How Not to Be Laughed At


In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge de Burgos commits a string of murders to prevent the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy (the lost second book of the Poetics), hidden in the abbey’s labyrinthine library, from ever coming to light. For Jorge, the book is dangerous, because laughter, if properly understood, could undermine the very foundations of religion and society.

Since Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BCE, few philosophers have taken laughter seriously, devoting at most a footnote or a digression to the subject—until, that is, Henri Bergson, whose treatise on laughter (Le Rire, 1900) I found refreshingly readable.

Laughter, says Bergson, is a strictly human property: “Many philosophers have defined man as ‘a laughing animal,’ but they could also have said a ‘laughable animal’—for if another animal can make us laugh, this is only insofar as it reminds us of man.”

More than that, laughter is a social activity. Bergson tells a joke about a sermon at which the entire congregation cried, except for one man. When asked why he didn’t cry, the man replies, “Because I’m from a different parish.” Even when we laugh alone, it is because we have conjured up a social context, a gathering of ghosts—”for laughter implies a certain complicity with others, whether real or imaginary.”

Life, wrote the tragedian Jean Racine, is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel. Bergson concurred: Emotion is the enemy of laughter, for laughter presupposes a certain distance, a certain indifference, even if it is only momentary—and, in fact, creating this distance can be one of the purposes of humour.

These, then, are the conditions for laughter: a human dimension, a social aspect, and a detached attitude. But what is laughter, all laughter, actually about? It is, replies Bergson, about a kind of mechanical rigidity [raideur de mécanique], either in the body or in the mind.

Nature is full of vital energy and creativity and adaptability, and never exactly repeats itself; but we human beings tend to fall short, to ossify or petrify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our collective game.

For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness; or at one who constantly, and sometimes inappropriately, repeats the same gesture or phrase; or at one who expends much effort only to end up in exactly the same place.

More subtly, we may laugh at a pun or a literal interpretation of a figure of speech; or at a misunderstanding that arises from a scene so formulaic that it is able to belong at the same time to two completely independent series of events.

I would add that we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for example, when we break a habit or have an original idea—although this kind of divine laughter, as I call it, only arises out of the contrast with our usual rigidity.

Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else.

Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality.

This is also how our body and bodily functions can lead to laughter, by diverting attention from, and contrasting with, our higher being—which is why tragic heroes rarely eat or drink or sit down in the middle of a soliloquy. After conquering the Prussian city of Magdeburg, Napoleon, ever the fine psychologist, punctured the pleas of Queen Louise of Prussia by asking her to sit down.

Every comical character is, almost by definition, a caricature, a stereotype [Greek, ‘a solid kind’], which is why a comical character can be turned into a noun, but a tragic one never. We might speak of a Scrooge or a Pollyanna, but never of a Cleopatra or a Hamlet. We never say, “Oh that guy, he’s such a Hamlet!” Because Hamlet is complicated and alive and free.

The purpose of laughter is to flush out our faults, but a fault is not necessarily a vice, and it is easier to laugh at a rigid virtue than at a supple vice—for it is rigidity, rather than vice per se, that society scorns. By the same token, the opposite of the risible is not the virtuous or the beautiful, but the graceful.

To survive and thrive as a species, we as individuals need to develop the highest possible degree of elasticity and sociability. Although it is at rigidity that we laugh, rigidity usually coincides with vice, and it is to the credit of humanity that the social ideal and the moral ideal are not so far apart.

Of all the vices, the most pernicious, and the most proper to laughter, is vanity—which is why, in the absence of free speech and a free press, medieval monarchs had a joker in their court.

Of course, laughter can be misused or misdirected, for example, to mock others, or in a manic illness, but this does not remove from its proper, corrective function. At the same time, even the most altruistic, pro-social laughter contains a grain of malice, for to be laughed at is also to suffer une petite humiliation.

So, how not to be laughed at? I think I’ve already answered that question, but I’ll answer it again in a different way. If laughter draws attention to the gap between our fiction and reality, this gap is at its narrowest in poets and artists, who need to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.

In the end, Jorge de Burgos accidentally burns down the entire abbey, destroying not only the last copy of the second book of the Poetics, but also every other manuscript in the library.

