Christians have long worried over laughter. Church fathers pointed out that Jesus wept but never laughed, and even mild endorsements of laughter were qualified with warnings that laughter must be moderate, never excessive.
The fact that laughter, like sexual passion, is untamable is evidence of original sin. Commenting on Ecclesiastes, Gregory of Nyssa described laughter as a grotesque form of madness, involving “an unseemly bodily loosening, agitated breathing, a shaking of the whole body, dilation of the cheeks, baring of teeth, gums and palate, stretching of the neck, and an abnormal breaking up of the voice as it is cut into by the fragmentation of the breath.”
The medieval Church wisely provided safety valves—Carnival, the Feast of Fools, the risus paschali or “Easter laughter.” By the high Middle Ages, stern patristic suspicions of laughter were softening. After the twelfth century, artists depicted human beings with smiles and laughs; prior to that time, only painted demons laughed. Following Aristotle, Thomas was indulgent toward humor as a social lubricant.
But it wasn’t until the age of Erasmus, More, and Rabelais that Christian laughter came into its own. The Jesuit Joannes Lorinus (1559–1634) argued that Ecclesiastes condemns boisterous, jeering laughter, but not laughter “arising from good things in the mind.” Even Calvin got into the act, penning a preface to defend the use of humor in Pierre Viret’s Disputations chrestiennes.
Renaissance satire rested on the conviction that derisive laughter was an effective form of social control because it exposed and shamed folly. Montaigne characterized Democritus as a philosopher who found the “human condition ridiculous and vain,” and so “never appeared abroad but with a jeering and laughing countenance.” Montaigne admitted he was Democritian “not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to weep, but because it expresses more contempt and condemnation than the other, and I think we can never be despised according to our full desert.”
Many appealed to Aristotle’s teaching that laughter is of the essence of man, and that its primary mode is ridicule. In fact, Aristotle believed neither. In Laughter in Ancient Rome, Mary Beard notes that Aristotle’s famous claim that only human beings laugh comes from a discussion of the diaphragm. Aristotle did not propose a theory of laughter, nor define “man as ‘the animal that laughs.’” Aristotle knew that laughter need not be derisive. In Poetics he explicitly discussed laughter that doesn’t cause pain, and in Rhetoric categorized “laughter and the laughable into the class of ‘pleasant things.’”
Erasmus interpreted Psalm 2:4 as a revelation of scornful inter-Trinitarian laughter. The first line—“he who sits in the heavens laughs”—refers to the Father, while the second line—“the Lord scoffs at them”—names the Son. According to Erasmus, “The Father therefore laughs to scorn: the Son derides; but the laugher-to-scorn is the same: the derision is the same.” And we might add an Augustinian gloss: The Spirit is the laughter shared between them.
Erasmus didn’t think derisive laughter was confined to the Old Testament. He heard mockery in Jesus’s parable of the rich man: “In the Gospel too that rich man is mocked, who, having filled his barns, decided to live for himself at ease. What did he hear, if not derision from God? ‘Thou fool! This night thy soul shall be required of thee. And then whose shall those things be that thou hast gathered together?’” Reading the Gospels in the light of ancient prophecy, we should notice “how often, and in how many ways, the Lord in the heavens laughed at the impious counsels of men and had them in derision.”
Erasmus ridiculed the Church’s hypocrisies but remained a Catholic. Luther unleashed the same derision from outside the Catholic Church. In his treatise On the Papacy of Rome, he alluded to the same Psalm to warn the Church of “hell-fire and ineluctable judgment” that will “expose the entire papacy to the laughter and derision of all creatures.” It’s doubtful that the Reformation could have taken hold as a popular movement without its satirical cartoons, pamphlets, and sermons.
As Mikhail Bakhtin observed, “Laughter liberates not only from exterior censorship but first of all from the great interior censor.” Early modern Europeans freed themselves from the burdens of a corrupted medieval world by laughing at it. And Europeans kept laughing all the way to the Enlightenment, when Christian ridicule was turned against Christianity itself.
Sociologists and historians tell us that modernity is marked by secularization, the rise of science, and the formation of the nation-state. It’s equally true to say that the West laughed its way into modernity. Christians laughing without qualms of conscience—that is as useful an index of the rise of the modern world as any other.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.