Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  The Origin of Laughter

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

The Origin of Laughter

From “The Praise of Birds,” in the “Essays”

THE SONG of birds affords keen delight not to man alone, but to all other animals. I believe this arises not from the mere sweetness and variety of its harmony, great as these properties unquestionably are, but mainly from that suggestion of gladness naturally inherent in all song, and more especially in that of birds. It is, in a word, the laughter of these creatures which convulses them when they are happy.

From this circumstance it may almost be said that birds share with man the power and privilege of laughing, which none of the other animals possess. Hence, some have held that as man has been defined as an intellectual and reasoning animal, he might equally well have been distinguished as a laughing one, seeing that the power to laugh is as peculiar to man as is the gift of reason. But is it not a strange thing that while man is the most afflicted of all animals, he is the only one which possesses the power to laugh, a gift withheld from all other creatures on earth? Strange, too, is the use we sometimes make of this faculty, since even in the most acute calamities, in the profoundest distress, when life itself is odious, when the vanity of all earthly things is most apparent, when joy is impossible and hope is dead, men are seen to laugh! Nay, the more they realize the vanity of all earthly joys and the reality of human misery, and the more hopeless and indisposed to merriment they are, the more do we find some men prone to laughter! Indeed, the very nature of laughter, and its governing principles and motives, are so inexplicable that sometimes it may best be described as a sort of transient madness, a temporary delirium of the soul. For, in truth, men, being never truly satisfied or really delighted by anything, can never have a just and reasonable cause for laughter. In fact, it would be curious to inquire how and under what circumstances man first became conscious of his possession of this faculty, and first actually employed it. For it is certain that in his primitive and savage state he is generally grave in his demeanor, and indeed apparently melancholy in his mood, as are the lower animals. For this reason, not only am I convinced that laughter made its appearance in the world subsequently to tears—a point, indeed, on which there can be little doubt—but also that a long period must have elapsed before it may be said to have been even discovered. During this period it may be assumed, as, indeed, is expressly stated by Vergil, that not even the mother smiled upon her babe, nor did the babe recognize its mother with a smile. And if at the present time, at least in civilized societies, man begins to laugh soon after his birth, I am of opinion that this is mainly the effect of example and imitation, and that children laugh because they see others do so.

For my part, I am disposed to think that laughter had its origin in intoxication, itself a condition peculiar to the human race. And we know that intoxication prevailed among men long before they had attained to civilization; as is proved by the fact that the rudest peoples are acquainted with intoxicants of one kind or another, and use them with avidity. Nor is this to be wondered at, for men are, of all animals, the most exposed to unhappiness, and therefore they alone are impelled to seek consolation in this soothing mental alienation, which, inducing forgetfulness of self, amounts to a temporary intermission of life itself, during which the sense of suffering is diminished, or actually suspended for a time. And, as touching laughter in this connection, it is a familiar fact that savages, who in their sober moments are usually serious and sad, when intoxicated laugh immoderately, and even chatter and sing, contrary to their usual custom. However, I propose to treat this question more fully in a history of laughter, which I contemplate composing, and in which, after investigating its origin, I shall follow up its development and vicissitudes down to the present time, when, as we see, it flourishes exuberantly, and occupies in the economy of civilized life a position almost equal to that formerly filled by virtue, justice, honor, and the like, wielding an influence scarcely inferior to that exercised by those principles.