Seek Ye the Hilaritas!

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections.

I've written about hilaritas elsewhere, but I thought I'd bring it up here for the benefit of Boing Boing readers who may not be familiar with the concept. I was introduced to the term via the work of Robert Anton Wilson. The more common hilarity springs from the same root. Hilaritas was a Roman goddess of rejoicing and good humor. She appeared on Roman coins from from the time of Hadrian until the late 3rd century AD. Hilaritas was a Roman public virtue, something that people were supposed to strive to exhibit and inspire others with. Wilson was keen on this word as he thought it perfectly expressed a rare quality of being that revealed a special kind of person. He defined hilaritas as “profoundly good natured” and made clear that, for him, it was more than just being happy or having a good sense of humor. I've also seen it defined as “being of pleasant spirits.” There's a kind of cosmic it-factor involved. People possessed of hilaritas are people you're drawn to because they have something indefinable that you want, a kind of playful knowing about the world. They seem to be having just a bit more fun on the slip'n slide flow of the Tao than the rest of us. Santa Claus has hilaritas. Bugs Bunny. Hotei. Mark Frauenfelder. And, of course, our dearly-departed Bob Wilson (Eris playfully unrest his soul) embodied this quality. My life has been a quest to surround myself with as much hilaritas as possible. It's ultimately hard to define, but (as they say) like pornography, you know it when you see it.


  1. That’s kind of true for me too, now that you mention it, altho I know one Hillary that’s something of an exception (locale DC-area newscaster Hillary Howard).

  2. I try. But sometimes it is damn hard.

    I maintain a cookie jar at work. People put dollar bills in a can. I combine those with some of my own money and buy cookies to keep the jar full. On Monday I put two adhesive googly eyes on the jar.

    Today those eyes aren’t cutting it. They are just mocking me.

    Note: Clowns do not have hilaritas. They are hilaritas parasites. They suck it up with their red noses and store it in their big shoes. This is why children are afraid of them.

  3. >Clowns do not have hilaritas.

    I agree, and I lived with one for years (Patch Adams). No offense to Patch, but I found myself uneasy with the whole clown shtick. There’s something extraordinarily passive-aggressive about it.

    The definitive meditation on clown repulsion is Mark Dery’s amazing “Cotton Candy Autopsy” in _The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium_ (Grove Press, 1999). I recommend this essay all the time whenever the topic of clown phobia comes up.

  4. Peter Brown describes Augustine’s definition of “hilaritas” as “a mixture of intellectual excitement and sheer aesthetic pleasure at a notable display of wit.” This is the definition I always think of when I hear the word (and I hear it a lot, given my usual username.)

  5. #9

    “You can’t get away with murdering a clown.”

    — Lennie Brisco, Law and Order.

    #7: I love that definition. I’ve been there.

  6. #7 – I love Augustine. Even after he converted to Christianity, you get the idea he didn’t completely regret the fun he had as a yoot.

  7. Somebody emailed me and said she’d been looking online and there wasn’t much on “hilaritas” and where was my RAW source.

    I read it in one of his books, don’t know which one, applied to Leary. He also uses it, and applies it again to Leary, on the excellent 5-CD interview series “Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything.” On there, he says he first heard the term in Ezra Pounds’ Cantos, and that Pound says he got it from an obscure Greek philosopher Gemithus Plethon. I’ve searched on Robert Anton Wilson and hilaritas before and gotten basically nothing. I just searched on Pound and hilaritas and found the passage in Cantos 98 and a passage in a book about Pound (Ezra Pound and China), about his interest in the word:

    Cantos 98

    A soul, said Plotinus, the body inside it.
    “By Hilaritas,” said Gemisto, “by hilaritas: gods;
    and by speed in communication.
    Anselm cut some of the cackle, and relapsed for the sake of tranquility.

    “Pound adored the concept that the gods have ‘Hilaritas, the virtue hilaritas’ (83/548), a mirth and rejoicing that has at its roots a ‘sublime joy of wonder and intellectual love,’ and he cherished ‘speed in communication.’ The ‘mental velocities’ of the gods (93/652) he compared to the speed and arrow-straightness of ‘the wing’d fish under Zoagli’ (76/479) and to the grace and playfulness of dolphins: ‘Came Neptunus/his mind leaping/like dolphins’ (116/815).”

  8. You shouldn’t give up on hilaritas just because it isn’t second nature to you. Like some other virtues*, all you have to do is practice it a little to want to practice it more.

    *Not all of them though – chastity springs to mind…

  9. Very interesting. Has me wondering if Hilaritas had a Greek predecessor/counterpart as so many other Roman deities did. Here’s another point to ponder: Other cultures also had/have gods or goddesses of the sense of humor. In China I seem to recall the god of laughter and good humor was/is Budai (not exactly Buddha)

  10. Yeah, Budai is the same as Hotei, whom I referenced in the item. Hotei is the Japanese version of Budai. Budai/Hotei is associated with mirth and merriment, and cosmic trickery, and is often depicted surrounded by children, as is Hilaritas.

  11. Greek? That would be Comus, the God of revelry and feasts. Not to be confused Momus, the god of mockery who was kicked off of Mt. Olympus because he didn’t know when to quit. He had a pretty good second career as a Scottish pop musician, though.

  12. Also good term “Mensch” Yiddish for “good guy” but also one who simply by their presence makes you feel good.

  13. The character, Poppy, from Mike Leigh’s most recent film, Happy-Go-Lucky (synonym?), for which Sally Hawkins won a Golden Globe, pretty well fills the bill for ‘hilaritas’, or for “a kind of playful knowing about the world”. I think the movie pisses off a large segment of viewers, tempting as it is to make the equation elsmiley does above (“hilaritas = simple-tas”, or should that be simple ass? Or is he referring to Latin roots? I dunno). Some complain that she “spends her whole life happy and silly”, even though the movie’s only an hour and a half long. I think the movie gradually presents how difficult it is to embody the spirit of Hilaritas. I saw it over Christmas, and made a new year’s resolution, to myself, to “be more like Poppy”. Turns out it’s no easier than any other self-improvement scheme. Your description, Gareth, that people like Poppy “seem to be having just a bit more fun on the slip’n slide flow of the Tao than the rest of us”, feels right; and it raises the whole nature vs. nurture question for me (to which I answer “both”: those happy-go-lucky people are born with a certain capacity, and circumstances have aligned for them to develop it further).

  14. Anon@18: I can attest that my Hillary makes me feel better just by being around, but I think that is probably subjective. She says the same thing of me, though, so at least it is mutual.

  15. I think this goes a bit beyond being a good person. I love #7 definition. It seems to me to be a bit of that tickle you get when someone you like to speak to, because of their sharp and joyful wit, is around.

    Wit is probably the sexiest quality around.

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