The Mission of Humor
IN The Last Tournament we are told how
Had made mock-knight of Arthur’s Table Round,
At Camelot, high above the yellowing woods,
Danced like a withered leaf before the hall.”
That is the view which many worthy people take of the humorist. He is Sir Dagonet. Among the serious persons who are doing the useful work of the world, discovering its laws, classifying its facts, forecasting its future, this lightminded, light-hearted creature comes with his untimely jests. In their idle moments they tolerate the mock-knight, but when important business is on hand they dismiss him, as did Sir Tristram, with
This is a survival of the feeling of the unhumorous Middle Ages, when kings and nobles, in order to mitigate the preternatural dullness of their own conversation, were compelled to employ professional jesters. The hired jester suggests a dearth of spontaneous humor, just as the hired mourner suggests a dearth of natural sympathy.
Humor is something more than the capacity to make or enjoy a jest. It is not like looking at the grotesque image in a convex mirror. It is a way of looking at real things ; it is a kind of insight into fleeting forms of truth which otherwise might escape us altogether. Thackeray defines humor as “ a mixture of love and wit.” An old English writer defines wit as “ quick wisdom.” It is, one might say, wisdom with a hair trigger.
A mixture of love and quick wisdom is a very good thing to have. It has a high intellectual and moral value. To be destitute of the sense of humor is a serious misfortune, particularly as no adequate provision has been made by society for persons belonging to this defective class. There are few, however, in whom the affliction is total. Almost every one has some sense of humor, just as there is gold in sea water, though not enough to make its extraction commercially profitable.
This is a big world, and it is serious business to live in it. It makes many demands. It requires intensity of thought and strenuousness of will and solidity of judgment. Great tasks are set before us. We catch fugitive glimpses of beauty, and try to fix them forever in perfect form, — that is the task of art. We see thousands of disconnected facts, and try to arrange them in orderly sequence, — that is the task of science. We see the ongoing of eternal force, and seek some reason for it, — that is the task of philosophy.
But when art and science and philosophy have done their best, there is a great deal of valuable material left over. There are facts that will not fit into any theory, but which keep popping up at us from the most unexpected places. Nobody can tell where they come from or why they are here; but here they are. Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectnesses. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways. Everything is under the reign of strict law ; but many queer things happen, nevertheless. What are we to do with all the waifs and strays ? What are we to do with all the sudden incongruities which mock at our wisdom and destroy the symmetry of our ideas ?
The solemnly logical intelligence ignores their existence. An amateur philosopher once gave me an essay in which he proved that animals suffer no pain. I ventured to point out a few indications to the contrary. He replied : “ Impossible ! Animals suffer no pain; if they did, it would be contrary to my system of philosophy.”
More sensitive natures allow themselves to be worried by these incongruities which they cannot ignore. It seems to them that whenever they are in earnest the world conspires to mock them. Continually they feel that intellect and conscience are insulted by little whipper-snappers of facts that have no business to be in an orderly universe. They can expose a lie, and feel a certain superiority in doing it ; but a little unclassified, irreconcilable truth drives them to their wits’ end.
Just here comes in the beneficent mission of humor. It takes these unassorted realities that are the despair of the sober intelligence, and it extracts from them pure joy. One may have learned to enjoy the sublime, the beautiful, the useful, the orderly, but he misses something if he has not also learned to enjoy the incongruous, the illusive, and the unexpected. Artistic sensibility finds its satisfaction only in the perfect. Humor is the frank enjoyment of the imperfect. Its objects are not so high — but there are more of them.
There are a great many ideas that have a very insecure tenure. They hold their place by a sort of squatter sovereignty. By and by science will come along and evict them, but in the meantime these homely folk make very pleasant neighbors. All they ask is that we shall not take them too seriously.
That a thing is not to be taken too seriously does not imply that it is either unreal or unimportant; it only means that it is not to be taken that way. There is, for example, a pickaninny on a Southern plantation. The anthropologist measures his skull, and calls it by a long Latin name. The psychologist carefully records his nervous reactions. The pedagogical expert makes him the victim of that form of inquisition known as “ child study.” The missionary perplexes himself in vain attempting to get at his soul. Then there comes along a person of another sort. At the first look, a genial smile of recognition comes over the face of this new spectator. He is the first one who has seen the pickaninny. The one essential truth about a black, chubby, kinky-haired pickaninny is that, when he rolls up his eyes till only the whites are visible, he is irresistibly funny. This is what theologians term “ the substance of doctrine ” concerning the pickaninny.
