The Uses of Laughter in Greek Culture

Classical Quarterly 41 (2):279-296 (1991)
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The proposition that man is the only animal capable of laughter is at least as old as Aristotle. In a strictly physical sense, this is probably false; but it is undoubtedly true that as a psychologically expressive and socially potent means of communication, laughter is a distinctively human phenomenon. Any attempt to study sets of cultural attitudes towards laughter, or the particular types of personal conduct which these attitudes shape and influence, must certainly adopt a wider perspective than a narrowly physical definition of laughter will allow. Throughout this paper, which will attempt to establish part of the framework of such a cultural analysis for the Greek world of, broadly speaking, the archaic and classical periods, ‘laughter’ must be taken, by a convenient synecdoche, to encompass the many behavioural and affective patterns which are associated with, or which characteristically give scope for, uses of laughter in the literal sense of the word. My concern, then, is with a whole network of feelings, concepts and actions; and my argument will try to elucidate the practices within which laughter fulfils a recognizable function in Greek societies, as well as the dominant ideas and values which Greek thought brings to bear upon these practices. The results of the enquiry will, I believe, give us some reason to accept a rapprochement between the universalist assumption for which my epigraph from Johnson speaks and the recognition of cultural specificity in laughter's uses for which many anthropologists would argue, as emphatically asserted, from a Marxizing point of view, in the quotation from Vladimir Propp.



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Stephen Halliwell
University of St. Andrews

References found in this work

Offense to Others.Bernard Gert - 1987 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48 (1):147-153.
Comic satire and freedom of speech in classical Athens.Stephen Halliwell - 1991 - Journal of Hellenic Studies 111:48-70.
“Charientic” Judgments.Peter Glassen - 1958 - Philosophy 33 (125):138-.

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