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according to ancient theory, any of four bodily fluids that determined human health and temperament. HippocratesHippocrates
, c.460–c.370 B.C., Greek physician, recognized as the father of medicine. He is believed to have been born on the island of Cos, to have studied under his father, a physician, to have traveled for some time, perhaps studying in Athens, and to have then
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 postulated that an imbalance among the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) resulted in pain and disease, and that good health was achieved through a balance of the four humors; he suggested that the glands had a controlling effect on this balance. For many centuries this idea was held as the basis of medicine and was much elaborated. GalenGalen
, c.130–c.200, physician and writer, b. Pergamum, of Greek parents. After study in Greece and Asia Minor and at Alexandria, he returned to Pergamum, where he served as physician to the gladiatorial school. He resided chiefly in Rome from c.162.
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 introduced a new aspect, that of four basic temperaments related to the elements of which matter was thought to consist (fire, water, air, and earth) and reflecting the humors: the sanguine, buoyant type; the phlegmatic, sluggish type; the choleric, quick-tempered type; and the melancholic, dejected type. In time any personality aberration or eccentricity was referred to as a humor. The medical theory of humors was undermined in the centuries after the Renaissance and lost favor in the 19th cent. after the German Rudolf VirchowVirchow, Rudolf
, 1821–1902, German pathologist, a founder of cellular pathology. He became professor at the Univ. of Würzburg (1849) and professor and director of the Pathological Institute, Berlin (1856).
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 presented his cellular pathology.

In literature, a humor character was one in whom a single passion predominated; this interpretation was especially popular in Elizabethan and other Renaissance literature. One of the most comprehensive treatments of the subject was the Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. The theory found its strongest advocates among the comedy writers, notably Ben JonsonJonson, Ben,
1572–1637, English dramatist and poet, b. Westminster, London. The high-spirited buoyancy of Jonson's plays and the brilliance of his language have earned him a reputation as one of the great playwrights in English literature.
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 and his followers, who used humor characters to illustrate various modes of irrational and immoral behavior.


See N. Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (2007).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Russian, iumor), a special form of the comic (komicheskoe); a relationship of the consciousness to an object, to individual phenomena, or to the world as a whole that combines an externally comic treatment with an inner seriousness.

The Russian word for humor derives from the English “humor” (in the sense of mood, temper), which comes from the Latin humor (fluid) and reflects the ancient belief that the four types of temperament are determined by the relative proportions of the four chief fluids, or humors, in the body. In accordance with this etymology, humor is explicitly “whimsical” and subjective; it is conditioned by personality, and it bears the imprint of the “strange” mental set of the “humorist.”

Humor is distinguished from the purely comic by its reflectiveness. Humor aims at a more meditative and serious relationship to the object of laughter and to a comprehension of the object’s truth despite its laughable strangeness; in this regard, humor is the opposite of derisive, destructive forms of laughter.

On the whole, humor tends toward an evaluation that, like life itself, is complex and that is free from the one-sidedness of generally accepted stereotypes. On a more profound and serious level, humor reveals the true nature of things behind the whimsical. It shows the lofty behind the trivial, the wise behind the nonsensical, and the sad behind the laughable, disclosing “through the laughter visible to the world ... the tears invisible to it” (N. V. Gogol). In an image that embodied both elements of humor, Jean Paul, the first theorist of humor, likened humor to a bird that flies to the sky tailfirst, never letting the earth out of its sight.

Depending on the emotional tone and the cultural level involved, humor may be good-natured, cruel, friendly, crude, sad, or touching. The “fluid” nature of humor reveals its “protean” (Jean Paul) capacity to assume forms corresponding to the spirit or historical “temper” of any epoch. Because of its fluid nature, humor is also capable of combination with other forms of the comic; ironic, witty, satirical, and amusing humor are examples of such combination. A great deal of the essence and the uniqueness of pure humor may be explained by a comparison of humor with other basic forms of the comic.

Humor is similar to irony, a no less complex form of the comic, in its constituent elements and in the elements’ opposition; however, it is distinguished from irony by the “rules” of the comic game and by its purpose and effect. In irony the laughable is concealed under a serious mask, and a negative (mocking) attitude toward the object predominates; in humor the serious lies beneath a comic mask, and a positive (“laughing”) attitude generally prevails. The complexity of irony is thus merely formal; its seriousness is pretended, and its nature is purely artful. The complexity of humor, by contrast, is substantive. Its seriousness is genuine, and its nature—even in play—is more “philosophical”; it is more reflective of a world view.