When Charles Lamb slipped on the London pavement, he found delight in watching the chimney sweep who stood laughing at his misfortune. “There he stood irremovable, as though the jest were to last forever, with such a maximum of glee and minimum of mischief in his mirth — for the grin of a genuine sweep hath no malice in it — that I could have been content, if the honor of a gentleman might endure it, to have remained his butt and his mockery till midnight.” There were many middleaged London citizens who could no more appreciate that kind of pleasure than a Hottentot could appreciate an oratorio. That is only saying that the average citizen and the average Hottentot have, as Wordsworth mildly puts it, “faculties which they have never used.”
At its lowest, humor, like everything else, is a coarse and unfriendly thing. Caliban, lying in the mire, had his own idea of the amusing. It consisted in catching crickets and other small grigs and pinching them.
And he lay stupid-like, — why, I should laugh.”
But by and by the cruel cackle of Caliban gives way to a mirth that is human and genial, quenching our thirst “ like a beaker full of the warm south.” The coarse man, with an undeveloped sense of humor, laughs at other’s ; it is a far finer thing for a person to be able to laugh at himself. When a man comes to appreciate his own blunders, he has found an inexhaustible supply of innocent enjoyment.
The pleasure of humor is of a complex kind. There are some works of art that can be enjoyed by the man of one idea. To enjoy humor one must have at least two ideas. There must be two trains of thought going at full speed in opposite directions, so that there may be a collision. Such an accident does not happen in minds under economical management, that run only one train of thought a day.
It is noteworthy, also, that humor is one of the few mental processes that we can carry on only when we are awake. In our sleep we have certain aesthetic sensibilities. We dream of beautiful objects and are conscious of a vague sublimity; we have ethical emotions, such as remorse for sins we never committed ; we can philosophize, too, after a fashion quite transcendental. But there is one thing we cannot do in our sleep: no matter how incongruous our ideas are, we cannot realize that they are absurd. In order to pass that judgment we must be awake.
Psychologists speak of “ the association of ideas.” It is a pleasant thought; but the fact is that it is a difficult matter to get ideas to associate in a neighborly way. In many minds the different groups are divided by conventional lines, and there are aristocratic prejudices separating the classes from the masses. The Working Hypothesis, honest son of toil that he is, does not expect so much as a nod of recognition from the High Moral Principle who walks by in his Sunday clothes. The steady Habit does not associate with the high-bred Sentiment. They do not belong to the same set. Only in the mind of the humorist is there a true democracy. Here everybody knows everybody. Even the priggish Higher Thought is not allowed to enjoy a sense of superiority. Plain Common Sense slaps him on the back, calls him by his first name, and bids him not make a fool of himself.
Of the two ingredients which Thackeray mentions, the first, love, is that which gives body; the addition of wit gives the effervescence. The pleasure of wit lies in its unexpectedness. In humor there is the added pleasure of really liking that which surprises us. It is like meeting an old friend in an unexpected place. “ What, you here ? ” we say. This is the kind of pleasure we get from Dr. Johnson’s reply to the lady who asked why he had put a certain definition in his dictionary : " Pure ignorance, madam.”
The fact is that long ago we made the acquaintance of one whom Bunyan describes as “ a brisk young lad named Ignorance.” He is a dear friend of ours, and we are on very familiar terms with him when we are at home ; but we do not expect to meet him in fine society. Suddenly we turn the corner, and we see him walking arm in arm with so great a man as Dr. Samuel Johnson. At once we are at our ease in the presence of the great man; it seems we have a mutual acquaintance.
Another element in real humor is a certain detachment of mind. We must not be afraid, or jealous, or angry; in order to take a really humorous view of any character, we must be in a position to see all around it. If I were brought before Fielding’s Squire Western on charge of poaching, and if I had a pheasant concealed under my coat, I should not be able to appreciate what an amusing person the squire is. I should be inclined to take him very seriously.
