechanical
aids to the effect of comedy, seeks to connect them with his theory
that the laughable consists in the substitution of the monotony of the
machine for the variety of the organism (_op. cit._, p. 72 ff.). I
suspect, however, that they owe much of the spell they cast over our
laughing muscles to suggestions of child’s play.

[288] Compare the breezy fun of the scene in _Le Tartuffe_, where the
maid, Dorine, has to tackle in turn each of a pair of lovers urging the
same grievances in almost the same words (Act II., Sc. iv.).

[289] Moulton, _Ancient Class. Drama_, p. 344.

[290] “In Aristophanes the very few maiden figures that appear are
dumb” (Neil, _The Knights of Aristophanes_, Introduction, p. xiv.).

[291] P. Gardner, _Greek Antiquities_, p. 353.

[292] Mommsen, _History of Rome_, vol. iii., p. 144.

[293] _Essay_, Bk. II., chap. xi.

[294] _Spectator_, No. 62.

[295] _English Comic Writers_, Lect. I., “Wit and Humour”.

[296] _Spectator_, No. 6.

[297] _Cf. supra_, pp. 112, 113.

[298] _Spectator_, No. 47.

[299] An elaborate classification of the various kinds of word-play may
be found in an article by Dr. Emil Kräpelin, in Wundt’s _Philosoph.
Studien_, 2^{er} Band, s. 144 ff.

[300] Bergk observes that these are at once individuals and types
(_Griech. literaturgeschichte_, Bd. IV., s. 91).

[301] Mommsen observes that in Terence we have a more becoming, though
not yet moral, conception of feminine nature and of married life
(_Hist. of Rome_, Bk. IV., chap. xiii.).

[302] Courthope, _Hist. of English Poetry_, vol. ii., pp. 345 ff., and

[303] _Eng. Lit._, Bk. II., chap. iii.

[304] On this mixture of tones see Moulton, _Shakespeare as Dramatic
Artist_, p. 291.

[305] Mr. Meredith touches on the way in which Molière developed his
characters out of persons known to him (_op. cit._, p. 53).

[306] _Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare_, p. 416.


    “Comme un morceau de cire entre mes mains elle est,
    Et je lui puis donner la forme qui me plaît.”

[308] M. Henri Bergson (_op. cit._, chap, iii.) seems to me to push
his helpful idea of a mechanical rigidity (_raideur_) in Molière’s
characters a little too far.

[309] The play closes with the “aside” of Covielle: “Si l’on en peut
voir un plus fou, je l’irai dire à Rome”.

[310] Mr. Meredith remarks that it was “here and there Bacchanalian
beyond the Aristophanic example” (_op. cit._, p. 11).

[311] See above, p. 92 f.

[312] Coleridge saw clearly enough how far comedy is from making
morality its basis. He remarks that the new comedy of Menander and the
whole of modern comedy (Shakespeare excepted) is based on rules of
prudence (_Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare_, Bell’s Edition, 1884, p.

[313] _Cf. supra_, p. 139.

[314] _Hist. of Eng. Lit._, Bk. III., chap. i. Mr. Meredith is nearer
the mark when he speaks of the comic poet as being “in the narrow
field, or enclosed square of the society he depicts” (_op. cit._, p.

[315] _Op. cit._, Bd. IV., s. 2.

[316] See his “Notice” to _Gil Blas_, pp. xii, xiii.

[317] _Hist. of Eng. Lit._, vol. iv., p. 173.

[318] _Op. cit._, p. 240.

[319] Quoted by Bacon, _Essays_, “Apothegms,” 181.

[320] This is well illustrated by George Eliot, who observes rightly
that wit is allied to ratiocination (_Essays_, “German Wit,” p. 81).

[321] I remember discussing the point with the late Henry Sidgwick—no
mean authority—who admitted that several quotations which he had
proffered as examples of wit might with equal appropriateness he
described as humorous. The germ of the view put forward in the text is
contained in some pithy remarks by the late Professor Minto (_English
Prose Literature_, Introduction, p. 23).

[322] The reference in the text is to humour and wit, regarded as
subjective, as elements in the writer. Considered objectively as an
attribute of a character, wit of a kind may become one ingredient in
a humorous presentation, as in the homely and rather borné wit of the
countryfolk in the novels of George Eliot and Mr. Hardy.

[323] See Mr. Traill’s criticism, _Sterne_, p. 156 ff.

[324] _Wit and Humour_, p. 11.

[325] See Canon Ainger’s Introduction to _The Essays of Elia_, p. 8.

[326] _English Thought in the Eighteenth Century_, vol. ii., p. 110.

[327] See my work on _Pessimism_, p. 428.

[328] See Dugas, _op. cit._, pp. 109, 110.

[329] See, for an excellent example of this retort, Dr. James Ward’s
_Naturalism and Agnosticism_, vol. i., Part I.

[330] M. Scherer may possibly mean something like this when he speaks
of the humorist’s point of view as the justest from which a man’s world
can be judged (_Essays on English Literature_, p. 148).

[331] On the moral function of comedy see Bergson, _op. cit._, pp. 201,
202, and Dugas, _op. cit._, pp. 149–159.