Humor frequently “plays” on two equally real aspects of human nature, the physical and the spiritual. The effect of irony and that of humor therefore differ when the game is ended and its inner aspect and true goal are revealed. Irony, at times close to a caustic gibe, stings, wounds, and insults—not only by the unpleasant content that is revealed but also by the very form of the game. Humor, on the other hand, in the final analysis intercedes for its object, and its laughter is sometimes a “bashful” screen for delight or even praise, as in the case of “friendly” humor. Such writers of the past two or three centuries as W. Scott have frequently used a humorous coloration in order to avoid a stilted quality or one-sidedness when portraying noble heroes or depicting the ideal natures of simple people who are national or social types.

A comparison of humor with wit, the comic in the intellectual sphere, is no less telling. Wit is based on the play of words, concepts, or facts that are fundamentally different from each other but are closely related by association or by sound. Humor, on the other hand, is based on the intuitive comprehension, behind a comic exterior, of the inner nature of a subject; behind the perceptible or visible, the spiritual or the intellectually comprehensible is grasped. For example, in Cervantes’ novel the lanky, skinny Don Quixote rushes along the bony Rocinante, while behind him rides the stumpy, potbellied Sancho on a donkey. These figures have two aspects; they form both an interrelated, integral “quixotic” pair and a pair wandering in search of the ideal against the background of the stagnant, static reality of Spain. On all levels, the same combination of impractical spirit and spiritless practicality is found. Stylistically, wit often arises from a comparison or a juxtaposition of things that are different; humor often derives from a metaphor, frequently even a “realized metaphor” (a materialization of the spiritual).

The relationship of humor to satire is determined by the attitude of each to personal weaknesses. Defects and shortcomings per se are the source of satirical laughter. Humor, however, proceeds from the truth that our shortcomings and weaknesses are most often a continuation, an exaggeration, or the “other side” of our personal merits. Satire, which openly exposes its object, is frank and tendentious in its goals. The serious purpose of humor, on the other hand, lies below the surface and is more or less concealed behind laughter. The uncompromising, demanding attitude of the satirist places him in an external, alienated, and hostile position vis-à-vis the object; the closer, more intimate relationship of the humorist, who “experiences the point of view” of the object of his laughter, tends toward indulgence, even to the point of resignation in the face of necessity and the nature of things.

The great satirists, such as J. Swift and M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, are in a state of profound discord with life that often approaches the tragic; they are often characterized by a capricious mixture of the wrathfully serious with the absurdly playful or the ridiculously insignificant; an example is Saltykov-Shchedrin’s use of the character with the “stuffed head.” These satirists are distinguished by the use of laughter and play as an anesthetic that restores cheerfulness; they cloak satire in the guise of amusing humor.

Humor, which is a personal form of the comic, is the historical successor of the impersonal, oldest form of the comic—the laughter of ritual plays and festivals, which is known to all peoples. In humor, life is refracted through a personal viewpoint; life thus seen deviates in an original manner, as if centrifugally, from official stereotypes of accepted ideas and behavior. Humor is distinguished from archaic laughter by its application of the personal element to the object of laughter and to the criteria of judgment. The collectively celebrated holiday absorbs, assimilates, and integrates the individual into the whole; the call of the carnival is “Do as we do, as everybody does.” Humor differentiates and singles out the individual from the whole, even in the case of an eccentric individual, such as Don Quixote, who acts for the whole to the point of self-sacrifice.

In humor, opinion ceases to be a deceptive, invalid, and artificial view of things, as it was to the impersonal traditional-patriarchal consciousness, and emerges as the only vital, real, and convincing form of a person’s independent comprehension of life. Humor treats things seriously but puts its arguments comically, “whimsically”; rather than appealing separately to reason or to feelings, it appeals to the entire consciousness. Humor, as it were, proceeds from the postulate that to persuade in an impersonal way, separate from a subject, is to persuade no one; an idea without a “person” is not alive or effective.

Unlike other forms of the comic whose theoretical development can be traced back to the ancient Orient and to classical antiquity, humor, because of its personal nature, did not attract the attention of aestheticians until the 18th century. Since then, however, studies of humor have appeared one after another, and humor has virtually pushed the other forms of the comic into the background. The generally recognized homeland of humor is Great Britain, where bourgeois-liberal thought underwent its classic development. From the times of Puritanism, Great Britain has been the classic country of cant, by which is meant hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, and vulgarity in generally accepted stereotypes of propriety; it has also been the country that has engaged in the most intense struggle against cant and the tyranny of public opinion, a struggle that has lasted for centuries in a uniquely and characteristically British form.

