Humor and the Thomistic Mind

Dr. Peter Chojnowski

When we think of philosophy the concept "funny" rarely if ever comes to mind. In fact, to think of the word "philosophy" itself, heavy with the unreal and esoteric absurdities which have, through the centuries, attached themselves to it, we are likely to think of philosophy as the most somber of all intellectual pursuits. Certainly, one would not crack open the dustiest of all the books on the typical "Catholic" university bookshelf, the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, in a search for that humor which gladdens the hearts of men. If, however, we left our considerations at this level of commonly-held perceptions, we would miss the deep connection which exists between a philosophical understanding which plunges to the depths of the real and the humor which reveals itself in "wit," or what the ancients called eutrapalia. This connection between an authentic perception of the real and humor attracted my interest a number of years ago. When I was going through my university training in Saint Louis and New York, I was struck by one salient fact. My professors who were Thomists (i.e., followers of the philosophy of St. Thomas), had the best "sense" of humor and could, quite often, move the class, unintentionally, to the point of hilarity. The old Jesuits, whom we students used to view as "rationality walking," were the funniest. Whether they were enthusiastically commenting on some obscure point in a "reply to an objection," "demonstrating" epistemological intentionality by an animated tapping of the forehead with a suitable tome which they then proceeded to waive in such a way that the future cognitive potential of some of the students was endangered, or this verbal excitement threatened to bathe the front row in more than just wisdom, these men could almost not help but be funny. This obvious fact helped develop in the minds of the students, even in those of the most secular, the connection between the concepts "Thomist," "learned," and "humor." Their statements which we smiled at, I can still recall. Those which provoked outright laughter, I will never forget.

The humor, the wisdom, and the learning of these men, and of our other professors who had been instructed by them, stood in marked contrast to those professors who had cut themselves off, intentionally or through simple ignorance, from the perennial philosophy of Christendom as exemplified in the thought of St. Thomas. When we had to sit for lectures from these "teachers," our greatest hope was that they would not attempt to be funny. Such was the pain, often quite excruciating, produced by past attempts. The more current and intentionally "correct" was their thought, the more labored was their humor.

The Essence of Humor

When attempting to identify the reason for this connection between a profound grasp of reality and the various manifestations of wit, we are faced with a serious difficulty. Wit, or the ability to see in a situation the apparent disparity between what ought be the case and what is actually the case, manifests itself in a moment and in the next moment it is gone, leaving in its wake only the laugh, the smile, or the smirk. The momentary nature of wit is a necessary aspect of successful wit. A speech is not humorous, an entire paragraph is never laughter-provoking. It is the single "line," the phrase which can be thought by the relating of two simple concepts, which "provokes" that instantaneous outburst of insight and affirmation which we call laughter.

Not only does the humorous and the witty involve simplicity of conceptual content, but it also necessarily involves the element of surprise. A joke which is expected is no joke. This is the reason why true wit is such a rare gift. The witty mind is the one which can instantly "lift" a detail of the common place, which others simply overlook, to the light of the ideal. When this "lifting" of the common place occurs, and laughter or a smile is a sign that it has successfully occurred, it is both unexpected and appreciated. By subtlety disparaging the particular, the witty mind emancipates his listeners from its burdensome specificity and proclaims its irritating imperfection to be but a temporary condition. "This too shall pass," proclaims the man of humor. Behind hilarity there always lurks the shadow of hope. The humor which seeks to reduce the burdensomeness of the common place, must do it in such a way that the likeness by which the imperfect particular is related to its archetype in the mind of God is not effaced along with the noisome experiential accretions which disguise the temporal, making it appear as if the temporal is marked by the infinite seriousness of the eternal.

Why is it that the wittiness which provokes hilarity can never be planned? Why must it always be a surprise? Why does the expected joke always produce only the appreciative, but pained, grin? This is the case, on account of the fact that if the human mind, the subtlest of natural entities, is forewarned that humor is going to try to attempt a "rescue operation" through the instrumentality of the "joke," it will preempt the effort by inserting before the mind those images of the struggle which is human life; such images, tinged with suffering, will not be moved by the levity of the joke. The pained grin is a thankful acknowledgment that the attempt was made. The perpetual jokester is never the agent of true hilarity.

