UNCIVIL MIRTH: RIDICULE IN ENLIGHTENMENT BRITAIN
Ross Carroll ISBN: 978-0-691-18255-1 Princeton £28
reviewed by Alan Dent
reviewed by Alan Dent
How dangerous is ridicule? How much does it hurt to have fun poked at you? This study isn’t looking at mockery in everyday life, but its literary and philosophical use. Was it, as Shaftesbury thought, a sure-fire way of getting at truth because having an innate sense of what is right, people won’t laugh at what is honest and just? Shaftesbury, an unjustly marginalised thinker who, in spite of the infelicities of his style, offers good meat for debate, is wrong of course. Trevor Griffiths explored the nature of laughter in Comedians and made an unpleasant discovery: we are all prone to laugh at nasty jokes (racism, sexism, snobbery). Comedians have made fortunes from routines using the Irish, blacks, women, homosexuals as their butts, and good, respectable, church-going folk have paid for tickets and had a damn good time. The problem is getting at what laughter is. In Bergson’s classic definition it’s du mécanique plaque sur du vivant. That may be what provokes laughter, but what is laughter itself? The neuroscientist Ramachandran theorises that it’s a matter of leading someone up the garden path, creating an expectation which is then disappointed: “I’ve just done a course in desktop publishing; though why anyone would want to publish a desktop I can’t imagine.” The absurdity of the tag pulls the rug from under the sense of the proposition. Ramachandran believes this triggers a cascade of neurons. That’s what laughter is. Hobbes, who thought we entered into relations with others only to assert our superiority, worried that mockery was so damaging it would undermine social peace. The evidence from pre-history suggests the opposite. In their classic study, The Creation of Inequality, Flannery and Marcus reveal how raillery in conversation was a common strategy in pre-historic cultures to stop people getting too big for their boots. Religious folk like the Quaker, Robert Barclay, the Presbyterian, Daniel Burgess and the author Jean Baptiste Bellegarde worried about the wounds inflicted by mockery and the “secret rage” it engendered. Of course, there is a species of mockery which has gentleness at its heart, whose aim is to puncture pomposity, correct foolishness, dissolve arrogance and so on; to poke fun in order to save people from the worst in their nature is doing them a favour. Aristotle called this eutrapelia, the virtue of being relaxed, gracious and witty in conversation. At the beginning of the 18th century, however, there was an attempt to outlaw mirth as malicious, unchristian and dangerous. Shaftesbury was one of the principle movers of the opposite trend, seeking to rid British culture of its po-faced Calvinism. Eutrapelia was a half-way house between bomolochoi, a buffoon and agroikoi, a boor. The former laughs at everything and nothing the latter is a miseryguts. Some Christians, including Isaac Barrow who was generally against the use of jibes, called on the example of Elijah mocking the Canaanites who failed to summon the powers of Baal to justify the use of wellplaced sarcasm. Barrow recognised that wit could be the handmaiden of reason. Shaftesbury and his supporters thought laughter was provoked by incongruity. Eagleton thinks it the most “plausible” account. Perhaps Ramachandran has the better of the argument. Shaftesbury kicked off a significant change in attitude because he believed laughter was sociable, it bound people together rather than alienating them as Hobbes thought (this may be rooted in sensibility – Hobbes seems to have been by nature somewhat unpleasant, Shaftesbury the contrary); also, it is in our nature to revile vice and embrace virtue, so using laughter to expose the former can only be beneficial; Shaftesbury was also interested in the mockery of the streets; it wasn’t merely the work of the great satirists he was defending, but the everyday use of mockery as a means of rendering common life more joyous; lastly, he accepted a degree of contempt at the heart of raillery and believed an entrenched stupidity or harmful prejudice might need a good dose to shift it. Adopting Diogenes and Demonax might seem odd for a proponent of politeness, but Shaftesbury did so on the grounds that Diogenes was no base, unprincipled slighter, but a man who had subjected himself to extreme discipline. He was paving the way for the Stoics and their insistence on living in keeping with nature. Not everyone agreed; some saw the Stoics as too sniffy. Shaftesbury subscribed to the notion of “partial evil” (as did Adam Smith, part of the reason he believed the worst aspects of capitalism couldn’t prevail); the idea of a life to be endured wasn’t congenial; as god was beneficent, all apparent evil must be part of benign creation which could be received with a smile and an open heart. Being good-humoured was god-like. Adam Smith considered Hobbes’s moral doctrines “odious” (Smith, like Hume, thought there was a natural sympathy between people which would always overcome their selfish impulses) but criticised Shaftesbury’s jokes at Hobbes’s expense as unfunny. Carroll points out that Smith has probably missed the point: Shaftesbury wasn’t trying to grab ‘em in the one-and-nines, but provoke reflection. He quoted Gorgias who expressed a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between jocularity and seriousness: “humour was the only test of gravity and gravity of humour. For a subject which would not bear raillery was suspicious and a jest which would not bear serious examination was certainly false wit.” Shaftesbury’s view of us as sociable creatures, motivated by mutual sympathy, was attacked by Mandeville who satirised him by accusing him of avoiding fighting for his country, something a sociable soul should surely contemplate. Mandeville’s argument is bad: Shaftesbury’s sociability and sympathy are universal. Why would they impel someone to killing? Mandeville also questioned the social benefit of Shaftesbury’s claim: commercial society (what we would call capitalism or euphemistically free enterprise) requires people to be self-interested and greedy; the sociability Shaftesbury applauded would turn people into mere “drones” fitted only for “stupid enjoyments”. Another bad argument. Mandeville was making the classic mistake of taking his class for humanity. He was born into a well-heeled family, his father was a physician. A pre-capitalist writer, he sought to justify the emerging economy of the early eighteenth century, believing that private vices promote public virtue. Somewhat like Hobbes, he believed that people enter into social relations solely for what they can get out of them. His mistake is his failure to recognise that seeking to fulfil our own needs can entail mutual benefit. Mandeville also thought that recourse to natural sociability demeaned the artifice of society, humanity’s greatest achievement. Bad argument again: it’s our nature to create culture. There is no contradiction between the two. Was Shaftesbury right that the best things can’t be ridiculed? Essentially. Phoney morality is easy to mock and should be, but where is the entry for ridicule when genuine kindness is in evidence? Mandeville believed self-regard is fundamental. Pity is a version. Of course, even when we are moved by the most selfless compassion, we are obeying an impulse which appeals to us, but this is no argument against the validity of concern for others. It isn’t necessary to be self-abnegating to be generous. Hutcheson had a good response to Mandeville: anyone who believes that parenting and patriotism are forms of selfishness hasn’t met many parents or patriots. Hume too was a critic of Shaftesbury, unconvinced of his claim that nature is impervious to ridicule. Nor was Hume happy with the notion of partial evil: to tell people their sufferings were good for the universe was no comfort, and of course, it provides an excuse for callousness. As for taking an amused, superior attitude to human affairs, it resulted only in “nihilistic gaiety”. Hume engaged in a controversial bit of mockery in the affair of the Bellmen’s petition. Bellmen were clergymen and gravediggers in the Scottish church. Their claim for a rise in their stipend, joined by that of teachers, was mocked in a pamphlet by Hume. He considered the clergy fair game, arguing they knew they were ridiculous and perhaps this disdain towards peddlers of revealed truth explains the apparent cruelty of his opposition to their demand. The teachers were the poor innocents who got it in the neck. Hume was a critic of the Restoration atmosphere of boundless jocularity. He saw through it. The Merry Monarch might appear forever ready for a jest, but when in response to the refusal of the king’s courtiers to accept Parliament’s proposal of a tax on playhouses, Sir John Coventry asked Charles if he preferred male or female players, the monarch had his nose cut to the bone. Beware jesting dictators. Smith took up the notion of his teacher Hutcheson that laughter is provoked by the conjunction of the great and noble with the little and mean (perhaps this assists Ramachandran’s theory