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3. I now turn to a very different talent, namely that which dispels the graver emotions of the judge by exciting his laughter, frequently diverts his attention from the facts of the case, and sometimes even refreshes him and revives him when he has begun to be bored or wearied by the case. How hard it is to attain success in this connexion is shown by the cases of the two great masters of Greek and Roman oratory. [2] For many think that Demosthenes was deficient in this faculty, and that Cicero used it without discrimination. Indeed, it is impossible to suppose that Demosthenes deliberately avoided all display of humour, since his few jests are so unworthy of his other excellences that they clearly show that he lacked the power, not merely that he disliked to use it. [3] Cicero, on the other hand, was regarded as being unduly addicted to jests, not merely outside the courts, but in his actual speeches as well. Personally (though whether I am right in this view, or have been led astray by an exaggerated admiration for the prince of orators, I cannot say), [p. 441] I regard him as being the possessor of a remarkable turn of wit. For his daily speech was full of humour, [4] while in his disputes in court and in his examination of witnesses he produced more good jests than any other, while the somewhat insipid jokes which he launches against Verres are always attributed by him to others and produced as evidence: wherefore, the more vulgar they are, the more probable is it that they are not the invention of the orator, but were current as public property. I wish, however, [5] that Tiro, or whoever it may have been that published the three books of Cicero's jests, had restricted their number and had shown more judgment in selecting than zeal in collecting them. For he would then have been less exposed to the censure of his calumniators, although the latter will, in any case, as in regard to all the manifestations of his genius, find it easier to detect superfluities than deficiencies. [6] The chief difficulty which confronts the orator in this connexion lies in the fact that sayings designed to raise a laugh are generally untrue (and falsehood always involves a certain meanness), and are often deliberately distorted, and, further, never complimentary: while the judgments formed by the audience on such jests will necessarily vary, since the effect of a jest depends not on the reason, but on an emotion which it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe. [7] For I do not think that anybody can give an adequate explanation, though many have attempted to do so, of the cause of laughter, which is excited not merely by words or deeds, but sometimes even by touch. Moreover, there is great variety in the things which raise a laugh, since we laugh not merely at those words or actions which are smart or witty, but also [p. 443] at those which reveal folly, anger or fear. Consequently, the cause of laughter is uncertain, since laughter is never far removed from derision. [8] For, as Cicero1 says, “Laughter has its basis in some kind or other of deformity or ugliness,” and whereas, when we point to such a blemish in others, the result is known as wit, it is called folly when the same jest is turned against ourselves.

Now, though laughter may be regarded as a trivial matter, and an emotion frequently awakened by buffoons, actors or fools, it has a certain imperious force of its own which it is very hard to resist. [9] It often breaks out against our will and extorts confession of its power, not merely from our face and voice, but convulses the whole body as well. Again, it frequently turns the scale in matters of great importance, as I have already observed:2 for instance, it often dispels hatred or anger. [10] A proof of this is given by the story of the young men of Tarentum, who had made a number of scurrilous criticisms of Pyrrhus over the dinner table: they were called upon to answer for their statements, and, since the charge was one that admitted neither of denial nor of excuse, they succeeded in escaping, thanks to a happy jest which made the king laugh: for one of the accused said, “Yes, and if the bottle hadn't been empty, we should have killed you!” a jest which succeeded in dissipating the animosity which the charge had aroused.

