On the one side a wolf attacks, on the other a dog. FREEDOM OF WIT part 1




This is the second treatise in the Characteristicks–another essay that claims to be a letter to a friend. More sprawling than the first, I will go through this essay’s four sections in four blog entries. I’d apologize, but no one is reading this other than you.

The full title is: Sensus Communis AN ESSAY ON THE FREEDOM OF WIT and HUMOUR In a LETTER to a Friend.  The long confusing title, with its many fonts, sizes, and capital letters matches the letter itself, which is concerned with the relationships between humour and common sense, what we might now call the ‘social’. The Earl does not pretend that humour is the cure for everything, that it is always welcome or good, or that humour is harmless.So far, it seems to me that one of Shaftesbury’s strengths is that he ambivalently treats ambivalent things–he will not go to the wall for a concept. We have all read too many articles, essays, and even books, which pick a concept (Beauty, Ugliness, the Sublime, the Grotesque, Immanence, Freedom, Creativity, etc.) where the entire length is spent defending, praising, and prescribing this favoured notion. This sort of writing is not only boring–it’s like mixing codeine and ritalin–it sucks all the juices out of the very thing being praised. Such a piece will praise humour for keeping us sane, but at the same time claim that anyone who has a problem with any joke, ever, is a prude or philistine–because ‘we all know’ that a joke can never cause real damage. Humour is put in an unenviable position: it only helps and never hurts, it brings warmth but never burns. No good comedian could operate with a such an anemic notion.

Shaftesbury adores humour, but is aware that it can be violent, bigoted, and protect closed minds. And so he opens with a basic defense. It’s OK to commend “raillery” on condition that you are comfortable when others do not spare your own “Idol-notions”. So far, so simple. There seem to be three components to his initial defense of humour:

  1. It has a defensive function, and should be trotted out whenever “the Spirit of Curiosity wou’d force a Discovery of more truth than can be conveniently told.” Humour can uncover truth, but it can (and should) also veil it: “For we can never do more injury to Truth, than by discovering too much of it, on some occasions.” It is a truism that Shaftesbury uses humour as a means of testing the truth: a truth that cannot withstand laughter is false. But here is the flip side : truth can (and should) be used to protect the truth from overexposure. Here humour plays the same role that parables play, revealing and concealing at the same time.As usual, Shaftesbury cautions us to not be excessive with our defensiveness:

But ’tis certainly a mean, impotent, and dull sort of Wit, which amuses all alike, and leaves the most sensible Man, and even a Friend, equally in doubt, and at a loss to understand what one’s real Mind is, upon any Subject. [41]

The general direction of our mind should be visible.

Here there is a rather interesting critique of censorship. If we forbid the use of humour to hide unsavory truths, the humourist will redouble her attempt at concealment, and will turn from comedy to “Mysteriousness” and “Banter”–persecution leads to both mysterious discourse and idle banter. They are twins, and both of them hide so much that there is no clue left about what they are hiding.

2. It should be complete.  Humour is cruel when we exempt ourselves from its blade. Only then will it serve the function of smashing “Idol notions”. This complete humour allows for what Shaftesbury is most famous for: humour as a diagnostic

Grimace and Tone are mighty Helps to Imposture. And many a formal Piece of Sophistry holds proof under a severe Brow, which wou’d not pass under an easy one. [48]

But humour that exempts our own idols is more dangerous than humourlessness: “There is nothing so foolish and deluding as a partial Scepticism. For whilst the Doubt is cast only on one side, the Certainty grows so much stronger on the other.” Shaftesbury is very explicit that partial humour, or the “false Jest” is a form of lying.

3. It has something like a social function: it trains a kind of common reason. Here he is quite explicit. No treatise on reason teaches you how to reason:

’Tis the Habit alone of Reasoning, which can make a Reasoner. And Men can never be better invited to the Habit, than when they find Pleasure in it. A Freedom of Raillery, a Liberty in decent Language to question every thing, and an Allowance of unravelling or refuting any Argument, without offence to the Arguer, are the only Terms which can render such speculative Conversations any way agreeable. [45]

Humour is a training ground for a thinking in common. And here again we have to nuance the usual view that for Shaftesbury humour is a kind of scientific test. It is also an exercise for common thinking. Not common in the sense that it is banal, but that it is done with others. Shaftesbury seems to think that reason is social, and attempts to treat it as the property of an individual will fail.

Here Shaftesbury tends conservative. Concerning jokes about religion he writes:

For you are to remember (my Friend!) that I am writing to you in defence only of the Liberty of the Club, and of that sort of Freedom which is taken amongst Gentlemen and Friends, who know one another perfectly well. 

 Shaftesbury is defending conversation, not publication. It is unclear what he thinks about published humour. While published humour would retain its defensive power (helping slowly bring unpleasant truths to light) it would lose its ability to train a common sense.

In matter of Reason, more is done in a minute or two, by way of Question and Reply, than by a continu’d Discourse of whole Hours. [45]

And a refined common sense (or “COMMON SENSE”) is the goal here. Without humour trained nuance, common sense is thuggish. Shaftesbury spends the final section of part 1 recounting a large heated discussion, in which every participant at least once appealed to common sense, and each was completely “assur’d Common Sense wou’d justify him.”. But, of course, no one was capable of defining what common sense is.

It is implied that this is because common sense is not a thing, but a practice, and that it is developed best by a humour–but it cannot be a partial humour, because real common sense has no Subject [50]–as subjects our sense is particular “If plain British or Dutch Sense were right, Turkish and French Sense must certainly be very wrong.” [51].

Shaftesbury ends this first section asking his friend to indulge him, as he continues to carry on the experiment of using humour to develop a kind of subjectless common sense–something very much unlike ‘plain sense’–which conceals and reveals unpleasant truths, and in so doing trains us in reason.

At the rate I am writing, I estimate I will have finished recapping this first essay by the end of 2021.

Written by Dustin N Atlas

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