The small boy who pins a paper to the schoolmaster’s coat tail imagines that he has achieved a masterpiece of humor. But he is not really in a position to reap the fruits of his perilous adventure. It is a fearful and precarious joy which he feels. What if the schoolmaster should turn around ? That would be tragedy. Neither the small boy nor the schoolmaster gets the full flavor of humor. But suppose an old friend of the schoolmaster happens just then to look in at the door. His delight in the situation has a mellowness far removed from the anxious, ambiguous glee of the urchin. He knows that the small boy is not so wicked as he thinks he is, and the schoolmaster is not so terrible as he seems. He remembers the time when the schoolmaster was up to the same pranks. So, from the assured position of middle age, he looks upon the small boy that was and upon the small boy that is, and finds them both very good, — much better, indeed, than at this moment they find each other.
It is this sense of the presence of a tolerant spectator, looking upon the incidents of the passing hour, which we recognize in the best literature. Books that are meant simply to be funny are very short-lived. The first reception of a joke awakens false expectations. It is received with extravagant heartiness. But when, encouraged by this hospitality, it returns again and again, its welcome is worn out. There is something melancholy in a joke deserted in its old age.
The test of real literature is that it will bear repetition. We read over the same pages again and again, and always with fresh delight. This bars out all mere jocosity. A certain kind of wit, which depends for its force on mere verbal brilliancy, has the same effect. The writers whom we love are those whose humor does not glare or glitter, but which has an iridescent quality. It is the perpetual play of light and color which enchants us. We are conscious all the time that the light is playing on a real thing. It is something more than a clever trick ; there is an illumination.
Erasmus, in dedicating his Praise of Folly to Sir Thomas More, says: —
“ I conceived that this would not be least approved by you, inasmuch as you are wont to be delighted with such kind of pleasantry as is neither unlearned nor altogether insipid. Such is your sweetness of temper that you can and like to carry yourself to all men a man of all hours. Unless an overweening opinion of myself may have made me blind, I have praised folly not altogether foolishly. I have moderated my style, that the understanding reader may perceive that my endeavor is to make mirth rather than to bite.”
Erasmus has here described a kind of humor that is consistent with seriousness of purpose. The characteristics he notes are good temper, insight into human nature, a certain reserve, and withal a gentle irony that makes the praise of folly not unpleasing to the wise. It is a way of looking at things characteristic of men like Chaucer and Cervantes and Montaigne and Shakespeare, and Bunyan and Fielding and Addison, Goldsmith, Charles Lamb and Walter Scott. In America, we have seen it in Irving and Dr, Holmes and James Russell Lowell.
I have left out of the list one whom nature endowed for the supreme man of humor among Englishmen,—Jonathan Swift. Charles Lamb argues against the common notion that it is a misfortune to a man to have a surly disposition. He says it is not his misfortune; it is the misfortune of his neighbors. It is our misfortune that the man who might have been the English Cervantes had a surly disposition. Dean Swift’s humor would have been irresistible, if it had only been good humor.
One of the best examples of humor pervading a work of the utmost seriousness of purpose is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress is not a funny book ; the humor is not tacked on as a moral is tacked on to a fable, nor does it appear by way of an interlude to relieve the tension of the mind. It is so deeply interfused, so a part and parcel of the religious teaching, that many readers overlook it altogether. One may read the book a dozen times without a smile, and after that he may recognize the touch of the born humorist on every page. Bunyan himself recognized the quality of his work : —
And some do say his head is in a cloud.
May well be guessed at by his wat’ry eyes.
Some things are of that nature as to make
One’s fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache.”
There speaks the real humorist; not the merry andrew laughing at his meaningless pranks, but one whose quick imagination is at play when his conscience is most overtasked. Even in the Valley of Humiliation, where the fierce Apollyon was wont to fright the pilgrims, they heard a boy singing cheerily, —
And Mr. Great Heart said: “ Do you hear him ? I dare say that boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of the herb called heart ’s-ease in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet.” It is a fine spirit that can find time, on such a strenuous pilgrimage, to listen to these wayside songs.