Jorge de Burgos is the antithesis of a poet, a destroyer of the arts, a fanatic who might have been cured by the laughter that he scorned.

Painting With Words: How We Can Mean More Than What We Say


Many of our utterances carry much more than their literal meaning.

Suppose I am hosting a dinner party at 7pm. At 4pm, one of my guests texts me, “I’m free from 6pm”. From that, I will understand, “I’m free from 6pm and I’d like to arrive early if that’s OK?”

As the evening progresses, another of the guests says something horribly rude. I respond with, “So, what did you think about the fish?” From this, my guest ought to understand that he has overstepped the mark.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that I am conveying much more than the words on the page. As a psychiatrist, I am acutely aware that my patients are disclosing much more than the face value of their words.

So, how do our words and sentences work so hard?

The British philosopher Paul Grice (d. 1988) attempted to answer this question by his theory of implicature.

Grice distinguished conventional implicatures, inherent in certain words such as “but”, “therefore”, and “indeed”, from conversational implicatures, which arise from a sort of game-playing, and rule-observing, between speakers.

Let me give you an example of each.

If I say, “She was poor but honest”, I am, by the simple use of the word “but”, also conveying or betraying a certain prejudice that poor people are generally dishonest.

A few hours before my dinner party, I bump into a friend while stepping out of a bakery with three loaves under my arm. My friend asks, “How are you?” To which I respond, “My first dinner party tonight!” By which she understands, “I’m excited because tonight I’m throwing a dinner party for the first time since the U.K. coronavirus lockdown.”

With conversational implicatures, our utterances can take on added meanings, or different meanings, according to the situation or context in which they are uttered.

When we speak to our partner in a crowded place, they are able to derive much more meaning from what we have said than the strangers who are also in earshot, in part because they are leaning upon background information that is privy only to the both of us. Our partner is capturing not only our words, but also how they fit in, and work with, push against, or wrap around, the world that we share.

More interesting, I think, is that non-literal meaning can also be created by pushing against certain general and deeply ingrained principles of communication and co-operation. In particular, meaningful conversation can only take place on the assumption that the speakers are, at least on an epistemic level, cooperating with one another.

Grice divided this so-called cooperative principle into four maxims of conversation:

  1. Maxim of quality: That utterances ought to be sincere, justified, and truthful.
  2. Maxim of quantity: That the right amount of information ought to be provided.
  3. Maxim of relevance: That the information provided is in some way pertinent.
  4. Maxim of manner: That the information provided is as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Whenever one or more of these maxims appears to have been flouted, we reflexively assume that the speaker must somehow have observed the maxims and start searching for a likely non-literal meaning.

In other words, implicature arises when the Gricean maxims are flouted, or would have been flouted had it not been for the implicature. Category examples of floutings that, by implicature, are not true floutings include irony (maxim of quality), metaphor (maxim of relevance), and euphemism (maxim of manner).

But, of course, the maxims are not invariably observed. Politicians in particular often flout the maxims, for instance, by answering a different question to the one asked, or providing a much longer answer when a simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed, or been preferable. In such cases, most of the interviewer’s interjections are, in effect, attempts to return the politician to the maxims.

Conversational implicatures serve a number of important functions such as: increasing the efficiency of communication; making communication more lively, varied, and humorous; and introducing ambiguity or restraint to avoid being ostracized or otherwise penalized for speaking hard truths.

But this slipperiness, this malleability, also gives rise to a number of ethical and legal problems—which is why legal contracts, witness statements, and the like are expected or even required to be as concrete and literal as possible.

More fundamentally, while we can be held responsible for what we say, to what extent can we be held responsible for what we implicate?

Today, many politicians resort to implicature, on Twitter and elsewhere, to get away with saying the unsayable.

In the words of the Persian poet Hafiz, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”

The Ataraxia Book Series

Ataraxia series

In my work as a psychiatrist, I help to treat mental disorder—and, I’m delighted to say, most of the people I see do get better.

But why stop here?

I believe that there is much more to mental health than the mere absence of mental disorder.

