Humour, in the modern use of the term, signifies a perception of the comic or incongruous of a special sort; generally distinguished from Wit, as being on the one side more subtle, or on the other side more vague. It is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour. The modern use of the term, however, is by no means the primary or necessary use of it; and it is one of the cases, rarer than is commonly supposed, in which derivation offers at least an approach to definition. Everybody knows that `Humor’, in the Latin sense of `moisture’ was applied here as part of the old physiological theory, by which the characters of men varied according to the proportions of certain different secretions in the human body; as, for instance, that the predominance of phlegm produced the phlegmatic humour. By the time of the full consolidation of the English language, it had thus become possible for Ben Jonson and others to use the word `humour’ rather in the sense of `the ruling passion’. With this there necessarily went an idea of exaggeration; and by the end of the process the character of a humorist was more or less identical with what we should call an eccentric. The next stages of the development, which are rather slow and subtle correspond to the various degrees in which the eccentric has become conscious of his eccentricity. England has always been especially rich in these eccentrics; and in England, where everything was less logical and more casual than in other countries, the eccentric long remained, as we should say, half unconsciously and half consciously humorous. The blend, and the beginnings of the modern meaning, may perhaps be dated at about the time of Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels; when Guy Mannering complains of Councillor Pleydell as `a crack-brained humorist’. For Pleydell is indeed laughed at for his little vanities or whims; but he himself joins in the laugh and sees the humour of his humour. Since then the word has come to be used more and more exclusively of conscious humour; and generally of a rather deep and delicate appreciation of the absurdities of others.
Nevertheless there clings to the word Humour, especially when balanced against the word Wit, a sort of tradition or atmosphere that belongs to the old eccentrics whose eccentricity was always wilful and not infrequently blind. The distinction is a fine one; but one of the elements remaining in this blend is a certain sense of being laughed at, as well as of laughing. It involves some confession of human weakness; whereas wit is rather the human intellect exerting its full strength, though perhaps upon a small point. Wit is reason on its judgment seat; and though the offenders may be touched lightly, the point is that the judge is not touched at all. But humour always has in it some idea of the humorist himself being at a disadvantage and caught in the entanglements and contradictions of human life. It is a grave error to underrate Wit as something trivial; for certain purposes of satire it can truly be the sword of the spirit, and the satirist bears not the sword in vain. But it is essential to wit that he should bear the sword with ease; that for the wit the weapon should be light if the blow be heavy; that there should be no question of his being encumbered with his instrument or laying open his guard. But humour can be of the finest and yet lay open the guard or confess its inconsistency. When Voltaire said, commenting on the judicial murder of Byng, “In England they kill one Admiral to encourage the others,” it would immediately be recognized as humour. But we rightly class Voltaire as a wit, because he represents the consistent human reason detesting an inconsistency. We shall be very wrong if we despise him as a wit, for that French clearness has depths of irony; there is, for instance, more than is seen at a glance in the very word `encourage’. But it is true that the wit is here a judge independent of the judges, unaffected by the King or the Admiral or the English Courtmartial or the mob. He is abstract justice recording a contradiction. But when Falstaff (a model of the humorist become or becoming conscious) cries out in desperate bravado, “They hate us youth,” the incongruity between the speech and the corpulent old humbug of a speaker is present to his own mind, as well as to ours. He also discovers a contradiction, but it is in himself; for Falstaff really did bemuse himself with youthful companionship which he knew to be like a drug or a dream; and indeed Shakespeare himself, in one at least of the Sonnets, becomes bitterly conscious of the same illusion. There is therefore in humour, or at least in the origins of humour, something of this idea of the eccentric caught in the act of eccentricity and brazening it out; something of one surprised in disarray and become conscious of the chaos within. Wit corresponds to the divine virtue of justice, in so far as so dangerous a virtue can belong to man. Humour corresponds to the human virtue of humility and is only more divine because it has, for the moment, more sense of the mysteries.