[332] The reference is to an article, “Ridicule and Truth” in the
_Cornhill Magazine_, 1877, pp. 580–95. Lessing’s plea, in his _Hamburg.
Dramaturgie_ (Stücke 28 and 29), on behalf of a corrective virtue in
comedy owed something, I suspect, to the reading of Shaftesbury and the
other English writers.

[333] _Ethics_, Bk. x., 6.

[334] _Sartor Resartus_, _loc. cit._

[335] _Letters_, vol. ii., p. 302.

[336] See what Aristotle says about the witty (εὐτράπελοι, literally,
the easy turning, nimble-minded), _Ethics_, Bk. iv., 8.

[337] Mr. Radford, in an article on _Falstaff_, in Mr. Birrell’s
_Obiter dicta_ (First Series).

[338] _The Journal of Education_, Nov. 1901, p. 687.

[339] Traill, _loc. cit._, p. 147.

[340] Mr. Radford, _loc. cit._



Abstraction, in representation of character in comedy, 358, 359, 367.

Absurd, the, as laughable, 110, 152, 216, 217, 239, 294.

Addison, Jos., 30 _note_, 95, 304 _note_, 354, 355, 423.

Affectation, in comedy, 351.

“Agelasts,” 2, 425.

Ainger, Alfred, 390 _note_.

Allin, A. See Hall, G. S.

Analogy of feeling, 191.

Angas, G. F., 224, 228.

Angell, J. R., 33 _note_, 36 _note_.

Animals; ticklishness of, 57 162, 163, 177; laughter of, 156, 161, 170,
172, 177; tricks of, 157; sense of fun in, 158, 160; play of, 158 ff.

Apes. See Animals.

Apperception, 14, 59, 127, 130, 131, 135.

Apprehension, dissolved, as cause of laughter. See Fear.

Apuleius, 290.

Arabian Nights, 264.

Aristophanes, 282, 292, 348, 352, 357, 360, 371, 378.

Aristotle, 120, 412, 413, 416, 417 _note_, 418, 420.

Art, amusing function of, 343 (Chapter XI.); origin of, 344; scope for
exhibition of laughable in, 345; humour in essays, etc., 390, 391 (see
Fiction, Comedy).

Artificial, comedy, 371; world of comedy, 373, 377.

Assimilation in social evolution, 276, 286.

Assimilative force of laughter, 272.

Austen, Jane, 378.

Bacon, Francis, on laughter, 22.

Bain, Alexander, his theory of the ludicrous, 121–124, 140, 143; on
cruelty of savage laughter, 232 _note_.

Balzac, H. de, 379. {434}

Barrie, J. M., 242.

Barrow, Isaac, 419.

— John, 236 _note_.

Bashkirtseff, M., 321.

Bates, H. W., 223.

Beating, as comic incident, 348.

Beddard, F. E., 171.

Bédier, Jos., 262 _note_, 263 _note_, 264, 270 _note_, 312 _note_.

Belittling of idea, as cause of laughter, 9.

Benevolent, mirthfulness as, 417.

Bergk, Th., 346, 360 _note_, 381.

Bergson, H., 7, 8 _note_, 104, 114, 140 _note_, 348 _note_, 367 _note_,
374, 413 _note_.

Bonwick, Jas., 224, 243, 250.

Born, Bertran de, 263.

Bosanquet, B., 6 _note_.

Bridgman, Laura, 170.

Browne, Thomas, 390.

Brutal laughter, 89, 97, 143, 231–233, 315, 381.

“Bulls,” 111, 313.

Bülow, H. von, 330 _note_.

Burchell, W. J., 239.

Burton, R. F., 229, 245, 253.

— Robert, 34, 314.

Butler, Samuel, 115.

Butt, of wit, 355.

Buyer and seller, laughter between, 270.

Campbell, Harry, 35 _note_.

Capes, B., 325 _note_.

Carlyle, T., 36, 49, 299, 390, 400, 404 416.

Carroll, Lewis, 304, 386.

Carus, Paul, 12 _note_.

Cervantes, S. M. de, 282, 310, 314, 389.

Champneys, F. H., 165.

Character, the laughable in, 133, 307, 315, 321; incongruity between
circumstances and, 318, 369; interest in, 318, 358; presentation of, in
comedy, 357–370. {434}

Chaucer, G., 30 _note_.

Chesterfield, Earl of, 1.

Child, development of laughter in (Chapter VII.); first laughter
of triumph, 83, 198, 200, 204, 210; sayings of, as laughable, 106;
degradation theory applied to laughter of, 123, 124, 137; beginnings of
smile and laugh in, 164–168, 188; spontaneous laughter of, 187, 207;
extension of field of laughable, for, 191, 192; growth of self-feeling
in laughter of, 192, 203, 205; growing complication of laughter of,
192, 193; early laughter of joy, 194–198; early laughter of play, 194,
198–207, 211, 212; early laughter of teasing, 201–203; early defiance
of order, 203, 204, 211, 213; first roguish laughter, 205, 206; early
appreciation of the laughable, 207–217; first laughter at sounds,
209–212; early feeling of propriety, 211–215.

Choral laughter, 247, 258, 295; decline of, 429.

Cibber, Colley, 292 _note_.

Cicero, 384.

Class, differentiation of, 247, 258, 259; changes in, as laughable, 287.

Clergy, laughter at the, 109, 262, 267, 294, 346; laughter of the, 283.

