I know almost nothing about Plato’s views on humor, but I did run across an interesting comment in the Republic recently. Socrates is advancing the idea of women as Guardians, although he knows that the mere thought of women engaging in nude gymnastics with the men is sure to be ridiculed. He proposes replying to those who make fun as follows:
Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.
But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good. (Emphasis added.)
That sentiment about the proper objects of humor bears some noteworthy resemblance to Ayn Rand’s own view of humor as stated in “Bootleg Romanticism” (and elsewhere) that “to laugh at the contemptible, is a virtue; to laugh at the good, is a hideous vice.” That basic congruence isn’t particularly surprising, as I suspect the virtue of mocking virtue is a distinctively modern phenomena. It’s all-too-common today: A young girl’s serious dispute with a friend is belittled by adults as a passing storm, a man struggling with a tough choice is told not to take life so seriously, a woman unwilling to poke fun at her well-organized life is told to lighten up, and so on.
Personally, I’ve found such humor to be so common that I have some trouble noticing the more subtle variations, even in myself. Yet it’s important to train your subconscious against such malicious humor. To allow it to remain means undermining your own and others’ passion for and commitment to the meaningful values and virtues in life. That’s particularly true in the case of children, who are most often subjected to this kind of degradation by humor, as well as most innocently susceptible to it.
If you want to understand just how destructive this modern form of humor can be, I cannot recommend anything better than Ayn Rand’s “Art and Moral Treason,” reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto. If that doesn’t impel a person to give his subconscious some new standing orders about humor, nothing will.