Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Aquinas on humor and social life

In Summa Theologiae II-II.168.2-4, Aquinas discusses the essential role that play and humor have in human life.  They are necessary for the health of the individual, insofar as in their absence the mind becomes weary and tense.  And they are necessary for the health of social life, which would be similarly strained without the ability to laugh and play together.  The virtue of wittiness is the character trait that facilitates this human need.  Naturally, as in every other area of human life, we can sin by excess, as when we joke in an inappropriate manner or at an inappropriate time, or are in our general manner of life insufficiently serious about serious matters.  But we can also sin by deficiency, by being insufficiently pleasant and willing to engage in play with our fellows.  Aquinas writes:

Anything conflicting with reason in human action is vicious.  It is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by never showing himself agreeable to others or being a kill-joy or wet blanket on their enjoyment.  And so Seneca says, “Bear yourself with wit, lest you be regarded as sour or despised as dull.”  Now those who lack playfulness are sinful, those who never say anything to make you smile, or are grumpy with those who do.  (ST II-II.168.4, Gilby translation)

Addressing the question whether “comedians” or “play-actors” sin by excess by virtue of devoting themselves entirely to mirth, Aquinas answers in the negative:

As stated, play is necessary for the intercourse of human life.  Now whatever is useful to human intercourse may have a lawful employment ascribed to it.  Wherefore the occupation of play-actors, the object of which is to cheer the heart of man, is not unlawful in itself; nor are they in a state of sin provided that their playing be moderated, namely that they use no unlawful words or deeds in order to amuse, and that they do not introduce play into undue matters and seasons.   And although in human affairs, they have no other occupation in reference to other men, nevertheless in reference to themselves, and to God, they perform other actions both serious and virtuous, such as prayer and the moderation of their own passions and operations, while sometimes they give alms to the poor.  Wherefore those who maintain them in moderation do not sin but act justly, by rewarding them for their services. (ST II-II.168.3)

In light of such considerations, we can see that the current tendency toward the politicization of every aspect of social life, including even sports and entertainment, is evil.  And it would remain evil even if the political causes in question were themselves good (as, these days, they typically are not).  You cannot have the fellow-feeling required for a society to hold together without some area of life in which disputes are put on hold, tensions are eased, and common goods are enjoyed.  In American life, sports, popular culture, holidays, and the like have long performed that function, especially as the country has gotten more secular.  But as “wokeness” has extended its tentacles into even these areas of life, there is little if anything left to do the job. 

In the case of humor, this has manifested itself in the prevalence of “clapter” comedy, where the point is not to be funny and to get the audience to laugh, but rather to signal your purported political virtue and invite the audience to show theirs by applauding.  The result is not to mitigate social tensions but to exacerbate them.  Such “comedians” no longer function to smooth social interaction between people of different opinions, values, and backgrounds.  Rather, their purpose is to lead one faction in denigrating another.  It’s the “Two Minutes Hate” of Orwell’s 1984, but with strained chuckles rather than full-throated shrieks. 

This is inevitable given the nature of woke politics and its paranoid vision of human life.  When everything is interpreted as “oppression,” “micro-aggressions,” and the like, everything becomes deadly serious.  Even comedy is no laughing matter.  Envy is often said to be the only sin that gives the sinner no pleasure.  That envy is the deep root of wokeness is evidenced by, among other things, the fact that the woke are so humorless, angry, and miserable – that the wokester is, to borrow Aquinas’s words, “burdensome,” “grumpy,” a “kill-joy or wet blanket” on the enjoyments of the fellow members of his society.

“Clapter” “comedy” contrasts sharply with the essentially non-partisan approach of late night comics like Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, or even David Letterman in his earlier years.  That style of comedy is often mocked or dismissed today, but it performed the important social function of helping to soften tensions between citizens of diverse values and opinions and shore up a sense of common humanity and citizenship.  Not that Carson et al. saw matters in so highfalutin a way.  They just had the normal, healthy human being’s visceral understanding that not everything is political, and that their audiences were entitled at the end of a long day to relax and have a laugh rather than to be hectored.

