“Humor offers both a form of wisdom and a means of survival in a threatening world. It demands that we reckon with the realities of human nature and the world without falling into grimness and despair. ” Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France—1885 to World War I, rev. ed. (1968), 248. “Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. The saintliest men frequently have a humorous glint in their eyes. They retain the capacity to laugh at both themselves and at others.
. To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies with laughter, is a high form of wisdom. ” Reinhold Niebuhr, “Humour and Faith,” in Discerning the Signs of the Times: Sermons for Today and Tomorrow (1945), 111, 122, 126. “Religion and humor are incompatible. Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humor: the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty that there is no certainty.
” Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed (1995), 9, 32-33. “When people ask me if there’s an afterlife, I answer, ‘If I knew, I would tell you. ’” Art Buchwald, Too Soon to Say Goodbye (2006), “I can’t imagine a wise old person who can’t laugh. ” So said psychologist Erik Erikson, and many wisdom researchers say the same about a wise person of any age. But the more we look at the connection between wisdom and humor, the more we realize the subject cannot be adequately addressed without also dealing with faith and religion.
Thus, we shall begin by clarifying our understanding of wisdom, then examine how humor can contribute to it, look at this connection historically among some leading individuals in Europe, Russia, and the United States, and finally analyze the relationship between wisdom, humor, and faith. Wisdom, Perspective, and Values Although definitions of wisdom often include an ability to make good judgments regarding life and conduct, these good judgments themselves flow from good perspectives and values. Wisdom scholar Copthorne Macdonald has noted that wisdom involves certain mental states and ways of perceiving, such as: seeing things clearly; seeing things as they are deeply understanding the human/cosmic situation being able to handle whatever arises with peace of mind and an effective, compassionate, holistic response. He also notes that psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that wise people “tended to be more detached than ordinary from the dictates and expectations of their culture. They were inner-directed people. They were creative, too, and appreciated the world around them with a sense of awe and wonder. . . . The inner directedness that Maslow noted is a key feature of wisdom.
It arises, in part, from acquiring new, more helpful perspectives. ”Wise perspectives are dependent on wise values. As Macdonald has written, “Wise values express themselves in wise attitudes and wise ways of being and functioning. ” Among the wise values he mentions that relate to perspective are creativity, serenity, humility, clarity about what is, empathy, insight, intuitive understanding, patience, reality, self-awareness, and truth. Another prominent wisdom researcher, Robert Sternberg, believes that “people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good.
They do so by balancing, in their courses of action, their own interests with those of others and those of larger entities, like their school, their community, their country, even God. ” In fostering wisdom, Sternberg also thinks it is important to teach people to see “things from others’ perspectives as well as one’s own,” to tolerate “other people’s points of view, whether or not one agrees with such views. ” He refers to this approach as his “balance theory of wisdom. ” He also believes that many “smart and well-educated people” lack wisdom because they “are particularly susceptible to four fallacies,” which he labels the egocentrism, omniscience, omnipotence, and invulnerability fallacies. All four are tied up with too big an ego and with overestimating their own importance and powers. These fallacies also skew our sense of reality. Achieving a realistic perspective on life means seeing life as it is, with all its disappointments, frustrations, and irrationalities, but also with all its wonders and mysteries. In writing specifically of political wisdom, Isaiah Berlin stated that it involved “an acute sense of what fits with what. ” The same could be said for wisdom generally, and Berlin’s remark suggests that a wise person also knows what does not fit.
Being wise also means possessing a realistic sense of ourselves, not letting our egos overemphasize our own significance and being able to see ourselves with some detachment. Because wise people realize their own limitations, as well as those of others, they tend to be more tolerant than most people; they realize that no one has all the answers, and that we all are struggling to cope with life as best we can. In turn, this realization makes wise people more empathetic and compassionate. They are more likely than most to follow the advice of Philo of Alexandria, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Humor’s Contribution to Wisdom The English writer G. K. Chesterton wrote that “humor not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humor to search for a definition of humor. ” He did, however, see it as linked to humility, which enables us to perceive our own failings, the gap between what we aspire to be and what we actually are. A philosophic encyclopedia declares that the most dominant theory of humor is one that deals with such gaps, that which does not fit—the incongruous.
