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The similarities and differences between humor and religion

Attitudes to humor and joking—and especially to laughter—have ranged from wholesale condemnation, to qualified acceptance and praise of certain forms of humor, to more enthusiastic acceptance. The Separation of Humor and Religion The separation of humor and religion cannot be understood without understanding attitudes to laughter in the history of Western philosophy and theology.

For centuries, the condemnation of laughter was commonplace.

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Among the ancient Greeks, for instance, Plato associates indulgence in laughter with the loss of self-control. In his Republic, the guardians who are to govern the ideal society must not be "too fond of laughter" 388eand no literature portraying the gods or other reputable characters as overcome with laughter can be permitted in the ideal polis.

Special Issue of “Humor and Religion”

Aristotle is rather more charitable, and as we shall shortly see, views wit eutrapelia as a virtue. Nevertheless, in the Poetics he still associates comedy with something "lowly. A comic character is ludicrous in respect of some "error or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive" 1449a. Numerous Greek, Jewish, and Christian ascetics took as an ideal the perfect human who never laughed. In the Christian tradition, Luke 6: John Chrysostom 347—407 ce has been cited as the first to point out that the gospels never portray Jesus as laughing, and the former's condemnation of laughter is typical of a common attitude in early Christianity: When … thou seest persons the similarities and differences between humor and religion, reflect that those teeth, that grin now, will one day have to sustain that most dreadful wailing and gnashing, and that they will remember this same laugh on That Day whilst they are grinding and gnashing!

Then thou too shalt remember this laugh! Concerning the Statutes, Homily XX. Cited in Gilhus, p. This condemnation of laughter seems largely to do with its bodily nature, the idea being that laughter had to be conquered as part and parcel of controlling the body. As Gilhus puts it, "The more the body was closed against the world, the more the soul was opened up to God" p.

The Feast of Fools: A More Positive View Though there were exceptions to the disapproving view of humor in early Christianity—chiefly among the Gnostics, several of whose myths included laughter as a reaction to a clash between a material and spiritual interpretation of events—it was not until the medieval period that a far more positive view of laughter and the comic emerged.

According to several scholars, this was largely the result of a changed view of the human body, related not least to the centrality of the Eucharist and an increased emphasis upon Christianity as a religion of incarnation.

It is from such factors that Mikhail Bakhtin generates his influential view of the Middle Ages ' "laughter culture" in his seminal book Rabelais and His World. The festivals of this period included the Feast of Foolsnearly all the rituals of which were, according to Bakhtin, "a grotesque degradation of various church rituals and symbols and their transfer to the material bodily level: Certainly, parody and revelry of various kinds were central to such carnivals. The contrast between the likes of John Chrysostom and the writers of an apology the similarities and differences between humor and religion such activities issued by the Paris School of Theology in 1444 could hardly be starker.

The apologists claim that "foolishness" is humanity's "second nature," and stress the importance of its being given the opportunity to "freely spend itself at least once a year. This can be seen as an embryonic version of the so-called relief or release theory of humor or laughter, later developed in more detail by Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud.

Thomas Aquinas But the Middle Ages also provide a mean between the extremes described by Bakhtin and the ascetic despisers of laughter. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, shows a markedly greater tolerance of laughter than does John Chrysostom. Drawing on Aristotle, according to whose Nicomachean Ethics wit eutrapelia is a virtue, Aquinas argues that the lack of mirth is a vice.

Following Aristotle, he commends eutrapelia, an application of the doctrine of the golden mean to the sphere of play: Those who go to excess in merry-making [Aristotle] calls buffoons bomolochoi … these people are always ready to seize anything which they can turn to ridicule. Such men are a nuisance through their efforts at all costs to raise a laugh. He says that those who exercise moderation in play are called eutrapeloi, "well-turning," because they are able to turn aptly into laughter what is said or done.

Cited in Hugo Rahner, "Eutrapelia: A Forgotten Virtue," in Hyers, 1969, p. This issue is given a memorable fictional portrayal in Umberto Eco 's novel The Name of the Rose 1980in which the laughter-hating monastery librarian Jorge is prepared to kill rather than allow the discovery of his library's secret treasure, the lost second book of Aristotle's Poetics which praises comedy and laughter. Though Aquinas's view of laughter and the comic is clearly more measured than that found among certain celebrants of the Feast of Fools, it has often been noted that by the medieval period, the church had moved from an almost entirely negative view of laughter to fostering it actively through religious plays and feasts.

The Reformation and Beyond However, the Reformation's more negative view of the body, exemplified by such moves as the spiritualization of the Eucharist, marked a turn in the opposite direction: For a somewhat contrary view that discusses the significance of Martin Luther in the history of laughter, see Zwart, chapter 4.

