Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


That laughter is the sign of joy, as tears are of grief, is doubted by no one that ever laughed. They who seek for metaphysical causes of laughter are not mirthful, while they who are aware that laughter draws the zygomatic muscle backwards towards the ears, are doubtless very learned. Other animals have this muscle as well as ourselves, yet never laugh any more than they shed tears. The stag, to be sure, drops moisture from its eyes when in the extremity of distress, as does a dog dissected alive; but they weep not for their mistresses or friends, as we do. They break not out like us into fits of laughter at the sight of anything droll. Man is the only animal which laughs and weeps.

As we weep only when we are afflicted, and laugh only when we are gay, certain reasoners have pretended that laughter springs from pride, and that we deem ourselves superior to that which we laugh at. It is true that man, who is a risible animal, is also a proud one; but it is not pride which produces laughter. A child who laughs heartily, is not merry because he regards himself as superior to those who excite his mirth; nor, laughing when he is tickled, is he to be held guilty of the mortal sin of pride. I was eleven years of age when I read to myself, for the first time, the “Amphitryon” of Molière, and laughed until I nearly fell backward. Was this pride? We are seldom proud when alone. Was it pride which caused the master of the golden ass to laugh when he saw the ass eat his supper? He who laughs is joyful at the moment, and is prompted by no other cause.

It is not all joy which produces laughter: the greatest enjoyments are serious. The pleasures of love, ambition, or avarice, make nobody laugh.

Laughter may sometimes extend to convulsions; it is even said that persons may die of laughter. I can scarcely believe it; but certainly there are more who die of grief.

Violent emotions, which sometimes move to tears and sometimes to the appearance of laughter, no doubt distort the muscles of the mouth; this, however, is not genuine laughter, but a convulsion and a pain. The tears may sometimes be genuine, because the object is suffering, but laughter is not. It must have another name, and be called the “risus sardonicus” — sardonic smile.

The malicious smile, the “perfidum ridens,” is another thing; being the joy which is excited by the humiliation of another. The grin, “cachinnus,” is bestowed on those who promise wonders and perform absurdities; it is nearer to hooting than to laughter. Our pride derides the vanity which would impose upon us. They hoot our friend Fréron in “The Scotchwoman,” rather than laugh at him. I love to speak of friend Fréron, as in that case I laugh unequivocally.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01