If there be so much of enlightenment to be gathered from the history of the word, there is very little to be gathered from any of the attempts at a scientific history of the thing. The speculations on the nature of any reaction to the risible belong to the larger and more elementary subject of Laughter and are for the department of psychology; according to some, almost for that of physiology. Whatever be their value touching the primitive function of laughter, they throw very little light on the highly civilized product of humour. It may well be questioned whether some of the explanations are not too crude even for the crudest origins; that they hardly apply even to the savage and certainly do not apply to the child. It has been suggested, for example, that all laughter had its origin in a sort of cruelty, in an exultation over the pain or ignominy of an enemy; but it is very hard even for the most imaginative psychologist to believe that, when a baby bursts out laughing at the image of the cow jumping over the moon, he is really finding pleasure in the probability of the cow breaking her leg when she comes down again. The truth is that all these primitive and prehistoric origins are largely unknown and possibly unknowable; and like all the unknown and unknowable are a field for furious wars of religion. Such primary human causes will always be interpreted differently according to different philosophies of human life. Another philosophy would say, for instance, that laughter is due not to an animal cruelty but to a purely human realization of the contrast between man’s spiritual immensity within and his littleness and restriction without, for it is itself a joke that a house should be larger inside than out. According to such a view, the very incompatability between the sense of human dignity and the perpetual possibility of incidental indignities, produces the primary or archetypal joke of the old gentleman sitting down suddenly on the ice. We do not laugh thus when a tree or a rock tumbles down; because we do not know the sense of self-esteem or serious importance within. But such speculations in psychology, especially in primitive psychology, have very little to do with the actual history of comedy as an artistic creation.
There is no doubt that comedy existed as an artistic creation many thousands of years ago, in the case of peoples whose life and letters we can sufficiently understand to appreciate the fine shades of meaning; especially, of course, in the case of the Greeks. It is difficult for us to say how far it existed in civilizations more remote of which the records are for us more stiff and symbolic; but the very limitation of symbolism which makes it hard for us to prove its existence should warn us against assuming without evidence that it did not exist. We know more about Greek humour than about Hittite humour, at least partly for the simple reason that we know Greek better than we know any sort of colloquial Hittite; and while what applies to Hittite applies too in a less degree to Hebrew, a case like that of early Hebrew presents something of the same problem of limitation. But without any attempts to settle such problems of scholarship, it is hard to believe that the highest sense of human satire was not present in the words of Job. “Truly you are wise and wisdom will die with you”; or that no perception of a poetic contrast was felt by so great a poet when he said of Behemoth, commonly identified with the hippopotamus; “Canst thou play with him as with a bird?” It is probable that the Chinese civilization, in which the quality of the quaint and the fantastic has flowered with a beautiful luxuriance for many centuries, could also quote fairly early examples of the same order of fancy.
In any case, humour is in the very foundations of our European literature, which alone is quite sufficiently a part of ourselves for the full appreciation of so subtle and sometimes sub-conscious a quality. Even a schoolboy can see it in such scenes of Aristophanes as that in which the dead man sits up in indignation at having to pay the toll of the Styx, and says he would rather come to life again; or when Dionysus asks to see the wicked in hell and is answered by a gesture pointing at the audience. Before the period of intellectual controversies in Athens, indeed, we generally find in Greek poetry, as in the greater part of all human folk lore, that the joke is a practical joke. To a robust taste, however, it is none the less of a joke for that. For the joke of Odysseus calling himself Noman is not, as some suppose, a sort of trivial pun or verbalism; the joke is in the gigantic image of the raging Cyclops, roaring as if to rend the mountains, after being defeated by something so simple and so small. And this example is worth noting; as representing what is really the fun of all the fairy-tales; the notion of something apparently omnipotent made impotent by some tiny trick. This fairy-tale idea is undoubtedly one of the primitive fountains from which flows the long winding stream of historic humour. When Puss in Boots persuades the boastful magician to turn into a mouse and be eaten, it almost deserves to be called wit.
