One of the greatest misconceptions surrounding the Stoics is the notion that they lacked a sense of humor. Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses this unfortunate stereotype perfectly in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli:
“I remember that she made me laugh more than I liked; for I was, at that time, an eager scholar of ethics, and had tasted the sweets of solitude and stoicism, and I found something profane in the hours of amusing gossip into which she drew me …”
Here, Emerson, like so many young students of philosophy has confused the seriousness of his study with a need to be serious in life, period and that was just not the case. The Stoic pursuit of happiness and perfection does not preclude a sense of humor. On the contrary, it could be argued that a deep-seated ability to laugh at the absurdity of the world is an integral part of it.
And nothing should make this clearer than the fact that one of the most influential and famous Stoics, Chrysippus, died laughing. Literally. He died from belly laughing at the sight of a donkey eating figs in his garden.
The Stoics were in fact, of the mind that a humorous view of life was necessary in a world often marked by pain and suffering and overwhelming emotions.
As Seneca observes,
“All things are cause for either laughter or weeping.”
And since that is the case,
“It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it.”
In the choice between the sullen Heraclitus and the cheerful Democritus, the Stoics come out squarely on the side of the father of atomic theory, “the laughing philosopher.” Seneca again,
“We ought therefore to bring ourselves into such a state of mind that all the vices of the vulgar may not appear hateful to us, but merely ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh: the one thought all human doings to be follies, the other thought them to be miseries. We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.”
“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”
Although Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem dark to some, read in another light, perhaps his observations are humorous. When he remarks that sex is the rubbing of skin and then an explosion, he’s being both serious and absurd. And in this observation there is truth and humor and as a result, insight and philosophical value.
Similarly Epictetus makes fun of the imperial insignias, when giving advice to a man who considers accepting a priesthood from Emperor Augustus, which comes with the right to wear a crown of gold:
“If you have your heart set on wearing crowns, why not make one out of roses – you will look even more elegant in that.”
Conversely, the philosopher should not fear the scornful laughter of the vulgar. It comes with the territory. Or as Seneca reminds us:
“If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say,” He is returned to us a philosopher all at once” … For remember that, if you adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.”
Similarly, Epictetus encourages us respond to the opinion of the unwise with a shrug of shoulders:
“I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.”
Listen to others, but keep your own counsel:
“If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it’s a lie, laugh at it.”
Paradoxically, the Stoic detachment from worldly objects is also admonition not to take things too seriously, including oneself. Seneca makes the point succinctly:
“No one is laughable who laughs at himself.”
Sure, the Stoics did believe that laughter should be exercised with moderation. Epictetus again:
“Don’t allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse.”
Do not seek the laughter of others. This is a sign of vanity and reflects badly on you.
“In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures. Avoid, likewise, an endeavor to excite laughter. For this is a slippery point, which may throw you into vulgar manners, and, besides, may be apt to lessen you in the esteem of your acquaintance.”
But if err you have, Seneca concedes, you do best to err on the side of merriment.
“He shows a greater mind who does not restrain his laughter, than he who does not deny his tears.”
Stoic laughter is unlike the laughter of sitcom audiences. It is not reactive or excited. It has a detached reflected quality. It is the mark of a character with deep integrity.
Such persons carry about them an air of secrecy. Their laughter does not necessarily burst out into the open. Epictetus contrasts this self-sufficient individual – the philosopher – to the vulgar:
“The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person is that he never looks for either help or harm from himself, but only from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is that he looks to himself for all help or harm. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense.”
There are people who laugh inwardly, steadily and constantly. You meet there eyes and you see the laughter in them. You sense that they have understood something about the human condition that still eludes you. Then, they wink at you, ever so imperceptibly, and you feel as if you have been admitted into a secret brotherhood.
Such, it could be argued, is the Stoic sense of humor.