Laughter as Infinite Affirmation

To speak of laughter as "infinite affirmation," appears to contradict the moral teaching of both Aristotle and St. Thomas, who insist that the moral good is achieved when a certain moderation is attained with regard to the acts of the passions and the appetites. Normally, virtue lies in the "mean" between excess and deficiency. Can laughter, then, be spoken of as an affirmation of the good, even when it "exceeds" the bounds of moderation? My answer shall be yes, but with one qualification. As St. Thomas makes clear in his discussion of the virtue of eutrapalia or "wittiness," laughter can be outright sinful if it occurs in inappropriate circumstances. To laugh at certain moments would be unfitting and even insulting. Such a moment would be one in which the situation or the company demand a serious and meditative atmosphere. To laugh is in some way to "let yourself go," there are certain persons and situations before whom we ought not "let ourselves go." In this way, we avoid, as St. Thomas says, "losing the balance of one's mind altogether."1 So how can we refer, then, to laughter as an "infinite" affirmation? Moreover, why can laughter be seen as a verification of the Thomistic understanding of reality? In order to adequately answer these questions, we must first notice an essential feature of laughter. When a man is overcome with honest laughter, his laughter is always spontaneous. Laughter which is calculated and prejudged is not true laughter, it is especially not that "abandon" which we call hilarity. The reason why laughter is always spontaneous is that it is a consequence of the unexpected. The reason we know laughter is always a reaction to the unexpected is because man, being rational and, therefore, a fashioner of words, reacts to wit without words; he is "taken from himself" before he can perform his normal function of tying concepts to words. The person who immediately tells you "why" something is humorous, did not get it.

There is something which is exceedingly interesting in this fact that laughter is a wordless response to a concept presented to our minds by wit. In a certain way, laughter is a product of supra-rational insight. It is based upon a reason beyond reason. Laughter speaks not of the plodding intelligence which the Medieval philosophers spoke of as ratio, but rather, of that immediate intuition which grasps the innermost core of a reality with a mere "glance," and which the same Medievals spoke of as intellectus. To laugh is to see and acknowledge the way things are, whether one wants to or not. Laughter often forces one to see what one, often, does not want to see. It is our guarantee that objectivity cannot be completely abandoned.

What is it about laughter which makes it a guarantor of objectivity? It is, precisely, laughter's suprarational status which makes it such. It is no secret that in our own times, rather than think ideas which have been garnered from the structure of created reality, men, for the purpose of maintaining their autonomy, fabricate ideas and concepts which have no natural referent; "equality," "self-definition," and "gender neutral" are a few of these. These and other such contemporary concepts create a mental screen which sifts out those aspects of reality which contemporary men and women will not accept. With these concepts acting as a screen, we can truthfully state that these people do not "see" reality for what it is; for most of our contemporaries, the real has become "unthinkable."

If, then, we were to rely merely on presenting rational ideas which could be "thought" by our fellows, we would, no doubt, find ourselves disappointed with the result. Here we must state that the humorous idea or story is not counter-rational. Rather, it carries with it a profound recognition which circumvents the artificial concepts which have been assimilated from the contemporary counter-culture. There is a very explicit "resting in the real" which occurs during hardy laughter. To provoke a state of hilarity in others is to force them to acknowledge the contingency, the imperfection, and the utter inability of nature to redeem itself from its fallen state. This is, also, to force them to acknowledge, also implicitly, the existence of a Being who is necessary, perfect, Creator and source of all perfections, and of a state of redemption. When a man laughs, he shows himself to be yearning for the day in which the world will no longer be laughable! The affirmation involved in laughter is not a validation of what is, but rather, a forced recognition that what is is capable of becoming what is not yet. To laugh is to avoid despair. Why is it that laughter is the expression of an intellectual insight which is particularly Thomistic? Moreover, why is it the hardy laugh, in which one is "out of one's senses," which shows itself to be the most profound of all the various responses to humor?

The answer to these questions is properly metaphysical. To ache with laughter is the fitting response to the infinite disparity between the various manifestations of being which we experience around us and the infinite perfections of Him who is Self-Subsisting Being or Ipsum Esse Subsistens. To "lose oneself" in laughter is to recognize that disparity and to yearn for that gap to be closed to some extent. If we did not experience around us the comically base, along with having a conceptual insight into the divine perfection and the capacity of the Divine Mind to bring all things to their own specific state of perfection, we would not laugh in this "immoderate" way. Just as the infinite goodness and beauty of God makes it impossible to love God "too much," so too, the difference between that which has being in a certain limited respect and He who is Existence-Itself, justifies the uncontrollable laughter which can only be provoked by the best of wits.