Take .the character sketch of Mr. Fearing: —
“Now as they walked together, the guide asked the old gentleman if he did not know one Mr. Fearing that came on a pilgrimage out of his parts ?
“ Honest. Yes. very well, said he. He was a man that had the root of the matter in him, but he was one of the most troublesome pilgrims that ever I met in all my days.
Great Heart. TV by, lie was always afraid lie should come short of whither he had a desire to go. Everything frightened him that he heard anybody speak of that had hut the least appearance of opposition in it. I hear that he lay roaring in the Slough of Despond for about a month together. . . . Well, after he had lain in the Slough of Despond a great while, as I have told you, one sunshine morning, I do not know how, he ventured and so got over ; but when he was over lie would scarce believe it. He had, I believe, a Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough he carried every where with him. . . . When he came to the Hill Difficulty he made no stick at that; nor did he much fear the lions ; for you must know his trouble was not about such things as those. . . . When he was come at Vanity Fair, I thought he would have fought with all the men at the fair. . . . He was a man of choice spirit though he kept himself very low.”
Poor Mr. Fearing ! We all have been made uncomfortable by him. But we love Bunyan for that touch about the lions, for we know it is true. Easy things go hard with Mr. Fearing ; but give him something difficult, like going up San Juan hill in the face of a withering fire, and Mr. Fearing can keep up with the best Rough Rider of them all. It takes Mr. Great Heart to do justice to Mr. Fearing. ,
It is the mission of a kindly humor to take a person full of foibles and weaknesses and suddenly to reveal his unsuspected nobleness. And there is considerable room for this kind of treatment; for there are a great many lovable people whose virtues are, not chronic, but sporadic. These virtues grow up, one knows not how, without visible means of support in the general character, and in defiance of moral science ; and yet it is a real pleasure to see them.
There are two very different kinds of humor. One we naturally describe as a flavor, the other as an atmosphere. We speak of the flavor of the essays of Charles Lamb. It is a discovery we make very much as Bobo made the discovery of roast pig. The mind of Charles Lamb was like a capacious kettle hanging from the crane in the fireplace ; all sorts of savory ingredients were thrown into it, and the whole was kept gently simmering, but never allowed to come to the boil.
Lamb says, “ C. declares that a man cannot have a good conscience who refuses apple dumpling, and I confess that I am of the same opinion.” I am inclined to pass that kind of judgment on the person who does not have a comfortable feeling of satisfaction in reading for the twentieth time The Complaint on the Decay of Beggars, and the Praise of Chimney Sweepers.
Charles Lamb is not jocose. He likes to theorize. Now, your prosaic theorist has a very laborious task. He tries to get all the facts under one formula. This is very ticklish business. It is like the game of Pigs in Clover. He gets all the facts but one into the inner circle. By a dexterous thrust he gets that one in, and the rest are out.
Lamb is a philosopher who does not have this trouble. He does not try to lit all the facts to one theory. That seems to him too economical, when theories are so cheap. With large-hearted generosity he provides a theory for every fact. He clothes the ragged exception with all the decent habiliments of a universal law. He picks up a little ragamuffin of a fact, and warms its heart and points out its great relations. He is not afraid of generalizing from insufficient data; he has the art of making a delightful summer out of a single swallow. When we turn to the essay on the Melancholy of Tailors, we do not think of asking for statistics. If one tailor was melancholy, that was enough to justify the generalization. When we find a tailor who is not melancholy, it will be time to make another theory to fit his case.
