To be lacking in a sense of humor is a true misfortune. I would not go so far as to call it an offense against others; but it certainly is a detriment to oneself. Social media seems to magnify our sense of self-importance; and when self-importance escalates, so does our sense of grim momentousness. There is nothing wrong with being serious, of course, up to a certain point. But there must be some kind of pressure-value to release the steam-engine’s expanding vapors. And if the first duty of the philosopher is to be clear, then certainly his second obligation is not to take himself too seriously. The truly wise know when to laugh.
Now I know that there will be many who say that a sense of humor cannot be cultivated: they will say that one either has it, or one does not. There is some merit to this view. Not everyone who practices at the piano will reach the same level of ability. Not every golfer’s swing will be equally effective, if equal amounts of time have been invested in developing them. Humor is the product of many things: a sensitivity to one’s surroundings, an ability to master timing, and the ability to detect a certain incongruity in the world’s workings. What do I mean by incongruity? The humorist must be able to detect those myriad inconsistencies in life where the reality departs from the ideal; he must be able to articulate this lack of congruence to an audience in a way that amuses it, rather than depresses it. It is an art form, make no mistake. But that does not mean that one cannot develop or refine a sense of humor. And from what I see on Twitter and other social media sites, many of us are in desperate need of learning to lighten up. Deal with serious topics, by all means. Discuss them, debate them, and roll around in them; but remember too that life is short, and every minute spent inveighing against the world’s evils is one less minute learning to appreciate beauty or truth.
Baldesar Castiglione, writing around 1527 in his Renaissance classic The Book of the Courtier, had this to say about a sense of humor:
Therefore everything which provokes laughter exalts a man’s spirit and gives him pleasure, and for a while enables him to forget the trials and tribulations of which life is full. So you can see that laughter is most agreeable to everyone, and the one who inspires it at the right time and place deserves every praise. But what laughter is, and where it is to be found, and how it sometimes takes possession of our veins, our eyes, our mouth and sides, and sometimes seems about to make us burst, being uncontrollable no matter how hard we try, I shall leave to Democritus to explain; who, even if he should promise to find the words, would not be able to.
The pursuit of any art requires diligence and application, and humor is no exception. The aspiring humorist must acquaint himself with the humor styles of different countries and cultures. This is so because humor varies widely from continent to continent, and from country to country. What is funny in England may not be funny in Japan; what is amusing to an Italian may not be so mirthful to a Scandinavian. Some humor is universal, and some is not. Above all, I think, the cultivation of a sense of humor requires this: humility. One must humble oneself. One must have the ability to step outside his self-created world, and reflect on that fact that he does not really control as much as he would like to believe. Humor is submission: submission to the goddess Adrastia, or Fortune. Only when we reach this level of philosophic reflection will be truly be able to see the pathos that lurks behind all human affairs.
The humorist must be a master of imagery and metaphor. He must above all know language: puns, metaphors, nicknames, alliteration, and hyperbole must all be arrows in his quiver. He must be a master of irony, and this takes a certain level of seasoning and experience. Practical jokes are a different matter; these rely on the ability to enjoy another person’s discomfort. With practical jokes, execution is especially important; taken too far, they can easily become sadistic. One must have a sense of restraint to carry them off effectively. The practical steps that can be taken to develop a sense of humor are the following:
1. See what other humorists have done. Learn about humor by starting with historical humor and working up to the present day. Read books, poems, plays; see movies. You will see how some things have changed, and some have not. Exposure to comic works, books, films, and television shows will sharpen your senses.
2. Travel widely, and observe human nature. You will develop a sympathy for the plight of the common man, who does his best to survive in a world where things are always more difficult than they appear.
3. Stop taking yourself so seriously. It is not good for your health. Unrelenting negativity, or unrelenting positivity, quickly become tiresome. Realize that no one is infallible, and that perfection is not a quality reserved for humans. Have the confidence to make mistakes. Have the confidence to realize that you do not control the world. Have the confidence that no everyone will agree with how you see the world.
4. Calm down. Stop shouting. No one wants to hear a wide-eyed maniac screaming into a camera. No one wants to listen to someone drone on for hours about their favorite conspiracy theory. It may be important to you, but it is not important to others.
These for me are some practical ways of cultivating a sense of humor. Like any good spice, it must be used sparingly. Too much humor will make a man look like a clown; too little makes him look like a warmed-over corpse.
I cannot resist the chance to include a few of the jokes and anecdotes described by Baldesar Castiglione in his book. Here are a few of them.
Duke Federico was [one day] discussing what should be done with a great load of earth that had been excavated for the foundations of this palace, which he was then building, and he remarked: “My lord, I have the perfect answer for where it should go. Order a great pit to be dug, and then it can be put there without any further ado.” And to this the Duke Federico replied, not without laughing, “And where will we put the earth that comes out of the pit?” Responded the abbot: “Have it dug so large that it will take both loads.” And even though the Duke kept insisting that the larger the pit was made, the more earth there would be to dispose of, the man could never get into his head that it could not be made big enough to take the two loads…
Castiglione tells us that the following comment was once made about a certain court official: “He lacks nothing except money and brains.” He also relates an anecdote about a greedy official who said this: “I have thought of [a way] in which we can find a large sum of money without too much bother. The first is as follows. Seeing that we have no more profitable source of income than the customs levied at the gates of Florence, and we have eleven gates altogether, let us immediately have built another eleven, and we shall double our revenue.”
Elsewhere he describes this hilarious comment by Lorenzo de Medici to a “very tedious clown” who kept badgering the great man about pointless trifles. One morning, this buffoon found Lorenzo in bed, sleeping late. The fool said to him, “Sir, you are still sleeping here, while I have already been to the New Market and the old, and outside the San Gallo Gate and around the walls for exercise, and I’ve done a thousand other things besides, while you are still here sleeping!” Lorenzo glared at the fool and said, “What I have dreamed about in an hour is worth more than what you have done in four.”
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