“The most wasted day of all days is the one when we didn’t laugh,” according to the French writer Nicolas Chamfort. The question facing this saying is the following: On the days we laughed, after all, for what reasons did we laugh? Is the cause of laughter always joy and the feeling of mirth, or is laughter governed by the same ambiguity that governs human existence itself?
The above question was addressed by Hippocrates to Democritus: “What are you laughing at, Democritus?”. Democritus, also known as the laugher, laughed at everything, for this reason he was considered insane by his fellow Abderites, who turned to Hippocrates to cure him, as we learn from the Pseudepigrapha of Hippocrates, a series of fictional letters, which were compiled in the time of Tiberius. These texts may not have any historical reality, but they have great educational value, as they highlight the importance of the relationship between Philosophy and Medicine by focusing on human existence as a whole.
So, to the question of Hippocrates, “What are you laughing at, Democritus“, Democritus assumes a serious tone and answers: “I laugh at only one thing, at people who lack brains, who lack right works, who are infants in their plans, who suffer by toil in vain without any benefit, who run to the ends of the earth driven by their immeasurable desires, who do not stop chasing after gold, wanting to acquire more and more, worrying that they may lack […] who rush to marry women who immediately despise them; fall in love and immediately hate; want children and then abandon them”.
Democritus continues by introducing Hippocrates to a new reflection: he therefore suggests to him to think about what they would see if they had the opportunity to see inside every house, without any obstacle. They would see some crying and some laughing, some eating and some hungry. Some to prepare poisons and others to invent accusations against their friends. Others collect furniture, others statues and others paintings. But everyone is insane with vanity: “Everyone is tired of life” («Θερσίται δ’ εἰσί του βίου πάντες»).
Through the laughter of Democritus, the tragedy of human existence resonates. The fact, that is, that while he knows the inevitability of death, he chooses a life in death, a vain, empty, unjust life, with the consequence that he is constantly led to death, before he is finally led there.
Democritus’ laughter was a source of inspiration for Michel de Montaigne, who at one point in the Essays contrasts Democritus with Heraclitus. The laughing Democritus is contrasted by Montaigne against the dark philosopher Heraclitus, the laughing Democritus contrasted with the Heraclitean pity against the tragic of human existence. Is laughter, after all, a form of pity, but more intense and biting? Montaigne seems to prefer Democritus’ laughter because it is “more contemptuous and more condemning.”
The tragic irony of laughter echoes the ambiguity of human existence. Laughter, sometimes, expresses the person’s cry of anguish for life. It is no coincidence that laughter belongs to the human being, who has consciousness and awareness of life and death. This anguish of man who is between life and death is expressed with laughter as a roar. A typical example of such sarcastically anguished laughter is the laughter of Joseph K. in Welles’ film The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s work of the same name. The hero in the last scene is deep in a pit facing the death penalty, without a specific charge. His executioners are afraid to kill him with a knife (as happens in the book) and choose to execute him with an explosive device. Joseph K. challenges them to face him head-on by letting out a gut-wrenching roar combined with a tragically shaky laugh. This laughter expresses the anguish, indignation and frustration of a man who is led to death without having committed a crime and without knowing the accusation, being the burden of a suffocatingly authoritarian – state and judicial – system.
The need of the individual to transcend his transitory dimension and to break free from the suffocating control of modern society resonates through the noise. This uproar is presented directly in Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of myself, 52“, especially in the verse: “I sound my barbaric Yawp over the roofs of the world“, declaring his need to live, to transcend mortality: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass that I love”.
Could it be that laughter is man’s reaction to defend himself against mortality, turning the tragedy of his existence into a comedy? The comic, just as laughter is part of human existence, Bergson, in fact, in his work “Laughter“, emphasizes that the comic element does not exist outside of the human, for example, a beautiful landscape fascinates us by causing us mental euphoria, but not gaiety, since it will never be for laughs. There are cases, says Bergson, when an animal makes us laugh, but only because we have detected in it some human expression or attitude.
