People have mocked each another for as long as there has been language with which to do so. For example, at the beginning of Homer’s Iliad, the oldest epic from Ancient Greece, the warrior Achilles calls the king Agamemnon a “greedy dog-face,” among other things; the enraged king punishes Achilles, setting up Achilles’ eventual death. At the same time, insults can be incredibly funny and enjoyable — as in comic “roasts” from Comedy Central, the jolly wordplay of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or attacks against contemporary philosophy by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes. As a result, insults are difficult to pin down: any word or phrase may seem mocking or abusive to one person but neutral, funny, or even friendly to another. At the same time, apparent praise or even a compliment can be insulting if said in a specific way or at a particular time. A great deal depends on context.
In this course we will study the interplay between insults and humor, by comparing the ancient past and the contemporary present. Primary readings will draw from ancient Greek writers such as Homer, Aristophanes, and Demosthenes, and Romans such as Plautus, Catullus, and Seneca. We will pair these with real-life phenomena such as wall-graffiti (ancient and modern), personal letters, ancient curse tablets, modern film, music, and political speeches. This material will allow us to explore different sociological, anthropological, and linguistic models in order to understand insult and humor as key elements of human communication and even human nature.