After these two early expressions, the practical joke of the folk-tale and the more philosophic fun of the Old Comedy, the history of humour is simply the history of literature. It is especially the history of European literature; for this sane sense of the incongruous is one of the highest qualities balancing the European spirit. It would be easy to go through the rich records of every nation and note this element in almost every novel or play, and in not a few poems or philosophical works. There is naturally no space for such a survey; but three great names, one English, one French and a third Spanish, may be mentioned for their historical quality; since they opened new epochs and even their few superiors were still their followers. The first of these determining names is that of Chaucer, whose urbanity has done something to conceal his real originality. Medieval civilization had a very powerful sense of the grotesque, as is apparent in its sculpture alone; but it was in a sense a fighting sentiment; it dealt with dragons and devils; it was alive, but it was very decidedly kicking. Chaucer brought into this atmosphere a cool air of true comedy; a sort of incongruity most incongruous in that world. In his personal sketches we have a new and very English element, of at once laughing at people and liking them. The whole of humorous fiction, if not the whole of fiction, dates from the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. Rather later, Rabelais opened a new chapter by showing that intellectual things could be treated with the energy of high spirits and a sort of pressure of physical exuberance, which was itself humorous in its very human abandon. He will always be the inspiration of a certain sort of genial impatience; and the moments when the great human mind boils over like a pot. The Renaissance itself was, of course, such a boiling, but the elements were some of them more poisonous; though a word should be said for the tonics of that time, the humour of Erasmus and of More. Thirdly, there appeared with the great Cervantes an element new in its explicit expression; that grand and very Christian quality of the man who laughs at himself. Cervantes was himself more chivalrous than most men when he began to mock at chivalry. Since his time, humour in this purely humorous sense, the confession of complexity and weakness already remarked upon, has been a sort of secret of the high culture of the West. The influence of Cervantes and Rabelais, and the rest runs through all modern letters, especially our own; taking on a shrewd and acid tang in Swift, a more delicate and perhaps more dubious taste in Sterne, passing on through every sort of experiment of essay or comedy, pausing upon the pastoral gaiety of Goldsmith or going on finally to bring forth, like a great birth of giants, the walking caricatures of Dickens. Nor is it altogether a national accident that the tradition has here been followed in our own nation. For it is true that humour, in the special and even limited sense here given to it, humour as distinct from wit, from satire, from irony or from many things that may legitimately produce amusement, has been a thing strongly and specially present in English life and letters. That we may not in turn depreciate the wit and logic of the rest of the world, it will be well to remember that humour does originate in the half-conscious eccentric, that it is in part a confession of inconsistency, but, when all is said, it has added a new beauty to human life. It may even be noted that there has appeared especially in England a new variety of humour, more properly to be called Nonsense. Nonsense may be described as humour which has for the moment renounced all connection with wit. It is humour that abandons all attempt at intellectual justification; and does not merely jest at the incongruity of some accident or practical joke, as a by-product of real life, but extracts and enjoys it for its own sake. Jabberwocky is not a parody on anything; the Jumblies are not a satire on anybody; they are folly for folly’s sake on the same lines as art for art’s sake, or more properly beauty for beauty’s sake; and they do not serve any social purpose except perhaps the purpose of a holiday. Here again it will be well to remember that even the work of humour should not consist entirely of holidays. But this art of nonsense is a valuable contribution to culture; and it is very largely, or almost entirely, an English contribution. So cultivated and competent a foreign observer as M. Emile Cammaerts has remarked that it is so native as to be at first quite unmeaning to foreigners. This is perhaps the latest phase in the history of humour; but it will be well even in this case to preserve what is so essential a virtue of humour; the virtue of proportion. Humour, like wit, is related however indirectly, to truth and the eternal virtues; as it is the greatest incongruity of all to be serious about humour, so it is the worst sort of pomposity to be monotonously proud of humour; for it is itself the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Written May 1928.
Chesterton, G.K. The Spice of Life and Other Essays. Edited by Dorothy Collins. Beaconsfield: Darwen Finlayson, 1964.