Coleridge, S. T., 364, 374 _note_.

Collier, Jeremy, 411.

Combat, playful, as origin of laughter of tickling, 179–181.

Comedy (Chapter XI.), Greek, 264, 291, 346, 353, 361, 389 (see also
Aristophanes); of the Restoration, 283, 287, 370–373, 383; Roman,
291, 376 (see also Plautus, Terence); conditions of the rise of, 347;
elements of primitive laughter in, 348–357, 379; of Incident, 357; of
Manners, 357, 370–373, 376; of Character, 357–370; Elizabethan, 361;
point of view of, 368–377, 410; mood addressed by, 370, 373, 375, 377,
412; attitude of, towards morality, 372–377, 411; limits to, 377;
approach to point of view of, in fiction, 378; satirical element in,
381; humour in, 387; corrective function of, 411–414; Modern, 413.

Comic art, rudiments of, in savage life, 250.

— the, distinguished from the laughable, 86.

Common-sense. See Point of View.

Concept, function of the, in laughter, 7, 13, 130–133, 135.

Congreve, W., 357, 370, 372, 411.

Conservative force of laughter, 257, 261. See Progress.

Contagiousness of laughter, 42, 186, 255.

_Conte_, the mediæval, 34, 86, 91, 262, 267, 284, 292, 311, 346, 373.

Contempt, laughter of, 78, 83, 89, 97, 118, 142, 205, 234, 299, 320,

Contests, laughter in, 78, 83; laughter at the sight of, 117; of the
sexes, see Woman, Laughter of Man and.

Contrariety, theory of. See Incongruity.

Contrast, effect of, in comic characters, 365.

Coquelin, B. C., aîné, 109.

— cadet, 86 _note_.

Corrective function of laughter. See Value of Laughter.

Counteractives of laughter, 84, 88, 90, 93, 96, 98, 101, 102, 111.

Courdaveaux, V., 130 _note_.

Courthope, W., 361 _note_.

Cruickshank, B., 225, 226, 235.

Culture, gradations of, 284; spread of, 286, 288.

Curtius, Ernst, 277 _note_.

Custom, effect of, on laughter, 84, 294, 318.

Customary, the, as standard in comedy, 375–377.

Cynicism in modern laughter, 431.

Dante, Alighieri, 30, 425.

Darwin, C., 26, 38, 40, 57, 60, 63, 70, 71, 156, 159, 162, 163, 164,
169, 170, 171, 172, 177, 224, 227, 280.

Daudet, A., 378.

David, Mrs. F. W. E., 229.

Deformity, as laughable, 89, 231.

— moral. See Vice.

Degradation, theory of (moral theory), 119–125, 128, 137, 153.

Dennett, R. E., 251.

Descartes, R., 70.

Descending incongruity, 137.

Deschamps, E., 222 _note_. {435}

Detachment in humorous observation, 331, 337, 407–409.

Dickens, C., 158, 329, 388.

Difference, judgment of, 15 _note_.

Dignity, loss of, as laughable, 99, 119–125, 128, 136, 213, 214, 266.

Discomfiture, the sight of, as laughable, 117.

Disguise, in comedy, 349, 369.

Disorder, as laughable, 94, 266, 342; in comedy, 371.

Dog, the. See Animals.

Doran, John, 291.

Dugas, L., 47 _note_, 130 _note_, 149 _note_, 306 _note_, 400 _note_,
413 _note_.

Edgeworth, R. L. and M., 313 _note_.

Education, laughter in, 426.

Egede, Hans, 223 _note_, 249.

Egyptians, 264, 265.

Eliot, George, 109, 271, 298, 299, 385 _note_, 386 _note_, 389.

Ellis, W., 224, 235, 237.

Embarrassment, relief from, producing laughter, 228, 238.

Emotions, James’ theory of, 40; development of, 189; fusion of, 308–310.

Epicureans, 397.

Erskine, J. E., 224, 250.

Estimable, the, in the laughable, 306, 310, 317.

Evolutional utility of laughter, 408, 431.

Excellence, laughter as an, 3, 416, 422, 423.

Expectation, annulled, as cause of laughter, 9, 12, 18, 64, 125,

_Fabliau_. See _Conte_.

Fanciful world of comedy, 372, 373, 377.

Fantastic ideas, as laughable, 88.

Fashion, definition of, 273; movements of, 273; as restrained by
custom, 275; as laughable, 276–279.

Father and child, relation of, in comedy, 265, 353, 361.

Fear, relief from nascent, as element in tickling, 63; laughter as
reaction from, 65, 176, 199; as inhibitory of laughter, 88.

Feeling tone, of sensations of tickling, 54; of humour, 305, 310; of
comic mood, 370, 376.

Fiction, prose, comic point of view in, 378, 379; addressed to a
reflective mood, 379; humour in, 387–390.

Fielding, H., 388, 389.

Fitzmaurice-Kelly, J., 314 _note_.

Flaubert, G., 306.

Fools, 249, 250, 291, 343; “Feast of,” 346.

Fouillée, A., 137.

Fox, fable of the, 382.

French, the, gaiety of, 311.

Fun, sense of, in children, 64, 76, 77, 87, 112, 125, 137, 140, 169,
176, 181, 194, 315; in savages, 234, 252; in comedy, 347–350, 353, 357,

Future of laughter, 427.

