The Perils of Ridicule

“Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.”

William Blake, Untitled (c. 1800)

I recently listened to a couple of colleagues jesting and chortling over the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  If you have led a sheltered life, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a symbol with which witty atheists represent that in which they do not believe.  Witty atheists do not believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or in anything like the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and by boldly dissenting from propositions to the contrary, they wink and nod at other witty atheists.

(Although not a witty atheist, I was not offended by my colleagues jests and chortles because, when it comes to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his ilk, I am also a disbeliever (although prudently agnostic in the absence of dispositive evidence)).

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed the same idea with the genteel but no less risible image of a teapot orbiting the Sun, somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto.   In addition to serving atheists as shibboleths, airborne pasta and interplanetary teapots are meant to lampoon religion with ridicule.  Democritus was called the “laughing philosopher” and is the model for all who have since said, with Horace,

Ridiculum acri fortius ac melius plerumque secat res,

By which he meant, ridicule often settles matters of importance better and with more effect than severity.

By matters of importance Horace meant the preposterous platitudes that make up the pompous cant that is so dear to the respectable conformists of every culture.  He meant the sententious poppycock they pronounce with gravity, the sanctimonious silliness they received with reverence.  He meant the fatuous falsehoods that infest the popular imagination like hardy weeds.  He meant the objects of spurious solemnity.

Now there can be no doubt that religion is prone to spurious solemnity.  Jesus was particularly incensed by the spurious solemnity that had infested the religion of the Jews, although he sought to settle the matter with severity and not ridicule.  My guess is that Jesus departed from the policy of Horace because he knew that ridicule lacks precision, and that his laughing at spurious solemnity would lead other and less discriminating men to laugh at religion itself.  And I believe history has shown that Jesus was right.  Serious ridicule easily fosters mere flippancy, and in a culture so degraded, men will become spuriously solemn about their own flippancy.

Indeed the culture may become so degraded that men becomes spuriously solemn about their disbelief in flying spaghetti monsters and orbiting teapots.

Modern atheists were handed the shotgun of ridicule by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), although Shaftesbury told them it was a sniper’s rifle.  Like Democritus and Horace, Shaftesbury developed a philosophy of ridicule on the premise that it is impossible to mock that anything that is inherently solemn and holy and true.  He believed that no one will laugh at a joke if it is not a laughing matter.  In his Characteristicks (1711), Shaftesbury wrote,

“Nothing is ridiculous but what is deformed: nor is anything proof against raillery, but what is handsome and just . . . . A man must be soundly ridiculous, who, with all the wit imaginable, would go about to ridicule wisdom, or laugh at honesty, or good manners.”*

History has shown that Shaftesbury was gravely mistaken in this opinion, for men with much less wit than all the wit imaginable can teach a people to laugh at anything.  They can teach a people to laugh at the artlessness of the handsome and just, at the earnestness of wisdom, at the imprudence of honesty, at the affectedness of good manners.  They can certainly teach a people to whistle and cheer when they hear raillery against God himself.

Ridicule is not a test of truth because nothing is inherently ridiculous and man’s sense of humor is entirely a received opinion.  This is evident to anyone who has mirthlessly read an acclaimed humorist of another age.  It is evident to anyone who knows good jokes that have become very dangerous to tell.  One does not discover what is inherently serious and ridiculous by “applying the ridicule.” One simply discovers the sense of humor of one’s audience.  If that sense of humor is healthy, Shaftsbury’s rule will stand.

“Now what rule or measure is there in the world, but by considering the real temper of things, to find which are truly serious, and which ridiculous?  And how can this be done but by applying the ridicule, to see whether it will bear.”**

If that sense of humor is sick, however, Shaftsbury’s rule simply aggravates the sickness because it makes general laughter self-validating.  If that at which we are all laughing were not inherently laughable, we all would not be laughing!

And Shaftsbury’s rule also aggravates a sick sense of humor by making sick solemnity self-validating.  If that at which we are all not laughing were inherently laughable, we would all be laughing at it!  Whenever the sickos are not (healthily) laughing at something that is inherently ridiculous, they fall victim to the most ridiculous solemnity.  Here Shaftsbury comes close to the truth and says,

“Gravity is of the very essence of imposture.”***

And also

“Opinions, though ever so ridiculous, are kept up by solemnity . . .”†

To make these lines altogether true, we have only to speak of “spurious gravity” and “spurious solemnity.”  Some opinions are truly grave and solemn, but no opinion is treated with more gravity and solemnity than a ridiculous imposture.

And history has show that the most ridiculous opinions are the hardest for mere laughter to explode

*) Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (London, 1711), p. 129.
**) Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, p. 12.
***) Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, p. 11.
†) Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, p. 12.

6 thoughts on “The Perils of Ridicule

  1. Few apologists have employed the weapons of satire so effectively as the late Mgr Ronald Knox.

    Thus, writing of the Oxford Divinity School,

    When suave politeness, temp’ring bigot zeal,
    corrected “I believe” to “One does feel”

    That is a couplet to savour.

    Then, speaking of the Form Critics

    Twelve Prophets our unlearn’d forefathers knew,
    We are scarce satisfy’d with twenty-two :
    A single
    Psalmist was enough for them,
    Our List of Authors rivals A. & M. :
    They were content MARK, MATTHEW, LUKE & JOHN
    Should bless th’old-fashion’d Beds they lay upon :
    But we, for ev’ry one of theirs, have two,
    And trust the Watchfulness of blessed Q.

    [“A & M” is a reference to Hymns Ancient & Modern, a popular hymnal]

    Or, describing one Divine:

    Corpus had trained him Reason’s Truth to doubt,
    Keble added Faith, to do without.
    What matter, whether two and two be four,
    So long as none account them to be more ?
    What difference, whether black be black or white,
    If no officious Hand turn on the Light?
    Whether our Fact be Fact, no Man can know,
    But, Heav’n preserve us, we will treat it so.

    [Corpus and Keble are two Oxford colleges]

      • They are from Knox’s poem Absolute & Abitofhell written in the style of John Dryden (the title is a reference to the latter’s Absalom and Achitophel)

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