It is from this general trend that Bakhtin derives his view that, in contrast to the Renaissance view of laughter that he associates with Rabelais, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, for whom laughter "has a deep philosophical meaning … Certain aspects of the world are accessible only to laughter" p.

This attitude culminates in one of the best-known of all comments on the similarities and differences between humor and religion, from one of Lord Chesterfield's mid-eighteenth-century letters to his son: Several scholars have suggested that this is rooted in a low evaluation of the body in relation to the soul: However, the tide turns again with the increasing association of laughter with humor, understood as being rooted in incongruity.

Since the ability to perceive incongruity requires rational capacities, rational beings can view laughter more positively. There is a certain irony in the association with incongruity being viewed as a point in humor's favor, however, since others have taken quite a contrary view.

The Separation of Humor and Religion

George Santayanafor instance, in The Sense of Beauty, insists that the pleasure of humor or the comic cannot inhere in incongruity itself; since as rational animals, we are incapable of finding incongruity, absurdity, or nonsense pleasurable. Overall, then, what we note is a deeply ambivalent relationship to humor, the comic, and laughter in the religious thought of the West.

For long periods, humor and comedy were condemned, due largely to their association with such an inherently bodily phenomenon as laughter, but also because of their association with derision or scorn.

However, there are more positive views of the connection between religion and humor, irony, and the comic, such as Aquinas's commendation of eutrapelia and, in the Renaissance period, Erasmus's Praise of Folly. In this respect, two thinkers in particular deserve special mention: Hegel 1770—1831 discusses tragedy and comedy in the section on religion in his influential Phenomenology of Spirit.

Central to Hegel's philosophy is the belief that the world is rational, and the purpose of human enquiry is to bring this rationality to consciousness. Hegel characterizes the Phenomenology as an introduction to his philosophical system, and in it, he traces the story of Spirit Geist progressively coming to know itself.

  1. In contrast to the lonely isolation of the tragic hero or heroine, Hegel characterizes comedy in terms of the self-assertion of the common man in what Findlay calls "his revolutionary disrespect for everything" p. Drawing on Aristotle, according to whose Nicomachean Ethics wit eutrapelia is a virtue, Aquinas argues that the lack of mirth is a vice.
  2. Concerning the Statutes, Homily XX. Everyone, including the gods, is reduced or leveled, as the religious consciousness no longer distinguishes between the divine and itself.
  3. A More Positive View Though there were exceptions to the disapproving view of humor in early Christianity—chiefly among the Gnostics, several of whose myths included laughter as a reaction to a clash between a material and spiritual interpretation of events—it was not until the medieval period that a far more positive view of laughter and the comic emerged. For more on this, see Roberts, 1988, and Lippitt, 2005.
  4. Drawing on Aristotle, according to whose Nicomachean Ethics wit eutrapelia is a virtue, Aquinas argues that the lack of mirth is a vice.

A vital part of Spirit's progress is through various manifestations of religion: Hegel briefly discusses epic, tragedy, and comedy in a section entitled "The Spiritual Work of Art" pp. In an epic, the actions and destiny of the heroes are controlled by the gods.

In tragedy, by contrast, individuals seem to have more control over their fate. However, this is largely illusory, since the hero or heroine is often destroyed by trusting in the seemingly obvious meaning of an ambiguous utterance of the gods: The hero or heroine's true powerlessness in relation to the gods is revealed by the chorus, which "clings to the consciousness of an alien fate" for him or her p.

The divine forces in tragedy represent a split between the "feminine" pole of family and the "masculine" pole of state or government. Think, for instance, of Agamemnon, commanded by the gods to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in exchange for winds favorable to the fleet, so that it can sail and sack Troy.

  1. I find this video remarkably funny.
  2. Though Aquinas's view of laughter and the comic is clearly more measured than that found among certain celebrants of the Feast of Fools, it has often been noted that by the medieval period, the church had moved from an almost entirely negative view of laughter to fostering it actively through religious plays and feasts.
  3. Several scholars have suggested that this is rooted in a low evaluation of the body in relation to the soul. More recently, this idea has been developed by others to suggest that prolonged exposure to humor of an appropriate sort can have an important role to play in the development of moral and religious virtues, as part of the process of moral education as habituation espoused by Aristotle.
  4. Hegel 1770—1831 discusses tragedy and comedy in the section on religion in his influential Phenomenology of Spirit.

Agamemnon is torn between his love for his daughter Iphigenia the family pole and his duty as king the state pole. However, the focus on the character of the tragic hero or heroine brings about a change in the way the religious consciousness thinks of the gods. Rather than see them as agents directing the lives of the heroes, the divine becomes viewed as fate, and this "completes the depopulation of Heaven.

