Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Crude Humor - The Instructor on laughter

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series. You may also want to read the introduction to Book 2 of The Instructor as it give advice on how to understand Clement and his writings.
"People who are imitators of ludicrous sensations, or rather of such as deserve derision,are to be driven from our polity." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 5)
It was Clement's belief that, as believers and children of God, we were called to live well ordered lives with all moderation and temperance. All who would live otherwise had no part in the church of Christ. This is not to say that we should not continue to love them and to reach out to them with the message of Christ, but simply that, because of their chosen behavior, they had chose for themselves a lifestyle that was not in keeping with, and congruent with, those who were seeking to live lives worthy of their upward call and their association together as the church. This rule Clement applied to all aspects of life, including humor and laughter.
"For since all forms of speech flow from mind and manners, ludicrous expressions could not be uttered, did they not proceed from ludicrous practices... For speech is the fruit of the mind. If, then, wags are to be ejected from our society, we ourselves must by no manner of means be allowed to stir up laughter. For it were absurd to be found imitators of things of which we are prohibited to be listeners; and still more absurd for a man to set about making himself a laughing-stock, that is, the butt of insult and derision... Wherefore we ought never of our own accord to assume a ludicrous character.. It is therefore disgraceful to set one’s self to do this; since the conversation of wags of this description is not fit for our ears, inasmuch as by the very expressions used it familiarizes us with shameful actions." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 5)
Clement is not speaking of those who maintain a good since of humor but of those whose "humor" dips down into what is crude, crass, demeaning, and disgraceful. Such humor is not funny but only befitting of those whose since of reason has already been overcome by the rudeness and filthiness of their hearts. For, just like speech, humor is an expression of the heart; either good or bad. Jesus came to conform us into His own image, why, therefore, should we joke about, laugh about, and mimic in a mocking way speech and behavior that is offensive to God and the very antithesis of His nature? Such behavior is fitting for those who do not know Him but not for those whose aim it is is to be like Him.
"Pleasantry is allowable, not waggery. Besides, even laughter must be kept in check; for when given vent to in the right manner it indicates orderliness, but when it issues differently it shows a want of restraint. For, in a word, whatever things are natural to men we must not eradicate from them, but rather impose on them limits and suitable times. For man is not to laugh on all occasions because he is a laughing animal, any more than the horse neighs on all occasions because he is a neighing animal. But as rational beings, we are to regulate ourselves suitably, harmoniously relaxing the austerity and over-tension of our serious pursuits, not inharmoniously breaking them up altogether." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 5)
Waggery is best defined as roguish, mischievous, and unprincipled behavior. Clement is not condemning all humor and lightness of life, in fact there is a place for the relaxation from our more serious pursuits, a relaxation that serves to melt away the tensions of the day, but we must not allow our merriment to proceed into excess. Nothing that is natural to us is unlawful, but all things must be held in check.
"For the seemly relaxation of the countenance in a harmonious manner—as of a musical instrument—is called a smile. So also is laughter on the face of well-regulated men termed. But the discordant relaxation of countenance in the case of women is called a giggle, and is meretricious laughter; in the case of men, a guffaw, and is savage and insulting laughter. 'A fool raises his voice in laughter,' says the Scripture; but a clever man smiles almost imperceptibly. The clever man in this case he calls wise, inasmuch as he is differently affected from the fool. But, on the other hand, one needs not be gloomy, only grave. For I certainly prefer a man to smile who has a stern countenance than the reverse; for so his laughter will be less apt to become the object of ridicule." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 5)
Its not that Clement is against laughter, but he does caution us against letting it go too far to where we laugh at what is crude and base or engender laughter by imitating such things. When he speaks of a women's "giggle" he is speaking of meretricious laughter. That which is meretricious possesses false beauty and is done in the manor of prostitutes. Clement is warning women to not let their behavior imitate that of a prostitute, or anyone else who has chosen a life separated from God. However, laughter, in its proper place, not only serve to remove the stress of the day but also make a person appear more affable then they otherwise may seem.
"Smiling even requires to be made the subject of discipline. If it is at what is disgraceful, we ought to blush rather than smile, lest we seem to take pleasure in it by sympathy; if at what is painful, it is fitting to look sad rather than to seem pleased. For to do the former is a sign of rational human thought; the other infers suspicion of cruelty. We are not to laugh perpetually, for that is going beyond bounds; nor in the presence of elderly persons, or others worthy of respect, unless they indulge in pleasantry for our amusement. Nor are we to laugh before all and sundry, nor in every place, nor to every one, nor about everything... We must consider, too, how consequently freedom of speech leads impropriety on to filthy speaking. 'And he uttered a word which had been better unsaid.'" (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 5)
One of the hardest things to master is when, in the company of those who do not share the same morals as you, a group laughs at what is base and crude not to laugh yourself and join in their waggery. Not to do so is a matter of discipline and something we should work towards, lest our inappropriate laughter may be seen by some as tacit approval for their behavior and the things they laugh at. In the end, every area of our lives aught to be subject to discipline lest, in searching out the limits of our freedom, we find our selves in error.

David Robison

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