Did you hear the one about…



Democritus, the "laughing philosopher"

Democritus, the "laughing philosopher"

I wonder if you know about whom I would be talking if I were to mention Hierocles and Philagrius. Their names, I suspect, give it away. Greeks of a certain antiquity? Correct. But what did they do? Here’s a multiple choice set of answers. Did they:

a) Heroically fling down their lives in a battle with marauding Persians?

b) Preside over a seminary for post-Aristotlean logic?

c) Manage a taverna in downtown Corinth where the dolmathes were mouth-wateringly irresistible?

Actually it’s none of the above. 

Believe it or not, Hierocles and Philagrius in the 4th century AD compiled a joke book. True. This Grecian gag bag entitled Philogelos: The Laugh Addict has recently been re-published and reveals a fascinating truth about human beings: it seems that the very same things that make us laugh today also had the tunic-clad Athenians clutching their bellies in unbridled mirth.

For example, a man returns to the slave trader from whom he has recently purchased a slave to complain that the fellow has died. “By the gods!” exclaims the seller, “When he was with me, he never did any such thing.”

Fast-forward 16 centuries and the Monty Python team were repeating the same routine – but, for slave, read ‘dead parrot’, of course. 

Anyone who loved the hung-dog expression – and considerable wit – of Les Dawson will recognize the angst of the hen-pecked husband in another titbit from Philogelos: A man is attending the burial of his wife who has just died. Someone asks, “Who is it that rests in peace here?” The widower replies, “Me, now.”

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” wrote the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, “Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”

It’s very refreshing to think our ancestors stretching back to the beginning that hath no beginning enjoyed a good joke. Humour is the greatest of disarmers and, particularly in British culture, very often the only comfortable way to deal with situations that are beyond our comprehension. Well, maybe not just in British culture…

In Memorials of the Faithful, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá pays tribute to one Mírzá Ja’far-i-Yazdí who fell dangerously ill when the believers were being held in the prison of ‘Akká. “He suffered many complications, until finally the doctor gave him up and would visit him no more. Then the sick man breathed his last,” recalls ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But then, Bahá’u’lláh instructed a follower to chant a particular healing prayer at the dead man’s bedside.

“His body was cold and all the signs of death were present,” writes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but then, “slowly, he began to stir; soon he could move his limbs, and before an hour had passed he lifted his head, sat up, and proceeded to laugh and tell jokes.”

Tell jokes! I wonder exactly what the jokes were that Mírzá Ja’far told on his return from the dead. Sadly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá chose not to go into detail about the content of Mírzá Ja’far’s resuscitation routine. Perhaps it was not so far removed from the wit of Hierocles and Philagrius, or Les Dawson for that matter. Seeing the shock on the faces of those gathered round him, it was probably all the poor man could do to divert his loved ones who had just given him up for dead only to see him brought back to life again. 

“Humour … is an essential element in preserving a proper balance in this life and in our comprehension of reality,” wrote the Universal House of Justice in 1985.

In other words – or lexeis – you gotta laugh.


One Response to “Did you hear the one about…”

  1. 😀 great post Rob.

    I would love to meet Aqa Siyyid Husayn-i-Kashani.

    In Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Adib Taherzadeh says that he:
    “had a great sense of humour and at times he used to come into the presence of Bahá’u’lláh and make Him laugh with some amusing remark.”

    (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 59)

    It would be fascinating to know what Baha’u’llah’s sense of humour was….

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