In comedy, "actual self-consciousness exhibits itself as the fate of the gods" p. Everyone, including the gods, is reduced or leveled, as the religious consciousness no longer distinguishes between the divine and itself.

Hegel thinks that this contains an element of truth: Findlay, "The truth of comedy is that all the great big essential fixtures that stand over against self-consciousness are really products of, and at the mercy of, self-consciousness" in Phenomenology of Spirit, 1977, p.

Yet this leveling has a downside, as we shall shortly see. In contrast to the lonely isolation of the tragic hero or heroine, Hegel characterizes comedy in terms of the self-assertion of the common man in what Findlay calls "his revolutionary disrespect for everything" p.

Both the comic consciousness and religion in the form of art are the spirit of an age in which pure individualism is starting to get out of control. For Hegel, this is a period, such as the early Roman Empirewhich stresses the rights of an abstract self.

But Hegel thinks that such a conception of a right is an empty abstraction that needs to be filled by the Spirit of a particular people: Thus the ostensibly liberating universal disrespect in which the comic consciousness revels is not the liberation it appears to be.

And the "comic consciousness that is perfectly happy within itself" p.

  • This attitude culminates in one of the best-known of all comments on laughter, from one of Lord Chesterfield's mid-eighteenth-century letters to his son;
  • But the overall idea seems to be that, as one ascends the existence-spheres from the aesthetic to the ethical to the religious, one develops an ever deeper and more profound sense of the comical in life;
  • Indeed, so wide has the range of application of the term been that it becomes reasonable to wonder whether it has not been stretched so far, or used so vaguely, as to cease to be a particularly informative term at all;
  • Among the ancient Greeks, for instance, Plato associates indulgence in laughter with the loss of self-control.

Thus the secular outlook of the comic consciousness will not do, but crucially, it is its inherent instability that gives rise to the highest stage of religion, "revealed religion," in which God achieves self-consciousness through humanity. Christianity, for Hegel, constitutes the highest form of religious consciousness, in its recognition that "the divine nature is the same as the human" p.

In this way, the comic consciousness has a vital role to play in the development of what is, for Hegel, the highest form of religion: Christianity as speculative knowledge. Kierkegaard A rather different view of the relationship between humor and religion is to be found in a philosopher who is influenced by, and yet in many respects opposes himself violently to, Hegel: It is ironic that the thinker who makes one of the most explicit connections between religion and the comic is typically caricatured as "the melancholy Dane.

In his Journals and Papers, he makes the extraordinary claim that Christianity is "the most humorous view of life in world history" vol. Kierkegaard had a lifelong fascination with Socrates, "the greatest master of irony," on whom he wrote a dissertation, The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, and he viewed the notoriously obscure writer J. Hamann as "the greatest humorist" entry 1554.

Kierkegaard's richest and most extended discussion of religion and the comic, however, is in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript 1846published under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, a character who describes himself as a "humorist.

The ironist has seen the limitations of the aesthetic life—a life which involves an endless evasive toying with existential possibilities—but has not made the movement to the ethical, in which serious choices and commitments for one's own life are made. The contrast here is between a life of fragmented episodes the aesthetic and a life of coherent narrative unity the ethical.

The ironist possesses an insight, albeit limited, into the stage "beyond. One key difference between humor and irony, for Climacus, is that whereas irony is proud, and tends to divide the similarities and differences between humor and religion person from another—Climacus describes it in terms of self-assertion and "teasing" p.

Humor thus has a sympathy that irony lacks p. Moreover, the humorist also has a more profound understanding of important elements of life than the ironist: There is a complicated relationship, for Climacus, between humor and pain.

It is this insight into such aspects of the religious life as resignation, suffering, and guilt that places humor, but not irony, at the boundary of the ethical and the religious. Climacus equivocates as to whether humor is on the boundaries of the ethical and Religiousness A his term for a sort of generic religious consciousness that is aware of the centrality to human life of resignation, suffering, and guiltor on the boundary of Religiousness A and Religiousness B Christianity.

But the overall idea seems to be that, as one ascends the existence-spheres from the aesthetic to the ethical to the religious, one develops an ever deeper and more profound sense of the comical in life.

Hence Climacus's claim that a sense of and taste for the comic is intimately related to one's existential capabilities: The religious person is described as one who has "discovered the comic on the greatest scale" p. Such a person views life as a "jest," in that she is able to see that all one's efforts are as nothing, because one is capable of nothing without God.

However, there are limits to Climacus's praise for humor.