Laughter is good for the soul, and it sometimes keeps you out of a lot of trouble. People have been laughing at one thing or another for centuries. Robert Frost wrote “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”
Philagelos, a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the 4th century, is the oldest existing collection of jokes, but not the oldest collection ever heard of. In the 2nd century Athenaeus wrote that Philip II of Macedon paid for a social club in Athens to write down its members’ jokes. Apparently the early jokes were similar to the jokes of today, which throws out any thought that we may have evolved to a higher standard.
Do we all laugh at the same jokes? I think not. Things that I find hilarious, frequently bring a shake of the head from Dr. Advice. Contrarily, his idea of funny usually leaves me a bit chilly and wondering if he needs his head examined. The fact that we all find something to laugh at is the more important.
Laughter was always a favorite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them. A good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world was a joking insinuation about the paternity of the Emperor Augustus. The story goes that spotting a man from the provinces who looked much like the himself, the emperor asked if the man’s mother had ever worked in the palace. ‘No’, came the reply, ‘but my father did’. Augustus found that quite humorous.
There were many well-known philagelos ‘laughter-lovers’ in the first century, some of whom enjoyed seating dinner guests on ancient ‘whoopi cushions’ and then laughing as the air was gradually let out, proving that schoolboy pranks existed even then
Democritus, 5th century philosopher and atomist
Democritus, renowned as antiquity’s most inveterate laugher, was a stumpy little thumb of a man, who not only loved laughing but making others laugh as well. From Democritus to Whoopi Goldberg, the laugh instigators who grace our world keep the serious stuff at bay, and enable the sick, the lazy and the lame to face the perils of daily living.