Philosophy is a joke! And it bloody well should be.
The only serious philosophical problem, if there should be one: why aren’t we laughing at our philosophical problems?
The only serious philosophical problem, if there should be one: why aren’t we laughing at our philosophical problems? What’s not funny about 6 people tied to train tracks? Or pushing a rock up a hill forever? Or being tied up in a cave somewhere by a guy whose name literally means “broad shoulders”? The foundation of our knowledge was laid by a wrestler, who followed a profoundly ugly annoying fellow and took notes. A wrestler! What’s not funny about that?
Nothing, I say! Rejoice, my friends. Revel in the fact that it takes a noisy know-it-all on Medium to squeeze a drop of laughter out of the modern armchair philosopher. But worry not! You are amongst good company, I most seriously promise with the heaviest of hearts:
- Plato argued that citizens should neither engage in comedy nor be the target of it.
- Hobbes said laughter was “a sign of pusillanimity”.
- Epictetus never laughed at all!
- Kant, the permavirgin, thus proclaimed “ in everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction)”.
- Schopenhauer, himself incongruous with a decent life, believed that humour was incongruous with “sensuous and abstract knowledge.”
- As for Descartes, he thought that laughter was only an expression of ridicule, and that “scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred”.
Is humour truly the sign of a bad character? Are we, as “rational beings”, doomed to lock ourselves in our rooms, to grimace and grunt until we push out a good philosophy? Am I the Diogenes of this modern era when I light my lamp and try to find an existentialist who doesn’t lament and smoke?
If there is one thing that ties the western canon together, its the fact that absurd and hilarious problems are presented in the same monotone seriousness. Was it all, perhaps, presented in jest? “Certainly not!” — says the scholar. But, ponder on this, dear learned one: Did Nietzsche roar in laughter when he penned the madman’s proclamation? Did Augustine smirk when he spoke of babies borne for hell? Was it not eminently funny for an absurdist to look for meaning in suicide? How deliciously absurd!
Maybe none of them laughed. Maybe like you, they all took their philosophy 100% seriously. Maybe even Augustine’s legendary razor sharp wit couldn’t have made him realize the hilarity of double predestination. Maybe Nietzsche’s majestic comedic undertones just happened to skip the famed parable. After all, no statement can be as solemn as the death of God himself! A round of F’s in silence for the big man above. Oh, how deliciously absurd.
No longer shepherd, no longer human — one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter; and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that never grows still. My longing for this laughter gnaws at me. ~Zarathustra
Why, then, do we strip the humour from the philosophy? Must we insist on the proper, the logical, the deep? Can we not long for the tragic affirmation of Zarathustra? Or is that too much to push? Have we forgotten the squishy flesh and weird pimples and patches cloth and curious rituals of our daily life? It certainly seems so, when we give the greatest reverence for the ravings of mad men. Life is suffering, God is dead, there is nothing outside the text — this text, perhaps?
Laugh, my friends! If in the service of “sensuous and abstract knowledge” we must abandon the full spectrum of human experience, then perhaps its better to not know at all. Is it not true that philosophy must be experienced? A walking bag of bones and a chain of logic does not knowledge make. And how could it? For Solzhenitsyn did not write The Couch Archipelago as a literary investigation into his mind. Dostoevsky hadn’t spent four years in hard labour to play with ideas. Why do we discount their dark, ferocious humour and caustic satire? What right do we have to be so serious about their philosophies!
Philosophy, indeed, springs only from the full breadth and depth of human experience. An experience, a life, that is tragic, hopeful, fulfilling, and despairing — and funny! Oh how could it be otherwise, for one erupts from the void without warning, and is violently ripped away from existence all the same. What a marvelous life we have, then, in spite of those ludicrous conditions! What right do we have to take philosophy seriously? Can we even take ourselves seriously? An outside observer — an alien, who isn’t born and does not die and is neither hungry nor dreary — is he not compelled to laugh at our existence?
Now, you say, isn’t there anything too serious to be joked about? Perhaps there is. Perhaps there are elements of human life so precious as to bar the encroachment of humour. Does this mean that there are elements of human life not worthy of being examined? After all, a serious topic cannot carry a genuine discussion. Must we tip-toe around the taboos we impose on ourselves? What might we find behind the impenetrable veil of solemness? Is it a shameful display of raw insecurity about our own condition? It must be! For a basketball player’s face does not turn red when they laugh at his height.
And speaking of insecurity, what were the great philosophers afraid of? Did Plato seek to establish an ideal state that destroys comedy because he himself could not withstand ridicule? Ridiculous indeed, the student of Socrates could not stand the power of words! Mere words! It cannot come as a surprise that what the crafters of the abstract feared the most was the scorn of the common man — after all, who did Descartes think he is writing for? It is almost laughable to think that the magnificence of philosophy can be defeated with the trifles of life.
Yet — is this not precisely what has happened? We find ourselves in the midst of a culture of utter seriousness. Everything is outrageous and every act deserves to be called out. When was the last time you made a distasteful joke in public, my dear reader? “Where did all the political jokes go?” asked Žižek, and he’s absolutely on point. Where did our spirit of self-derision go? Have we risen to the level of Gods, beyond ridicule? Or have we merely killed ourselves for the belief that we were Gods? It must be the mark of a great society where the average person has to watch his every word. It must be a new page in the book of history where man has finally found greatness in offense. After all, like Peterson says, the king can no longer tolerate his jester. Turns out that a truly enlightened culture is one where nothing is open for debate and every stone lies unturned. How delightfully absurd!
The great philosophers have played no small role in this most momentous transformation of society. We cannot laugh! We cannot laugh, for they have set the foundation of outrage. We cannot laugh, for they have elevated reason to the pedestal of greatness. Except… When we see our children frolic in the sun, it is not reason we cannot contain within ourselves. Who must we blame for robbing us of the most natural of human reactions, in the field of study dearest to human souls?
What’s not funny about it?
‘Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event — and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!’ — Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. ‘I come too early,’ he then said, ‘I am not yet at the right time.’ ~The Gay Science (1882)
Of course it’s serious! — but did you laugh?
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