Humor and Religion: Humor, Irony, and the Comic in Western Theology and Philosophy
HUMOR AND RELIGION: HUMOR, IRONY, AND THE COMIC IN WESTERN THEOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY
In the history of Western theology and philosophy, humor and religion have had a stormy relationship. 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. 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" (388e), and no literature portraying the gods or other reputable characters as overcome with laughter can be permitted in the ideal polis. 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." In comedy we laugh at the imitation of those inferior to us because of their "ridiculousness … a particular form of the shameful" (1449a). 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 6:25 reports Jesus as saying "Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep." Much was made of this verse by early Christian ascetics in judging laughter to be contemptible. 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 laughing, 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. 63)
But if laughter was contemptible, weeping—over Christ's death, one's own sin, and the threat of eternal damnation—was to be praised and recommended (for more on this idea see Gilhus, chapter 4). 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. 67).
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 Fools, nearly 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: gluttony and drunken orgies on the altar table, indecent gestures, disrobing" (pp. 74–75).
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 for 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." Humans are compared to badly constructed wine barrels, "which would burst from the wine of wisdom, if this wine remains in a state of constant fermentation of piousness and fear of God." Just as such wine must be given air so that it does not spoil, so the church must allow folly on certain days "so that we may later return with greater zeal to the service of God" (quoted by Bakhtin, p. 75). 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.
Striking the Mean: St. Thomas Aquinas
But the Middle Ages also provide a mean between the extremes described by Bakhtin and the ascetic despisers of laughter. St. 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.… But he says also that those who do not want themselves to make a joke and are annoyed by those who do, because they feel insulted, appear to be "agrii," that is, "boorish," and hard, because they are not softened by the pleasure of play.… Thus Aristotle shows what is the mean in playing. 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. (St. Thomas Aquinas, In decem libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nichomachum, lib. iv, lect. 16. Cited in Hugo Rahner, "Eutrapelia: A Forgotten Virtue," in Hyers, 1969, p. 193)
The fact that Aristotle, so respected a source for medieval Christianity, praises wittiness and its concomitant laughter appears to be a problem for laughter's religious enemies. This issue is given a memorable fictional portrayal in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose (1980), in 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: in England, for instance, one Particular Baptist group agreed that future members must never make jokes, and certain Puritan pamphlets, putting the case for the closure of theaters, seem to urge a return to John Chrysostom's view. (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. 66), from the seventeenth century onwards, what laughter is left becomes diminished: its "cold humor, irony, sarcasm" (p. 38) and the like are "a laughter that does not laugh" (p. 45). 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: "There is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter.… I am sure that since I had full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh."
In this view, laughter per se is vulgar, which is in some respects a return to Plato's view. Several scholars have suggested that this is rooted in a low evaluation of the body in relation to the soul: as Gilhus puts it, "laughter with its anchorage in the body was … devalued against superior reason" (p. 101). 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. George Santayana, for 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: G. W. F. Hegel, for whom the comic consciousness plays an important role in the history of religion; and Søren Kierkegaard, for whom Christianity is "the most humorous view of life in world history."
G. W. F. 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. A vital part of Spirit's progress is through various manifestations of religion: from "natural religion" (e.g. the idea of God as light, and of plant and animal spirits); through various forms of "religion in the form of art" (exemplified by the Greeks); to "revealed religion" (Hegel's version of Christianity).
Hegel briefly discusses epic, tragedy, and comedy in a section entitled "The Spiritual Work of Art" (pp. 439–453). 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 double-tongued character of what they announced as a certainty deceive him" (p. 446). 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. 445).
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. 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.… The expulsion of such shadowy, insubstantial picture-thoughts which was demanded of the philosophers of antiquity thus already begins in [Greek] Tragedy" (p. 449).
This is where comedy enters the picture. In comedy, "actual self-consciousness exhibits itself as the fate of the gods" (p. 450): that is, even the gods become selves that are in an important sense indistinguishable from the actor or spectator. Everyone, including the gods, is reduced or leveled, as the religious consciousness no longer distinguishes between the divine and itself. "It is the return of everything universal into the certainty of itself … [a] complete loss of fear and of essential being on the part of all that is alien" (pp. 452–453). Hegel thinks that this contains an element of truth: in the words of J. N. 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. 584). 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. 584). 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 Empire, which 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: a particular community or epoch. 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. 455) is brought to completion by its counterpart, the unhappy consciousness, which sees the abstract self for the chimera that it is.
