A sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship with philosophy; each is the soul of the other.
—Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy
Durant, though not much of a comedian (and hardly more of a philosopher), did have his funny moments. My favorite of his subtle sarcasms is this delicious pun: “Holland boasted of several ladies who courted in Latin, who could probably conjugate better than they could decline.”
I was reminded of this quote while reading Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In his brief overview of his therapeutic technique, Logotherapy, Frankl mentions that he often uses humor to help his patients deal with neuroses.
The popular cognitive therapist, David D. Burns, also uses humor to help his patients deal with anxiety and depression. One of his techniques for managing fear is to replace a dreadful fantasy with a funny one. This relies on the same principle as the advice commonly given to people with a fear of public speaking: imagine everyone in the crowd in their undergarments. The effect of this is to transform something dreadfully serious and frightening into something absurd, and even fun.
I remember something from a documentary I saw long ago (I wish I could remember which one) that human babies laugh when something apparently dangerous turns out, upon closer inspection, to be harmless. For example: A mom hides her face behind her hands. The baby gets confused and nervous. He can no longer see her face. Is that still his mom? What’s going on? Then, the mom takes her hands away, revealing a silly smile. The baby giggles with delight. It was mommy all along!
The reason why humor is effective in dealing with anxiety relies, I think, on this same mechanism. When we manage to see the humor in our situation, we see it from a new point of view, a new perspective in which our problems, which looked terrible from up close, now look silly and harmless.
In a way, to find something humorous, we must see the situation from a greater distance. Instead of getting absorbed in a problem, letting its shape occupy our whole field of vision, we place the problem in a landscape and thus contextualize it. When we do this, often we find ourselves laughing, because the problem, which before seemed so huge, is really small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Here’s a recent example. A book review I wrote, of which I am fairly proud, was somehow deleted off Goodreads. At first I got very annoyed and upset. I had put so much effort into writing it! And I lost all the likes and comments! Then, with a smile, I realized that it is a bit absurd to get worked up about an internet book review. People are struggling to find jobs, managing chronic diseases—and for Pete’s sake Trump is president! My lost book review was nothing to get frustrated about.
As Durant points out, it is this quality of humor—seeing the part within the context of the whole—that most approaches philosophy. Durant does not, of course, mean “philosophy” in the strict, modern sense of the word (the subject that deals with problems of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so forth). He means, rather, philosophy in its classic sense, as a method of regulating one’s life and thoughts in order to be more virtuous and happy. Nowadays, instead of philosophy, we have therapy and self-help books to aid us in this quest. But whatever we decide to call the art of life, I think most of us can agree that humor plays no small part in it.
Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a teacher in the philosophy department of my school. I asked if there were any Spanish philosophers she would recommend. She mentioned a couple names, but then she added: “You know, the most profound Spanish philosophy cannot be found in any philosophy book. It’s in Don Quixote.”
I was struck by this comment, because Unamuno, who I just finished reading, had the same opinion. And I can’t help agreeing. All profound comedy—and there is no comedy no more profound than Don Quixote—necessarily carries with it a profound philosophy. I do not mean by this that you can extract from Cervantes anything similar to Kant’s ethics; only that great comedy requires an ability to see things as they really are, within the context of the whole, and to transmit this vision with punch and savor.
The comedian alive who, in my opinion, comes closest to this quixotic ideal is Louis C.K. His comedy is distinctive for its emphasis on self-mockery. Most often he uses himself as the butt of his jokes. But his comedy is saved from narcissism because, despite his wealth and fame, he convincingly adopts an everyman persona. Whenever he makes fun of himself he is making fun of you, because inevitably you think the same thoughts and do the same things. But his comedy isn’t threatening because, however denigrating he can be, everyone in the audience is all in it together.
This ability to make fun of yourself is one of the qualities I value most highly. It saves you from being arrogant, condescending, and over-serious. It allows you to be humorous without picking on other people. Self-mockery is also, I think, an excellent antidote to many of life’s petty troubles (like deleted book reviews). If you can take a step back from yourself, and honestly see your faults, your pettiness, and your absurdities—not with bitterness but with forgiving humor—then you will be able to see your successes and your failures with the gentle irony that life, a thoroughly silly thing, so richly deserves.