TCS Daily

Taking Silliness Seriously

By Lee Harris - March 12, 2004 12:00 AM

After penning "Ten Reason to Hate Sean Hannity," I find an obligation to thank Mr. Hannity for being such an obviously nice person that my readers never really believed for a moment that anyone could invent one reason to hate him, let alone ten. But for those of you who thought that my piece was undignified and frankly silly, let me offer the following little essay in my defense.

Let me begin with an observation: It is good for us to have a sense of our own absurdity, and it is even better to remind ourselves of our own absurdity every so often by laughing at ourselves, and even by encouraging others to laugh at us as well.

Now what is so good about all of this?

First of all, it is a cure for what the English essayist William Bagehot has called "the bane of philosophy," namely pomposity; and this accounts for why Socrates made so many jokes at his own expense. For example, throughout Plato's dialogues he is constantly making jocular remarks about his own shortcomings -- he compares himself to a gadfly and to a torpedo fish; he harps on his pug ugliness, and confesses his girlish giddiness around good-looking boys. He mocks his own intellectual powers, and complains of his inability to follow other people's arguments, begging them to go back to the very beginning.

Scholars have a term for this characteristic of Socrates. They call it "Socratic irony," and, as scholars so often do, they assume that what Socrates is doing is precisely the kind of thing that they do themselves. Socrates, they say, is only pretending to be less wise than the person with whom he is carrying on a conversation, and all for the purpose of making the other party look even more stupid. It is a rhetorical trick, deliberately designed to stress the enormous gap between the wisdom of Socrates (read "the wisdom of the scholar") and the ignorance of Socrates' interlocutor (read "the ignorance of the average Joe.")

This is the reason many students come away from philosophy 101 courses hating Socrates. He reminds them of their professors. He is the superior jackass who sadistically enjoys baffling and showing up the student's lack of knowledge, just as the Socratic method once employed in law school involved the tormenting of law students over tricky questions.

All wrong -- completely and absolutely wrong.

Socrates' method had one and only one aim. He wanted to get other people to laugh at their own pretension to wisdom, just as Socrates scoffed at his. His self-mockery was not designed to heighten the contrast between his superiority and other people's inferiority, but to invite other people to see the folly of their claim to possess a higher truth than their fellow men -- just as Socrates did himself.

Recall that Socrates never picks on people who are merely going about their business. He may chat with them, and pursue a line of inquiry with them, but he never applies to them the full force of his dialectic powers the way he does with those men who publicly boast that they have found a higher truth -- men like the famous sophists Gorgias and Protagoras, so convinced of their superior insight that they are prepared to charge students a tidy sum to impart it. With men like this, Socrates can sometimes appear merciless; and yet we must never forget what Socrates is trying so manfully to achieve. In each case, Socrates' objective is to get these pompous jackasses to realize, in a sudden flash of insight, the absurdity of their arrogant pretensions.

This describes Socrates' celebrated dialectic method. He never argues from his own position -- he has none; but instead he takes the other guy's position, as it has been formulated in words, and then asks whether these words really represent the other guy's true position. Is the fellow saying what he really means to say, or have his words betrayed his original intuition?

Let me illustrate this with an example drawn from my own life.

Many years ago I had a conversation with a passing stranger who told me that a man could do whatever he put his mind to do. Now the original intuition behind this position was fairly evident -- it was the justifiable feeling that people who put their will into a project can often succeed beyond their wildest expectations. But did the words really capture this feeling? No, because when I asked jokingly if there were any exception to this rule, he told me quite categorically that, no, there were no exceptions. None at all, I asked; and again I was informed that a man could do anything he really put his mind to.

Okay -- what about leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, like Superman? That was possible -- a man just had to put his mind to it.

How about jumping over the Empire State Building? Yes, I was told with a straight face, that too was possible -- again, with the appropriate amount of determination.

So how about over the moon? I asked.

Here was the guy's last chance -- I certainly had no interest in moving on to other more distant celestial bodies, like Alpha Centauri. But did he take the chance offered? Did he break in a big smile and slap me on my back and roar with laughter at the ridiculous image I had conjured up? No, without the least hint of embarrassment, he nodded in the affirmative, and said, "Yes, a man can even jump over the moon if he really puts his mind to it."

Now here we have, in a nutshell, the logic displayed by all forms of fanaticism, political, religious, or otherwise. They all start out with something that is in itself quite plausible or even self-evident, like the remark about what a man can do if he sets his mind to do it; but then they take this valid idea and they begin to push it further and further until what is being affirmed is something every bit as ridiculous as a man jumping over the moon. If a pinch of salt adds flavor to a stew, just imagine what dumping in a whole box will do.

It is not logic that keeps us from pushing our original intuitions to the point of absurdity -- in fact, more often than not it is logic that is doing the pushing for us. If equality is a good thing, then making people equal is a good thing. If making people equal is a good thing, then we must restrain those who want to be superior. And if restraining those who want to be superior is good, then any means by which we can achieve this end is laudable. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to the Gulag, like the road to Auschwitz, was paved with syllogisms.

But if logic cannot save us, what can?

Well, the same thing that could have saved the passing stranger from trying to jump over the moon -- namely, laughter, loud and sustained laughter.

But where does this capacity for laughing at ourselves come from. And if it isn't already there, then how do you teach it?

It is surprisingly easy to get people to laugh at other people; and many of us first display in our crib an aptitude for laughing at others that we zealously cherish until our dying day. But laughing at yourself -- How do you come by that ability?

A simple smile won't do, nor will a mild chuckle, or even a sly grin -- to be valid self-laughter it must be in shooting distance of a guffaw, or even an outright belly laugh. Here as so often, intensity is decisive. If we merely smiled at our foibles or chuckled over our failings, we would probably never see much reason for fixing them. It is only when we catch ourselves being completely ridiculous that self-laughter has any curative power.

But this answer simply points us down a new trail. How do we acquire the capacity to tell when we are being ridiculous if we have not first acquired a sense of the silly? Without a sense of the silly we might all do any number of things everyday that were utterly ridiculous, and even go so far as to notice that they were ridiculous, but still not profit from this insight.

This is a common place of psychology. People seek treatment because they repeatedly catch themselves doing ridiculous things, like exhibiting themselves or waking up drunk in a stranger's bed, and they are tormented by what they have done; often so much so that the only relief that they can get is to rush out and do it all over again.

Now that is the sort of behavior for which the sense of silliness can often be helpful. For example, if the man is about to exhibit himself to the lady's choir of the local First Baptist Church, he need only think to himself, "My God, how silly I'm going to look," and he would at once button up his trench coat and high tail it home. And if a sense of silliness works that well for his problem, think what it could do for yours.

We all achieve a common humanity in our silliness. We all recognize that we cannot exempt ourselves from the stern law that compels us all to act foolishly and absurdly from time to time, even when we are trying very hard not to. The best we can expect of ourselves is that when our moment to be ridiculous comes we will recognize our silliness -- if not at the exact moment of its commission, within a few seconds of it.

In which case, we would all be wise to cultivate our own sense of our own absurdity, even if this involves occasionally doing something silly just for the sake of its pure silliness.

Your turn.

Lee Harris recently wrote for TCS about repressing 9/11.


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