S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
I am afraid I shall appear too abstracted in my speculations, if I show that when a man of wit makes us laugh, it is by betraying some oddness or infirmity in his own character, or in the representation which he makes of others; and that when we laugh at a brute, or even at an inanimate thing, it is at some action or incident that bears a remote analogy to any blunder or absurdity in reasonable creatures.
Laughter, while it lasts, slackens and unbraces the mind, weakens the faculties, and causes a kind of remissness and dissolution in all the powers of the soul; and thus far it may be looked upon as a weakness in the composition of human nature. But if we consider the frequent reliefs we receive from it, and how often it breaks the gloom which is apt to depress the mind and damp our spirits, with transient unexpected gleams of joy, one would take care not to grow too wise for so great a pleasure of life.
How much lies in laughter: the cipher key, wherewith we decipher the whole man! Some men wear an everlasting barren simper; in the smiles of others lies the cold glitter as of ice; the fewest are able to laugh what can be called laughing, but only sniff and titter and sniggle from the throat outwards, or at least produce some whiffling, husky cachinnation, as if they were laughing through wool: of none such comes good. The man who cannot laugh is only fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; but his own life is already a treason and a stratagem.
Having mentioned laughing, I must particularly warn you against it; and I could heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh, while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill manners: it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal and so ill bred as audible laughter.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, March 9, 1748.
True wit, or sense, never yet made anybody laugh; they are above it: they please the mind, and give a cheerfulness to the countenance. But it is low buffoonery, or silly accidents, that always excite laughter; and that is what people of sense and breeding should show themselves above . Not to mention the disagreeable noise that it makes, and the shocking distortion of the face that it occasions. Laughter is easily restrained by a very little reflection; but, as it is generally connected with the idea of gaiety, people do not enough attend to its absurdity . I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, March 9, 1748.
I may therefore conclude, that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly: for men laugh at the follies of themselves past when they come suddenly to remembrance, except they bring with them any present dishonour.
God made both tears and laughter, and both for kind purposes; for as laughter enables mirth and surprise to breathe freely, so tears enable sorrow to vent itself patiently. Tears hinder sorrow from becoming despair and madness; and laughter is one of the very privileges of reason, being confined to the human species.
Laughter is a vent of any sudden joy that strikes upon the mind, which, being too volatile and strong, breaks out in this tremor of the voice. The poets make use of this metaphor when they would describe nature in her richest dress; for beauty is never so lovely as when adorned with the smile, and conversation never sits easier upon us than when we now and then discharge ourselves in a symphony of laughter, which may not improperly be called the chorus of conversation.
We may range the several kinds of laughter under the following heads:the dimplers, the smilers, the laughers, the grinners, the horse-laughers. The dimple is practised to give a grace to the features, and is frequently made a bait to entangle a gazing lover; this was called by the ancients the Chian laugh. The smile is for the most part confined to the fair sex and their male retinue. It expresses our satisfaction in a silent sort of approbation, doth not too much disorder the features, and is practised by lovers of the most delicate address. This tender motion of physiognomy the ancients called the Ionic laugh. The laugh among us is the common risus of the ancients. The grin, by writers of antiquity is called the Syncrusian; and was then, as it is at this time, made use of to display a beautiful set of teeth. The horse-laugh, or the Sardonic, is made use of with great success in all kinds of disputation. The proficients in this kind, by a well-timed laugh, will baffle the most solid argument. This, upon all occasions, supplies the want of reason; is always received with great applause in coffee-house disputes; and that side the laugh joins with is generally observed to gain the better of his antagonist.
In order to look into any persons temper, I generally make my first observations upon his laugh, whether he is easily moved, and what are the passages which throw him into that agreeable kind of convulsion. People are never so much unguarded as when they are pleased; and laughter being a visible symptom of some inward satisfaction, it is then, if ever, we may believe the face. There is, perhaps, no better index to point us to the particularities of the mind than this, which is itself one of the chief distinctions of our rationality. For, as Milton says,
It may be remarked, in general, under this head, that the laugh of men of wit is for the most part but a faint constrained kind of half-laugh, as such persons are never without some diffidence about them; but that of fools is the most honest, natural, open laugh in the world.