Nietzsche states in Beyond Good and Evil:
“I would really allow myself to order the ranks of philosophers according to the rank of their laughter – right up to those who are capable of golden laughter. And assuming that the gods also practise philosophy, a fact which many conclusions have already driven me to – I don’t doubt that in the process they know how to laugh in a superhuman and new way – and at the expense of all serious things! Gods delight in making fun: even where sacred actions are concerned, it seems they cannot stop laughing.”
(Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil p. 294)
Nietzsche suffered from serious physiological disease throughout his life and was preoccupied with trying to come up with solutions to face nihilism as the terminal sickness of the West. Throughout his work, he often made mention of child-like play, dance, and laughter. And through this, he overcame his pain and disease.
According to Walter Kaufmann, “for Nietzsche laughter represents an attitude toward the world, toward life and toward oneself.”
Nietzsche frequently laughs and he especially recommends laughing at oneself. Laughing at someone or something, including oneself, is a way of expressing contempt for that thing or person. This is important for those who want to ask clear-eyed questions about the values, phenomena, institutions, and people that they cherish. Laughter makes it possible – if only briefly – to achieve some distance from things one loves, thereby enabling a less biased evaluation of their true worth. It enables one to take oneself less seriously and admit that some of one’s cherished beliefs are most likely false.
Laughter of the Herd and Laughter of the Height
As well as targeting others for laughter, Nietzsche often has laughter directed at him. Nietzsche does not speak of just any laugh, but of a laugh that comes from the depths of man. It is from that depth that one must learn to laugh the superhuman laugh. This laughter arises from the state of anguish and suffering.
Perhaps best expressed in his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where the prophet Zarathustra, talks about the “laughter of the herd” and the “laughter of the height”.
After ten years of solitude in the mountains, he descends back into the world of men to share his wisdom with others, and thus requires a “going under”. In the marketplace of the nearest town, he stands in front of a crowd and gives a speech on the Ubermensch which he calls the “meaning of the earth”, and the “most contemptible” Last Man, who is perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else.
After Zarathustra’s speech, he is greeted with a scornful laughter, indeed a “laughter of the herd”. The crowd mockingly tell him to make them not into the Ubermensch but into the Last Man.
With this may be contrasted the “laughter of the height”. Zarathustra is confronted with a young shepherd into whose mouth a heavy black snake has entered and bitten into the shepherd’s throat. Try as he might, Zarathustra cannot tug the snake from the agonised shepherd, so he urges him to bite off its head.
“The shepherd… bit as my cry had advised him; he bit with a good bite! He spat far away the snake’s head — and sprang up. No longer a shepherd, no longer a man—a transformed being, surrounded with light, laughing! Never yet on earth had any man laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter — and now a thirst consumes me, a longing that is never stilled. My longing for this laughter consumes me: oh how do I endure still to live! And how could I endure to die now!”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 180)
However, Zarathustra cannot endure to die now because he has not yet laughed this extraordinary superhuman laughter. The urge to do so drives him on, and eventually, his consuming thirst is quenched, the real culmination comes when Zarathustra embraces his most ‘abysmal thought’, the eternal recurrence, which might be described as the event for the sake of which the whole book exists. The best afterlife we can experience is none other than another repetition of the life we just experienced, for eternity. It is the ideal of the most high-spirited and world-affirming individual.
But if everything eternally recurs, this includes that which is small in man. Confronted with this thought, Zarathustra is so sickened that he is unable to get up, eat or drink for seven days. After this period and despite life’s horrors and suffering, Zarathustra stands up and gives the highest affirmation of life possible: he becomes a Yes-sayer, loving life as it is.
Later, Zarathustra comes across a number of “higher men”. While Nietzsche intends the reader to regard these higher men as superior to the “herd”, they are inferior to Zarathustra and are a long way from the figure of the Ubermensch. Each of these men are some incomplete aspect of Zarathustra’s experience. Having already experienced the joy of the height, Zarathustra is capable of being more playful than the higher men and, announcing that they need someone to make them laugh, offers to play that role himself. Rejecting the adoration poured on him by one of the higher men on behalf of his fellows, Zarathustra tells them that:
“You may all be Higher Men… but for me – you are not high and strong enough.”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 293)
“What must follow are “higher, stronger, more victorious, more joyful men, such as are square-built in body and soul: laughing lions must come!”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 294)
The laughing lion is a reference to one of the three metamorphoses of the human spirit, the others being the camel and the child.
The spirit of heaviness also comes in part from a tradition that has denied and excluded laughter, linking it to the ridiculous and to buffoonery. Laughter is still a matter for a few, and it has yet to regain its sacred place in the world.
Zarathustra’s praise of laughter in his speech to the higher men is ecstatic. He urges them to:
“… learn to laugh at yourselves as a man ought to laugh!”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 303)
Contrasting himself with Jesus, who wishes “woe to you who laugh now”, Zarathustra has an alternative to Jesus’s crown of thorns:
“This laughter’s crown, this rose-wreath crown: I myself have set this crown on my head, I myself have canonised my laughter.”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 305)
He describes himself as Zarathustra the “laughing prophet” and the speech ends on another passionate exhortation to the higher men to learn to laugh. Laughing lions, then, are what the higher men have to become in order to embrace the eternal recurrence and laugh the laughter of the height, which they eventually do.
Becoming who one is
Nietzsche makes the puzzling statement that one has the power to create one’s self. By this he means that we are a continual process of integrating our character traits, habits, and patterns of action with one another. However, this creation can only take place after achieving the final metamorphosis of the child, representing a “new beginning”.
