When I first read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics maybe thirty years ago, I was both puzzled and disappointed by his discussion of the moral virtues in Book IV–generosity, magnificence, friendliness, wit, and so on. It seemed a waste of space. A whole book on this? What were such banalities doing in a classic work of moral philosophy?
Aristotle’s (very brief) discussion of the place of humor in social life seemed a case in point. On Aristotle’s account, wit turned out to be a moral virtue, buffoonery and humorlessness, vices.
Those who go to excess in raising laughs seem to be vulgar buffoons. They stop at nothing to raise a laugh, and care more about that than about saying what is seemly and avoiding pain to the victims of the joke. …
Those who joke in appropriate ways are called witty, or in other words, agile-witted. For these sorts of jokes seem to be movements of someone’s character, and characters are judged, as bodies are, by their movements (NE IV.8, 1128a5-12).
Really? That’s what morality requires? Telling the right jokes at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, etc. etc.?
The whole thing seemed myopic, anachronistic, and morally superficial.* “Wit” conjured up untoward images of William F. Buckley in a rumpled suit with a Parker pen in his hand, offering up bits of dry humor through a Larchmont lockjaw. I definitely liked the idea of “judging bodies by their movements,” or whatever Aristotle was trying to say, but by that standard, Shakira would become the standard and measure of The Good. I mean, I wouldn’t mind that result, or mind making it an object of focused study, but it seems a little counter-intuitive.
It’s a cliche that one’s appreciation of Aristotle improves with age. What I now get from Aristotle at 51 is a universe away from what I got at 21. At any rate, here’s an exchange from NJ.com that perfectly illustrates why Aristotle is right to treat humor with the seriousness he does, and to treat buffoonery as the moral vice he makes of it. Read the title of the NJ.com piece in the first photo, then Linda Scravelha’s comment in the second, and then Bobby Colonna’s response to Scravelha in the third.
It’s not just that Colonna’s joke falls flat, though it does; it’s that he shows no awareness that Scravelha’s comment is not a proper object of humor in the first place. You don’t laugh (or try to elicit laughter) at someone’s telling you that their spouse suffered cognitive dysfunction through a potentially lethal disease. You don’t even do it if you think their medical diagnosis is wrong, or their views generally wrongheaded. You just don’t do it at all.
It’s easy to dismiss Colonna’s comment as a failed joke and move on, but I think Aristotle’s account of wit persuades us to pause a minute for reflection. For obvious reasons, Aristotle couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have put the point in this way, but a person who does what Colonna did, then doubles down on it (as Colonna eventually did), is morally fucked up. It’s not just that this particular action is wrong (though it is); it’s that the wrongness of the action points to a defect of moral character. In other words, the action is fucked up because the agent is. That might seem intuitively obvious to a lot of people, but Aristotle gives us the framework within which to articulate the intuitively obvious.
You might respond that there’s nothing special about encountering a fucked up person online. Why not note that fact and move on? Answer: because the one person is an instance of a recurring, morally significant, and psychologically interesting type. Buffoonery seems a superficial issue, at least at a first, superficial glance, but it acquires significance when conceived as Aristotle conceives it, as the desire to get a laugh from (an often imagined) peanut gallery even if doing so requires the infliction of gratuitous pain. There are, as I see it, three morally and psychologically interesting issues here–the desire to inflict pain, the desire to do so through laughter, and the desire to do so for an audience (or the desire to imagine an audience for which to do it). Unless you repress the impulse to ask them, the obvious questions arise: Why would people do that? Why would they do any one of those things, much less all three in combination?**
Aristotle doesn’t give an answer, but you can’t read him and then encounter the world without wondering about it, and without struggling toward an answer of some kind. That’s why Aristotelian texts ripen with age. Aristotle’s genius as an ethicist consists (in part!) in focusing your attention on the apparently obvious and banal, showing you that it isn’t, and doing so in such a way as to induce you to wonder why it isn’t. But you have to be paying attention to get it, and you have to keep paying attention until you really get it. That takes time. It takes a lifetime.
This is also why, despite its obvious anachronisms and parochialisms, Aristotle’s Ethics never ages, and never loses its universal applicability and relevance to the human condition qua human. Some of Aristotle is dead wrong, but so much is right, and so right, and right in so many different ways and at so many different levels, that something Aristotle says always ends up ringing a bell about something–a bell that was always sounding but that you wouldn’t have heard had he not belabored the obvious until you heard it.
I feel confident in saying that people will be reading and learning from him 2,300 years from now, just as we do today 2,300 years after his death. And no matter what’s considered at the cutting edge of contemporary philosophy, once you look up from the page you’re reading in the latest journal article, and re-direct your attention to the world beyond the printed page, you’ll end up discovering that any “original” discovery you think you made is probably one that Aristotle made before you.
There’s no moral failing involved in telling an unfunny joke per se, or telling a funny joke badly. That’s a morally neutral failure of skill, not a failure of moral character. There is something wrong–something deeply wrong–with making light of someone’s genuine pain, fear, or angst, especially as they’re telling you about them. Potential tragedy isn’t funny, certainly not in real time. But people treat it that way all the time, and if my impressions are right, do it more than they used to, at least in contemporary American culture. They not only do it, but try, perversely, to make a virtue of the vice involved. To laugh at others’ pain is considered funny; to fail to find it funny is considered boorish humorlessness or sickly sensitivity.
One telling example, however apparently trivial, is contemporary discourse about the phenomenon of the “snowflake,” the overly sensitive person who melts at the first assertion of dissent or criticism. It’s not that the term doesn’t refer to a real phenomenon. There are snowflakes out there, and it’s not a good thing that there are. But as the term is commonly used, a “snowflake” is anyone who exhibits sensitivity about anything, as though callous insensitivity to everything were the crown of the virtues by default.
Moral inversions of this kind are the signs of a decadent culture that’s lost its moral bearings. A society that laughs at all the wrong things is one that’s lost its capacity to have apt feelings about anything. You may be able to satisfy all your material desires in such a society–and generate new ones you never knew you had–but it’s hard not to feel alienated by it, cast adrift among moral and psychological aliens who appear to be attracted to schadenfreude as bees are to honey.***
What Aristotle says about humor and the other social virtues now strikes me as something like an account of the moral ABCs of life, which is why Aristotle’s Ethics sometimes reads like the moral equivalent of a McGuffey Reader. You think, “No one could fail to know what Aristotle is so tediously belaboring”–until you read the comments at NJ.com, and encounter the asshole who does.
It sometimes helps to re-learn the basics. There’s no better teacher of the basics than Aristotle.
*My prejudices were reinforced by a seminar that Bernard Williams did at Notre Dame when I was a grad student there. This was sometime in the late 1990s, just a few years before Williams’s death. To my surprise (and the surprise of anyone who’d read Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy), Williams gave a scorched-earth critique of Aristotle’s ethics as “claptrap from start to finish.” I don’t know if that was his considered view at the time, or whether he was just in a really bad mood that day.
**Actually, there’s a fourth question overlapping with the other three, which arises once you read Aristotle in conjunction with Freud, a la Alasdair MacIntyre and Jonathan Lear: What desires and emotions do “jokes” of this sort serve to repress?
***I take David Riesbeck to be saying something vaguely similar here, though in a very different way, from a very different angle.
Thanks to Carrie-Ann Biondi for the off-hand comment (on an unrelated topic) that inspired this post.