The comic and laughter are inherent in the form of the human face. If, for example, one laughs at a hat, one does not laugh at the hat itself as a piece of felt or straw, but at the shape given to it by the human form.
Laughter is caused by the bending of life in the direction of mechanics as a result of the rigidity that results when materiality exceeds vitality itself. When materiality is superimposed over vitality, when the body is superimposed over the moral, when heaviness exceeds elasticity, then undoubtedly the element of the comic is produced, with the result that corporeality is transformed into a heavy bothersome wrapping that holds to earth the soul, the which can’t wait to leave the ground. In this way, the impermanence of the body is mocked, with the aim of restoring the balance between soul – body, movement – posture, material – spiritual.
Laughter causes an impression of humiliation, without a trace of politeness and kindness, towards the other person, when, for example, he falls and collapses, or when it is expressed by some other clumsy movement. In these cases, laughter is expressed as sudden, as the person is surprised by the unpredictability of the flesh, realizing its contingency. Thus, the need for self-sarcasm arises, so that the individual can detach himself from the tragedy of his vulnerabilities, therefore from his persistence, and become existentially empowered.
Laughter is the reaction to the suddenness of the unfamiliar, to something that the person sees for the first time and that deviates from the forms with which the eye usually comes into contact.
Therefore, the absence of an excitement, which the person is experiencing for the first time, is likely to cause laughter. Man sees the mutability of the other’s flesh, as well as its stripping of false seriousness. At that moment it is reflected in physicality of the other and realizes his own potential comic element, as the great actor Charlie Chaplin once said: “Life is a tragedy in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
Aristotle, in the definition he gives for comedy in his work “ Poetics”, emphasizes the humbler imitation of the usual, but not towards every flaw, but towards something morphologically inappropriate, which is not consistent with pain or damage. Pain and damage, points out Aristotle, disfigure the face, but this disfigurement does not cause a comic impression, except when the person who sees the disfigured face of another is indifferent to the sufferer, treating him with coldness. At this point it could be said that a distinction is made between laughter caused by the comic element and which is incongruent with the pain of another, from laughter that is the result of malice, as the person laughs at the moment he sees the pain of another another, with the consequence that this laughter becomes a cause of intensity of pain, a fact highlighted in the saying of the poet Menandros: “Laughter untimely for tears” (Γέλως άκαιρος κλαυθμάτωνπαραίτιος).
It seems, then, that laughter is not a one-dimensional expression, but a dual existential expression that stretches between tragedy and comedy, just like human existence itself. Laughter caused by the comic element is distinguished from laughter accompanied by tragic exasperation at human mortality, just as laughter caused by mental euphoria is distinguished from the laughter of malice.
Laughter as a result of mental euphoria is caused in a condition of closeness and friendship between individuals. These people have developed empathy between them, with the result that one feels the joy and friendliness of the other. The empathy that accompanies friendship is expressed through laugh-out-loud jokes, strengthening the bonds of friendship between individuals. In fact, research has shown that people who usually laughed in conversations with friends had a 30% reduced risk of functional disability compared to people who usually laughed alone, without company. Laughter is radiated in the facial expression as a dialectical movement of meaning-event amid views and experiences that develop within the condition of friendship.
The good-natured laughter that manifests itself as a result of mental euphoria has a beneficial effect on the mental and physical state of the person, as a psychosomatic whole, as it favors the release of endorphins that change the levels of serotonin and dopamine, strengthening it vitally. The beneficial effects of mental euphoria were foreseen by Spinoza in his work Ethics. Spinoza believed that joy strengthens the power of the individual’s vitality by prompting him to become familiar with his nature. In contrast to mischievous laughter, which is characterized by the complete absence of empathy, as the person does not simply laugh at the other’s pain, but attempts to cause it.
Laughter can prove to be a bacteria for man, since it prompts him to familiarize himself. Man is often consumed in his seriousness and meaningless pretentious forms of politeness. So it is enough to reflect that just as his seriousness is fake, so is his freedom, especially in today’s era.
