« PreviousContinue »
hearts to the sympathy. Such is the spirit found in those who have cast off the bonds of the lower earthly affections, without having risen as yet into the freedom of heavenly love, in those who have stopt short in the state of transition between the two lives, like so many skeletons, stripped of their earthly, and not yet clothed with a heavenly body. It is the spirit of Stoicism, for instance, in philosophy, and of vulgar Calvinism, which in so many things answers to Stoicism, in religion. They who feel the harm they have received from worldly pleasures are prone at first to quarrel with pleasure of every kind altogether: and it is one of the strange perversities of our self-will to entertain anger, instead of pity, toward those whom we fancy judge or act less wisely than ourselves. This, however, is only while the scaffolding is still standing around the edifice of their Christian life, so that they cannot see clearly out of the windows, and their view is broken up into disjointed parts. When the scaffolding is removed, and they look abroad without hinderance, they are readier than any to delight in all the beauty and true pleasure around them. They feel that it is their blessed calling, not only to rejoice always themselves, but likewise to rejoice with all who do rejoice in innocence of heart. They feel that this must be wellpleasing to Him who has filled his universe with everbubbling springs of gladness; so that, whithersoever we turn our eyes, through earth and sky as well as sea, we behold the åvýpionov yélaoua of Nature. On the other hand, it is the harshness of an irreligious temper, clothing itself in religious zeal, and not seldom exhibiting symptoms of mental disorganization, that looks scowlingly on every indication of happiness and mirth.
Moreover, there is a large class of people who deem the business of life far too weighty and momentous to be made light of; who would leave merriment to children, and laughter to idiots; and who hold that a joke would be as
much out of place on their lips as on a gravestone or in a ledger. Wit and Wisdom being sisters, not only are they afraid of being indicted for bigamy were they to wed them both ; but they shudder at such a union as incestuous. So, to keep clear of temptation, and to preserve their faith where they have plighted it, they turn the younger out of doors; and if they see or hear of anybody taking her in, they are positive he can know nothing of the elder. They would not be witty for the world. Now to escape being so is not very difficult for those whom Nature has so favored that Wit with them is always at zero, or below it. And as to their Wisdom, since they are careful never to overfeed her, she jogs leisurely along the turnpike-road, with lank and meagre carcass, displaying all her bones, and never getting out of her own dust. She feels no inclination to be frisky, but, if a coach or a wagon passes her, is glad, like her rider, to run behind a thing so big. Now all these people take grievous offence, if any one comes near them better mounted; and they are in a tremor lest the neighing and snorting and prancing should be contagious.
Surely, however, ridicule implies contempt: and so the feeling must be condemnable, subversive of gentleness, incompatible with kindness ?
Not necessarily so, or universally: far from it. The word ridicule, it is true, has a narrow, one-sided meaning. From our proneness to mix up personal feelings with those which are more purely objective and intellectual, we have in great measure restricted the meaning of ridicule, which would properly extend over the whole region of the ridiculous, the laughable, where we may disport ourselves innocently without any evil emotion; and we have narrowed it so that in common usage it mostly corresponds to derision, which does indeed involve personal and offensive feelings. As the great business of Wisdom in her speculative office is to detect and reveal the hidden harmonies of things, those
harmonies which are the sources and the overflowing emanations of Law, the dealings of Wit on the other hand are with incongruities. And it is the perception of incongruity, flashing upon us, when unaccompanied, as Aristotle observes (Poet. c. v.), by pain, or by any predominant moral disgust, that provokes laughter, and excites the feeling of the ridiculous. But it no more follows that the perception of such an incongruity must breed or foster haughtiness or disdain, than that the perception of anything else that may be erroneous or wrong should do so. You might as well argue, that a man must be proud and scornful, because he sees that there is such a thing as sin, or such a thing as folly in the world. Yet, unless we blind our eyes, and gag our ears, and hoodwink our minds, we shall seldom pass through a day, without having some form of evil brought in one way or other before us. Besides, the perception of incongruity may exist, and may awaken laughter, without the slightest reprobation of the object laughed at. We laugh at a pun, surely without a shade of contempt either for the words punned upon or for the punster: and if a very bad pun the next best thing to a very good one, this is not from its flattering any feeling of superiority in us, but because the incongruity is broader and more glaring. Nor, when we laugh at a droll combination of imagery, do we feel any contempt, but often admiration, at the ingenuity shown in it, and an almost affectionate thankfulness toward the person by whom we have been amused, such as is rarely excited by any other display of intellectual power; as those who have ever enjoyed the delight of Professor Sedgwick's society will bear witness.
It is true, an exclusive attention to the ridiculous side of things is hurtful to the character, and destructive of earnestness and gravity. But no less mischievous is it to fix our attention exclusively, or even mainly, on the vices and other follies of mankind. Such contemplations, unless counter
acted by wholesomer thoughts, harden or rot the heart, deaden the moral principle, and make us hopeless and reckless. The objects toward which we should turn our minds habitually, are those which are great and good and pure, the throne of Virtue, and she who sits upon it, the majesty of Truth, the beauty of Holiness. This is the spiritual sky through which we should strive to mount, “ springing from crystal step to crystal step," and bathing our souls in its living, life-giving ether. These are the thoughts by which we should whet and polish our swords for the warfare against evil, that the vapors of the earth may not rust them. But in a warfare against evil, under one or other of its forms, we are all of us called to engage: and it is a childish dream to fancy that we can walk about among mankind without perpetual necessity of remarking that the world is full of many worse incongruities, beside those which make us laugh. Nor do I deny that a laugher may often be a scoffer and
Some jesters are fools of a worse breed than those who used to wear the cap. Sneering is commonly found along with a bitter, splenetic misanthropy : or it may be a man's mockery at his own hollow heart, venting itself in mockery at others. Cruelty will try to season, or to palliate its atrocities by derision. The hyena grins in its den ; most wild beasts over their prey. But, though a certain kind of wit, like other intellectual gifts, may coexist with moral depravity, there has often been a playfulness in the best and greatest men, — in Phocion, in Socrates, in Luther, in Sir Thomas More, which, as it were, adds a bloom to the severer graces of their character, shining forth with amaranthine brightness when storms assail them, and springing up in fresh blossoms under the axe of the executioner. How much is our affection for Hector increased by his tossing his boy in his arms, and laughing at his childish fears! Smiles are the language of love: they