Rosicrucian Writings Online
The Saving Gift of Humor
[From The Rosicrucian Digest January 1939]
A YOUNG friend of mine in a university class is working on a term paper in which she is setting forth the theory that a philosopher is never a humorist. She believes that humor is based on a sense of balance or proportion and that to become a great philosopher one must, or at least usually does, accept a lop-sided viewpoint of life and the universe, and becomes more and more set and serious in defending one's stance. She says she just can't picture Schopenhauer, Wordsworth, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hegel, Descartes, the Stoics, Locke, Plato, Carlyle, or John Dewey, all "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" as they are, ever going into conniptions of mirth. But in spite of all her amazing array of factual data, I still have some, unacademic perhaps but none the less sincere, doubts about the truth of her thesis.
In the first place, I am not sure that humor has anything to do with "conniptions." It is rather a chronic attitude of mind, gentle, droll, but not necessarily explosive. Thackeray in his "Great English Humorists" wrote, "I should call humor a mixture of love and wit." And there, mark you, we have the exact meaning of the two Greek words that make up our English word philosophy, "love" and "wit" or wisdom.
In the second place, I am sure that regardless of whether a philosopher is ever a humorist, a true humorist must of necessity be a philosopher. Were not Artemus Ward, Bill Nye, Mark Twain, and our beloved Will Rogers gifted with fine homespun philosophy, each with his own peculiar flavor?
My young friend had, however, I believe, hit upon two of the dangers that may beset deep thinkers--lack of proportion and overseriousness. Our age, shot through as it is with conflicting political philosophies, has tremendous need of the gift of laughter. One could heartily recommend to the overwrought governmental heads of Europe and our own sputtering political firebrands in America a daily dose of:
"Sport that wrinkled Care derides
And Laughter holding both his sides."
For egotism and greed and fear and intolerance and prejudice and superstition are tensions which cry loudly for the relaxation of mirth. Mars, whether he set up his headquarters in a family or a nation, would perish in an atmosphere of gentle, well-balanced drollery. This ancient, hairy-chested giant takes himself seriously and would pass out with chagrin if laughed at as did decadent Chivalry when Cervantes set all Europe roaring over Don Quixote.
Metaphysicians and mystics are perhaps farthest from their goal when they are overserious. St. Francis of Assisi laughed with his little brothers, the birds. It is not written, to be sure, that the great Master laughed, but rather that he wept. Perhaps, however, it is merely the fault of the recorders, sons of a serious race and age, that we have no scripture verse telling us that he also laughed. Certainly a welcome guest at wedding feasts and in circles of little children was capable of gentle merriment. How different religion, and hence all of life today, might be if medieval painters of Jesus of Nazareth had not portrayed spirituality as cadaverous despair. The latent expression of gentle humor in the picture of Jesus handled by the Rosicrucian Supply Bureau and the same quality in H. B. Warner's face at times in the movie, "King of Kings," have always appealed to me greatly.
One of Webster's definitions of humor is "the mental faculty of discovering, expressing or appreciating kindly sympathy with human nature, often blended with pathos." Surely this faculty of savoring understandingly the interplay of colors in the picture called life was part of the spiritual equipment of the great Mystic. The "love that knoweth of no fear, a love that sheds a joyous tear," as our Rosicrucian Chant says, has also in it the lovely rainbow glints of humor. I like the old proverb, "God dwells where two roads cross," and believe there is true mysticism and divinity in mood or utterance which balances gently between tender smiles and joyous tears.
Let us go still further with the exploration of the mystic side of humor. A laugh is usually based on a sense of incongruity in thought, situation, events or acts. Since a sense of the incongruous cannot exist unless two things are brought into juxtaposition, the laugh that comes at the juxtaposition of the two is a third element which results from two opposites. Hence laughter born of our mystic triangle!
As the race progresses, it becomes more humorous. Primitive society was not capable mentally of sensing incongruity, one of the first steps in abstract thinking, nor spirituality of deducing kindly laughter from it. The more highly advanced the individual becomes the more capable he is of true humor. Picture Lincoln reading Artemus Ward to his Cabinet the morning of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and Stanton sulking in heavy uncomprehending disgust.
One of the last of all the graces to be acquired by the soul is the ability to laugh at oneself, and one's own mistakes and blunders. How we all adored Robin Hood, portrayed by Erol Flynn, bursting into hearty guffaws when Little John worsts him in the quarter-stave battle and knocks him into the stream. Let us test our own spiritual advancement by whether we could see in the same situation how funny we looked dripping wet and worsted by a stranger foe. Robin Hood sees the incongruity of his own boasts at the beginning of the fray and his sorry plight at the end and presto! he bursts into Olympian laughter. Here is an application of the sacred triangle indeed most difficult to attain. Is it not one of the last feats of Mastership to pass beyond the limitations of one's physical ego and look down on one's own puny mundane efforts with droll amusement?
It is known that in the beginning there was a Joker. Not a heartless, primitive joker, but a great Wise One who mingled depths of mirth with depths of mercy. And today, one of America's greatest assets is that back of the mask-like American face there is native drollery. Evidence of this we have hourly in our pithy and vivid American idiom. And too, while there may be individuals who fall short of the mark, there exists in our unconscious group thinking a keen sense of amusement at disproportion, an innate distrust of giving to "any unproportioned thought his act." Thus far have we come collectively on the path! It is this quality which may, in the difficult days ahead, serve as a balance wheel to the American machine, and through us to the rest of the world.
Perhaps Lemurians, in spite of their brilliant scientific achievements born of the intellect, had not learned humor, which is born of the heart. And because Lemuria had not learned the divine secret of true laughter, she sleeps forever beneath the great salt seas. It has been a long, hard journey up again. But if we have gained real humor, it has been, oh fratres and sorores, worth all the trouble and all the toil!
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