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. 460): in its incarnation, the "absolute Being" ascends "for the first time to its own highest essence" (p. 460); the world is able "to behold what absolute Being is, and in it to find itself" (p. 461). 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.
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: the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855). 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." As well as being capable of dazzlingly witty and amusing prose, Kierkegaard makes some striking remarks about humor's relation to Christianity in particular and also to a more general religious worldview. In his Journals and Papers, he makes the extraordinary claim that Christianity is "the most humorous view of life in world history" (vol. 2, entry 1681).
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. G. 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 (1846), published under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, a character who describes himself as a "humorist." As well as containing some of Kierkegaard's most famous satire at the expense of Hegelianism (for the philosophical significance of this, see Lippitt, 2000, chapter 2), the Postscript develops important existential roles for irony and humor, subcategories of Kierkegaard's more generic term "the comic."
Irony and humor serve as confinia, or "boundary zones," between the aesthetic, ethical, and religious existence-spheres or "stages on life's way." Climacus sees the ironist as being on the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical life. 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." He or she thus occupies a transitional stage between the two spheres of existence: aware of the limitations of the former, but unable or unwilling to make the move to the latter.
One key difference between humor and irony, for Climacus, is that whereas irony is proud, and tends to divide one person from another—Climacus describes it in terms of self-assertion and "teasing" (p. 551)—humor is rather more gentle, and is concerned with those tragicomic elements of the human condition shared by all human beings. Humor thus has a sympathy that irony lacks (p. 582). Moreover, the humorist also has a more profound understanding of important elements of life than the ironist: in particular, the humorist understands that suffering is essential to human life. (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 guilt), or 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 more competently a person exists, the more he will discover the comic" (p. 462).
The religious person is described as one who has "discovered the comic on the greatest scale" (p. 462). 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. First, he stresses that for the seriously religious person, such jest is mixed with "earnestness," in that one's ultimate dependence upon God does not detract from the need for existential striving. Second, he insists that there are limits to what may legitimately be laughed at: there is nothing comic, for instance, about religious suffering (p. 483). (For more on Climacus's account of when the comic is legitimate, see Lippitt, 2000, chapter 7.)
Finally, as well as being "boundary zones," irony and humor play a second important role as "incognitos" for ethical and religious individuals respectively. By acting as a kind of existential disguise, irony and humor allow such individuals to protect their "inwardness." Yet also, somewhat paradoxically, they act as means by which what it is to live ethically or religiously can be communicated indirectly to those on the boundaries of ethical or religious life. That is, irony and humor can function as forms of "indirect communication," drawing those with the relevant sensitivity towards an ethical or religious life. In this way, Kierkegaard and his pseudonym Climacus effectively suggest that developing a sense for the comic can play a vital part in a radical shift in one's view of life. 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. (For more on this, see Roberts, 1988, and Lippitt, 2005).
The Twentieth Century to Date: Theories of Humor
By the latter portion of the twentieth century, it had become common among philosophers and other scholars interested in humor to treat theories of humor as falling into three broad types, based around incongruity, superiority, and relief (or the release of energy). Humor had by now become the standard umbrella term, with irony, satire, wit, and so on treated as subcategories thereof.
The incongruity tradition is commonly treated as originating in the remarks of Immanuel Kant and, in particular, Arthur Schopenhauer. In The World as Will and Idea Schopenhauer claims that "the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects thought through it in some relation" (vol. 1, p. 76). Recent writers in this tradition have disagreed as to whether what really causes amusement is the perception of incongruity itself, or the resolution of that incongruity: the fitting of an apparent anomaly into some conceptual schema.
The term incongruity has been used to cover a wide range of phenomena, from logical impossibility via ambiguity (such as double entendres) to mere inappropriateness (such as importing into one context what belongs to another). 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.
Another difficulty is whether the incongruity tradition puts all the emphasis on form or structure at the expense of content or context. Even if it were possible to point to an element of incongruity in any instance of humor, to what extent is it the incongruity (as opposed to, say, the subject matter, or the surrounding social context, or some combination of factors) that is the real cause of amusement? For example, one joke may be rated as much funnier than another that is entirely identical in structure simply because the former is about sex and the latter about a more neutral topic. This raises a serious question as to whether, in such cases, it can really be a purely formal notion such as incongruity that is doing all the work. These problems notwithstanding, probably a majority of theorists now subscribe to some version of the idea that incongruity is a central element in humor.