Man is like a marionette and the thread is in the hands of Necessity, a fact that had been perceived since ancient times. The great satirical poet of antiquity, Aristophanes, uses the comic element to awaken others by embellishing reality. With satire, Aristophanes demonstrates the essence and through the laughter he provokes, the need of existence to break through the superficial dimension of becoming resonates. Laughter has social significance, as it functions as a way of civilizing and correcting the rigidity of social phenomena, habits, stereotypes, causing the fear of humiliation. It is, we could say, a social capsule aimed at punishment through satire.
Laughter is the vibration of the individual’s drive towards the good life that is shaped in each existence and expresses the individual’s need to break free from the stereotypes and the image of his flesh that has been imposed on him, and which he himself neither is nor even looks like with her.
The invisible vital vibrations – contractions of the individual’s drive towards the sarcastic side of life become visible in the face. In fact, Sardony laughter is known from history, which has its roots in the poisonous, endemic plant of Sardinia. Related study published in the Journal of Nature Products the plant oenanthe crocata causes the muscles of the face to contract, causing the distortion and the characteristic evil smile. Other research has shown that molecules of the plant can be modified to have a beneficial effect on patients suffering from facial paralysis. As Hippocrates said: “The most serious illness is that in which the patient’s face does not resemble his normal face at all“, because the face radiates human existence.
If we were to paraphrase the well-known Cartesian saying “Cogito, ergo Sum” (“I think, therefore I exist”, in the sense of Sum-I am), we could say rideo, ergo existo, i.e. I laugh, therefore I exist, in the literal sense of existo -exist. My existence resonates through laughter, which expresses the resistance of my living flesh to the rigidity and tragic destiny of the human being, who throughout his life passes from comedy to tragedy and vice versa.
If we liken life to a theater, we will find that there is a constant alternation of beginning with end, tragedy with comedy, laughter with crying, and man as a tragic hero tries to balance in the midst of these constant alternations. His laughter is a defense and attack at the same time, it expresses joy and at the same time pain, it precedes or follows crying. Man by laughing or causing laughter mocks life itself, his destiny like a buffoon who offers plenty of laughter, through which he seeks redemption from his own suffering. So let’s put it into practice every day prompt from the famous opera “Pagliacci”: “Ridi, pagliaccio!”
- Αριστοτέλους, Περί Ποιητικής, (μτφρ. Σίμου Μενάνδρου, Εισαγωγή Ι. Συκουτρή), εκδ. ΕΣΤΙΑ, 2011, Αθήνα, IV 14-V 1, 1449a.
- Γεράσιμος Βώκος, (2008), Ο Ιπποκράτης και η τρέλα του Δημόκριτου, ενημερώθηκε (2000) https://www.tovima.gr/2008/11/24/opinions/o-ippokratis-kai-i-trela-toy-dimokritoy/
- Πολυξένη Ζινδρίλη (2010), « Η παιδαγωγική αξία του γέλιου στη φιλοσοφία του Henri Bergson», Ελληνική Φιλοσοφική Επιθεώρηση 27(2010), 251, 267.
- Γιώργος Κουτσαντώνης (2 έτη πριν) Ο Ιπποκράτης και η χαρωπή τρέλα του Δημόκριτου https://www.respublica.gr/2021/02/post/democritus-laughing/
- Henri Bergson, Laughter Original title: Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique), (translated by Cloudesley Brereton, Fred Rothwell), ©1900, 2022 SAGA Egmont, ανακτήθηκε από: https://books.google.gr/
- Orson Welles, Alexander Salkind “The Trial”, (1962), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_KUNKHkrdg
- Heidi Godman, (2022). Laughing with friends linked to lower risk of disability, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/laughing-with-friends-linked-to-lower-risk-of-disability
- Endorphins: The brain’s natural pain reliever ( 2021), Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/endorphins-the-brains-natural-pain-reliever