Gardner, P., 264, 292 _note_, 343 _note_, 346 _note_.

Genetic method, necessity of, in studying the ludicrous, 154.

Gillen, F. J. See Spencer, B.

Gillray, Jas., 293 _note_.

Gladness, as expressed in laughter, 71, 195. See Pleasure.

Goethe, J. W. von, 283, 426.

Goldsmith, O., 298, 328, 387, 388, 424.

Gratiolet, L. P., 31.

Grey, George, 250.

Grief, as causing laughter, 66, 67; resemblance of manifestation of, to
laughter, 70, 309.

Groos, K., 146, 147 _note_, 148 _note_, 158 _note_, 182 _note_.

Habit, effect of, on child’s laughter, 188, 190; effect of, on
emotional reaction, 190. See Custom.

Hall, G. Stanley, and Allin, A., on laughter, 28, 52, 66, 83; on
tickling, 177, 178, 182.

Hardy, Thos., 103.

Harmful tendencies of laughter, 37, 46, 415, 418, 420, 422. See

Harris, J. C., 251.

Hartshorne, B. F., 222.

Hat, unsuitable, as instance of the ludicrous, 9–17.

Hazlitt, W. C., 137, 138 _note_, 268, 354.

Hecker, E., 184 _note_.

Hegel, G. W. F., 5.

Hegelians, on the comic, 4. {436}

Heine, H., 386, 423.

Heymans, G., 64.

Hill, Leonard, 57, 58, 61, 165 _note_, 169, 178, 179, 188.

Hind, H. Y., 225, 242.

Hobbes, T., his theory of the ludicrous, 120, 140, 143, 203.

Höffding, H., 306 _note_.

Hogan, Mrs. L. E., 188, 209, 212, 215, 217.

Homer, 89, 96, 97, 108.

Hugo, Victor, 315.

Human, things, as object of laughter, 86, 122, 128, 345.

Humour (Chapter X.), definitions of, 297; as individual, 298, 313,
324, 326; rarity of, 298, 311, 322, 325; origin of, 299; reflection
in, 300–303, 324, 387, 393; as a sentiment, 300, 307; seriousness
in, 301–305, 314, 319, 338, 342, 387, 393, 395, 400; blend of sad
and gay in, 305, 309, 387; kindly feeling in, 306, 307, 310, 342,
388; corrective function of, 323, 324, 403–405; consolatory force
of, 325–330, 342; relation of, to wit, 354, 385, 386; subjective and
objective, in literature, 386 _note_, 389; harmonising of tones in,
388, 391 (see also Philosophic Humour).

Hunt, J. H. Leigh, his theory of laughter, 142; quoted, 383.

Husbands, treatment of, in comedy, 373, 377.

Hypergelast, 297, 418.

Idealism and Realism, in relation to laughter, 394, 396, 400, 401.

Ignorance, as laughable, 102.

Imitation in fashion, 273–276, 278; in comedy, 348.

Incompetence, as laughable, 102, 240, 245.

Incongruity, theory of, 7, 9, 13, 17, 125–135, 136, 141, 150, 317, 318;
as laughable, 107–111, 152, 216, 236.

Indecent, the, as laughable, 99, 151, 235.

Individual, the, laughter of, 295, 297 (Chapter X.), 393; value of
laughter to, 321, 323 ff., 403, 415; justification of point of view of,

Inferior, laughter of, at superior, 264, 265, 266, 267, 268.

Inferiority, feeling of, as inhibiting laughter, 143, 320.

Intellectual theory, the. See Incongruity, also 153.

Inventions, as objects of ridicule, 281.

Irish, humour of the, 312, 313, 385.

Jackson, John, 250 _note_.

James, William, his theory of emotions, 40, 189.

Johnston, H. H., 227.

Jonson, Ben, 268, 361, 362, 364.

Joy, laughter of, 71 ff., 116, 168, 194 ff., 228. See Pleasure.

Jusserand, J. A. A., 343 _note_.

Juvenal, 283, 381, 382.

Kames, H. H., 414.

Kant, I., his theory of the ludicrous, 9, 18, 126–129, 131; quoted,
125, 134, 135, 310, 325.

Keats, John, 430.

Kingsley, Miss M. H., 222, 225, 231, 251, 252, 253, 266, 328, 391.

Kipling, R., 98 _note_.

Kräpelin, E., 356 _note_.

Külpe, O., 52 _note_, 54 _note_.

Lack of humour, advantages of, 424, 425.

Lacroix, P., 343 _note_.

Lamb, C., humour of, 298, 390, 420; his view of Restoration comedy,
372, 373, 377.

Landor, W. Savage, 314.

Lang, Gideon, 243 _note_.

Lange, C., 67, 189.

Language, poetical use of “laugh” and “smile,” 30; terms for forms of
laughter in French, 49 _note_; misuse of, as laughable, 104, 240. See

Laughable, the (Chapter IV.), definition of, 82; universality of,
83, 295; relativity of, 84, 88, 93, 95, 98, 101, 102, 106, 111, 113;
distinguished from the ludicrous, 85; complexity of, 87, 114, 153;
groups of laughable objects, 87; inhibitory concomitants of, 90, 93,
96, 101, 111, 301, 306; relation of, to laughter as a whole, 153; field
of, 260, 315, 319.

