The University Bookman


Winter 2015

On Merriment

James V. Schall, S. J.

On Saturday, 26 May 1759, Samuel Johnson wrote an untitled essay in The Idler. It begins: “Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought.” This reminded me of hearing a joke for the second time, one told by someone else, but one you knew by heart. It is true that you might still laugh, as much humor arises from the way the pleasantry is told, not just the joke itself. But if you know the joke, it cannot be as funny as when you do not know it but “get it” when you do. “He that has anticipated the conversation of a wit, will wonder to what prejudice he owes his reputation,” as Johnson later put it.

This “pleasure” passage reminded me of something that Josef Pieper once wrote. “Joy” is always a “by-product.” We do not set out to find “joy.” We must set out to do what causes joy, namely, what is right, what is true. We even pursue our vices for the good that is in them, distorted as it may be. Joy is a result, not a direct object, of right choice. It is true that we all prefer to be joyful rather than sad. But it is most likely that, if we set out to be joyful and not rightly to do the work at hand, we will end up sad.

“Our brightest blazes of gladness,” Johnson tells us, “are kindled by unexpected sparks.” Needless to say, as Schall has just published a book entitled, The Classical Moment: Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures, the question can be asked: “Are you not saying that pleasure will come from knowledge and yet be unexpected?”

Aristotle implied that a pleasure is intrinsic to knowing. But it is not the knowing itself. The pleasure only comes indirectly. It only comes when we seek and find the truth of things. It is indeed a “by-product.” While it is the “truth that makes us free,” it is its surprise that makes us glad. The passage from not knowing to knowing is often a long one. But the passage from knowing the truth to being elated by it is instantaneous, again as Aristotle implied.

“Nothing is more hopeless,” Johnson continued, “than a scheme of merriment.” I recall a phenomenon from somewhere called “organized joy.” It meant that something artificial, unfunny, was found when we deliberately, meticulously set out to make everyone laugh. We cringe when we realize that the loud laughter we hear on television is often “canned,” often artificially injected. Laugher can indeed be infectious. But we always ask, “But what are they laughing at?”

Yet is not this very endeavor to cause laughter what the entertainment business thinks it is doing? No doubt it is. And this is probably why it is closer to “bread and circuses” than it is to merriment, to true joy. C. S. Lewis talked of being “surprised by joy,” surprised that reality can fill us with gladness. None the less, we can laugh at what “ain’t funny,” as Molly McGee used to tell Fibber. The Psalms speak of the Lord laughing to “scorn” those who delight in what is evil.

“Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expressed is already destroyed.” Humor has to do with seeing the relation in things. But its real source is seeing, at the same time, how our words and ideas could mean something else besides their present contextual meaning. This is why Aristotle thought that our capacity to see the humor of things was a sign of intelligence. For to see the relation of things to each other is also to see how other unexpected relations might also be meant, but, if they were, the whole meaning would be absurd.

The main theme in the latter half of Johnson’s short essay on merriment reverts to the implication of intending to be merry. When we set out to do so, we quickly find out, in carrying out our intentions, that all sorts of things go wrong.

A man plans a pleasant journey. Once on his way, however, the road is dusty and the air sultry. He longs for dinner. But the inn he stops at is crowded. His order is “neglected.” Finally, he is left to devour “in haste what the cook has spoiled.” He looks for a better inn. He finds a more “commodious house” but “the best is always worse than he has expected.”

Finally, the man returns to his native city. He expects his old school mates will welcome him and be ready to converse with him. But alas, the first man he looks up barely recognizes his name till he tells him what it is.

“It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them.” And this fact is really the best thing that could happen to us. The reality of the person or place we meet or visit is little like the person or place that we expected. If every person and place were exactly as we imagined them to be, we would not need to meet anyone at all. We would already know them. Each man or woman is embodied and en-spirited differently, even while being this man or this woman. This mystery in the other is the beginning of our glory and gladness. We can only be comforted by the realization that we did not create the world.

“Where,” we might ask, “are these reflections of Johnson on wit and merriment leading us?” Surprisingly, in following this line of thought, they lead us to hope. How so? Here is how Johnson concluded his essay in 1759: “Yet, it is necessary to hope, tho’ hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction.”

That passage is truly remarkable. The loss of hope is the most dreadful thing we can experience as human beings. Thus, “hope itself is happiness.” Without it, we are left with “extinction.” We are left with our own imagination that thinks it pictures others exactly as they are but leaves no room for the real person we encounter to enter our souls. Hope implies the laughter and merriment that exist when we see relations we did not anticipate, when we see that the world still makes sense when things go wrong.

We set out to enjoy ourselves and everything goes wrong. Ultimately, we have to laugh at ourselves for ever thinking that our plans “had” to go our way. Hope is happiness. It finally means that a better way exists than our way and it keeps breaking into our world. Joy is a “by-product.” It arrives when we realize that, in the order of things, the relation of what is right and what is true were intended to surprise us. This surprise, again, is joy, merriment.

“Pleasure is seldom found where it is sought.” The conclusion is not that there is no pleasure, but that we look for it in the wrong places. “Hope itself is happiness.” We cannot but be delighted that nothing that we can concoct by ourselves can really satisfy us, really give us the merriment that does not cease because its source is the surprise that we are not gods.  

Posted: February 22, 2015 in On Letters and Essays.

Did you see this one? Fr. Schall

On the Human Art of Cooking
James V. Schall, S.J.
Summer 2017

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk


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