This ability to experience the comically base, along with intelligible perfection, is a ratification of St. Thomas's hylomorphic understanding of man. Only man laughs. Hyenas do not really laugh. The reason why man laughs is because of the unity of his body and his soul. If there existed an identity between his body and his soul he would not laugh. If his body and soul were not ontologically distinct principles (i.e., one being physical and one being spiritual), he would not laugh either. It is only because man can experience the limitations of material creation with his body at the same time that he is grasping the proper perfection of the thing with the intellectual powers of his spiritual soul, that he identifies the disparity and breaks out in raucous laughter. Perhaps this is why the best wits are those who possess a keen sensible awareness of even the most unattractive aspects of the world of matter, along with an immediate intellectual insight into the universal nature of things stripped of all of their particularity and imperfections. The wit is the integral man of soul and body.

The Virtue of Eutrapalia

That it is the integral man, affirming his own existence as a man of both soul and body, who is also the man of good humor should not be surprising to us. St. Thomas begins his discussion of the virtue of eutrapalia or "wittiness," by pointing to the intimate connection which exists between even the most abstract and contemplative actions of the soul and the life of the body. According to St. Thomas, it is the most difficult speculative activities of the soul, in which there is no "movement" other than the "movement" of thought, which are actually the most physically wearing. The very Thomistic reason for this little-realized truth is that the intellectual powers depend upon and employ, but do not operate through, bodily organs (e.g., the brain and the physical senses). Man as mind cannot operate without man as body, these "two" being one and the same man.

The efforts employed when man is in a contemplative mode are greater than those employed when man is merely physically occupied with the movement or transformation of things. Since this type of labor is the most "connatural" to man as a part of the created physical order, it is ultimately less strenuous than the labor by which man raises his mind above that which is purely sensible. It is, therefore, on account of a need on the part of the soul to rest, rather than a need on the part of the body, that games and humor are necessary elements in human life. St. Thomas, needless to say, siding with us in this regard, cites an account given in the Conferences of the Fathers (xxiv.21) in which St. John the Evangelist is criticized by the ever watchful faithful for playing a physically demanding game with his disciples. It is not too surprising that the beloved disciple who was inspired to write "And the Word was made Flesh," should have a witty response to the "religious" of his own time. He was reported to have asked a man carrying a bow, one of the scandalized faithful no doubt, to shoot an arrow. When the man had done this several times, St. John asked him if he could do it indefinitely. The man promptly told the Apostle that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. St. John, therefore, drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension was never relaxed.2

The men or women who do not recognize this union and interdependency of soul and body, will be the ones who look upon wittiness as in some way wrong and unsaintly. Just as the festive and impish joy which marked the Catholic nations of Europe and Latin America disappeared when the dialectical materialism of Marxism triumphed, so too does it disappear from among those with a certain "religious" "turn of mind," who, in their attempt to escape from the world, attempt to escape from nature also. Wit requires a close attention to and scrutiny of the things of the world. What both the naturalism of the Marxists and the false supernaturalism of many among the faithful, who do not have an integral outlook on human existence, have in common is their failure to perceive the intrinsic value of rest. If man is merely a body, rest is only of instrumental value. It is tolerated so as to allow for the more effective functioning of the organism after a minimal period during which there is a cessation of labor. Among those who, implicitly, think that man is a soul temporarily trapped in the body, there will, also, be a lack of appreciation for the various manifestations of rest. Angels do not need rest, do they? Among these "supernaturalist" folk, we find a subtle condemnation of the joking which attempts to bring more perfectly to light the paradoxical structure of the real, of the delight found in the meaningfulness of literature and the beauty of art, and of the primal joy experienced by the triumphant sportsman.