Laughter, estimates of, 1, 416; scientific investigation of, 3 ff.,
19, {437} 154; physiological characteristics of, 22, 26–28, 30,
33–36, 69, 227, 309; varieties of, 22, 48, 188, 251; an intermittent
manifestation, 26, 74; sounds of, 31, 174, 227; bad effects of, 37, 46,
415, 418, 420, 422; mechanically produced, 42, 64 ff., 74; occasions
of, 50 (Chapter III.); nervous, 65–70, 116; counteractives to, 88,
90, 93, 96, 101, 102, 111, 377; as sign of playful mood in animals,
183–184; as instrument of punishment, 250, 256, 262, 380; anti-social
tendency in, 256, 406; regulation of, 418; promotion of, 423; as branch
of education, 426. See also Child, Development of; Humour; Origin of
Laughter; Primitive Laughter; Savages, Laughter of; Social Laughter;
Value of Laughter.

Le Fanu, W. R., 111 _note_.

Lehmann, A., 172 _note_, 308 _note_.

Le Sage, A. R., 262, 382.

Lessing, G. E., 323, 412, 415 _note_.

Lichtenstein, M. H. C., 236, 238.

Lipps, Th., his theory of the ludicrous, 9–17, 64, 137; quoted, 94.

Literature. See Art.

Locke, John, his definition of wit, 354.

Loti, P., 197 _note_.

Lotze, H., 8 _note_, 18.

Loveday, T., 15 _note_.

Love-motive, in comedy, 360, 371.

Ludicrous, the, Schopenhauer’s theory of, 6, 13, 130–133; incongruity
theory of, 7, 9, 13, 17, 125–136, 141, 150, 317, 318; as consisting in
the substitution of rigidity for spontaneity, 7, 92, 348 _note_, 367;
Lipps’ theory of, 9–17, 64; as consisting in nullified expectation,
9, 12, 18, 64, 125–130; objectivity of, 83; distinguished from the
laughable, 85, 138; theories of, 119 (Chapter V.); degradation theory
of, 119–125, 128, 137; synthesis of theories of, 136–139; no one theory
of, 139, 153.

Lumholtz, Carl, 224, 249.

Macaulay, T. B., 372, 377.

Macdonald, Duff, 221, 252.

Majorities and minorities, 406.

Malice in laughter, 78, 83, 89, 97, 118, 142, 143, 231, 233, 381.

Man, E. H., 227.

Mania, approach to, of comic characters, 367; of a whole people, 377.

Manners, in comedy, 370.

Marsden, W., 240, 249.

Maspero, G., 264, 266, 343 _note_.

Massinger, P., 361.

Master and servant, relation of, in comedy, 353. See Slaves.

Mélinaud, C., 8 _note_.

Menander, 361, 374 _note_.

Meredith, G., 4, 99, 109, 297, 300, 310, 347, 364 _note_, 371 _note_,
376 _note_, 379, 415, 417.

Merry England, mirth of, 429.

Mill, J. S., 280.

Milton, J., 39, 425.

Minto, W., 386 _note_.

Mirthfulness, persistence of, 25, 73, 223–226; effect of temperament
on, 80; expression of, as element in the laughable, 116, 149, 211–213,
348; decline of, 428 ff.

Misfortunes, small, as laughable, 96.

Modern life, decline of choral laughter in, 427; seriousness of, 428
ff.; growth of individual laughter in, 432.

Molière, J. B. P., 114, 272, 288, 303 _note_, 307, 315, 348, 349, 350,
351, 353, 357, 359, 364–370, 373–378.

Mommsen, Th., 353 _note_, 361 _note_.

Mono-ideism in comic characters, 366.

Montaigne, M. E. de, 342.

Mood, the ticklish, 62; of humour, 304; addressed by comedy, 370, 373,
375, 377; addressed by fiction, 379, 380.

Moore, Mrs. K. C., 165, 188.

Moral deformity. See Vice.

— sensitiveness, as inhibitory of laughter, 93, 101, 102.

— theory. See Degradation.

Morality, attitude of laughter towards, 92, 372–377; attitude of comedy
towards, 372–377; function of comedy in relation to, 411–414.

— plays, 347, 359, 361, 362.

Morgan, C. Lloyd, 148 _note_, 160.

Moulton, R. G., 352 _note_, 362 _note_.

Mulcaster, R., 35.

Musters, G. C., 226.

Mystery plays, 347. {438}

Naïveté, as laughable, 104, 127, 336; children’s, 105.

Nansen, F., 223 _note_, 244 _note_, 250.

National feeling, 293.

Nationality. See Race.

Neil, R. A., 352 _note_.

Neilson, G. R., 313 _note_.

Nervous laughter, 65–70, 116.

Newspaper, struggle for the, 334, 336.

Novelty, as laughable, 87, 128, 150, 189, 208, 236, 281; in comedy, 351.

Obesity and laughter, 81.

Object of laughter, 82, 142; dislike of being made the, 144, 232, 256,
320. See Laughable, the.

Odd, the, as laughable, 87, 150, 237; in comedy, 351.

Old and young, relation of, in comedy, 353.