This is the charm of Lamb’s letter to the gentleman who inquired “ whether a person at the age of sixty-tliree. with no more proficiency than a tolerable knowledge of most of the characters of the English alphabet amounts to, by dint of persevering application and good masters, may hope to arrive within a presumable number of years at that degree of attainment that would entitle the possessor to the character of a learned man.” The answer is candid, serious, and exhaustive. No false hopes are encouraged. The difficulties are plainly set forth. “ However,” it is said, “ where all cannot be compassed, much may be accomplished; but I must not, in fairness, conceal from you that you have much to do. ” The question is thoroughly discussed as to whether it would be well for him to enter a primary school. “ You say that you stand in need of emulation ; that this incitement is nowhere to be had but in the public school. But have you considered the nature of the emulation belonging to those of tender years which you would come in competition with ? ”
Do you think these dissertations a waste of time ? If you do, it is sufficient evidence that you sadly need them ; for they are the antitoxin to counteract the bacillus of pedantry. Were I appointed by the school board to consider the applicants for teachers’ certificates, after they had passed the examination in the arts and sciences, I should subject them to a more rigid test. I should hand each candidate Lamb’s essays on The Old and New Schoolmaster and on Imperfect Sympathies. I should make him read them to himself, while I sat by and watched. If his countenance never relaxed, as if he were inwardly saying, “ That’s so,” I should withhold the certificate. I should not consider him a fit person to have charge of innocent youth.
Just as we naturally speak of the flavor of Charles Lamb, so we speak of the atmosphere of Cervantes or of Fielding. We are out of doors in the sunshine. All sorts of people are doing all sorts of things in all sorts of ways; and we are glad that we are there to see them. It is one of the
When the genius of God doth flow ;
The wind may alter twenty ways,
But a tempest cannot blow.”
Incidents which in themselves are unpleasant and irritating, characters which presented in just a little different way might be repulsive, add to our good cheer and satisfaction. The great thing is that we feel that we are among friends. No writer can produce this effect unless he is really moved by a friendly spirit.
Dickens is an example of the way in which a man’s humor is limited to the sphere of his sympathies. How genial is the atmosphere which surrounds Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Sam Weller! Whatever they do, they can never go wrong. But when we turn to the American Notes or to the American part of Martin Chuzzlewit, we are conscious of a difference. There is no atmosphere to relieve the dreariness. Mr. Jefferson Brick is not amusing ; he is odious. The people on the Ohio River steamer do not make us smile by their absurdities. Dickens lets us see how he despises the whole lot. He is fretful and peevish. He fails utterly to catch the humor of the frontier. He is unable to follow out the hint which Mark Tapley gave when, looking over the dreary waste of Eden on the Mississippi, he said apologetically, “ Eden ain’t all built yet.’’
To an Englishman that does not mean much, but to an American it is wonderfully appealing. Martin Chuzzlewit saw only the ignominious contrast between the prospectus and the present reality. Eden was a vulgar fraud, and that was the end of it. The American, with invincible optimism, looking upon the same scene, sees something more ! He smiles, perhaps, a little cynically at the incongruity between the prospectus and the present development, and then his fancy chuckles at what his fancy sees in the future. " Eden ain’t all built yet,” — that’s a fact. But just think what Eden will be when it is all built!
By the way, there is one particularly good thing about the atmosphere : it prevents our being hit by meteors. The meteor, when it strikes the upper air, usually ignites, and that is the end of it. There are some minds that have not enough atmosphere to protect them. They are pelted continually ; whatever is unpleasant comes to them in solid chunks. There are others more fortunately surrounded, who escape this impact. All that is seen is a flash in the upper air. They are none the worse for passing through a meteoric shower of petty misfortunes.
Our view of our fellow men is much pleasanter, and, I think, not less true, when we see their shortcomings through an atmosphere which softens some of their angularities. That fine old English divine. Dr. South, has a sermon in which he defends the thesis that it is a greater guilt to enjoy the contemplation of our neighbor’s sins than to commit the same sins in our own proper person. That seems to me very hard doctrine. We ought not to enjoy our own sins ; if we must not enjoy our neighbor’s, what can we enjoy ?
I am inclined to make a distinction. There are some faults which ought to be taken seriously at all times, but there are others which the neighbors should be allowed to enjoy, if they can. They belong to comedy, not to tragedy.
Shakespeare, in the sixty-sixth sonnet, in his enumeration of the things which make him tired of life, mingles the lesser with the greater evils : —
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone.”
Now, some of these things are distinctly tragical, but others may be described as moral incongruities. In certain moods they are intolerable, but Shakespeare did not always feel that way.
