A Few Thoughts on Humor and Being Human

DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN

There is always a great deal that we can learn about something by focusing on its etymology.

The Laughing Cavalier
Frans Hals (1624)

Something wonderful has happened to me.
I was caught up into the seventh
heaven. There sat all the gods in assembly.
By special grace I was granted
the privilege of making a wish. "
Wilt thou," said Mercury,
"Have youth or beauty or power
or a long life or the most beautiful maiden
or any of the other glories we have in the chest?
Choose, but only one thing." For a
moment I was at a loss.
Then I addressed myself to the gods as follows:
"Most honorable contemporaries,
I choose this one thing, that I may always
have the laugh on my side."
Not one of the gods said a word; on the contrary,
they all began to laugh.
From that I concluded that my wish
was granted, and found that the gods
knew how to express themselves with taste;
for it would hardly have been suitable
for them to have answered gravely:
"Thy wish is granted."
- Soren Kierkegaard

The word 'humor' comes from the Latin humus, which means soil, earth, ground, or sod.  Other words also derived from humus include 'human', humble, and 'humility'.  The link between these latter and 'humus' should be obvious.  The second creation story in Genesis depicts man as "formed from the soil of the ground".  Thus, he is 'human', that is, of the soil.  A humble person is one who has his feet planted firmly on the ground, that is, he is down to earth.  The humble man has not forgotten that he is only dust and ashes (Gen 18: 27).  The proud man, on the contrary, desires to be more than human and refuses the specter of his creatureliness.  But how 'humor' relates to 'soil' is not quite as obvious.  I do, nevertheless, think there is some connection between the two.  Let me explain.

As the word 'human' suggests, man is essentially a material kind of thing.  But man is also 'spirit'.  He is a unity of spirit and matter.  As we read in the psalms:  "What is man that you should spare a thought for him, the son of man that you should care for him?  Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and splendor, made him lord over the work of your hands, set all things under his feet" (Ps 8: 4-5).  Man is just a little less than the angels.  In fact, he can, with some justification, be regarded as an enfleshed angel.  For the soul of man is unique in that it is a spiritual soul, which means a soul capable of thought and self-reflection.  The human soul is subsistent, unlike the soul of a plant or animal.  We know this because the human person is capable of an activity that is independent of matter, namely thinking.  The mind is an immaterial power.  Intellectual abstraction, existential judgment and reasoning are not acts of a material organ.  If they were, man would not be able to draw universal conclusions, nor grasp universal laws or general concepts.

This composition of spirit and matter is the reason a human person is capable of humility.  It is possible for us to forget our origins, that is, our material constitution.  It is at this point that we need to return to our origins, or recall that we are but dust.  Man is weak, he gets tired quickly, he smells relatively soon after bathing, has bad breath in the morning, sweats, defecates, belches, blows his nose, sneezes, coughs, vomits, eats like an animal, sleeps for a third of the day, forgets things he wishes he would not, weeps and laughs, and eventually dies.  We are not "gods", but only flesh and blood, or better yet, dust and ashes.

  


In beholding the flaws, weaknesses and limitations of the comedian, we behold our own flaws, weaknesses and limitations.  We become aware of our fumbling humanity.  Good comedy allows us to stand back and see ourselves in a new light.  


I submit that it is an interplay between matter and spirit that accounts for the possibility of humor.  There is no doubt that angels are filled with joy, since they see God directly, and God is Joy.  Laughter, strictly speaking, is not possible for an angel because laughter involves the body, and angels are incorporeal.  But whether or not angels can find anything humorous in one another is somewhat uncertain and difficult to determine.  The idea that angels find man to be a source of humor is much easier to conceive, because man is 'humus', or human, and thus often very funny.  What is it about things or situations or persons that we find funny?  I believe it might have something to do with a return to matter, that is, a return to our origins, to the soil. 

We often remark that those people who cannot laugh take themselves too seriously.  Humor lightens the spirit.  When we are too immersed in matter, or too preoccupied with the affairs of the material world, we become weighed down, or heavy.  The spirit is clouded because it is too close to matter.  Humor lifts the spirit out of its matter, so to speak, and allows us to see ourselves from a distance.  Conversely, it is possible to become too abstracted.  This too calls for a return to the ground, and comedy is just what the abstracted person needs to return him there to lighten his spirit and remind him that he is matter as well as spirit.  In beholding the flaws, weaknesses and limitations of the comedian, we behold our own flaws, weaknesses and limitations.  We become aware of our fumbling humanity.  Good comedy allows us to stand back and see ourselves in a new light.  This self-transcendence is a raising up out of matter, if we are too immersed in it, in order to behold ourselves in our humanness.  Or, if we are too abstracted, it is a reorientation of ourselves towards the same humanness.  Thus, comedy lightens us up.  Good comedy raises the spirit, but not so high that our feet are no longer planted on the ground.  Humor cannot do this because it calls attention to our creatureliness, rooted as it is in matter.  Thus we find humor in Archie's moods, generalizations, and lack of sophistication in All in the Family, or Norton's unusual voice, his innocence, and Ralph Kramden's weakness in the face of temptation in The Honeymooners.  But the arrogant are not capable of humor because they cannot stand to gaze upon their own creatureliness, and so they rarely laugh. 