in that the former lead up the garden path and the latter disappoint the expectation). The idea was a dig at Hobbes because it implied laughter could be used in the service of “the reformation of manners and the benefit of mankind.” Smith was joined in this by George Campbell, Thomas Reid, James Oswald and James Beattie, the Aberdonian philosophers nicknamed The Wise Club, who thought ridicule a good weapon against scepticism, which Hume adopted as a defining virtue. Campbell argued ridicule was a form of reason whose intent was not to demean and injure, as Hobbes contended, but to convince: a way of getting into the mind through the funny bone. Beattie tried to take on Hume, but lost. Hume called him “that bigoted, silly fellow.” Beattie’s anxiety about scepticism arose essentially from his acceptance of revealed truth. Hume scoffed at religion, so Beattie scoffed at him. Interestingly, in his attack of Hume the usually anti-democratic Beattie used a democratic argument: the lower orders had more common sense than the refined segments of society which permitted them to see through highfalutin’ theories. “Democratical governments are more favourable to simplicity of manners and consequently to the knowledge of the human mind, than our modern monarchies.” Given Beattie’s later inveighing against democracy, there is reason for some Humean scepticism about his sincerity; but he was taken seriously by Joseph Priestly who saw in Beattie’s elevation of common sense the short route to solipsism in which even atheists could justify their position by their own feelings or even worse the arrival of epistemological majoritarianism. Montesquieu influenced most of the British Enlightenment thinkers. He used ridicule effectively thought mock-justification of the African slave trade. However, he had reservations about Shaftesbury’s view that the spread of ridicule was indicative of freedom of thought; rather of frivolity. In the same way, he wasn’t convinced that virtue was exempt from mockery, citing the proliferation of French wits who would poke fun at anything; more a sign of intellectual flabbiness and arrogance. Montesquieu’s example showed that ridicule and the most serious subjects could be conjoined. Mary Wollstonecraft span a good line in ridicule in attacking Edmund Burke’s ridicule of the French revolution. Burke was right to deplore the Terror, but he was an arch-reactionary believing not only in a property qualification for voting but also that only property conferred esteem. Wollstonecraft, like others concerned with education and conduct, was, all the same, wary of ridicule. The theatre, she believed, was the only place where it was justified. She thought single-sex institutions encouraged silly pranks. She dismissed Eton as a breeding ground of vanity, foppishness and cruelty. Perhaps the long list of Prime Ministers educated there proves her right. She also believed a life of privilege is a disadvantage from which no one recovers. Prime Ministers again. “..to laugh at….or satirize the follies of a being who is never allowed to act freely from the light of her own reason is as absurd as cruel” wrote Wollstonecroft, thinking of women. She’s surely right. De Tocqueville thought democratic societies more grave as the citizens had to concern themselves with serious matter. Carroll reflects that maybe this suggest an increase in ridicule is indicative of democracy in trouble. Misplaced jocularity maybe, but the common folk enjoy a good laugh and know how to mock the pompous. What Flannery and Marcus point up is probably true and it fits with Leslie Brothers’s view that the basis of human society is conversation; a culture in which people meet as equals and raillery is used as the best weapon against arrogance, self-aggrandisement and bids for power, saves itself from tyranny. This is a fascinating book, brilliantly researched and replete with enough references to keep to you busy for the next decade. The period, its major players and the topic are endlessly interesting. It’s a pity more attention isn’t paid to them. Poor old Adam Smith, a classic liberal, has been kidnapped by the neo-liberals and is hoisted as a defender of capitalism gone native, when in fact his most important ideas are about the intrinsically moral cast of our nature. The left, snug inside Marx’s threadbare overcoat, virtually ignores Enlightenment thinkers. Maybe Carroll’s book will help correct these. The students at Exeter are lucky to have him as a teacher. I’d give a month’s pension to attend one of his lectures. Once read, this is a book to refer to over and again.