FREEDOM OF WIT pt 2: Hobbes, savage comedian

Dear non-reader, I am cutting it down to the line, in danger of losing my whisky. Today will just be the Earl—nothing relevant, nothing exciting. Just a few thoughts about Part II on the Earl’s Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour.

When I first started writing outside of my notebooks, it was crass, repellent, and occasionally clever. It was confessional, and was suited to my age and near total lack of responsibilities. Teaching in the Mid-East changed this: the program was precarious, the borders daunting, and the administration vindictive. Anything remotely honest could land you in trouble in an environment which was already too much to bear. There I developed the habit of keeping secrets: my journals went to fat, my presence on the web grew anaemic, and was eventually scrubbed. I am keeping this habit, but now for banal and selfish reasons: I’d like to get tenure one day, and I am not my thoughts on the Midwest could withstand a hostile committee’s scrutiny. So, to keep myself writing, I will continue to respond to the Earl, unless something else demands my attention.

Part II of the Essay is short, and less apologetic than the opening. It begins with an Ethiopian “on a sudden” transported to a European Carnival. The essayists I like delight in this conceit: from Montaigne to Mendelssohn, Africans, Brazilians, and Haitians are teleported to Europe, and find it shitty. For Montaigne, the ‘cannibal’ wonders why Europeans obey a child and live in poverty while the rich stuff themselves. Shaftesbury’s ‘Ethiopian’ laughs at the carnival masks—while the Europeans laugh at his laughing. But they are in the wrong: “he who laughs, and is himself ridiculous, bears a double share of RIDICULE”. Girard writes somewhere that this ‘doubling’ is a basic structure of comedy: it’s funny when someone falls. It’s funnier if I fall when I’m making fun of them.

This section is a series of twists, with savagery at their core: being a savage is savage, getting rid of savagery is more savage; Hobbes is savage, censuring Hobbes is more savage. No one is exempt: the Ethiopian is right to laugh at carnival masks. But if he laughs at the faces underneath the masks (thinking that the pale face is just another mask) then he is now in the wrong: we are permitted to laugh at masks, but not faces. Shaftesbury has an almost pathological hatred for any attempt to regulate a face, whether it’s a question of politeness or fashion. I don’t understand much of it, having no understanding of French courts or the ‘tyranny of the Magi’. The Earl assumes a very serious education.

I will skip to the potion I do understand: after travelling around the world we end up in Hobbes’ backyard. It is clear that the Earl does not like Hobbes, but finds attempts to extirpate him worrying, for exactly the same reason that he dislikes policing humour. The Earl’s critique of Hobbes is not one I’ve read before, although I haven’t read many. Hobbes is placed in the position of the comedian-savage. And we are asked to note that, despite the savagery of his philosophy, Hobbes himself behaves like a gentleman, communicating his work in a fair and measured manner:

Whatever Savages they may appear in Philosophy, they are in their common Capacity as Civil Persons, as one can wish. Their free communicating of their Principles may witness for them. ’Tis the height of Sociableness to be thus friendly and communicative.

The Earl presents Hobbes as a social person, almost gentlemanly, and through this very kindness undoes his work. How is this the case? It is assumed that Hobbes and his followers (perhaps including even Foucault in his cruder moments) are saying something like this:

That both in Religion and Morals we were impos’d on by our Governors; that there was nothing which by Nature inclin’d us either way; nothing which naturally drew us to the Love of what was without, or beyond our-selves’. 

Religion, Morality, ethics, these are in no way natural, but entirely mechanisms of control. For Shaftesbury, temperamentally anti-authoritarian, this is impermissible: for him there are seeds of goodness everywhere, and neither God nor King nor social programs are required to cultivate them (although all may help). But this is not his critique—it is (I think) the reason for it, but not the move he makes. Instead, Shaftesbury makes use of one of my favoured lines of attack against fatalists and determinists. He asks a simple question: if all is as you say, fine—then why write your book?

I cannot stress enough how much this question irritates scholars. It is worth it for that reason alone. But it is, I still believe, after years of being yelled at, a good question. In the case of Hobbes, Shaftesbury thinks the answer is clear.

But, pray, whence is this Zeal in our behalf? What are We to You? Are You our Father? Or if You were, why this Concern for Us? Is there then such a thing as natural Affection? If not; why all this Pains, why all this Danger on our account? Why not keep this Secret to Your-self? Of what advantage is it to You, to deliver us from the Cheat?

If Hobbes and company are correct, they would be better keeping their insight to themselves, and using it to exploit us. But in writing, they betray their real concern: us. If they present humans as treacherous, it is to protect us from this treachery. When they dismiss the idea of freedom, it is because the idea of freedom is used to restrict freedom. Hobbes’ entire philosophy is presented as having the structure of stand-up comedy: a paradoxical system is used to introduce a general scepticism, so that “particular subjects” about which we are overly sensitive, can then be approached:

When they have accustom’d Men to bear Contradiction in the main, and hear the Nature of Things disputed, at large; it may be safer, they conclude, to argue separately, upon certain nice Points in which they are not altogether so well satisfy’d. So that from hence, perhaps, you may still better apprehend why, in conversation, the Spirit of Raillery prevails so much, and Notions are taken up for no reason besides their being odd, and out of the way.

Comedy, again, is a kind of softening agent, and allows truth to be measured in its turn. The seemingly extreme statements like ‘everything is power,’ ‘all ethics are conventional,’ ‘all humans are disgusting’—sentiments that many stand up comedians explicitly hold to—are not in fact the point. They are ways of putting the entire world off kilter, such that seemingly smaller, but far more sensitive, points can now be addressed. I start with ‘everything is crazy’ and only then address your actual craziness, because, for some reason, we are willing to grant the first claim more easily than the second.

The big claims, the seemingly intense ones, are not really the point. And we can tell this, because they are betrayed by the performance. If people are indeed so grotesque and not worth your bother, a rich comedian would be better off not touring at all. If everything was power, and all people are selfishly looking only to increase and sustain their power, Hobbes would be better off not writing his book, but instead should have written a book praising virtue, and used it to exploit his audience.

This may not be the most sophisticated argument, but it is a clever one. Rather than censure, the Earl damns Hobbes by his generous, and legitimate, praise.


Writeen By Dustin ATlas

Written by Dustin N Atlas

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