The Truly Risible Man

Gilbert Keith Chesterton mightily opposed the error in sensibility that would sunder mind and heart. Man is separated from the hyena by true laughter,and Chesterton showed himself to be a man. To paraphrase Saint Thomas: it is not the intellect that laughs, nor the bodily faculties, but the whole man laughs in both. And man is created in the image and likeness of God. NEXT

Toward the conclusion of A Man Called Thursday, God reveals himself as the poser of riddles, as at the close of the book of Job. He is a father playing hide-and-seek with his children. Syme, the man called Thursday, "remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied to it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making mysterious jokes. Sunday had told them they would understand him when they understood the stars. He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill."


Similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea (ps. 113) G.K. Chesterton showed the depth of passion that swirled beneath the dialectic of the Dumb Ox. As the great red spot of Jupiter arises ebullient out of the mightest currents in the solar system, so one senses that what Saint Thomas wrote is a bubbling over of an interior life touching upon and drawing upon the infinite. And so, when asked how Thomas could be canonized in the absence of any miracles, the Pope replied "Quot articuli, tot miracula" there are as many miracles as there are articles in the Summa. NEXT

Likewise, great passions bubble over in G.K's humor. I recall the saying of our Lord he who is thirsty, let him come to me and drink; as it says in scripture, streams of living water shall flow from his belly. Contrast the ebullience of Chesterton with the monotone of his materialist, determinist opponents. He was taken to task for his frivolity. But for Chesterton, the serious and the funny are not opposed. Men only joke about what is of great importance to them: "The most grave and dreadful things in the world are the oldest jokes in the world being married, being hanged." (McCabe and the Divine Frivolity in Heretics.) NEXT

McLuhan repeats the refrain: "I only joke when I am serious." We cannot take seriously the attitude of being dead serious, the seriousness with which the materialist treats his mental constructs. Logic is the health of the mind, but there is an abuse of logic that has all the gravity of a corpse, logic or reason falsely so-called, and it is more madness than logic. Of this Gilbert Keith writes: "The poet wants to get his head into the clouds. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits."(The Maniac in Orthodoxy). NEXT

The world bequeathed by Newton was a clockwork where everything, from the rising of the moon down to the tear that burgeons and drops then like the sword of Damocles from a maiden's cheek, follows from previous states of the universe with ineluctable logic. The universe could be treated as a machine, hypothesized the mathematician Laplace, in which given the initial conditions, all subsequent states could be calculated. He wrote:NEXT

An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate Nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to sumbit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atoms: for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain, and the future just as the past would be present before our eyes. (Pierre Simon Laplace in Philosophical Essays on Probabilities as cited by Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice?)NEXT

As it turned out very early, all but the grossest things in nature turned out to be too intricate and interwoven to be subjected to calculation, and so thermodynamics was introduced to handle what fell through the cracks of the Laplace machine. Whatever could not fit neatly into the calculations fell into the category of noise, disorder, mud, and as the clock ground on, eventually everything would be rubbed down to the homogeneity of entropy. If it could not fit into human calculation, it was but useless and lukewarm mud, and the universe would end up in this state of heat death.NEXT

When man takes his own makings too seriously, he is demeaned and dragged down to their level. Marshall McLuhan interpreted the effects of man's technology upon their user in the light of Holy Scripture: Similes fiant illis qui faciunt ea (ps. 113) the makers of idols, may they become like the works of their own hands, with eyes but they cannot see, with ears but they cannot hear. (the chapter Numbness in Understanding Media). Joe Keogh once enlightened me on this passage. The Roman gravitas, the stony demeanour of the Roman celebrity, was a reflection or imitation of Roman statuary. NEXT

Likewise, the mechanistic universe, the product of men's minds, has transformed those who venerate it, and not for the better. It has infected everything. The clockwork has been extended to mechanisms in history, laws so-called of economics, and the springs and gears of psychology. A dead seriousness has invaded the begetting of children, a seriousness far more dead than the gravitas of Roman statuary, a seriousness not allied with that awe and wonder that sets a man on the track to philosophy and worship. It is the seriousness of those waiting as in a line of penitents to be absolved at an automatic teller machine. It is the deadpan seriousness of the economic forecaster, the environmentalist who dares not eat a peach, lest he hasten the inevitable heat death of all things. G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, saw one of the seeds of Christian sensibility in the Roman sense of sacred places. But the universe governed by entropy has no sacred places. Like the Carthaginian civilization of death, the determinist numbmindedness has reduced all things to one dead thing. NEXT

That area of science and mathematics called Chaos theory studies the phenomena that fall through the cracks in the Laplace machine. It is the science that describes things teetering on the edge, the formation of snowflakes, the bubbling of water. Actually, in a sense, everything falls through the cracks. Science may tell us that there will be a full moon, but not whether that moon will be obscured by clouds, or the number or shape of those clouds. The delicate pictures in the grain of wood, the rhythms of dripping faucets, these fall under God's order and providence, from which nothing can escape, but it is an order than man's mind may behold but cannot predict. NEXT

Chaos theory has provided tools to describe this wild order, but has also taught us that the unfolding of things is so delicately balanced as to defy prediction absolutely. It is in this broad area of the unpredictable order of things that God plays some of His most admired jokes. The battle of Lepanto hinged upon an unlikely and perfectly timed shifting of the wind. NEXT

Perhaps the convergence of sounds and meanings that bursts out in a pun and the ebullience of laughter can be described by the same non-linear equations that describe the boiling of water and the uneven syncopation of water droplets. Humor can be described as one of those hinges in things where anything can happen as things come to together in a rationality that transcends mechanism. In A Man Called Thursday, God is the chief anarchist, not because He is the God of disorder, but that the order and tranquillity of things under God is not such that it can fit into a human mind. Instead of a seeing a universe running down to mud, if our eyes and ears are opened, we can say with the psalmist that the fields cry out with joy, the hills leap with gladness.


Chesterton's ability to laugh at the posturings of materialism in all areas of life was a scandal. In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the ultimate weapon was laughter, rediscovered from a lost treatise of Aristotle on comedy. It was an instrument that Chesterton knew how to play. It is an apt instrument for today's all too grim follies. When the weather cannot be predicted for more than a few days, and that forecast does not include the course of hurricanes and the rise of tornadoes, we are exhorted to take so seriously the clocks that the United Nations supplies to world leaders, which project to the second the population of the world. Newton's mechanics could predict what would happen if one unreasonably ideal billiard ball were to collide with another, but his calculations cannot say what would happen if the ever so perfect billiard ball should hit two others at the same instant. Ian Stewart writes:NEXT

So the 'inexorable laws of physics' in which for instance Marx tried to model his laws of history, were never really there. If Newton could not predict the behavior of three balls, could Marx predict that of three people? Any regularity in the behaviour of large assemblies of particles or people must be statistical, and that has quite a different philosophical taste ... In retrospect we can see that the determinism of pre-quantum physics kept itself from ideological bankruptcy only by keeping the three balls of the pawnbroker apart. (Ian Stewart, Analog, 1981 cited in Does God Play Dice? by the same).

The very fact that a man can laugh at all flies in the face of the picture of the world upon which the population clock depends.