Old-fashioned, laughter at the, 281.

Optimism and pessimism. See also Philosophy, Worth of Life.

Order, breach of, as laughable, 94, 266, 342.

Organism, effects of laughter on, 33–36, 45, 69; resonance of, as
factor in laughter, 44, 47.

Origin of laughter, 155 (Chapter VI.); first appearance in child,
166, 170; early laughter as expression of pleasure, 169; an inherited
tendency, 170; first appearance in primitive man, 173; development out
of smile, 173–176; explosive vigour, explanation of, 176. See also
Smile, Tickling.

Paradox, as laughable, 104, 106, 110.

Parasites, laughter of tickling as defensive against, 178, 179, 181.

Parnell, J., 111 _note_.

Pascal, B., 1, 423.

Peacock, T. L., 222.

Perception of the ludicrous, movement of thought in, 11, 13; as
perception of relations, 13, 107, 192, 300, 302, 316–318; necessity
of distinct imagery to, 14, 131; as immediate, 15; as antecedent
of laughter, 42, 50; as emotional, 43, 125; effect of subjective
conditions on, 84, 88; as intellectual, 125; connection with primitive
laughter, 116, 140, 142, 144, 153.

Philosophic humour, characteristics of, 390, 400–405, 407–410; utility
of, 403–405; anti-social tendency of, 406.

Philosophy, theoretic treatment of laughter by, 4–6, 19, 396;
philosophic speculation, as laughable, 5, 400, 401; connection of
humour with, 390, 392–410; point of view of, 393, 394, 396, 397;
ideal standard of, 394, 395; change in aspect of reality produced by,
394, 395, 397, 398; seriousness of, 395; obstacles to union of humour
with, 396–399; idealism and laughter, 396; optimism and laughter, 398;
pessimism and laughter, 398; scepticism and laughter, 399.

Physiological aspects of laughter. See Laughter.

Pity, as inhibitory of laughter, 90, 98.

Plato, 308, 342, 396, 408.

Plautus, 266, 268, 282, 348, 352, 357, 360, 371.

Play, tickling and, 63, 179, 182–184; laughter as concomitant of mood
of, 76–78, 198–207; teasing as form of, 77, 201, 229; connection with
wit, 112, 355; relation of laughter and, 145–153, 194; utility of, 148,
181, 182; of animals, 158; play-challenge, 184, 256, 344; rompish, 198,
199; as make-believe, 201, 214; attacks as form of, 201; lawlessness
of, 216; connection with comedy, 348, 349, 353, 373, 375, 377.

Playfulness, expression of. See Laughter and Mirthfulness.

Pleasure, as antecedent of laughter, 43, 71, 145; interaction of
laughter and, 44 ff.; sudden accession of, as cause of laughter, 72, 74
ff., 141, 145, 184.

Poetic justice, 368.

Point of view, relativity of, in laughter, 84, 88, 93, 95, 101, 102,
106, 111; of common-sense, 110, 294, 376, 395, 399, 400; tribal and
national, 238, 256, 271, 293, 294; of humour, 303, 315, 324, 330, 338,
341, 403 _note_, 409, 410; social, 323, 374–377, 380, 399, 405, 409,
410; of comedy, {439} 372–377, 410; of philosophy, 393, 394, 396, 397;
individual, 399, 405, 409, 410; of satire, 410.

Pope, Alex., 307, 383.

Powell, J. W., 248 _note_.

Practical joking, 78, 129, 160, 229–231. See Teasing.

Preciosity, in comedy, 351.

Pretence, as laughable, 101, 148, 151; in play, 147, 158.

Preyer, W., 49, 160, 164–170, 178, 188, 205, 206 _note_, 209, 211, 212.

Primitive laughter, necessity of considering, 23; forms of, tickling,
etc., 50 (Chapter III.); elements of, in appreciation of the ludicrous,
140–145, 153; humour as development of, 299; in comedy, 347 ff.

Progress, as hindered and furthered by laughter, 257, 279–283; social,
279; as object of laughter, 280, 283.

Public opinion, deification of, 334.

Punning, in children, 112, 217; and wit, 354; in comedy, 357.

Rabelais, F., 299, 314, 389.

Races, diversities of laughter and humour of, 311–313.

Radford, G. H., 417, 428.

“Ralph Roister Doister,” 361.

Raulin, J. M., 228.

Read, Carveth, 320.

Real, the, in comedy, 368, 369, 372.

Reflection, in laughter, 8, 251; in humour, 301, 302, 393; appeal to,
in humorous writing, 379, 389.

Relations, as laughable, 13, 107, 300, 302, 316.

Relief from strain, in nervous laughter, 65–70; laughter on solemn
occasions as, 80, 118; in laughter at the indecent, 118; in laughter
at degradation, 140; as explaining explosiveness of laughter, 176; in
children’s laughter, 196, 198, 204; in laughter of savages, 228; in
laughter of art, 282.

Rengger, J. R., 226.

Repetition, effect of, on child’s laughter, 188, 190; effect of, on
emotional reaction, 190; as comic incident, 348.

Respiration, laughter and, 30, 33–35, 42, 69, 142.

Restoration, the, literature of, 282; comedy of, 283, 287, 370.

Restraints on laughter, by the community, 418–420; by the individual,

Retaliative joke, among savages, 230; in comedy, 350.