Mental health is not just about surviving, but about thriving, about developing and expressing our highest, fullest potential as human beings.

Before Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, Zeus and Jupiter and their ilk. But, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools, the major ones being cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism. Although each with its own outlook and method, all four schools aimed at the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is also the guiding principle of this series, with each book, like each philosophy, adopting a distinct but complementary approach to peace of mind: exploring the deep origins of our distress in The Meaning of Madness; guarding against the demons of self-deception in Hide and Seek; refining our emotions in Heaven and Hell; regulating our relations with others in For Better For Worse; and, finally, honing our thinking skills in Hypersanity.

To recap, the five books in the series are:

  1. The Meaning of Madness
  2. Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception
  3. Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions
  4. For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More
  5. Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking

Although the series is numbered, each book can happily stand on its own—meaning that you can read just one or all five, and in whichever order you like.

Ataraxia is closely linked with eudaimonia, which is often translated as ‘happiness’ but which is, in fact, a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing, or living a life that is worthwhile and fulfilling.

The stakes could not be higher.

[The first book in the series is currently free to download from Amazon.]

On Eudaimonia

And why it is much better than happiness.


We all say we want to be happy, but the pursuit of happiness often seems like a wild goose chase.

Maybe the problem is not so much with us, or the world we live in, but with the very concept of happiness.

A much better concept, I think, is that of eudaimonia, which literally means ‘good soul’, ‘good spirit’, or ‘good god’.

Eudaimonia is often translated from Greek simply as ‘happiness’—but that is very misleading. The word ‘happy’, which is related to ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’, derives from the Norse happ for ‘chance’, ‘fortune’, or ‘luck’. From Irish to Greek, most European words for ‘happy’ originally meant something like ‘lucky’—one exception being Welsh, in which it originally meant ‘wise’.

Another word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ in Old English is gesælig, which, over the centuries, morphed into our ‘silly’.

Eudaimonia, in contrast, is anything but silly. It has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with hard work. It is a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept than happiness, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing or living a life that is worthwhile or fulfilling.

Many philosophical schools in antiquity thought of eudaimonia as the highest good, often even the very aim and purpose of philosophy, although various schools such as epicureanism and stoicism may have conceived of it in somewhat different terms.

What can be said is that, unlike happiness, eudaimonia is not an emotion but a state of being—or even, especially for Aristotle, a state of doing. As such, it is more stable and reliable, and cannot so easily be taken away from us. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the deepest kind, it does not come from pleasure, but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now.

Socrates on Eudaimonia

Socrates, it seems, equated eudaimonia with wisdom and virtue. In the Greater Alcibiades, he says that he who is not wise cannot be happy; in the Gorgias, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man; and in the Meno, that everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.

At his trial, in the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defence, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honour as possible, while not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. ‘Wealth’ he says, ‘does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.’

Socrates provided the ultimate proof that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man: When the jurors condemned him to death, they only made him and his ideas immortal—and he made sure not to stop them.

Plato on Eudaimonia

Plato broadly agreed with Socrates. In the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon argues that most people are fundamentally selfish, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the mythical Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave as it suited him:

No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

We behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful; while the unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything.

As part of his lengthy reply to Glaucon, Plato famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Plato argues that justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: If health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Plato, an unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational and ordered control of himself.

Aristotle on Eudaimonia

It is with Plato’s one-time student Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics that the concept of eudaimonia is most closely associated.

For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or should be.

Now, if one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.

What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? This ‘supreme good’, he replies, is eudaimonia, and eudaimonia only.

Fine, but what is eudaimonia? For Aristotle, it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. Thus, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’.

Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants, and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique and god-like capacity to reason. Thus, our supreme good is to lead a life that enables us to use and develop our reason, and that is in accordance with reason.

By living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to flourish, that is, to develop and express our full human potential, regardless of the ebb and flow of our good or bad fortune.

To put this in modern terms, if we develop our thinking skills, if we guard against lies and self-deception, if we train and master our emotions, we will, over the years, make better and better choices, do more and more meaningful things, and derive ever-increasing satisfaction from all that we have become and all that we have done, and are yet able to do.