Suppose you had asked Shakespeare: “ Now, honor bright, do you always want to die to be saved from the sight of ‘needy nothing trimm’d in jollity’? Is that the way you feel when Justice Shallow slaps Sir John Falstaff on the back and says, ‘ Ha ! It was a merry night, Sir John ’ ? Are you really irritated beyond endurance because in this world, where many virtuous people have a hard time, such trifling fellows as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are trimmed in jollity and have their cakes and ale ? When folly puts on doctor-like airs, is it always disagreeable to you ? Would you have Dogberry put off the watch, to give place to some worthy man who could pass the civil service examination ? ”
I am afraid that you would find much of your sympathy misplaced. Shakespeare would turn to you as Touchstone did to Corin when he was asked how he liked the shepherd’s life : —
The Shakespearean philosophy of life has room in it for all sorts of people, and they are not all in their right places. There are amazing incongruities between station and character. It is not a very orderly world, and not at all like what we expected when we came into it, and yet we cannot take a very gloomy view of it. In respect to itself it is a good world, yet in respect that it is not finished it leaves much to be desired. Yet in respect that it leaves much to be desired and much to be done by us, it is perhaps better for us than if it were finished. In respect that many things happen that are opposed to our views of the eternal fitness of things, it is a perplexing world. Yet in respect that we have a happy faculty for enjoying the occasional unfitness of things, it is delightful. On the whole, we sum up with Touchstone, “ It suits my humor well.”
The contest of wits between the inventors of projectiles and the makers of armor plate seemed at one time settled by Harvey’s process for rendering the surface of the resisting steel so hard that the missiles hurled against it were shattered. The answer of the gunmakers was made by attaching a tip of softer metal to the shell. The soft tip received the first shock of the impact, and it was found that the penetrating power of the shell was increased enormously. The scientific explanation I have forgotten. I may, however, hazard an anthropomorphic explanation. If there is any human nature in the atoms of steel, I can see a great advantage in having the softer particles go before the hard, to have a momentary yielding before the inevitable crash. When they are hurtling through the air, tense and strained by the initial velocity till it seems that they must fly apart, it is a great thing to have a group of good-humored, happygo-lucky atoms in the front, who call out cheerily : “ Come along, boys ! Don’t take it too hard ; we ’re in for it,” And sure enough, before they have time to fall apart they are in. Those whose thoughts and purposes have most penetrated the hard prejudices of their time have learned this lesson.
Your unhumorous reformer, with painful intensity of moral self-consciousness, cries out: —
That ever I was born to set it right! ’ ’
He takes himself and his cause always with equal seriousness. He hurls himself against the accumulated wrongs and the invincible ignorance of the world, and there is a great crash ; but somehow, the world seems to survive the shock better than he does. It is a tough old world, and bears a great deal of pounding. Indeed, it has been pounded so much and so long that it has become quite solid.
Now and then, however, there comes along a reformer whose zeal is tipped with humor. His thought penetrates where another man’s is only shattered. That is what made Luther so effective. He struck heavy blows at the idols men adored. But he was such a genial, whole-souled iconoclast that those who were most shocked at him could not help liking him — between times. He would give a smashing blow at the idol, and then a warm hand grasp and a hearty “ God bless you ” to the idolater ; and then idolater and iconoclast would be down on the floor together, trying to see if there were any pieces of the idol worth saving. It was all so unexpected and so incongruous and so shocking, and yet so unaffectedly religious and so surprisingly the right thing to do, that the upshot of it all was that people went away saying, “ Dr. Martin is n’t such a bad fellow, after all.”
Luther’s Table Talk penetrated circles which were well protected against his theological treatises. Men were conscious of a good humor even in his invective ; for he usually gave them time to see the kindly twinkle in his eye before he knocked them down.
In order to engage Karlstadt in a controversy, Luther drew out a florin from his pocket and cried heartily, “ Take it! Attack me boldly ! ” Karlstadt took it, put it in his purse, and gave it to Luther. Luther then drank to his health. Then Karlstadt pledged Luther. Then Luther said, The more violent your attacks, the more I shall be delighted.” Then they gave each other their hands and parted. One can almost be reconciled to theological controversy, when it is conducted in a manner so truly sportsmanlike.