Retirement. See Detachment.

Reverence, laughter as destructive of, 422.

Ribot, Th., 171 _note_, 193 _note_.

Richet, Charles, 52 _note_, 53 _note_, 60.

Richter, J. P., 8 _note_, 390, 400.

Ridiculous, the, distinguished from the ludicrous, 138.

Robinson, Louis, 51, 53, 55, 57, 58, 61, 63, 162, 177, 178, 179–182.

Romanes, G. J., 161.

Rostand, Edmond, 10, 387.

Roth, H. Ling, 224, 227, 228, 230, 232 _note_, 236, 240, 241, 242, 246,
247, 249, 251 _note_, 252 _note_.

Rousseau, J. J., 373, 425.

Sadness, as disposing to laughter, 70, 314; in humour, 305, 309, 387.

Sainte-Beuve, C. A., 314, 377, 382.

Salutary effects of laughter. See Value.

Sarasin, F., 222 _note_, 232, 245.

Satire, playful element in, 153, 383, 384; among savages, 244; function
of, 282, 380; political, 292; social, 323, 413; point of view of, 380,
410; laughter in, 380, 382, 383; mood of, 381; in comedy, 381; in
fiction, 382; allegory in, 382; wit in, 383; ironical inversion in,
383, 384.

Savages, laughter of (Chapter VIII.), 220; difficulty of understanding,
220; self-restraint of, 221; amount of laughter of, 222–226; nature
of laughter of, 227, 252; primitive forms of laughter of, 228–285;
teasing and practical jokes of, 229–233; brutal elements in laughter
of, 231–233; dislike of laughter among, 232, 233; appreciation of
the laughable by, 235 ff.; laughter of, at the foreigner, 238–244;
intra-tribal laughter of, 244 ff.; humour of, 246, 251; organisation
of laughter among, 247–251; use of laughter by, in expiation of {440}
crimes, 250; more thoughtful laughter of, 251.

Scherer, Edmond, on humour, 312, 403 _note_.

Schopenhauer, A., his theory of the ludicrous, 6, 13, 130–133; referred
to, 135, 285, 288.

Schütze, J. St., 19.

Scott, Sir W., 388.

Self-advertisement, the humour of, 334.

Self-criticism, humorous, 321–324, 329.

Self-deception, in comedy, 350, 366.

Self, laughter at, 143, 272, 320–322, 329; dislike of others’ laughter
at, 144, 232, 256, 320.

Sellar, W. Y., 282.

Serious, the, as opposed to laughter, 21, 395; in play, 153; in comedy,
369, 373, 375, 377; in fiction, 379, 387; in satire, 381; in humour,
see Humour.

Seriousness, the, of modern life, 428 ff.

Sets. See Social Group.

Sex and laughter. See Woman.

Shaftesbury, third Earl of, 414, 415 _note_.

Shakespeare, W., 2, 32 _note_, 39 _note_, 67, 104, 298, 310, 311, 349,
357, 362, 363, 386, 387, 389, 417.

Shelley, P. B., 46.

Shinn, Miss Milicent, 165, 167, 168, 173, 175, 195, 211, 218.

Shooter, Jos., 225, 230.

Shyness, recoil from, producing laughter, 205, 206, 228, 238.

Sidgwick, H., 386 _note_.

Sigismund, B., 165.

Simcox, G. A., 266.

Situation, as laughable, 96–98, 117, 120, 317; in comedy, 351.

Slaves, laughter of, 265, 266, 291.

Smile, the, physiological aspects of, 26, 165; relation of, to
laughter, 26, 28, 29, 168, 170, 174, 175, 193; in animals, 161–163,
170, 177; first appearance of, in child, 164–166, 168; development of,
165, 188; as expression of pleasure, 168, 183; an inherited tendency,
170; origin of, 171–173.

Smyth, R. Brough, 244, 248.

Social failure, laughter as preservative of, 408.

Social group, 259 ff., 283.

— laughter, organisation of, 247–251, 290; conciliating force of, 255,
256, 266, 269, 271; development of, 288–291; censorship of, 291; force
of, 292; attitude underlying, 293; reflected in comedy, 351.

— scene, the modern, 337.

Society, failure to comply with social requirement as ludicrous, 139;
laughter in evolution of, 254 (Chapter IX.); progress of, effect on
laughter, 254; restraint of laughter by, 258, 269; differentiation of
social groups in, 258 ff.; differentiation of ranks in, 263; ways of,
as laughable, 331–333; permanent basis of, in comedy, 375; individual
and, 405–410.

Solemn occasions, laughter on, 79, 141, 152, 242.

Spectator of comedy, attitude of, 371, 373, 412. See Comedy.

Spencer, B., and Gillen, F. J., 243 _note_.

— Herbert, 68, 137, 175, 265, 267, 274, 276.

Sproat, G. M., 233, 247.

Stanley, H. M., 159, 184.

Steinen, C. von den, 223, 235 _note_, 248.

Stephen, Leslie, 398.

Sterne, Laurence, 298, 388, 389.

Stevenson, R. L., 398, 400, 416, 423.

Stoics, 397.

Stout, G. F., 15 _note_.

Strain, relief from. See Relief.

Sturt, C. H., 224.