However, it is important to emphasize that the point is not that all comedy ought to be non-political, and it is not an essentially “right-wing” point either.  Larry David (for example) is almost always funny, even when his targets are right-of-center.  The reason is that his aim is to be funny rather than to make some political statement, and when such political humor is done well even its targets can (if they have a sense of humor about themselves) appreciate it.  And right-wingers too are certainly capable of being humorless and of politicizing everything.  But it is wokeness rather than any right-wing pathology that is currently in the ascendency in comedy and other areas of mainstream entertainment, as Bill Maher, Joe Rogan, Jerry Seinfeld, and other non-right-wingers have lamented.

Related posts:

Thomas Aquinas, Henry Adams, Steve Martin

Meta-comedy

Is it funny because it’s true?

The comedy keeps coming

Risible animals

Pop culture roundup

24 comments:

  1. I grew up when there were a lot of great comedians. I enjoyed Jonathan Winters, Steve Martin, Don Rickles, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. When my cousin was deployed in Iraq, he met Robin Williams after one of his performances. He said Robin was kind and gracious to him Years ago, I saw Eddie Murphy entering a club in Vegas and wanted to say hi to him, but his bodyguards tried to block me until Eddie walked up to me and shook my hand. Some of these comedians were flawed and tragic people, but they made the world laugh, and their humor provided deep insight into the human condition.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The humorless left now put warning signs before episodes of Fawlty Towers. John Cleese used to be a target of the right; now he is a target of the left.
    Just before reading this blog, I watched an episode of "Good Neighbors" (Richard Briers, Felicity Kendall, Penelope Keith, Paul Eddington; it was called "The Good Life" in Britain) and THAT had a warning before it. This is one of the least offensive, apolitical comedies one could imagine. It is getting ridiculous.

    How many leftists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One and it's not funny.

    ReplyDelete
  3. a) disagree wholeheartedly. A in a context of war, any able warrior cannot use his mind for irrelevant topics. in a culture war + medical war .. for one to make jokes about material platitudes is .. borderline insane. I would feel like a sinner even if i could force my mind to those topics
    b) you omit the part that "sides" are not and will never be equidistant. there is a time, and it is mostly now.. where one side is over 80% virtuous .. while the other isnt. there is not game to be played to not be partizan.. when the difference is that obvious is big

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gruia,

      "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh" - Jesus

      I guess that to laugh is good.

      "Blessed are the peacemakers" - Jesus.

      You want to fight all the time? You will make yourself sick and succumb to hatred.

      Tom Cohoe,

      A Catholic

      Delete
    2. Gruia,

      Everybody warrior I have ever met, any man with that vocation, or any who did not but still answered the call, had a sense of humour about it. Do you think they didn't joke in the trenches, in submarines and battleships, during dogfights? They even joked around in POW camps, and sometimes with their captors! USO comedians, like mentioned in the first comment, weren't talking strategy and tactics, Gruia.

      And B, well, your side is always virtuous and the other side always isn't. But there's something to be said for a bit of intellectual humility, common decency, the golden rule, hope for conversions, etc.

      Delete
    3. culture war ) + you are stating my point then presenting it as your own and somehow in opposition to mine. i take offense

      Delete
  4. Rather, their purpose is to lead one faction in denigrating another. It’s the “Two Minutes Hate” of Orwell’s 1984, but with strained chuckles rather than full-throated shrieks.

    This reminded me of Jake Frievald's brilliant coinage:
    "The Shrieking Harpies of Tolerance."


    A in a context of war, any able warrior cannot use his mind for irrelevant topics.