[11] Still, whatever the essence of humour may be, and although I would not venture to assert that it is altogether independent of art (for it involves a certain power of observation, and rules for its employment have been laid down by writers both of Greece and [p. 445] Rome), I will insist on this much, that it depends mainly on nature and opportunity. [12] The influence of nature consists not merely in the fact that one man is quicker or cleverer than another in the invention of jests (for such a power can be increased by teaching), but also in the possession of some peculiar charm of look or manner, the effect of which is such that the same remarks would be less entertaining if uttered by another. [13] Opportunity, on the other hand, is dependent on circumstances, and is of such importance that with its assistance not merely the unlearned, but even mere country bumpkins are capable of producing effective witticisms: while much again may depend on some previous remark made by another which will provide opportunity for repartee. For wit always appears to greater advantage in reply than in attack. [14] We are also confronted by the additional difficulty that there are no specific exercises for the development of humour nor professors to teach it. Consequently, while convivial gatherings and conversation give rise to frequent displays of wit, since daily practice develops the faculty, oratorical wit is rare, for it has no fixed rules to guide it, but must adapt itself to the ways of the world. [15] There has, however, never been anything to prevent the composition of themes such as will afford scope for humour, so that our controversial declamations may have an admixture of jests, while special topics may be set which will give the young student practice in the play of wit. [16] Nay, even those pleasantries in which we indulge on certain occasions of festive licence (and to which we give the name of mots,3 as, indeed, they are), if only a little more good sense were employed in their [p. 447] invention, and they were seasoned by a slight admixture of seriousness, might afford a most useful training. As it is, they serve merely to divert the young and merrymakers.

[17] There are various names by which we describe wit, but we have only to consider them separately to perceive their specific meaning. First, there is urbanitas, which I observe denotes language with a smack of the city in its words, accent and idiom, and further suggests a certain tincture of learning derived from associating with well-educated men; in a word, it represents the opposite of rusticity. The meaning of venustus is obvious; [18] it means that which is said with grace and charm. Salsus is, as a rule, applied only to what is laughable: but this is not its natural application, although whatever is laughable should have the salt of wit in it. For Cicero,4 when he says that whatever has the salt of wit is Attic, does not say this because persons of the Attic school are specially given to laughter; and again when Catullus says—

In all her body not a grain of salt!

Cat. lxxxvi. 4.
he does not mean that there is nothing in her body to give cause for laughter. [19] When, therefore, we speak of the salt of wit, we refer to wit about which there is nothing insipid, wit, that is to say, which serves as a simple seasoning of language, a condiment which is silently appreciated by our judgment, as food is appreciated by the palate, with the result that it stimulates our taste and saves a speech from becoming tedious. But just as salt, if sprinkled freely over food, gives a special relish of its own, so long as it is not used to excess, so in the case of those who have the salt of wit there is something about [p. 449] their language which arouses in us a thirst to hear. Again, I do not regard the epithet facelus as applicable solely to that which raises a laugh. [20] If that were so Horace5 would never have said that nature had granted Vergil the gift of being facetus in song. I think that the term is rather applied to a certain grace and polished elegance. This is the meaning which it bears in Cicero's letters, where he quotes the words of Brutus,6 “In truth her feet are graceful and soft as she goes delicately on her way.” This meaning suits the passage in Horace,7 to which I have already made reference, “To Vergil gave a soft and graceful wit.” [21] locus is usually taken to mean the opposite of seriousness. This view is, however, somewhat too narrow. For to feign, to terrify, or to promise, are all at times forms of jesting. Dicacitas is no doubt derived from dico, and is therefore common to all forms of wit, but is specially applied to the language of banter, which is a humorous form of attack. Therefore, while the critics allow that Demosthenes was urbanus, they deny that he was dicax.