Humor, as a rule, is not characteristic of cultures of premodern times; when humor does occur, it is a sign of the formation of individual personality. Humor is encountered only on the periphery of moral and religious consciousness, where it appears as an opposition—nihilist, irrationalist, mystical, or jesting—to the prevailing canons. Examples include the ancient anecdotes about the Cynics (especially about Diogenes, whom Plato called a “Socrates gone mad”), the late medieval legends about the “poor in spirit,” the tales about the “foolishly wise” escapades of the iurodivye (holy fools) in Rus’, and the poetry of déclassé groups, such as the lyrics written by F. Villon.

The first literary examples of earthly laughter close to humor come from the Renaissance and are connected with the discovery of man and the world and a new understanding of the personality and of nature. A genetic link with archaic laughter is still quite evident in these examples, which include Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Shakespeare’s comedies, and the character of Falstaff and the “Falstaffian elements” in Shakespeare’s historical plays. B. Jonson was one of the first to introduce the word “humor” into literary use, although it retained its satirical sense of harmful imbalances in one’s character; the word appears in Jonson’s comedies Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man Out of His Humour (1599). The first complete model of humor is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the unsurpassed ideal and the point of departure for the subsequent evolution of humor in the literatures of modern times.

The defense of natural personal rights and the poeticization of the prose of private life that were characteristic of the Enlightenment were accompanied by a flourishing of humor, especially in English literature. H. Fielding, O. Goldsmith, and T. Smollett wrote family novels distinguished by humor; the prose of L. Sterne marked the zenith of humor in 18th-century literature. In French literature the possible uses to which humor could be put were revealed in philosophic novels, such as D. Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and the philosophic novels of Voltaire. The best examples of humor in 18th-century German literature are Goethe’s idyll Hermann und Dorothea and, especially, his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; after these works come the novels of Jean Paul, the “German Sterne.”

A distinctive variety of subjective humor is romantic irony, which found artistic embodiment in the works of L. Tieck, J. von Eichendorff, A. von Chamisso, and, most fully and poetically, E. T. A. Hoffmann, who used it in his dual levels of narration. Romantic irony was also the predominant form of humor in the English novel of the 19th century. Charles Dickens, a great master of humor and a great satirist, began his career with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the most important imitation of Cervantes in European literature. Dickens’ method of creating characters, however, more often followed the English tradition of eccentric characters initiated by Sterne, although Dickens’ humor showed greater social awareness.

A number of varieties of humor may be found in 20th-century literature. They include traditional forms, dating back to Renaissance literature; nationally characteristic forms, such as J. Hasek’s “good soldier Švejk” (a Sancho Panza-type figure) and R. Rolland’s Rabelaisian Colas Breugnon; and avant-garde forms, such as those found in dadaism, surrealism, and the theater of the absurd.

In 19th-century Russian literature, Gogol’s humor is original in the highest degree. It takes diverse forms, ranging from the festive folk humor of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and the “heroic” humor of Taras Bulba to the fantastic and grotesque humor of “The Nose,” the idyllic humor of “Old-World Landowners,” and the sad humor of “The Overcoat.” F. M. Dostoevsky and A. N. Ostrovskii use many different types of humor in a variety of functions; humor is also found in the short stories and plays of A. P. Chekhov. In Soviet literature, remarkable examples of various forms of humor are provided by I. E. Babel’, M. M. Zoshchenko, M. A. Bulgakov, M. A. Sholokhov, A. T. Tvardovskii, and V. M. Shukshin.


Propp, V. Ia. Problemy komizma i smekha. Moscow, 1976.
Bahnsen, J. Das Tragische als Weltgesetz und der Humor als ästhetische Gestalt des Metaphysischen. Lauenburg, 1877.
Höffding, H. Humor als Lebensgefühl, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1930.
Preisendanz, W. Humor als dichterische Einbildungskraft. Munich [1963].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A fluid or semifluid part of the body.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


(US), humor
1. any of various fluids in the body, esp the aqueous humour and vitreous humour
2. Archaic any of the four bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, melancholy or black bile) formerly thought to determine emotional and physical disposition
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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