    I absolutely disagree. In a war - not just a single battle - every HUMAN warrior must accomplish a reprieve of the mental effort - a period of rest and restoration - in order to prepare effectively for the next battle. This is a quite well-known phenomenon: those who are subjected to battle-tense conditions day in and day out without reprieve eventually lose all effectiveness and just plain fail - and some of them even go insane. Soldiers end up more effective overall by taking sufficient time to step away from being on alert, to rest not only the body but also the mind. Continuous tension is damaging.

    there is not game to be played to not be partizan

    Somebody might characterize this as "life's too important to joke about". I would respond: "life's too important NOT to joke about it." That is to say, in the GRANDEST OF ALL scheme of things, looking at it from the largest of all perspectives, we are on this ball of dirt to TRY to love God, and yet without grace we will inevitably fail. Yet the good news is, that grace is there, free for the having, God Himself already paid the price, and far beyond our own merits we can be FRIENDS WITH THE UTTERLY TRANSCENDENT GOD. It is, thus, the Divine Comedy, and in heaven we will be in CONSTANT delight over the state in which our joy vastly exceeds our own merits: heaven will BUBBLE OVER with mirth. And so St. Paul was able to say that the difficulties of this life are not to be compared to the joys of the next - they are not even commensurable. THAT Life - enjoyment of God - is too important NOT to laugh over.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "A in a context of war, any able warrior cannot use his mind for irrelevant topics."

    The saints would disagree with you. Here is Saint Anthony of Egypt, the great desert monk, as translated by the late Sr. Benedicta Ward SLG in her collection "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers":

    "13. A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, "Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it." So he did. The old man then said, "Shoot another," and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again," and the hunter replied "If I bend my bow so much I will break it." Then the old man said to him, "It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs." When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened."

    ReplyDelete
  6. "In light of such considerations, we can see that the current tendency toward the politicization of every aspect of social life, including even sports and entertainment, is evil. And it would remain evil even if the political causes in question were themselves good (as, these days, they typically are not). You cannot have the fellow-feeling required for a society to hold together without some area of life in which disputes are put on hold, tensions are eased, and common goods are enjoyed. In American life, sports, popular culture, holidays, and the like have long performed that function, especially as the country has gotten more secular. But as “wokeness” has extended its tentacles into even these areas of life, there is little if anything left to do the job."

    I've been saying this for years. If every sport/hobby/tv show/movie/etc becomes a vehicle for political messaging, it becomes impossible to cordially interact with a person with whom you disagree politically because every interaction you have with that person is political in nature. It robs you of the ability to find common ground and to see the humanity in the other person because it forces you perpetually into opposite camps. I think this is shown in how heated the rhetoric has gotten in the last 5-10 years. 20 years ago, you could put aside your differences and grab a beer and watch the game with someone you disagreed with politically. Now that activity of common ground no longer exists. Is it any wonder why people are becoming increasingly polarized and uncharitable to those on the other side?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Prof Feser,

    This is a great post on humor, but to play devil's advocate: what do you think of the idea that all the entertainment a society produces presupposes some political message or theme and any purported neutrality is simply the dominant politics of that era?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Read this article from Feser from the link in the text above,7th paragraph. This idea is part of the Gnostic system.

      https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/01/31/the-gnostic-heresys-political-successors/

      Both articles are great by the way, Thanks Professor!

      Delete
    2. What I said is nowhere near the same as what Feser described in the paragraph. Hence why I asked him.

      Delete
    3. I can't speak for Prof Feser, but it seems to me, your devil is advocating a rather typical pomo sophistry made somewhat plausible by containing a grain of truth. People certainly are born and raised at times in places. We cannot help but be influenced by the thought of our time and place, not just political but religious, philosophical, psychological, aesthetic, etc. That does not, however, mean the totality of our outlook is determined by that thought. We are capable of transcending it. Otherwise, it would never change, and clearly it does. I would also argue that humor can transcend the politics of its time and place. I'm not a monarchies, but some of the scenes in Shakespeare's comedies make me laugh. I find the politics of Catch-22 abhorrent, but even after reading it four times, it can still Crack me up. Funny is funny.