The second major theoretical tradition revolves around superiority. This can be traced back to Aristotle's association of comedy with the "lowly," and finds its most famous early modern treatment in Thomas Hobbes's claim, in his Human Nature, that laughter is "sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly" (p. 46). If this is all there is to laughter, it becomes easier to see why so many have held a negative view of it.
But the superiority view is haunted by some problems equivalent to those that haunt the incongruity tradition. First, why do some feelings of superiority (or instances of incongruity) manifest themselves in laughter, but not others? Second, isn't Hobbes's view excessively narrow? It is hard to deny that the misfortune or alleged deficiencies of others is a staple topic of comedy, from the hackneyed example of the man slipping on the banana peel to various kinds of racist and sexist humor. But how plausible is it to claim that all humorous laughter involves Schadenfreude or one of its close relatives?
One twentieth-century follower of Hobbes, Anthony Ludovici, aims to tackle this problem by explaining all laughter—humorous and non-humorous—in terms of "superior adaptation." Under this heading, he includes experiences as diverse as Schadenfreude and the pleasure taken, such as when enjoying nonsense and absurdity, in a temporary escape from the need to obey the rules of logic and reason. Thus Ludovici is able to account for a greater variety of humor than is Hobbes. But he achieves this only by stretching his use of terminology in a similar, but arguably more extreme, manner than sometimes happens in the incongruity tradition.
Both Hobbes and Ludovici seem to overlook the attitude of childlike playfulness that is important to the enjoyment of so much humor. They also have difficulties adequately explaining the phenomenon of laughing at oneself. For Hobbes, the self at whom I laugh is a former self to whom I am now superior; for Ludovici, finding myself in a position of inferior adaptation, I feign the sign of superior adaptation. Both explanations overlook the fact that one could possibly find one's own current self genuinely amusing, and that this capacity is central to the ability genuinely to laugh at oneself.
Moreover, this point seems especially relevant to an important "religious" use of humor. Many who have seen a positive ethical or religious function for humor (such as Kierkegaard) have done so because they recognize our capacity to transcend ourselves in humorous laughter. But as Kierkegaard's location of humor as a boundary zone on the verge of the genuinely religious suggests, it is important to recognize, pace Hobbes, that it can be one's current, flawed, self at which one is genuinely laughing, rather than some former self that one has already transcended.
Another twentieth-century thinker often treated as part of the superiority tradition is Henri Bergson. Central to Bergson's treatment of laughter is that it functions as a social corrective. For Bergson, mechanism and inelasticity are the key elements of the comic, such that what is funny is "something mechanical encrusted on the living" (p. 84). Society requires us to adapt our behaviour to its demands: those who fail demonstrate unsociability, treated by Bergson as a kind of inelasticity, and are thereby comical. Seeing others laughed at for such behaviour coerces us into acting as society demands: laughter is a kind of policeman of the social order. Again, Bergson's account seems excessively reductionist, and he too seems to overlook the childlike playfulness that is so far removed from this laughter of social correction.
The third major tradition revolves around relief, or the release of tension or psychic energy. Herbert Spencer propounded a relatively simple version of this theory, though the most important and elaborately worked-out version of it is that of Sigmund Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud divides jokes into "innocent" and "tendentious," the latter category being further subdivided into "hostile" and "obscene." Freud's view of tendentious jokes is in some ways the opposite of Bergson's view of laughter as the policeman of the social order. For Freud, civilization forces us to repress our aggressive and sexual desires. Tendentious jokes allow us to enjoy these pleasures by circumventing the obstacle that stands in the way of the satisfaction of the hostile or lustful instinct. Though the general idea that laughter can provide a release of nervous energy seems plausible, Freud's key error, in trying to offer his theory as a scientific one, is to take the notion of "psychic energy" too literally, and to aim to quantify it in a somewhat implausible manner.
Various connections can be drawn between these three theoretical traditions and our earlier discussions. Kierkegaard, for instance, treats the essence of the comic as rooted in contradiction or incongruity, and the interplay of congruity and incongruity has even been seen as the central feature around which the whole discussion of humor and religion can usefully be oriented. As suggested earlier, the idea that humor and laughter are rooted in one's own perceived superiority probably accounts, at least in part, for why laughter has so commonly been condemned as irreligious. And, as also noted, the justification of "foolishness" given by the apologists for the Feast of Fools seems to trade on an embryonic version of the release theory. However, the idea that these three traditions are exhaustive should be treated with caution, as the significance of many thinkers' contributions to this debate will be missed if one attempts to shoehorn their ideas into one or other of these three traditions.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass., 1968. Influential if controversial account of the "laughter culture" of the Middle Ages and its connection with the work of Rabelais.
