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Paul Woodruff ROUSSEAU, MOLIÈRE, AND THE ETHICS OF LAUGHTER Rousseau attacks comedy on the grounds that it is bad for our morals. He tries to show that to make a comedy moral is to take the fun out of it. No one would deny that some jokes are bad, and bad for us. But I think Rousseau is mistaken in his belief that the fun of comedy depends on the bad sort of joke. In this essay I examine the ethics of laughter and the techniques of comedy, and find them rooted in a common metaphysics of human nature. It turns out, if I am right, that the most effective comic techniques are the most innocent. A comic playwright can make us laugh at almost anything, even at things that unsettle or horrify us outside the theater. Surprised by our own laughter, we are grateful to see our bugbears turned ridiculous. But what if we find ourselves laughing at virtue in the theater, and are shocked by our own laughter? Laughter, it seems, can be elicited to good or bad effect, depending on the nature of its object. And even towards the same object there can be good and bad laughter. An ethnic joke can be told in a way that brings warm laughter, bridging impossible gulfs, or it can be told in a racist way, with unforgivable laughter driving us apart. Comic playwrights are dangerous people. Plato thought them so (though not so dangerous as tragedians) and argued for restrictions on the use of ridicule. It should always be good-natured, he says in the Laws, and ought never to be directed against citizens.1 Rousseau goes beyond this. In his Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theater2 he appeals to the danger of comedy as he vehemently defends Geneva's law against theater. Comedy, he argues, must be bad for our morals, or be nothing but a dull sermon. We must not dismiss Rousseau's critique of comedy lightly. Rousseau 325 326Philosophy and Literature was fascinated by the theater, and particularly by Molière, whom he admired as the grand master of comedy. And he knew something of what he admired and why he admired it. He had tried his hand at writing comedy and comic opera. He was not without a sense of humor (as readers of his Confessions are well aware), and he had ideas about how audiences are made to laugh. So it is not out of ignorance that he writes of comedy, "It is all bad and pernicious; . . . since the very pleasure of the comic is founded on the vice of the human heart, . . . the more the comedy is amusing . . ., the more its effect is disastrous for morals." At best, comic playwrights "make fun of vices without making virtue loved." At worst, like Molière in the Misanthrope, they make fun of virtues. Molière's misanthrope, Alceste, is a good man; so good, indeed, that no audience could be comfortable with him. So to please the audience (says Rousseau) Molière is forced to make Alceste ridiculous by adding to his scrupulous honesty a disposition to childish rages, thereby reenforcing the audience's corrupt belief that virtue in the extreme is foolish. But why could the play not be turned to virtuous effect, and Alceste's foils be made ridiculous in his place? Rousseau shows us what changes he thinks would have to be made—they reduce a great comedy to a dull sermon. Rousseau concludes that the same play cannot both make us laugh and be good for our morals.3 This radical case against comedy rests on two principles. First, as an audience we want only to find bad characters exciting and good characters amusing, so that successful comedy must make us laugh at good characters. Second, when we laugh at good characters in comedy, we do so without sympathy; by laughing at them we repudiate their example. Rousseau thinks it comforts us to laugh at Alceste in the Misanthrope because it enables us to set aside an example of immaculate honesty that would otherwise make us ashamed of our own deficiencies. Such laughter, he argues, is bad for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 325-336
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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