More specifically, it sees humor “as a response to an incongruity, a term broadly used to include ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness. ” Among those advocating some variety of this theory were the philosophers Kant, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer. Thus, like Berlin dealing with political wisdom, this theory of humor is dealing with the perception of “what fits [or does not] with what. ” This same encyclopedia, while indicating that “several scholars have identified over 100 types of humor theories,” highlights only a few others. One is the relief theory, popularized by Freud, which describes humor as a way of relieving tension. Two others are a superiority theory advocated by the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and others, and an inferiority theory offered more recently by the philosopher Robert Solomon. Hobbes wrote that “that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly. ”
Conversely, Solomon thinks that in viewing folly (for example, that of the Three Stooges comedies) we can see our own tendency to unwise behavior and that it can help us become more modest and compassionate—both important steps to becoming wiser. The encyclopedia essay also indicates that some thinkers view humor as a form of play and that humor has “until recently has been treated as roughly co-extensive with laughter,” though the two are not really the same.
Chesterton also distinguishes between laughter and humor, seeing the latter as a more “civilized product,” possessing a “subtle and sometimes sub-conscious . . . quality. ” Here, however, we will not try to draw too precise a distinction between humor and that which makes us laugh. Hobbes’s theory of humor suggests that humor may not always be on the side of wisdom. If we laugh at others while feeling superior to them, it only inflates our egoism, which is never wise. This is the problem with many ethnic jokes if they make us feel superior, amidst our own ethnic group, to any supposed inferior group.
Humor is also sometimes an inappropriate response to an event. Hearing of evils like the killing of an innocent person, the demeaning of a child, or the rape of a woman should elicit not humor but sorrow. As the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. ” Enlightening comments on the relationship of humor to wisdom were once made by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential U. S. theologian (and a favorite thinker of President Obama).
Although Niebuhr generally agreed that humor stresses the incongruous, he also, like Chesterton and Solomon, linked it with humility. Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence. People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to “stand off” from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions.
All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. We are rather insignificant little bundles of energy and vitality in a vast organization of life. But we pretend that we are the very center of this organization. This pretension is ludicrous; and its absurdity increases with our lack of awareness of it. The less we are able to laugh at ourselves the more it becomes necessary and inevitable that others laugh at us.
Humor and Wisdom in Europe
Some Highlights Renaissance Humor: Erasmus, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare In his book Rabelais and His World, the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote: “The Renaissance conception of laughter can be roughly described as follows: Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning, it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a peculiar point of view relative to the world; the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint.
Therefore, laughter is just as admissible in great literature, posing universal problems, as seriousness. Certain essential aspects of the universe are accessible only to laughter. ” Bakhtin includes the Frenchman Rabelais, the Spaniard Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), and the Englishman Shakespeare as the three great writers of this early era when humor often reflected wisdom. He also mentions the Dutchman Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1509) as “one of the greatest creations of carnival laughter in world literature.”
Since Erasmus comes first chronologically, let’s start with his book. He depicts Folly as a goddess addressing her devotees. She begins with the presumption that folly is shared by all humans. Through her, Erasmus ticks off follies found among all classes—like those of lovers, spouses, money-seekers, nationalists, warmongers, and the old trying to look young—but he targets mainly the folly of the upper classes like kings, courtiers, popes, and bishops, and the most pretentious and would-be wise like writers, lawyers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians.
He describes writers as persons that are ever tormenting themselves; adding, changing, putting in, blotting out, revising, reprinting, showing it to friends, and nine years in correcting, yet never fully satisfied; at so great a rate do they purchase this vain reward, to wit, praise, and that too of a very few, with so many watchings, so much sweat, so much vexation and loss of sleep, the most precious of all things.
Add to this the waste of health, spoil of complexion, weakness of eyes or rather blindness, poverty, envy, abstinence from pleasure, over-hasty old age, untimely death, and the like; so highly does this wise man value the approbation of one or two blear-eyed fellows. Philosophers, he claims, are “so much reverenced for their furred gowns and starched beards that they look upon themselves as the only wise men and all others as shadows. ” In general, he depicts all those who consider themselves wise as being austere, cold, unfriendly, proud, vain, blind to their own faults, impractical, timid, and bookish.
