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Aristotle, by most accounts, had a lousy sense of humor. If he was witty at all, my guess is that his jokes tended toward the too-clever-by-half, labored wordplay that does nothing but give smart people a bad name.

It should not surprise us, then, that the unit of measurement used by Aristotle in his discussions of comedy was the “hee”. He is credited, in fact, with the creation of this comedic constant, and evidence of its use can be found throughout his work (which, it must be said, is uniformly unfunny).

One need only look at Ari’s Poetics to see that he’s not the right person to be making such judgments. There, he spends most of his time grinding away on the grand catharsis provided by tragedy and devotes comparatively little space to comedy. Tragedy, he thought, could only happen in the lives of the great and powerful; comedy was left for the rest of us as a way of purging our unpleasant emotions. Isn’t that the very opinion you might expect from a person with no sense of humor?

The “hee”, we now know, is not broad enough in its applications to qualify as the fundamental unit of hilarity. “Hee” is most often used as a kind of titter — just the kind of response one might predict to the lame, too-clever humor that Aristotle probably favored. When we combine “hee” with “tee”, moreover, it descends into a giggle (or worse, a sniggle). Such a term could never encompass the concept of an ordinary laugh or cackle, much less a full-throated guffaw.

Such was the power of Aristotle’s intellect, however, and so great was his influence over Western thought that the “hee” persisted as philosophy’s standard unit of funniness well into the Middle Ages. Indeed, it continued to be used by anyone who thought seriously about humor… until the time of Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who sought to overturn Aristotle’s influence and replace “hee” with “ho” as the measuring stick of merriment.

Sadly, St. Tom was no better equipped than his Greek predecessor to make such assessments. Although “ho” is a rounder, holier version of its predecessor, it is also clearly inadequate as a gauge of comicality. Anyone who seeks to attach humor to Godliness is setting himself up for failure. That is why ho-hoing survives today only within the Dominican order itself and in the quasi-amusement of such figures as Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant. If we are looking for a gold standard with which to value jollity, then “ho” is more like the bitcoin — not based on anything real.

In modern times, Jean-Paul Sartre has made the case for making “heh” the yardstick of humorousness. We see that this promulgation also fails. Although “heh”, like “hee”, is a recognized and widely used expression of mirth, it suffers from the same lack of comprehensiveness in meaning. Also, thanks to its frequent association with dark irony (let’s call it for what it is: sick humor), there is some doubt as to whether the “heh” has any real connection to levity at all.

As was the case with those other great minds, it seems that JP was not the right man for this job. Five minutes spent thinking about the implications of existentialism will make that obvious.

What’s left, then, is the “ha”. It has been the common man’s standard for funniness since chimps first chuckled, and it will no doubt be there after the last fancy-pants philosopher tries to explain humor and falls on his arse. Perhaps Aristotle was right after all, though not quite in the way he thought. Comedy, as he suggested, is a tool of catharsis best used by common folk. To that philosophical axiom I would add this corollary: since the common folk cannot take part in tragedy, so too should the great and powerful steer clear of humor. This applies to philosophers in particular; they can kill a joke by just looking at it.

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