      Delete
    4. and any purported neutrality is simply the dominant politics of that era

      What is to preclude it from being "simply the dominant religion of that era", or the dominant family relations, or the dominant philosophy, or the dominant entertainment, or the dominant art?

      That a human is CAPABLE of subjecting every part of his own endeavors to pursuing one narrow goal, i.e. of being narrow and excessive, doesn't mean that that one narrow goal necessarily constitutes the single overarching goal of all human endeavor, and that all human endeavor only has meaning by reference to that one narrow goal.

      Delete
    5. "all the entertainment a society produces presupposes some political message . . .?"

      Sounds right. It's not going to happen in a vacuum.

      Delete
    6. I suppose that Mr Geocon imaginary objector is saying that any "light" entertainment is actually deeply political at his core and that any discourse of humor being apolitical is a way to not let the dominant politics being discussed but subconsciously absorved by these that want to have fun. Hermeneutics of suspiction, blablaba, you guys know these things.

      I mean, i get what the point of the question is, everyone can point to messages got even in light things like a favorite kids show, but i tend to have two worries with it:

      1. Take some more silly humor like persons falling or fart jokes, it is hard to get were the message is hidden, really. Not that there are shows that weaponize this type of joke, like South Park.

      2. While these messages are there, they can be separate of the work and even criticized. I mean, there are a lot of movies that i like that pass some pretty crap liberal messages, like the classic "be whatever you want to be,screw rules!" And i can still like these movies.

      So while this objection says a true thing, Geocon, it seems that one can still just, you know, relax if needed. While media aways is used to pass the dominant values(hell, it SHOULD do it, with the right values), this does not mean everything needs to be political in the sense a leftist tends to want his stuff to be. In fact, i remember one of your videos where you say pretty much this.

      Delete
  8. My fiancée saw me reading this and thought I was a nerd

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometimes you have to embrace who you are.

      Delete
    2. That's funny. But: she might be right, along side of it being funny.

      Delete
  9. Never trust the humorless, they are dangerous people. They have no humility: they imagine they can plan entire economies; they imagine they can easily execute complex “solutions” to problems they don’t even understand; they pretend to listen. You know them when you meet them. They are sick. Don’t linger, just run away.

    "From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us"- Saint Teresa of Avila

    “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” – G.K. Chesterton

    ReplyDelete
  10. By that logic, unemployment also plays an important (and humorous!) role in people's lives. It is important to a person's spiritual health and getting out by becoming rich can cause greed-fatigue & haughtiness. For the rest of their lives, due to their false esteem, the rich have never laughed or talked to each other. By contrast, the unemployed's level of thinking is the level of meeting people's needs, and also not taking themselves too seriously. After all, like other aspects of human life, we may be dealing with good or bad days, as well as thinking about the challenges of normal life - the rich therefore have a tendency to sin since they are not ready to play with people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like how the two choices are unemployed or rich. Most of us are neither!

      Delete
    2. Beansworth,

      I prefer the "poor" parishes I visit over the "rich" parishes, and I think this is because of the truth of which you are pointing at. However, I can assure you there are people who have a lot more money than you would think that don't act like it, and there are people you might think have a lot of money who are, in fact, broke.

      I've been in the big houses with the BMW in the driveway that have a negative net worth. And I know people who are multi-millionaires who you would think are broke.

      Delete
  11. This post reminded me of Bill Burr talking about how he hates breast cancer awareness month in the NFL. He made the comparison, “When we go to the movies, I don’t stop everyone during the middle of the movie and say, ‘Did I tell you about the time my relative died from cancer? He was so thin you could pick him up by the sheet.’”

    He has a good point. Obviously it is important to show compassion, reverence, honor, etc. for people who deserve it or need it. But sometimes you just want to see a quarterback get slammed into the ground by a linebacker.

    ReplyDelete