From Comedy to Cosmos

Did you know G.K. Chesterton wrote the entry for 'Humor' in the 1928 Encyclopedia Britannica?



Groucho Marx famously commented, “I wouldn’t join any club that would let me in.” I share this sentiment. But then there’s Miss Elayne’s “Simply for Laughs” online group. Count me in!

The talent is top-notch. Here’s Miss Sheila’s latest: Seems there are a couple of factory workers. One tells the other she can get the boss to give her the day off. Show me, he says. So she hangs from a rafter! When the boss asks what’s up, she says she’s a light bulb. The boss tells her she’s “stressed” and should take the day off. Her buddy walks out with her. The boss asks him where he’s going. “Can’t work in the dark,” he answers.

My (purloined) jokes are shorter, more personal. I shared that for the New Year I’d almost resolved to quit all my bad habits. Almost, that is, but then—golly—I remembered that no one likes a quitter. (Not bad for a “dad joke,” is it?)

Since two jokes are my limit, and one might be yours, it’s time to get serious. Would you believe, gentle reader, that G.K. Chesterton wrote the entry for “Humor” in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1928)? After carefully and at some length distinguishing humor from wit, and nonsense from both, he catches himself and issues a warning: “it is the greatest incongruity of all to be serious about humor, [and] it is the worst sort of pomposity to be monotonously proud of humor; for it is itself the chief antidote to pride.”

As it happens, Chesterton himself had been chastised for treating the serious things of life with frivolity. A certain Mr. McCabe said that doing so risked undermining ideals that they both shared. In reply Chesterton wrote that “if Mr. McCabe asks me why I import frivolity into a discussion of the nature of man, I answer, because frivolity is a part of the nature of man… If he objects to my treating of life riotously, I reply that life is a riot.” To this he added, “About the whole cosmos there is a tense and secret festivity—like preparations for Guy Fawkes’ day. Eternity is the eve of something. I never look up at the stars without feeling that they are the fires of a schoolboy’s rocket, fixed in their everlasting fall.”

Unlike the stars, however, we human beings are free, and we would not be so unless we were rational. So it is that we can choose to fire rockets if not yet at the stars at least to the moon and even “over the moon.”

Because we are free and rational, we are each capax Dei, that is, we are capable of engaging in a dialogue with our Creator. Indeed, our freedom and rationality are, as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, participations in God’s own and unique freedom and intelligence.

Such a dialogue is open to play. St. Gregory Nazianzen, writing as a poet, limned “For the Logos on high plays, / stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills / into shapes of every kind.” Play, as we know, is open to humor and the laughter it brings. So it is that our Creator’s play opens the way to the myriad forms of Christian merriment.

The merriment, moreover, isn’t restricted to a comedy club. Like grace itself, it’s freely given and seeks to be at play in every day of our lives. Let our sorrows, when they come, be fittingly finite.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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