There’s a hilarious story I’ve heard about the great Winston Churchill that I want to share with you today. The story goes that at a political meeting of some sort, Churchill and many others were discussing what to do about a particular situation. After finding him difficult, a woman who was present exclaimed to Churchill, “Sir, if I were your wife, I would put poison in your tea!” To the great dismay of the woman and without so much as skipping a beat, Churchill quipped back, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it!”
Another example of a man with fantastic wit is G.K. Chesterton. The quotes he wrote down were absolutely brilliant. They got the message across in a seriously funny way that stuck with the reader. For example, he wrote, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions” and “Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property so they can more perfectly respect it.” In one passage of his, he marks a difference between wit and basic humour. He says, “Wit is a fighting thing and a working thing. A man may enjoy humour all by himself; he may see a joke when no one else sees it; he may see the point and avoid it. But wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it” (2).
There is clearly a great value to this, a value which the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand writes about pretty extensively in Chapter 19, Volume 1 of his Aesthetics, titled “The Comical”. In this section of the book, he takes a philosophical and phenomenological look at comedy. He covers a wide variety of topics throughout this long chapter, such as whether or not comedy is a subjectively satisfying thing or has intrinsic value. He examines things like practical jokes and the role that humor plays in human life. He also spends a considerable amount of time on the wit. Why is it so endearing (unless you happen to be the woman who tried to take Churchill on) and attractive to us?
One distinguishing mark of wittiness is that it can only be the trait of a person. Hildebrand writes, “The witty always presupposes human beings. It adheres only to things made by human beings. Only a human being can tell a joke, just as only a human being can formulate a declarative sentence.” (5)
The key reason for this, according to Hildebrand, is that good wit has both intellectual value and aesthetic value to it. He writes, “Although a joke can be comical, and wit and the comical can make us laugh, the witty is at home in the sphere of the “intellectual” values. On the one hand, it it the quality of the esprit, intellectual cleverness, a special sharpness of mind… On the other hand, however, the witty is at home in the sphere of aesthetic values. Its quality has a specifically aesthetic note. It is genuinely related to the elegant, and it engenders an aesthetic delight” (4). With that being said however, there is still a great value to the comical in human life. An example may help show this a little more.
When I was younger, I went on a whale watch with my family and my uncle, who is a Catholic priest. Some French nuns who were visiting the parish and didn’t have the greatest mastery of English came along with us to see the sights. After being out on the water for a few hours, we saw a grand total of zero whales. As a kind of consolation prize, the captain took us by some islands that were covered in seals which was pretty cool. Now, the French word for seal is phoque, which is pronounced the exact same way as a certain inappropriate word in English. The French nuns couldn’t remember the English word for seal. I’m sure you can probably see where this is going. The nuns were walking around and pointing at the seals and saying, “look at all the *****!” They had no idea what this sounded like to us. It was pretty funny stuff.
A situation like this one is hilarious. It was funny enough that it still comes to mind fifteen years later. Hildebrand will write that these situations of humor are very good things. They gladden the heart and bring about laughter which is a great gift. “The comical,” he writes, “is a qualitative value all its own, which stands apart from all other values and lacks many of the essential traits of the other values… In its quality, the comical possesses a special relationship to the human person. Whereas the beautiful, the significant, the poetic rests in itself and bestows gifts on our spirit out of its fullness, the comical as such addresses the human spirit” (6).
This is a part of our humanity. One could even say that good humor is a virtue.
- G.K. Chesterton, The Quotable Chesterton
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, Volume 1, p. 406
- Ibid, p. 406
- Ibid, p. 439