This is an incredibly difficult task, and even once it is achieved, it is only the unification of one’s past with one’s present, there is still the future to consider, thus becoming who one is, cannot be some final goal that can be met with the laughter of the height.
And yet, Zarathustra becomes what he is, achieving superhuman laughter. Perhaps this is because he laughs at the comedy of existence, including his own existence, because he knows that in the background there is nothing but absurdity and emptiness.
A suggestion to this effect comes from The Gay Science, where he states:
“Perhaps even laughter still has a future….Perhaps laughter will then form an alliance with wisdom; perhaps only ‘gay science’ will remain. At present, things are still quite different; at present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself; at present we still live in an age of tragedy, in the age of moralities and religions.”
(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p. 27-28).
But the person who attains the height can laugh at:
“all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p. 305)
From the vantage-point of the height, there is nothing that cannot be amusing, and the ultimate joke is life itself.
The person whom Zarathustra has become, the one who realises that becoming what he is involves constant self-creation, that there is in life no final goal, and yet is able to laugh at this realisation, in a superhuman manner, takes on a humorous attitude to life.
What Zarathustra has learned, the vital skill upon which his liberation and self-overcoming is dependent, is the ability to laugh at himself as a man ought to laugh. Rather than resorting to some sort of “bad faith” as existentialist Jean Paul Sartre puts it, Nietzsche laughs at the pointlessness of life.
Thus, when Zarathustra laughs the laughter of the height, the constant self-creation which he will need to continue throughout the rest of his life is, it seems at that point, not a burden. By embracing eternal recurrence, Zarathustra is bringing to life itself that spirit of childlike playfulness which is so common an element in humour.
Creating our own values to live by is essential, if we are to give any meaning to our lives. Yet there is no ultimate reason or justification for our particular set of values, other than that which we ourselves provide. As suggested, the laughter of the height results, to an important degree, from the perception of this incongruity.
There’s a lot we can learn from reading Nietzsche on laughter, regardless of the possible moral objections that may be raised against laughing “at all tragedies, real or imaginary”, Zarathustrian laughter highlights the sense of humour’s potential to make your world bigger from your childlike “new beginning” of being amenable to seeing things in a new way, or from a new perspective, and to realise that there are more ways of looking at the world than you previously acknowledged or of which you were even aware of.
The social aspects of humour and the pleasure of sharing a joke brings a feeling of togetherness. There are obvious advantages to feeling part of a group. However, being part of a group means obeying certain rules or risk being ostracised. Zarathustra laughs the laughter of the height because as the solitary individual, he is free from these constraints.
To follow Zarathustra is no easy task: it means making some hefty sacrifices. We have a fundamental desire for security: whether it be reason, science, the church, family, friends, or our own attractiveness, intelligence, or charm. These anchors provide our security, but they thwart the full development of our capacity for humour.
It is precisely these security-blankets that Zarathustra at the height challenges us to throw away. He has, unlike the rest of us, freed himself from, and stood outside, the accepted, shared perspective of his particular clique or society. It is this which has allowed his horizons to be expanded, by reaching the height, and in the extreme freedom from constraints, the sense of humour realises its maximum potential.
The suggestion in Nietzsche that the perception of the comedy of existence and Zarathustra’s laughter of the height, emphasises a vitally important point: that the tragic and the comic are not polar opposite, but inter-linked modes of experience.
Nietzsche ranks among those who “suffer from the overabundance of life” and know the intensity of the pleasure-pain of creation.
“Perhaps I know best why man is the only animal that laughs: he alone suffers so excruciatingly that he was compelled to invent laughter. The unhappiest and most melancholy animal is, as might have been expected, the most cheerful”.
(Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p. 74).
Thus, Nietzsche suggests descending into discomfort, into a deeper displeasure in order to obtain from there a more intense pleasure. He says:
“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other,- that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful’ unto death?”
(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §12)
This quote shows the harmony between opposing forces that Nietzsche has not only discovered or perceived in a theoretical way but has known how to experience first-hand as the most intense pain and the most effusive joy, reaching a feeling of joy worthy of gods.
The strongest are those who can think of man within a significant reduction in his value without thereby seeing themselves diminished. Nietzsche urges us to recognise the limits we are all subject to in order to return us to the humble, but noble, earthbound beings that we are.
Set amidst all the serious issues that his writings detail — the death of God, the ubermensch, the will to power, the eternal recurrence — comedy and laughter resound in his thinking of the excessiveness that often attempts to transcend our being human, all too human.
Being human is not a reason for despair, it presents to us opportunities of affirmation that allow us to say “yes” to life so that we may transfigure our state into joy.
Thus, comedy and laughter are embedded deep within Nietzsche’s thought and “where there is laughter and joviality, it is not worth thinking.”
Indeed, comedy must be included within the very art that Nietzsche proclaims is:
“the highest task and the true metaphysical activity of this life.”
(Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, §20)
The comedy and laughter in Nietzsche’s writings and thought are there as provocations to rethink our relationship to each other and the philosophical endeavours that bestow value and meaning to existence that is, at times, both tragic and absurd.
Until we come to grips with our science, moralities, and religion in terms of their reach and measure, we will remain mired in the eternal comedy of existence, and the joyful laughter of affirmation will remain a “not yet” and only a hope for the future.
The provocative laughter found in Nietzsche’s texts is the affirmation of amor fati. It is part of an authentic response of a subject in affirming being here as part of the world:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”
(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §276)