What’s so Funny?

In the days leading up to the eventual execution of his former chancellor, Henry VIII would daily send a courier to St. Thomas More asking him over and over to change his mind.  One evening the Saint finally said, “Yes, I have changed my mind.”   The King told the courier to return to find out the particulars of his change of heart, to which the eventual martyr replied “I have changed my mind in this sense: whereas yesterday I intended being shaved before execution, I have now changed my mind and intend that my beard shall go with my head.”  Because of his mirth, his friend Erasmus called him the “one of the happiest men I ever met” and he is by no means unique among the saints.  St. Francis (de Sales and of Assisi), St. Philip Neri, St. Theresa of Avila and the Little Flower are all known for a lively sense of humor.  To look around at Christians today, however, we would say that the virtue that St. Thomas (borrowing from Aristotle) called eutrapelia or “wittiness” has been forgotten.

As to why this might be, GK Chesterton offers an explanation in his book Heretics.  A master of paradox and witty one-liners, he was often accused of not being a “serious” writer.  He defended himself by reminding his critics that the opposite of funny is not serious, but instead “not funny.”  The opposite of serious is frivolous so that you can be both funny and serious in telling the truth.  A man can tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes just as he can choose to tell the truth in French or German.  Chesterton was serious in telling the truth, even if he chose to do it in a funny way.  There is nothing frivolous about using humor to tell the truth.  Point of fact this is often a powerful way to present something as serious as the Gospel because humor tends to gently disarm people.

Although we might have an “apostolate of the funny”, we should not look upon a sense of humor as merely an ad-on to an evangelical tool belt.  St. Thomas calls it a virtue and therefore something that every serious Christian ought to cultivate.  A Christian is naturally light-hearted, not taking things of this world too seriously and so it is fitting that he should have a sense of humor.  Humor  at its core consists in pointing out incongruities in reality.  Who better than a Christian, who knows reality as it is, can truly laugh in this vale of tears?  True laughter is a foretaste of eternal joy.

There is a philosophical maxim that applies here, namely that “the Good diffuses itself.”  When something is truly good, it tends to spread out.  The funny is part of the Good in that when we witness something funny, we look for someone to tell about it.  In fact in most social settings, it is the man who can look upon events with a sense of humor who draws the most people towards him.

JPII acting silly

If the funny is part of the Good, then this means that the devil is active in trying to pervert it.  In CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape cautions Wormwood about using humor to his advantage because it is so closely related to joy.  Nevertheless, Screwtape tells him that once he turns the patient to flippancy the battle will be won. Flippancy takes what is inherently good (like virtue) and makes it seem ridiculous.  Think of all the jokes we have around virtue today, like a “goody two-shoes” or calling a chaste person a “prude” and we see that virtue has now become a source of mockery.

In the Summa (ST II-II, q.168, a. 2-4), St. Thomas guides us in how this virtue is to be practiced.  Interestingly enough, St. Thomas says that playful conversation is absolutely necessary for relaxation of the soul.  It is the mean between the buffoon who cannot resist a joke and the stoic who is of no use in playful conversation and takes offense at everything.

The buffoon is one who “employs words or deeds that are injurious to his neighbor.”  This is the person who is funny at other people’s expense.  Because there is an inherent pleasure in humor, we must always be careful that those who share in the conversation also share in the pleasure.  Our playful conversation ought to not only bring us pleasure, but pleasure not at someone else’s expense.   We should laugh with and not at someone else.

St Thomas also cautions about using the indecent as a source of humor.  This is not because he is some high minded saint, but because there is also the danger of using humor to mask cynicism.  Because the cynic is not enchanted by reality, they will often resort to vulgar (or even blasphemous) language to invoke humor.  Again this is like Screwtape’s flippancy in that rather than pointing absurd things found in reality, they make reality itself absurd.  This only leads to further cynicism and discontent.  Just because you can laugh, doesn’t make it funny.

At the other extreme is the stoic.  This is particularly appropriate for our age where people take offense at everything.  The stoic doesn’t so much take reality too seriously, but themselves.  Again nearly all the saints (and therefore most happy people) laugh at themselves and don’t mind when others share in it.  St. Thomas says this type of stoicism is contrary to reason (i.e. sinful) because it is burdensome to others by not offering pleasure to others or hindering their enjoyment.

In the Gospel, we find Christ angry at the money changers and crying at the death of His friend Lazarus, but we never find Him laughing.  We should in no way take that to mean He never laughed.  I am sure that He was not accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” because of His stoicism.  The Redeemer of Mankind is also the Redeemer of Laughter.  As Christians we should share in His mirth.  Venerable Fulton Sheen summed it up well: “The only time laughter is wicked is when it is turned against Him who gave it.”  Let us learn how to laugh again.

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