The Theosophical Forum – June 1938

NATURE STUDIES: XII — H. Percy Leonard

The Laugh of Doctor Johnson

When Boswell was looking over his diary in preparation for his famous Life, he came across a tantalizing entry on May 17, 1775, a day which he had passed in company with the sage: "Much laughing."

We must confess to a regret that the biographer omitted to enter the jokes that provoked that laughter. "It should seem," he writes, "he had that day been in a humor for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions, I never knew a man laugh more heartily." We may suppose that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exercise of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson's laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance of his manner. It was a kind of good-humored growl. Tom Davis described it oddly enough: "He laughs like a rhinoceros."

Laughter is a great revealer of character. A clever scoundrel may succeed in disguising his motives under the camouflage of an assumed manner, but surprised into a burst of laughter, the real man stands forth self-confessed. Dr. Livingstone, the African explorer, used to say that he always felt he could trust a savage who had a hearty laugh. "No vicious fellow," he remarked on one occasion, "could laugh like that."

No one can be called a really successful laugher unless he is able to enjoy a joke against himself; and to do this he must be able, at any moment, to cut himself adrift from his center of personal consciousness, and, standing by, regard it as a thing apart.

True laughter, the genial laughter of the heart, implies sympathy and is never evoked by bodily suffering or an embarrassing situation which causes mental distress. The man who knows no other life but the cold glitter of his intellect may be moved to a sense of the ridiculous at the sight of other people's pain; but in those who have any development of soul-life, the appeal of the comic is drowned in the reflected suffering which they sympathetically feel.

The laughter of fools may be, as Solomon declares that it is, "As the crackling of thorns under a pot"; but the laughter of the wise, whose serious view of life does not necessarily make them solemn, is a perfect echo of those melodies with which the ether rang when "the morning stars sung together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy."

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