Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cicero on Humor (I)

Cicero adapted the tradition started by Aristotle and Theophrastus to the Roman context, and produced the first extant systematic analysis of humour. This section of De Oratore (On the Orator, II, live-lxxi) provides us with valuable information about the rich Latin vocabulary that referred to different aspects of humour, and also about the manner in which all these aspects were expected to fit into public oratory.* The topic is brought out by Antonius, who claims that jesting (iocus) and shafts of wit (facetiae) “are agreeable and often highly effective” but, as they are “the endowment of nature,” they cannot be taught (liv, 216).His partner Caius Julius Caesar Strabo agrees with him about both the utility of witticisms in oratory and the impossibility of learning this art.
—Figueroa-Dorrego & Larkin-Galiñanes 34

Although the two characters Antonius and Caesar speak for Cicero that humor cannot be instilled or imparted, Cicero speaks through Antonius that the appropriate use of humor can be inculcated and instructed. “[R]egard ought to be paid to personages, topics, and occasions, so that the jest should not detract from dignity” (lvi, 229). One should certainly stand off the limits of gravitas (dignity, decorum).

*Here the authors are quoting Jan Bremmer & Herman Roodenburg (“Introduction: Humour and History.” A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Eds. J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997. 1-10.) to justify their observation that Cicero follows the footsteps of Aristotle and Theophrastus, and are quoting Fritz Graf (“Cicero, Plautus, and Roman Laughter.” A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Eds. J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997. 29-39.) to explain that humour concerns public oratory.

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