“Sudden glory,” 74, 78, 116, 117, 120, 143, 198, 203, 210, 229, 381.

Superior, laughter of, at inferior, 263, 264. See Inferior.

Superiority, feeling of, as cause of laughter, 78, 118, 120, 121, 143;
laughter as assertion of, 144, 241, 263, 320.

Surprise, as cause of laughter, 9, 12, 18, 64, 125, 126–130, 142, 169,
197, 201.

Swift, Jonathan, 381, 382, 383.

Sympathy, laughter through, 117, 118, 122, 149; in humour, 306;
laughter as promoting, 417.

Taine, H., 312, 362, 372, 375, 382.

Tarde, G., 259.

Tears, laughter and, 37, 67, 70. {441}

Teasing, 77, 157, 184, 201, 229. See Practical Joking.

Temperament, as basis of laughing disposition, 80; as basis of humour,

Tennyson, Alfred, 314.

Terence, 351, 353, 361.

Thackeray, W. M., 379, 382, 389.

Thompson, H. B. See Angell, J. R.

Tickling, as cause of laughter, 50 ff., 169, 177; sensations of, 51,
53; feeling tone of, 54–56, 58; motor reactions to, 56–59, 163, 177,
180, 183; mental conditions of, 59–63, 178, 181; as form of teasing,
77; child’s first response to, by laughter, 178; origin of laughter of,
178–184; as playful, 179–184.

Ticklishness, relative, of parts of body, 51–53, 57, 177, 178, 180–182;
of apes, 57, 162, 163, 177, 180; of other animals, 177, 180.

Tolerance, of humour, 337, 342; of comedy, 376, 377.

Traill, H. D., 388 _note_, 428.

Trickery, in comedy, 349, 350.

Triumph, laughter of, 78, 83, 118, 143, 198, 200, 204, 210, 381;
presentation of, as laughable, 117.

Truth, ridicule as test of, 414.

Tucker, A., 398.

Turnbull, John, 224, 233, 248.

Types, characters of comedy as, 358–361, 364.

Tyrrell, R. Y., 264, 283, 292, 382.

Unfair laughter, 421.

Utility of laughter. See Value.

Value of laughter, as an excellence, 3, 416, 422, 423; its salutary
effects, 34–36; its social utility, 139, 244, 245, 257, 268, 271, 283,
419; as sign of playfulness, 183; its persuasive force, 252, 266, 269;
its corrective value to the individual, 323, 324, 403; its evolutional
utility, 408, 431. See also Comedy.

Vanbrugh, Jno., 411.

Vanity, as laughable spectacle, 92, 374.

Vice, as laughable spectacle, 91–93, 133; degrees of, in relation to
comic value, 91, 374; attitude of laughter towards, 92, 372–377.

Vischer, T., 19.

Voltaire, F. M. A. de, 324, 382, 383, 385.

Waitz, Th., 229, 249.

Walpole, Horace, 423.

War-temper, as laughable spectacle, 338–341, 378.

Warburton, W., 414, 419.

Ward, A. W., 281, 288, 287, 292.

— James, 400 _note_.

Wilkinson, J. G., 266.

Will, effect of, on laughter, 48; control of laughter by, 420.

Wit, as a form of the laughable, 111–113; in children, 112, 217, 218;
as play, 112, 355; word-play in relation to, 112, 356; Bain’s theory
applied to, 124; in savages, 248; relation of, to humour, 354, 385,
386; animosity in, 355, 383; in comedy, 371; connection of, with
satire, 383–385; subjective and objective, 386 _note_.

Woman, laughter between man and, 245, 246, 259, 260, 264, 267, 269,
352, 357, 363; treatment of, by comedy, 264, 352, 361 _note_, 363, 371;
wit of, 267, 347; status of, 280, 284, 347, 352.

Wood, J. G., 230, 233, 238.

Word-play, as a form of the laughable, 111–113; Bain’s theory applied
to, 124; in children, 217; in comedy, 353, 356.

Worth of life, philosophic question of, 398; relation of philosophic
humorist to, 402.

Wright, Thos., 234, 261, 263 _note_, 270, 282, 292, 293, 343 _note_.

Wundt, W., on tickling, 52.



Original spelling and grammar have been generally retained, with
some exceptions noted below. Original printed page numbers are shown
like this: {52}. Original small caps are now uppercase. Italics
look _like this_. Superscripted ‹me› looks like this ‹^{me}›, on page
viii, in the Preface. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes,
relabeled 1–340, and moved to the end of the book, just before the
INDEX. The transcriber produced the cover image and hereby assigns
it to the public domain. Original page images are available from
archive.org—search for “essayonlaughteri00sulluoft”.

Page 161. The comma was removed from ‹we seem to, have a rudiment›.

Page 238. An extra _c_ was removed from ‹acccordingly›.

Page 306. Full stop was added after ‹human affections›.

Page 327. Full stop was added after ‹rather than to hurt others›.

Page 339. Comma was added after ‹brood of suspicions›.

Page 360n. The missing _l_ was restored in ‹Griech.

Page 375. Full stop was added after ‹becoming a loss of distinctness›.

Page 386. The missing _s_ was restored to ‹take on  omething of›.

Page 388. Changed ‹glluible› to ‹gullible›.

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