Berger, Peter. Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. Berlin, 1997.
Bergson, Henri. Le Rire. Translated as Laughter by C. Brereton and F. Rothwell. London, 1911. Also included in Comedy, edited by Wylie Sypher. Baltimore, Md., 1956. Page reference is to this latter edition.
Cox, Harvey. The Feast of Fools. Cambridge, Mass., 1969.
Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. London, 1984. Fascinating medieval murder mystery novel, central to which is Christianity's ambivalent attitude to comedy and laughter.
Erasmus. Praise of Folly. Translated by Betty Radice. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1971.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated by James Strachey. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1976. The most elaborately worked out classic version of the relief or release theory.
Gilhus, Ingvild Saelid. Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion. London, 1997. Very useful survey from ancient Greece and Judaism to the present day, focusing especially on Christianity.
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Translated by A. V. Miller, with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay. Oxford, 1977.
Hobbes, Thomas. Human Nature. In The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, vol. 4, edited by W. Molesworth. London, 1840. Contains a classic statement of the superiority theory.
Hyers, M. Conrad, ed. Holy Laughter: Essays on Religion in the Comic Perspective. New York, 1969. See especially Reinhold Niebuhr, "Humor and Faith," and Hugo Rahner, "Eutrapelia: A Forgotten Virtue."
Hyers, M. Conrad. The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith. New York, 1981.
Hyers, M. Conrad. The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. New Brunswick, N.J., 1996.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. Edited and translated by H. V. and E. H. Hong. Princeton, N.J., 1989.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited and translated by H. V. and E. H. Hong. Princeton, N.J., 1992.
Kuschel, Karl-Josef. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London, 1994.
Lippitt, John. "Humour and Incongruity." Cogito 8, no. 2 (1994): 147–153. A critical discussion of Schopenhauer and others.
Lippitt, John. "Humour and Superiority." Cogito 9, no. 1 (1995): 54–61. A critical discussion of Hobbes and others.
Lippitt, John. "Humour and Release." Cogito 9, no. 2 (1995): 169–176. A critical discussion of (predominantly) Freud.
Lippitt, John. Humour and Irony in Kierkegaard's Thought. London, 2000. On the roles of irony, humor, and satire as forms of the comic in Kierkegaard, and their wider relevance for ethical and religious thought.
Lippitt, John. "Is a Sense of Humour a Virtue?" The Monist 88, no. 1 (2005). A response to Roberts's "Humor and the Virtues." Draws on Aristotle and Kierkegaard to argue that a sense of humor, while not a distinct virtue, has an important role to play in moral education, given humor's ability to bring about a shift of vision that can be ethically transforming.
Ludovici, Anthony M. The Secret of Laughter. London, 1932. An early twentieth-century version of the superiority theory.
Morreall, John. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany, N.Y., 1983. Includes an introduction to various philosophical theories of laughter, especially those based around superiority, incongruity, and relief.
Morreall, John. "The Rejection of Humor in Western Thought." Philosophy East and West 39 (1989): 243–265.
Morreall, John. Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion. Albany, N.Y., 1999.
Morreall, John, ed. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Albany, N.Y., 1987. A useful anthology of writings on laughter and humor by philosophers from Plato to the late twentieth century.
Roberts, Robert C. "Humor and the Virtues." Inquiry 31 (1988): 127–149. Argues that a sense of humor of a certain kind is a virtue, but only if it is allied with compassion and hope.
Roche, Mark William. Tragedy and Comedy: A Systematic Study and a Critique of Hegel. Albany, N.Y., 1998.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. Translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp. London, 1883. Schopenhauer's major philosophical work, which includes (as something of an aside) a classic statement of the incongruity theory.
Screech, M. A. Laughter at the Foot of the Cross. London, 1997. On laughter, humor, and Christianity, focusing especially on Erasmus and Rabelais.
Trueblood, Elton. The Humor of Christ. New York, 1964.
Whedbee, J. William. The Bible and the Comic Vision. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.
Zwart, Hub. Ethical Consensus and the Truth of Laughter. Kampen, Netherlands, 1996. On the role of laughter in moral transformations; draws on Bakhtin, Nietzsche, Bataille, and Foucault, and discusses Socrates, Luther, and Ibsen.
John Lippitt (2005)