Monday, August 08, 2016


Don't Laugh

J.N. Bremmer, "Symbols of Marginality from Early Pythagoreans to Late Antique Monks," Greece & Rome 39.2 (October, 1992) 205-214 (at 207-208, with notes on 213-214):
Besides their poverty-stricken look, Pythagoreans could be recognized by their sombre countenances. Their joyless facial expressions are in line with the report that the great Master himself never laughed either.11 Allowing laughter only in moderation is not often mentioned, but it is noteworthy that Chaeremon, when describing Egyptian priests — already Reitzenstein saw in this description similarities to Pythagoreans — remarks that they rarely laugh and when they do never go beyond a smile.12 We find the same restriction among early Christian monks.13 In the Life of Pachomius we meet the story of the boy Silvanus who is rebuked by Pachomius for his boisterous laughter (V. Pach. Φ 104), and when one of Pachomius' monks is about to visit another monastery, he is warned not to take offence at laughter (V. Pach. Φ 121); again, in the Life of St. Melania (c. 23), we hear that Melania instructs her sisters to laugh only in moderation. Melania's one-time friend, Jerome, was more severe and opposed laughter and jocularity, like the Fathers in general.14 One will therefore not be surprised that it is reported of Abba Pambo (372), in the fourth century, that he never laughed.

St. Anthony, according to Athanasius, also never laughed nor grieved (V. Anton. 14). The passage has been taken almost word-for-word from Porphyry's Life of Pythagoras (c. 35), and in its turn inspired Sulpicius Severus in his biography of St. Martin (c. 27.1). In these instances, however, laughter has become one item in a long list of emotions which the saint, in Stoic apatheia, was able to transcend; they are thus not exactly comparable.

Laughing boisterously is a letting oneself go, a temporary total relaxation. It is therefore a physical expression eminently opposed to a striving to keep all of life under control. Hence it should not cause surprise if social groups which attempt to keep in check all sorts of physical expression such as eating, sleeping, and sexuality, also, and particularly, object to laughter.

11. Pythagoreans: Alexis fr. 197 Kock. Plato, too, is portrayed as a grouch by the comic poet Amphis (fr. 13 Kock) — perhaps in analogy to the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras: Diog. Laert. 8.20; for Porphyry VP 35, see below. Naturally, the misanthrope Timon was also depicted as never laughing: Phrynichus F 19 Kassel-Austin.

12. Chaeremon FGH 618 F 6 = fr. 10 van der Horst, cp. Reitzenstein (see n. 3), 43-5; P.W. van der Horst, Chaeremon: Egyptian Priest and Stoic Philosopher (Leiden, 19872), pp. 16-23 (text and translation), 56-61 (extensive commentary). In his Porphyry-edition (Budé 1982, 154), E. des Places draws a comparison between Pythagoras and Plato's advice (Laws 732c) to laugh in moderation; see also G.J. de Vries, 'Laughter in Plato's Writings', Mnemosyne IV (1985), 378-81.

13. For the medieval monks laughter was similarly problematic: I.M. Resnick, '"Risus monasticus". Laughter and Medieval Monastic Culture', Rev. Bénédictine 97 (1987), 90-100.

14. N. Adkin, 'The Fathers on Laughter', Orpheus NS 6 (1985), 149-52.
On avoidance of laughter in early Christianity see Stephen Halliwell, Greek Laughter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 475-519, and cf. Goethe, Faust, prologue in heaven, lines 277-278 (Mephistopheles speaking to God; tr. Walter Kaufman):
My pathos would be sure to make you laugh,
Were laughing not a habit you've unlearned.

Mein Pathos brächte dich gewiß zum Lachen,
Hättst du dir nicht das Lachen abgewöhnt.
By contrast, the Greek gods did laugh. See Paul Friedländer, "Lachende Götter," Antike 10 (1934) 209-226, rpt. in his Studien zur antiken Literatur und Kunst (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969), pp. 3-18 (unavailable to me).

On supposed avoidance of laughter by Osiris, see Synesius, Egyptians, or On Providence 1.2 (90 D), tr. Alan Cameron and Jacqueline Long, Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 341 (Osiris = Aurelian, Typhos = Caesarius):
In addition, Osiris never even once gulped his drink or so roared with laughter that it convulsed his whole body, as Typhos did constantly.

ἀλλ' οὐδὲ χανδόν ποτε Ὄσιρις ἔπιεν οὔτε ἐξεκάγχασεν ὡς εἶναι τὸν γέλωτα βρασμὸν ὅλου τοῦ σώματος ἅπερ Τυφὼς ἔδρα τε ὁσημέραι.
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