Archive for the ‘francis hutcheson’ tag
Here is a passage I came across during my day job as a scholar of early modern philosophy. It is taken from Francis Hutcheson, the influential eighteenth century thinker. He briefly discusses the nature and usefulness of the sense of humor. It’s from his lecture notes, which were later published as a textbook. (Translated from the Latin by Michael Silverthorne. Full text available here.)
By the aid of these senses, then, some of the things that happen to us appear delightful, fitting, glorious, and honorable to us, while others seem vile and contemptible, and we may discern yet another reflexive sense: a sense of things that are ridiculous or apt to cause laughter, that is, when a thing arouses contrary sensations at one and the same time. In the case of men’s intentions and actions, bad behavior that does not cause grievous sorrow or death gives rise to laughter, because there is some dignity in the very name of man because we have a certain opinion of his prudence and intelligence, whereas bad behavior that leads to serious pain or death rather excites pity. In the case of other things, we are moved to laughter by those which exhibit some splendid spectacle at the same time as a contradictory image of something cheap, lowly, and contemptible. This sense is very beneficial, whether in increasing the pleasure of conversation or in correcting men’s morals.
Much of what he says here about the ridiculous and contradictory is a fairly standard theory of humor that dates back to Aristotle. What I find intriguing is that last sentence.
We can all agree that having a sense of humor is beneficial because it increases the pleasure of conversation. But how exactly does a sense of humor “correct men’s morals”? I suspect he is referring back to his earlier point that we laugh at bad behavior (short of death or “grievous sorrow”), which serves as a corrective to bad behavior. Basically, when we laugh at louts, they are shamed into acting better.
Going beyond the text, this passage got me thinking about the role that a sense of humor has in living a good life. I’ve long thought that a sense of humor (both the ability to laugh when appropriate and to make others laugh) is an important character trait. But it is not a virtue that is developed on its own. As Hutcheson reminds us, our sense of humor influences our other character traits. For instance, being able to laugh at our foibles gives us a healthy distance that can encourage us to improve them.
But I’m still wondering if a sense of humor improves us in other ways. How does being able to laugh and make others laugh improve our other character traits? Is a kind person made more kind by having a sense of humor? Is an intelligent person made more intelligent or better demonstrate that intelligence when they have a sense of humor?