Luther had a way of characterizing a person in a sentence, that was much more effective than his labored vituperation (in which, it must be confessed, he was a master). Thus, speaking of the attitude of Erasmus, he said, “ Erasmus stands looking at creation like a calf at a new door.” It was very unjust to Erasmus, and yet the picture sticks in the mind; for it is such a perfect characterization of the kind of mind that we are all acquainted with, which looks at the marvels of creation with the wide-eyed gaze of bovine youthfulness, curious, not to know how that door came there, but only to know whether it leads to something to eat.
The humor of Luther suggests that of Abraham Lincoln. Both were men of the people, and their humor had a flavor of the soil. They were alike capable of deep dejection, but each found relief in spontaneous laughter. The surprise of the grave statesmen when Lincoln would preface a discussion with a homely anecdote of the frontier was of the same kind felt by the sixteenth-century theologians when Luther turned aside from his great arguments, which startled Europe, to tell a merry tale in ridicule of the pretensions of the monks.
If I were to speak of the humorist as a philosopher, some of the gravest of the philosophers would at once protest. Humor, they say, has no place in their philosophy ; and they are quite right. Indeed, it is doubtful if a humorist would ever make a good, systematic philosopher. He is a modest person. He is only a gleaner following the reapers ; but he manages to pick up a great many grains of wisdom which they overlook.
Dante pictures the sages of antiquity as forever walking on a verdant mead, “ with eyes slow and grave, and with great authority in their looks ; ” as if, in the other world, they were continually oppressed by the wisdom they had acquired in this. But I can imagine a gathering of philosophers in a different fashion. Gravely they have come, each bearing his ponderous volume, in which he has explained the universe and settled the destiny of mankind. Then, suddenly, in contrast with their theories, the reality is disclosed. The incorrigible pedants and dogmatists turn away in sullen disappointment; but from all true lovers of wisdom there arises a peal of mellow laughter, as each one realizes the enormous incongruity between what he knew and what he thought he knew.
The discovery that things are not always as they seem is one that some people make in this world. They get a glimpse of something that is going on behind the scenes, and their smile is very disconcerting to the sober spectators around them.
Sometimes it is the bitter smile of disillusion. Matthew Arnold wrote of Heine: —
Beholding the absurdity of men, —
Their vaunts, their feats, — let a sardonic smile,
For one short moment, wander o’er his lips.
That smile was Heine.”
But there is another kind of smile evoked by the incongruity between the appearance and the reality. It is the smile that comes when behind some mask that had affrighted us we recognize a familiar and friendly face.
The smile of Heine was not more characteristic than the smile of Emerson. Emerson’s was the smile, not of disillusion, but of recognition. Emerson’s philosophy was dissolved in humor. He was not less, but more of a humorist, because the incongruities in which he delighted were not of his own invention, but were involved in the very nature of things. They were the result, not of the play of fancy, but of the free play of reason. To his quick insight, the actual world was no more like the formal descriptions of the system makers than the successive attitudes of a galloping horse as caught by the camera are like the pose of the equestrian statue. His mind caught the instantaneous views of the world as it was continually dissolving and recombining before him. It was all very surprising, and he smiled as he saw how much better things turned out than might have been expected.
Endless dirges to decay.
That the high gods love tragedy;
For Saadi sat in the sun.
Lighted each transparent word.
' Eat thou the bread which men refuse ;
Flee from the goods which from thee flee ;
Seek nothing, — Fortune seeketh thee.
All the brags of plume and song.
A poet or a friend to find :
Behold, he watches at the door!
Behold his shadow on the floor! ’ ”
In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom says, “ I, Wisdom, dwell with Prudence.” But there is another member of the household. It is Humor, sister of serene Wisdom and of the heavenly Prudence. She does not often laugh, and when she does it is mostly at her sister Wisdom, who cannot long resist the infection. There is not one set smile upon her face, as if she contemplated an altogether amusing world. The smiles that come and go are shy, elusive things, but they cannot remain long in hiding.
Wisdom, from her high house, takes wide views, and Prudence peers anxiously into the future ; but gentle Humor loves to take short views ; she delights in homely things, and continually finds surprises in that which is most familiar. Wisdom goes on laborious journeys, and comes home bringing her treasures from afar ; and Humor matches them, every one, with what she has found in the dooryard.
Samuel M. Crothers.