God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen!
The right amount of merriment makes us pleasant and fit for friendship
Commands often raise my hackles. This one, though, is welcome. I’m for it!
But not everyone is. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens reports that “at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’ Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror.” Scrooge, of course, was a mess. He was a Type A personality. He was greedy and “socially isolated.” Plus, he was a secularist to the bone, if not its marrow.
Aristotle points us in a different direction. He’d begin with a pair of questions. How much rest, and how much merriment? His answer: a moderate amount of both. Too little, and we are cranky and grim. Too much, and we become louts and buffoons. So what if we find the right balance? Then we will be pleasant folks and well fit for friendship.
For his part, St. Thomas Aquinas sees virtue in relaxing and playing games. (Any room for kissing Santa under the mistletoe?) Having given Aristotle his due, he cites St. Augustine. “Spare yourself at times. It becomes a wise man…to relax from the high pressure of his attention to work.” We are decidedly finite. We need physical rest. So, too, when we are long and intensely engaged in exercising our reason, we become “soul-wearied.” When that happens, it’s time, in our play and humor, to seek the “soul’s delight.” If we do not do so, we become a burden to others.
In reading what scholars and saints teach about making merry, two different lines of argument open up. The first view, and the more emphasized, is that we ought to be merry in order to find relief from our cares and, well, get on with life. (Similarly, one might say, we ought to rest in order to be more awake.) The second view, which is compatible with the first, is that play and merriment are goods in themselves. To be sure, as basic goods they are not separate from the person. Rather, they are constituents of our flourishing. That’s why it makes eminent sense to connect them with the “soul’s delight.”
This second view, that play and merriment are good in themselves, helps explain G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” How so? If we do something only for its instrumental worth, and we do it badly, we don’t achieve our real goal. But if what we do is worth doing in itself, for its intrinsic worth, and we do it badly, we can still achieve our goal. (That’s why I chafe against my wife’s dictum that I not sing in church. I plan to sing, loudly and off-key, “For Jesus Christ our Savior was born upon this day.”)
Indeed, Chesterton also makes an intriguing point about merriment that bears reflection. “[Christ] never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet he restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.”
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