Since rest from labor, especially if that labor is of an intellectual or spiritual kind, is necessary in any humane life, there must be a virtue which regulates and orders that essential activity. To speak of "restful activity" seems oxymoronic. It is not, however. For St. Thomas, human perfection is realized through activity. What St. Thomas says about "playfulness" or "wittiness" is that these forms of rest are perfective activities, which are to be engaged in for the pure delight which they bring to the soul taxed by the trisitia mundi (the sadness of the mundane) and for the refreshment which will allow the soul to again concern itself with those "grave and serious matters" which are the substance of the life of all responsible men.3

Insofar as rest is an activity which is a necessary aspect of the good human life, there must be a corresponding virtue by which it is ordered to its proper end. The end, in this case, being "restful activity" which can be characterized as a fitting response to the needs of the man, the exigencies of his circumstances, and the requirements of the moral law. In this regard, St. Thomas places certain qualifications on his endorsement of the pleasure found in "games" whether physical or verbal. First, pleasure should not be sought in indecent or injurious words or deeds; a joke can be discourteous, insolent, scandalous, or obscene. Second, one must joke in such a way that one does not "lose the balance of one's mind altogether" (!). Just as we do not allow children to enjoy absolute freedom in their games, but only that which is consistent with good behavior, so our very fun should reflect something of an upright mind. Third, we must be careful, as in other human actions, to conform ourselves to persons, times, and places, and take due account of other circumstances, so that our fun befit the "hour and the man."4

St. Thomas states that it is not only morally permissible to be mirthful and "playful," but rather, it is a requirement of right reason in that such a state of mind prevents us from becoming "burdensome to others."5 So the good man must possess, to some degree, that "turn of mind" which the Ancients referred to as eutrapalia, the word itself being derived from the Greek word "to turn." The man of mirth is one whose own happy "turn of mind" is able to give the actions and words which originate in that same mind a cheerful "turn." To be cheerful is not to be the jokester; men do not want the burdens of their own life to be ignored. To be a man full of mirth is not to be a man with a perpetual grin on his face. A smile which is genuine is only a consequence of an abysmally serious observation. The man of mirth is, rather, one who always keeps in mind the fact that underneath all of the sufferings and tears of existence, there is an infinite reservoir of joy and happiness, which can only be located by the divining rod of supernatural hope. Wit is the drill which plunges deep into the soil of sadness, in order to bring refreshment to his fellows who stand with him on solid ground. The wit without hope pierces the earth haphazardly, normally in vain. The faithful wit, after hope has located the site, plunges deep with his thoughts and words through the seemingly endless layers of the earthly, breaking through to the eternal springs which gush forth barely muddied happiness. The true wit has understood that beneath it all, there is only happiness. That such sweet water should gush forth from such dry land is the reason for the surprise always involved in genuine humor. The tears which, often, are the products of the deepest and most searching state of hilarity, are a sign that man is meant to taste of the well-springs of eternal happiness. Those who weep, with joy or with sadness, have not yet tasted the bitter fruit from the parched land of despair.

Laughter and the Divine Bliss

If hearty laughter is a sign of insight into the eternal happiness of God, can we say that God laughs too? Does God have a "sense of humor"? If we understand the phenomena of laughter and wit as outlined above, we would have to answer these questions negatively. One of the reasons why we can say God is not capable of being humored, is on account of the fact that God does not need humor. The reason God does not need humor is because He is eternally blissful. God as God (apart, of course, from a consideration of God as Incarnate Word) does not laugh because He does not know any internal suffering. Only those who suffer can laugh. Only those, in some way, fooled by that which is temporal, thinking it to be ultimate when it is only passing, need the relief of laughter. Laughter is a sign of imperfection, along with being a signpost indicating the way to eternal bliss. By laughter we remotely share in eternal happiness. God, however, does not need to share in it. He is Eternal Happiness.

That the bliss of God should be the final cause of laughter and of all forms of wit, is the most obvious reason for the experiential fact that those who most perfectly share in certain divine perfections, His purity, His wisdom, His charitable affirmation of what is good in itself, are those most easily provoked to laughter. To laugh, we must see the world as it is; our vision of it must be free of the distortions of self-interest. To appreciate humor, one must be intelligent enough to grasp the disparity between what is and what could be.

There. I have finished without trying to be funny.


1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q.168, A.2. [Back]

2 Ibid. [Back]

3 ST, II-II, Q.168, A.2, ad 3. [Back]

4 ST, II-II, Q.168, A.2. [Back]

5 ST, II-II, Q.168, A.4. [Back]