Genuine comedy does not strip anyone of his dignity as a human person, created in the image of knowledge and love, equal in dignity to every other human being.  It highlights the rational nature of the person, but does so always against the background of his material constitution.  It is within this interplay that humor occurs, an interplay between spirit and matter.  Clever quips highlight the fact that man is more than matter, but his forgetfulness, vulnerability to temptation and frailty call attention to his material nature.

  

But a good portion of today's humor is less a return to soil than a 'soiling' of another.  It is not so much humor as humiliation.  Nihilistic comedy seems to ally itself with cynicism.  Cynical comes from the Latin word cynicus, from the Greek kunikos, or dog.  A cynic is doglike (kuon) because the cynic regards everyone as nothing more than matter, motivated not by genuine aspirations towards the good, but by selfishness.  There is nothing holy in the eyes of the cynic; everything is a farce, a facade, and behind the facade lies the stink of human selfishness and the rot of material corruption.   So instead of allowing us to take ourselves lightly by focusing on our own creatureliness against the background of a genuine apprehension of the true and the good, cynical humor delights in depicting the other as incapable of goodness and the possession of truth, except the truth that there is nothing to aspire to.  The life of each person is in the end "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".  Nihilistic comedy ridicules others, exploits their weaknesses and flaws, but it does not lighten us up, unless of course it is mixed with some genuinely comical features—making it all the more insidious. 

The cynical comic chooses to overlook his own creatureliness in order to more easily look down his nose at the creature, mocking him as well as the institutions he holds sacred, such as family, Church, political institutions, or those who hold public office.  It mocks human aspirations, that is, any attempt to rise higher to what is more noble and beautiful.  Cynical comedy aims to humiliate or 'bring down' to the soil in order to expose the facade, revealing that we can only aspire after constructs, which are ultimately empty and of no more value than anything else, since nothing has intrinsic value.  Genuine comedy, on the contrary, presupposes the aspiration to truth and goodness, because it calls our attention to how much we fall short of it. 

Comic nihilism will lack good and happy endings, because nihilism denies the reality of divine providence as well as the real goodness of traditional institutions, such as the family.  All family is fundamentally dysfunctional, and any suggestion to the contrary is a pretense.  Thus, comic nihilism does not and cannot liberate the spirit, but only weigh it down further, equating, as it does, intelligence with cynicism.

  


Clever quips highlight the fact that man is more than matter, but his forgetfulness, vulnerability to temptation and frailty call attention to his material nature.


But genuine humor takes us out of ourselves and is thus ecstatic.  The Latin exstasis can be traced back to the Greek ekstasis, which suggests outward movement, standing aside or outside of oneself.  Ecstacy is a kind of exit-of-self.  Laughter involves a forgetting-of-self, with its twisted facial contortions and a temporary loss of control.  In this light, there is an obvious link between spirituality and humor.  Holiness and humor are not strangers, but close allies.  There is no laughter in hell, the spiritually dead are not capable of genuine humor, because they will not exit or forget themselves.  They are incapable of ecstacy.  All they know is sardonic laughter that is not so much humor as it is ridicule. 

Both brute animals and small children are funny not so much on account of their creatureliness, but inasmuch as they exhibit a kind of rationality that is in some ways beyond them.  Brute animals are devoid of reason, but natural instinct moves them to something like rational action.  This is because animals have a natural instinct imparted to them by the Divine Reason.  And so monkeys tend to be much funnier than worms.  Children, of course, are rational, but they rightly lack a great deal of knowledge of things that adults are normally aware of.  When a child exhibits behavior that is rational beyond his or her years, we tend to laugh.  Again, the interplay between spirit and matter.  But comic nihilism exploits this, depicting children, for example, enjoying a knowledge of things sexual that compromises their innocence, or children with a cynical outlook that no child prudently raised could possibly have acquired on his own, as we see in Family Guy.

So, do angels find anything humorous in one another?  It would seem that angels have no need of being moved to spiritual light heartedness, because they are already there, mirthful and perpetually light of spirit.  They are incapable of forgetfulness, so they cannot forget their material origins; moreover, they do not originate in matter.  But man does forget.  He needs to be reminded often that he is only a man.  Humanness, humility, and humor are so closely interconnected that one may well argue that the genuine saint can only be a person who has achieved a striking degree of humanness, one who has not lost touch with the ground on which he walks, and who is very capable of laughter. 

The One whose throne is in heaven sits laughing (Ps 2: 4)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

McManaman, Douglas. "A Few Thoughts on Humor and Being Human." (May 2006).

Reprinted with permission of Douglas McManaman.

THE AUTHOR

Douglas McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the past President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Douglas McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 Douglas McManaman



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