Laughing with Leviathan: Hobbesian Laughter in Theory and Practice

AuthorZachariah Black
Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(3) 431 –456
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720952056
Laughing with Leviathan:
Hobbesian Laughter in
Theory and Practice
Zachariah Black1
Thomas Hobbes’s infamously severe accounts of the phenomenon of laughter
earned the condemnation of such varied readers as Francis Hutcheson and
Friedrich Nietzsche, and he has maintained his reputation as an enemy of
humor among contemporary scholars. A difficulty is raised by the fact that
Hobbes makes ample use of humor in his writings, displaying his willingness to
evoke in his readers what he appears to condemn. This article brings together
Hobbes’s statements on laughter and comedic writing with examples of his
own humorous rhetoric to show that Hobbes understands laughter as a
species of insult, but that there are conditions under which humor can be
made to serve the cause of peace. Drawing on evidence from across Hobbes’s
works, and in particular from an understudied discussion of “Vespasian’s law”
in the Six Lessons, this essay theorizes the conditions under which Hobbes
found witty contumely to be conducive to peace. On this reading, Hobbes
models the discreet use of humorous rhetoric in defense of peace, a defense
that will be ongoing even after the commonwealth has been founded. Hobbes
offers insight into how we can remain attuned to laughter’s inegalitarian
tendencies without foregoing the equalizing potential to be found in laughing
at ourselves and at those who think too highly of themselves.
Thomas Hobbes, laughter, civility, rhetoric
1Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Zachariah Black, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, Sidney Smith Hall,
Room 3018, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada.
952056PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720952056Political TheoryBlack
432 Political Theory 49(3)
The first major refutation of Thomas Hobbes’s grim account of laughter came
from Francis Hutcheson in 1725. At the beginning of his three-part Reflections
Upon Laughter, the teacher of Adam Smith connected what he saw as Hobbes’s
misunderstanding of laughter to a more fundamental misunderstanding of
human nature. Hobbes, who “very much owes his character as a Philosopher to
his assuming positive solemn airs,” had as his “grand view” to “deduce all
human actions from Self-Love”; in so doing, he “overlooked every thing which
is generous or kind in human kind.” Because of his narrowness of vision,
Hobbes’s philosophy “represents men in that light in which a thorow knave or
coward beholds them.”1 His commitment to seeing everything through the
prism of “Self-Love” caused Hobbes to mistake the most self-aggrandizing
dimension of laughter, “ridicule,” for the whole of the phenomenon.2
A century and a half after Hutcheson, Friedrich Nietzsche joined the
attack. For Nietzsche, Hobbes was a “genuine Englishman” who “tried to
make laughing a defamation of character among all thinking men.” True phi-
losophers ought to be elevated to the level of the gods by a “golden laughter”
at “the expense of all serious things.”3 Despite the theoretical chasm that
otherwise separates Nietzsche and Hutcheson, Nietzsche similarly suggested
that Hobbes had failed to find a place for laughter in human life as a result of
his narrow view of human nature. On this reading, Hobbes’s petty definition
of laughter epitomizes the pettiness of his political theory.
Contemporary political theorists who have engaged Hobbes’s accounts
of laughter have enriched but not contradicted the assessments of Hutcheson
and Nietzsche, finding in Hobbes an enemy of laughter. For instance, David
Heyd echoes Hutcheson in writing that “Hobbes’s entire psychology is
founded on the assumption of human egocentricity. . . . Hobbes’s superior-
ity theory of laughter suits this theoretical framework.”4 Beyond Hobbes
scholarship, Hobbes has come to represent the “superiority thesis,” which
explains laughter as a sudden outward expression of one person’s sense of
superiority over another.5 There is good evidence for the consensus view. In
chapter 6 of Leviathan, Hobbes describes “Sudden glory” as “the passion
which maketh those grimaces called LAUGHTER, and is caused either by
some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them, or by the apprehension of
some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly
applaud themselves.”6 While Hobbes nowhere says that laughter is “a seri-
ous infirmity which every thinking man will strive to overcome,” as
Nietzsche had claimed, he does say that “much laughter at the defects of
others is a sign of pusillanimity.”7
There are cracks in the consensus view, however. If Hobbes’s condem-
nation of laughter is as thorough as Leviathan’s definition of sudden

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