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., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019