[22] The essence, however, of the subject which we are now discussing is the excitement of laughter, and consequently the whole of this topic is entitled περὶ γελοίου by the Greeks. It has the same primary division as other departments of oratory, that is to say, it is concerned with things and words. [23] The application of humour to oratory may be divided into three heads: for there are three things out of which we may seek to raise a laugh, to wit, others, ourselves, or things intermediate. In the first case we either reprove or refute or make light of or retort or deride the arguments of others. In the [p. 451] second we speak of things which concern ourselves in a humorous manner and, to quote the words of Cicero,8 say things which have a suggestion of absurdity. For there are certain sayings which are regarded as folly if they slip from us unawares, but as witty if uttered ironically. [24] The third kind consists, as Cicero also tells us, in cheating expectations, in taking words in a different sense from what was intended, and in other things which affect neither party to the suit, and which I have, therefore, styled intermediate. [25] Further, things designed to raise a laugh may either be said or done. In the latter case laughter is sometimes caused by an act possessing a certain element of seriousness as well, as in the case of Marcus Caelius the praetor, who, when the consul Isauricus broke his curule chair, had another put in its place, the seat of which was made of leather thongs, by way of allusion to the story that the consul had once been scourged by his father: sometimes, again, it is aroused by an act which passes the grounds of decency, as in the case of Caelius' box,9 a jest which was not fit for an orator or any respectable man to make. [26] On the other hand the joke may lie in some remark about a ridiculous look or gesture; such jests are very attractive, more especially when delivered with every appearance of seriousness; for there are no jests so insipid as those which parade the fact that they are intended to be witty. Still, although the gravity with which a jest is uttered increases its attraction, and the mere fact that the speaker does not laugh himself makes his words laughable, there is also such a thing as a humorous look, manner or [p. 453] gesture, provided always that they observe the happy mean. Further, a jest will either be free and lively, like the majority of those uttered by Aulus Galba, or abusive, like those with which Junius Bassus recently made us familiar, or bitter, like those of Cassius Severus, or gentle, like those of Domitius Afer. [28] Much depends on the occasion on which a jest is uttered. For in social gatherings and the intercourse of every day a certain freedom is not unseemly in persons of humble rank, while liveliness is becoming to all. Our jests should never be designed to wound, and we should never make it our ideal to lose a friend sooner than lose a jest. Where the battles of the courts are concerned I am always better pleased when it is possible to indulge in gentle raillery, although it is, of course, permissible to be abusive or bitter in the words we use against our opponents, just as it is permissible to accuse them openly of crime, and to demand the last penalty of the law. But in the courts as elsewhere it is regarded as inhuman to hit a man when he is down, either because he is the innocent victim of misfortune or because such attacks may recoil on those who make them. Consequently, the first points to be taken into consideration are who the speaker is, what is the nature of the case, who is the judge, who is the victim, and what is the character of the remarks that are made. [29] It is most unbecoming for an orator to distort his features or use uncouth gestures, tricks that arouse such merriment in farce. No less unbecoming are ribald jests, and such as are employed upon the stage. As for obscenity, it should not merely be banished from his language, but should not even be suggested. For even if our [p. 455] opponent has rendered himself liable to such a charge, our denunciation should not take the form of a jest. [30] Further, although I want my orator to speak with wit, he must not give the impression of striving after it. Consequently lie must not display his wit on every possible occasion, but must sacrifice a jest sooner than sacrifice his dignity. [31] Again, no one will endure an accuser who employs jests to season a really horrible case, nor an advocate for the defence who makes merry over one that calls for pity. Moreover, there is a type of judge whose temperament is too serious to allow him to tolerate laughter. [32] It may also happen that a jest directed against an opponent may apply to the judge or to our own client, although there are some orators who do not refrain even from jests that may recoil upon themselves. This was the case with Sulpicius Longus, who, despite the fact that he was himself surpassingly hideous, asserted of a man against whom he was appearing in a case involving his status as a free man, that even his face was the face of a slave. To this Domitius Afer replied, “Is it your profound conviction, Longus, that an ugly man must be a slave?” [33] Insolence and arrogance are likewise to be avoided, nor must our jests seem unsuitable to the time or place, or give the appearance of studied premeditation, or smell of the lamp, while those directed against the unfortunate are, as I have already said, inhuman. Again, some advocates are men of such established authority and such known respectability, that any insolence shown them would only hurt the assailant. As regards the way in which we should deal with friends I have already given instructions. [34] It is the duty not merely [p. 457] of an orator, but of any reasonable human being, when attacking one whom it is dangerous to offend to take care that his remarks do not end in exciting serious enmity, or the necessity for a grovelling apology. Sarcasm that applies to a number of persons is injudicious: I refer to cases where it is directed against whole nations or classes of society, or against rank and pursuits which are common to many. [35] A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

