(Roman Republic: c. 250-184 B.C.E.)
Aaron W. Godfrey
Assessments of comedy vary. In the surviving part of Poetics Aristotle describes tragedy in detail but offers only a tantalizingly brief observation that "comedy represents men worse than the average. . . [more] Ridiculous, which is a species of the ugly" (101). The antagonist in Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose summarizes the fear and scorn for humor of many religious writers, poets, and scholars: "Laughter is weakness, corruption. . . . It is the Peasant's entertainment . . . a mystery desecrated for the plebeians" (576-577). Some philosophers too disdain, dismiss, or overanalyze laughter and comedy. But others, like Jerome Miller, recognize in laughter and comedy the most appropriate response to philosophy: "The most laughable thing in the whole universe [is]. . . philosophy itself with its pretension to be ultimately serious. . . exempt from fallibility. What engenders laughter is philosophy's very attempt to subsume laughter. . . . What is funniest of all is the humorlessness of philosophy itself" (217-218).
Thinking of what makes us laugh often is embarrassing, for we laugh at situations and words that may not be considered proper in polite society -- sex, scatology, and the inversion or perversion of such institutions as marriage, religion, and social structure. These situations and words may include pratfalls, insults, and bawdy or sacrilegious wordplay filled with double meanings and innuendo. Yet comedy, like tragedy, offers a catharsis for our worst fears -- our terror of purposeless mortality in a chaotic universe. In achieving a cathartic victory over this horror, the clowns of Plautine comedy have remained a successful convention for over two millennia.