The Catholic Thing
Wit Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Human knowledge depends on some material thing for its initial act of knowing, an act that is not itself wholly material, even though it does arise in the senses. Material things do not cease to be what they are when they are known by the human intellect. 

The human intellect, because of its relation to the world through the body, can touch and change the world to its own purposes. Mans hand is the great tool in the universe because it is “attached” to his mind. By his craft and artistic capacity, man can change the world in his own image and to his own purposes, even while the world remains itself. 

Aristotle noticed that man is the being who laughs, animal risibile. He is likewise the being who is by nature a political animal.  These two latter designations have a direct relation to mans rational faculty. He is the being who speaks, yes, the being who tells funny stories. Things are only amusing, however, if one can see relationships, incongruities, unexpected disproportions, and ironies. 

Laughter is a sign of reason, indeed of elevated reason. It is witness to our ability to see relationships, to see what belongs together and what does not. Wit is a sign of high intelligence. Wit is in fact so powerful that Aristotle, in the Fourth Book of The Ethics, devoted a special discussion to its proper use. He saw its rule to be a moral virtue.

The older meaning of the English word, “wit,” is intelligence, but it now also carries the connotation of bemused cleverness and humor. The old phrase, “half-wit,” still bemusedly refers to a certain intellectual dimness.

“Since life also includes relaxation, and in this we pass our time with some form of amusement,” Aristotle observed, “here also it seems possible to behave appropriately in meeting people, and to say and listen to the right things and in the right way. The company we are in when we speak or listen also makes a difference” (1128a1-2). We can have a too much and a too little in this virtue as in others. But I do like that attention on saying and listening to the right things in the right way.

Thus Aristotle tells us about the buffoon who cannot resist raising a laugh no matter what the circumstances. Next comes the boor who gets the point of nothing, who seems to catch no joke or participate in no normal banter and good humor.

       Aristotle, the Muppet bust of

The buffoon “stops at nothing to raise a laugh.” He cares more about that than “about saying what is seemly and avoiding pain to the victims of the joke.” But save us from the man who “never laughs” and who objects at those who do. Because he can raise a laugh, the buffoon is sometimes called “witty,” but he neglects the proper time and place.

Aristotle understands that jokes can be funny; they can also hurt. There has to be a right time and place, right circumstances. We have reached a point in our culture where only a Jew can tell a Jewish joke or only a black can tell a black joke. Everyone is super-sensitive. We have to be careful of our laugher lest we “discriminate.” We are in danger of becoming zombie-like in our human relations, lacking humor.

Many occasions for raising a laugh come up: “Most people enjoy amusements and jokes more than they should.”  Thus we must learn and discipline ourselves “to say and listen to what suits the decent and civilized person.” Tell me what jokes you do or do not listen to and I will tell you what you are.

Aristotle is aware that humor is sensitive to the group or people we deal with. Legislators have to deal with humor at times. It can cause riots. But if they control it too much, something is wrong with the society or the legislators. “A joke is a type of abuse, and legislators prohibit some types of abuse; they would presumably be right to prohibit some types of joke too”

Aristotle is not a prude. Obscene jokes may be “amusing,” but they are always on the shady side of things. Sex is ever a subject of some amusement, which does not prevent it, at the same time, from being both serious and holy.

That humor and wit are essential to our loves goes without saying. Laughter is an intimation of the joy in which we are created, a sign of the abundance of delight in the origin of our being. The buffoon does not see any limits to laughter. The boor finds little amusing in our human condition, especially in our attempts to get him to smile.

The great Aristotle thought that laughter and amusement belonged to our being, at the proper time and the proper place.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 18, 2012
Bossuet raises the question of why Our Lord never laughed.

He thought He was saving His laughter for the Last Day, as the Psalmist says, "But you, O LORD, shall laugh at them; you shall have all the nations in derision."
written by Richard A, September 18, 2012
Chesterton, of course, thought that the one characteristic of Christ too terrible to share with humans was His mirth.
written by Joe, September 18, 2012
Some shtick from the New Testament (John 1:45-51):

Philip found Nathanael and said unto him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" [Joke!] Philip said to him, "Come and see!" [bada bing!] Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile" ["Hey, here's an honest Jew" — joke]. Nathanael [not getting it] said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, I saw you yesterday, standing under a fig tree." Nathanael said [losing his cool], "Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the king of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said I saw you standing under a fig tree, believest thou?" [Big joke! Gets laughs!] "You shall see greater things than these." [Release.] And he said to him, "Truly, truly I say unto you, you shall see the heavens opened and the angels of the Lord ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." [bada bing!]
written by DS, September 18, 2012
Humor, like many things in our life, can be imperfectly proportioned or calibrated. That being said, I agree with Fr. Schall that it is an essential component of being both human and Christian. I also think of the quip that underscores a central truth of our existience: "Want to see God laugh? Make plans."

I think we should be wary of those who believe orthodoxy consists solely of pitched battle against forces they perceive as evil. Why? Because in addition to the attributes listed in the column, humor can be an effective tool for evangelizing. I think of the many church leaders who have woven a geniune, gentle humor into their ministry: Pope John Paul II wearing a pair of eyeglasses fashioned from his fingers, or Cardinal O'Connor, who placed his miter on the head of a young man who shared his name. I recently attended a dinner, held at an august private club in New York, where Cardinal Dolan was honored by the Sisters of Life and also spoke. He pointed to a 19th century portrait of a bearded man on the wall and, looking at one of the persons seated at his table, said "I didn't know they had your first communion portrait hanging here." Everyone had a good laugh. And then he spoke movingly about the sanctity of life and the good work of the Sisters.

I disagree with Bossuet. I do not believe Our Lord never laughed, for that would contradict the belief that Christ was fully human. Especially true because Jesus loved children! I believe the question is narrower: why was his laughter never recorded in the Gospels?

I'll let the biblical scholars deal with that one.
written by Achilles, September 18, 2012
Fr. Schall, another wonderful meditation on the mind!

Talk about boors, look at the zombies running the country’s “education” programs. This scary caste of boors have cultivated the grammar of greed, the logic of lust and the rhetoric of envy- what a misuse by the hand of man to make nature into his fallen image- The irony is that this boorish frankenstinian monster creates bafoons.

yet what God made still remains- in all its intrinsic beauty, worth and dignity, for those with the wit to see.
written by Jack,CT, September 18, 2012
I love the comparing of 'Wit" and Brains.I have
Always felt that half of any "joke" is very serious.Perhaps
that is why only "African Americans" can make jokes about
African Americans,I always felt however it should be off limits for all if it is for one group.I am Irish it should
not give me some special right" to be witty about the ethnic
back ground of all Irish people,it seems like hypocrsy.

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