It is, however, a difficult task to indicate the sources from which laughter may be legitimately derived or the topics where it may be naturally employed. To attempt to deal exhaustively with the subject would be an interminable task and a waste of labour. [36] For the topics suitable to jests are no less numerous than those from which we may derive reflexions, as they are called, and are, moreover, identical with the latter. The powers of invention and expression come into play no less where jests are concerned, while as regards expression its force will depend in part on the choice of words, in part on the figures employed. [37] Laughter then will be derived either from the physical appearance of our opponent or from his character as revealed in his words and actions, or from external sources; for all forms of raillery come under one or other of these heads; if the raillery is serious, we style it as severe; if, on the other hand, it is of a lighter character, we regard it as humorous. These themes for jest may be pointed out to the eye or described in words or indicated by some mot. [38] It is only on [p. 459] rare occasions that it is possible to make them visible to the eye, as Gaius Julius10 did when Helvius Mancia kept clamouring against him. “I will show you what you're like!” he cried, and then, as Mancia persisted in asking him to do so, pointed with his finger at the picture of a Gaul painted on a Cimbric shield, a figure to which Mancia bore a striking resemblance. There were shops round the forum and the shield had been hung up over one of them by way of a sign. [39] The narration of a humorous story may often be used with clever effect and is a device eminently becoming to an orator. Good examples are the story told of Caepasius and Fabricius, which Cicero tells in the pro Cluentio, or the story told by Caelius of the dispute between Decimus Laelius and his colleague when they were both in a hurry to reach their province first. But in all such cases the whole narrative must possess elegance and charm, while the orator's own contribution to the story should be the most humorous element. Take for instance the way in which Cicero gives a special relish to the flight of Fabricius.11 [40] “And so, just at the moment when he thought his speech was showing him at his best and he had uttered the following solemn words, words designed to prove a master-stroke of art, 'Look at the fortunes of mankind, gentlemen, look at the aged form of Gaius Fabricius,' just at that very moment, I say, when he had repeated the word 'look' several times by way of making his words all the more impressive, he looked himself, and found that Fabricius had slunk out of court with his head hanging down.” I will not quote the rest of the passage, for it is well known. But he develops the theme [p. 461] still further although the plain facts amount simply to this, that Fabricius had left the court. [41] The whole of the story told by Caelius is full of wit and invention, but the gem of the passage is its conclusion. “He followed him, but how he crossed the straits, whether it was in a ship or a fisherman's boat, no one knew; but the Sicilians, being of a lively turn of wit, said that he rode on a dolphin and effected his crossing like a second Arion.”12 Cicero13 [42] thinks that humour belongs to narrative and wit to sallies against the speaker's antagonist. Domitius Afer showed remarkable finish in this department; for, while narratives of the kind I have described are frequent in his speeches, several books have been published of his witticisms as well. [43] This latter form of wit lies not merely in sallies and brief displays of wit, but may be developed at greater length, witness the story told by Cicero in the second book of his de Oratore,14

1 De Or. II. lviii. 236. Where? De Or. II. Iviii. 236.

2 Where?

3 The meaning of this passage is not clear, and no satisfactory explanation or correction has been suggested.

4 Orat. xxvi. 90.

5 Sat. I. x. 44. molle atque facetum/Vergilio adnuerunt gaudentes rure Camenae.

6 This letter is lost.

7 Sat. I. x. 44. molle atque facetum/Vergilio adnuerunt gaudentes rure Camenae.

8 de Or. II. lxxi. 289.

9 cp. Pro Cael xxix. 69. There is no jest in this passage which lays itself open to such censure. The jest must have consisted in some action on the part of the orator.

10 Cic. de Or. II. lxvi. 266.

11 pro Cluent. xxi. 58.

12 i.e. D. Laelius or his colleague: see § 39.

13 Orat xxvi. 87.


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