Sense and Nonsense: The Truest Philosophy

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My brother-in-law, Jerry Vertin, in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, has a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan records. While I visited this summer, I was listening to the Yeoman of the Guard, which came with a printed libretto. In Act I, I came across the following passage of Jack Point:

My masters, I pray you bear with us, and we will satisfy you, for we are merry folk who would make all as merry as ourselves. For, look you, there is humour in all things, and the truest philosophy is that which teaches us to find it and to make the most of it.

My sister, who plays the piano and sings quite well, fortunately did not ask me to sing this for her; but it remains, in my mind, a remarkable passage — the search for the “truest philosophy.”

That humor is more metaphysical than tragedy, I have never had any doubt. Those are not perceptive who bitterly complain against the existence of the Deity on the grounds that He allows sorrow and evil in the world. The real problem, as Jack Point hinted, is that He allows laughter. And the proper word is, indeed, “allows,” every bit as much as “allow” in the case of evil and sorrow. For laughter, if it be not ours, cannot be at all.

It is a commonplace that few great philosophers have ever treated the topic of laughter well. Bergson had something on it, I believe, and, of course, Aristotle defined us as beings who “laugh” — or maybe, he meant, beings who are funny. How often, in fact, have we been where something is funny and nobody laughed? However, Jack Point, in the Yeoman of the Guard, actually said that the “truest philosophy” was not so much humor, as that philosophy which teaches us to find it.

A couple of years ago in a used book store on Clement Street in San Francisco, I bought a 1946 edition of Louis Untermeyer’s A Treasury of Laughter. (I think I paid a dollar for it.) In it, there was a card which read, “Dear Reader, It’s a great pleasure to send you the accompanying volume, as a book-dividend, to which you are entitled by reason of your recent purchases of two Book-of-the-Month Club selections. We hope that you and your family will enjoy it. (Signed) Harry Sherman, President.” It seems a pity not to thank Harry Sherman for this little gift, even though it was not meant for me. The original owner left no mark in this book, which makes me wonder whether anyone ever read it before. Somehow, I like used books with signs in them that somebody has previously read them, if only a penciled-in “nonsense” after some profound passage.

In his introduction, Untermeyer wrote that “few books point out that man’s way of laughing, as well as his reasons for laughter, change from generation to generation. The very word ‘humor’ has meant different things to different centuries. In the sixteenth century, for example, the prime meaning of humor was ‘a disorder of the blood’; the Greeks, according to Hippocrates, believed the human body contained four ‘humors’: namely, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.” Perhaps some Greek, like Aristotle, could explain how we came from yellow bile to Bob Hope.

One of the selections in the book was from Finley Peter Dunne, called “Alcohol as Food.” Mr. Dooley, in response to Hennessey’s argument that alcohol was indeed food, put it this way, with benefit of clergy:

No whisky ain’t food. I think better iv it thin that. I wudden’t insult it be placin’ it on th’ same low plane as a lobster salad. Father Kelly puts it r-right, and years go by without him lookin’ on it even at Hallowe’en. “Whisky,” he says, is called th’ divvle, because,” he says, “’tis wan iv th’ fallen angels,” he says. “It ought to be th’ reward iv action, not th’ cause iv it,” he says. “It’s f’r the end iv th’ day, not th’ beginnin,” he says. “Hot whisky is good f’r a cold heart, an’ no whisky’s good f’r a hot head,” he says.

I had never realized that whisky was one of the “fallen angels,” but you learn something new every day. And the notion that “whisky ought to be the reward of action, not the cause of it,” is mindful of Chesterton’s remark that we should thank the Lord for good red wine by not drinking too much of it.

But this is a metaphysical comment, not one on temperance, though there is something metaphysical about moderation too. The truest philosophy — this involves an understanding of the world in which there is abundance, freedom, risk, vice, endings and beginnings.

There was a young lady from Guam

Who observed, “The Pacific’s so calm

That there can’t be a shark.

I’ll just swim for a lark.”

Let’s now sing the Twenty-Third Psalm.

Whiskey, the divvle, the lady from Guam, black bile, the Lord Is My Shepherd — for we are merry folk who would make all as merry as ourselves. From cold hearts and hot heads, deliver us, O Lord.

By

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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