Book 04
Chapter 08
We should take part in the back-and-forth of social intercourse in a way that is good and appropriate.

Now, in life we cannot always be working: that is not healthy for us. What is healthy for us is to now and again gather together and share in amusement and entertainment (i.e. throw a party or go out for food or for a drink or to a festival). During these times it is good to joke around and have a good laugh. But we also have to take care and not go so far as to make an ass or fool of ourselves. So once again, we have some good which we are seeking (i.e. a good time with our fellows), and there is a right way to go, which people with the virtue take, and two wrong directions to go to, two vices; and the virtue will be closer to one of the vices and further from the others. To understand the virtues and the vices, let us look at the kind of person that has each, and describe how they act, their behavior.

First up is the vice of excess: who has the vice of excess and what are they like? It is the buffoon. This kind of person tries so hard to get people to laugh that they will do anything, even things which they should not do. They set themselves low or do things which are too lewd or they poke fun at other people in a way that goes too far and is hurtful.

On the side of deficiency, we have the boor. This person sits stone-faced while everyone else is smiling and laughing, and so far from bringing up the spirits of everyone and taking part in the good time, they rather bring things down. The boor does the total opposite of the buffoon, and yet also goes wrong.

At the mean, we have the ready-witted person. As a boxer or gymnast is with their body, so the ready-witted person is with their mind. This is the type of person that you can give a hard time to, but you do so in jest, and so they are going to take it in the right way, and then give it right back to you in the same good spirit. Or they will come up with something in reaction to what just happened, something which is quick, surprising, and tremendously funny, to the delight of everyone. This is a person everyone wants to have around, because they make life fun.

As it turns out, the ready-witted person is closer to the vice of buffoonery than boorishness is. Even buffoons are sometimes said to be witty because they can sometimes say things that get a good laugh and lift everyone's spirits. But aside from that, a buffoon is still very different and very much opposed to a person of wit, as we have said.

Now, what you do not say can matter as much as what you do say, and so tact is part of the mean, along with a ready wit. Someone with tact can tell the difference between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Someone with tact and a ready-wit does not avoid telling jokes, but rather they tell jokes that people want to hear and they do not make them feel embarrassed or disgusted or angry. You can see the in the old and new [Classical Grecian] comedies. The older comedies included things like foul language, and that was amusing at that time, but the newer comedies do not have that so much, but rather they get laughs by using innuendos. Innuendos can be very witty and funny, but because they are indirect, they are also a more tactful way to get a laugh than something like foul language is. With innuendo, people who may be offended have an out: they can pretend to not understand rather than feeling like they have to get angry. That is not possible with jokes which are very pointed and direct.

But how can we define the virtue of ready-wit as being held by a person who tells good jokes and does not give offense? After all, different people laugh at or take offense at different things. And what's more, the law forbids slander and jests may be taken as a kind of slander. But, there does exist a virtue of ready wit, and the virtuous do right, so here we are going to have to say that, so far from breaking the law, such a virtuous person must rather be a law unto themselves. But what kind of law? Well, they are not going to dish out what they cannot take, so you could say that they follow the Golden Rule here. Remember also how we said there is a vice of bad temper: people who take things in the wrong way and overreact. Well, if that is truly a vice (which it is), then we cannot say that the person who made the light-hearted joke is the one that is wrong. And here we say that the virtuous person has a good heart and does not make jokes with an ill will. Others ought to know well enough the virtue and good heart of such a person, and it is as much on them to exercise good temper and not take things too seriously and combine the vice of bad temper with that of boorishness.

Now the buffoon, on the other hand, is a slave to his sense of humor, and will say or do anything if he thinks it will get a laugh, no matter if it is appropriate or not. And, again, the boor is either useless at gatherings, because they make no effort, or they drag down peoples' spirits with complaining and sour faces. But relaxation and amusement are necessary for both the health of the society and the spirits of the individuals.

And here we wrap up the set of three virtues that have to do with social intercourse, or exchanges of words and deeds.


« index »

« subscribe »

« home »