Greeks and Romans on Jokes and Laughter

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.29 (17/3/15)

‘Greeks and Romans on Jokes and Laughter: Quintilian’s Inst. 6.3 and Plutarch’s Quaest. Conv. 2.1’                                                                                         Katarzyna Jazdzewska

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

The purpose of the paper is to compare and examine two ancient discussions of jokes and laughter, coming from two roughly contemporary writers: Quintilian (Inst. 6.3) and Plutarch (quaestio 2.1 of Quaest. conv.). Together with Cicero (De orat. 2.216-289), the two authors provide the most extensive theoretical reflection on laughter coming from antiquity, drawing from and reflecting on the previous ancient tradition of humour studies, the foundations for which were laid by Plato, and which were developed by Aristotle and subsequent thinkers of the Hellenistic period.

The paper focuses on Quintilian’s and Plutarch’s understanding of laughter and humour and on the two authors’ evaluation of usefulness and perils of these phenomena. The context of the two authors’ discussions is markedly different: Plutarch is discussing laughter within a context of a Greek symposion, while Quintilian is concerned with the use of jokes and laughter in oratory, above all courtroom oratory. As a result, Plutarch focuses on laughter as a bonding phenomenon and provides advice on inoffensive, “proper” joking, which he distinguishes carefully from insult and ridicule. Quintilian’s concern, on the other hand, is the efficiency of laughter and jokes as a confrontational, polemical strategy (in brief, they should present an orator in a good light, and his opponent in a bad one).

Despite the difference of the context, there is a considerable number of parallels in Quintilian and Plutarch, which indicate that they are working within the same intellectual tradition, even if their different preoccupations make them occupy opposite positions (for instance, both authors give their assessment of Cicero’s wit, both are concerned with the observance of good taste, and both discuss skills and techniques required to successfully use jokes and raise laughter). Remarkably, however, while Plutarch’s treatment of laughter betrays certain universalizing tendency (he uses a variety of Greek, Roman, and barbarian exempla), Quintilian’s account is very much Rome-centred: like Cicero before him, he is dismissive of Greek theory and practice of humour (at least in the rhetorical context), as both his exclusively Roman exempla and comments on Demosthenes’ lack of wit show.