In words that should still give pause to all self-styled intellectuals, he writes: Invite a wise man to a feast and he’ll spoil the company, either with morose silence or troublesome disputes. Take him out to dance, and you’ll swear “a cow would have done it better. ” Bring him to the theatre, and his very looks are enough to spoil all . . . withdrawing rather than put off his supercilious gravity. Let him fall into discourse, and he shall make more sudden stops than if he had a wolf before him.
Let him buy, or sell, or in short go about any of those things without there is no living in this world, and you’ll say this piece of wisdom were rather a stock than a man, of so little use is he to himself, country, or friends; and all because he is wholly ignorant of common things and lives a course of life quite different from the people. Perhaps, the most important of this “wise man’s” defects are his lack of compassion and humility because without possessing these it is difficult for anyone to be truly wise.
Erasmus is especially hard on the church hierarchy and theologians, whom he sarcastically refers to as “wise men” who “while being happy in their own opinion . . . look with haughtiness on all others as poor creeping things. ” In his use of irony and satire to show how far the church headed by the papacy had departed from wisdom, Erasmus used humor to make some of the same points later made by historian Barbara Tuchman in a long section of her book The March of Folly.
The Praise of Folly is perhaps the best Renaissance literary example of the attempt to deal with the paradoxes of wisdom and folly presented by Paul in his New Testament Epistles. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, he wrote that “it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. ’. . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. ” A little later he added, “If any of you thinks he is wise in the ways of this world, he must become a fool to become really wise.
For the wisdom of this world is nonsense in God’s sight. ” And still later, “We are fools for Christ’s sake. ” In his Epistle to the Colossians, Paul wrote that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” were hidden in Jesus Christ. Later, we shall examine these words in some detail. Outside of the literary world, commoners also dealt with the paradoxes of wisdom and folly in such carnivalesque celebrations as the Feast of Fools. Theologian Harvey Cox gives the following description of it: During the medieval era there flourished in parts of Europe a holiday known as the Feast of Fools.
On that colorful occasion, usually celebrated about January first, even ordinarily pious priests and serious townsfolk donned bawdy masks, sang outrageous ditties, and generally kept the whole world awake with revelry and satire. Minor clerics painted their faces, strutted about in the robes of their superiors, and mocked the stately rituals of church and court. Sometimes a Lord of Misrule, a Mock King, or a Boy Bishop was elected to preside over the events. In some places the Boy Bishop even celebrated a parody mass.
During the Feast of Fools, no custom or convention was immune to ridicule and even the highest personages of the realm could expect to be lampooned. Following in the tradition of such celebrations and Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and others have praised a sort of wise folly in such characters as Triboulet (in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel ), Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin (the title character in The Idiot).
Rabelais was born after Erasmus but before Cervantes and Shakespeare, both of whom died in 1616. Bakhtin quotes the French historian Jules Michelet who wrote that “Rabelais collected wisdom from the popular elemental forces of the ancient Provencal idioms, sayings, proverbs, school farces, from the mouth of fools and clowns. But refracted by this foolery, the genius of the age and its prophetic power are revealed in all their majesty. ” In his Gargantua and Pantagruel Rabelais suggests that humor and wisdom are mixed together in sort of a wise folly that reflects the spirit of carnival.
About this folly Bakhtin wrote: “Folly is, of course, deeply ambivalent. It has the negative element of debasement and destruction (the only vestige now is the use of “fool” as a pejorative) and the positive element of renewal and truth. Folly is the opposite of wisdom—inverted wisdom, inverted truth. It is the other side, the lower stratum of official laws and conventions, derived from them. Folly is a form of gay festive wisdom, free from all laws and restrictions, as well as from preoccupations and seriousness.”
Novelist Milan Kundera once said “Rabelais is dearest to me of all writers” and gave him credit for being one of the great pioneers of humor. Kundera associates it with the birth of the novel during the days of Rabelais and Cervantes, and considers the Italian Boccaccio as “the great precursor. ” Quoting the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, Kundera avows that humor is “the great invention of the modern spirit,” and “that it renders ambiguous everything that it touches. ” He also believes that “religion and humor are incompatible.”
And he writes: “Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humor: the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty that there is no certainty. ”17 Besides the question of whether religion and humor are compatible, which we shall examine later, Kundera seems to be overlooking all the humor that predates the Renaissance including that of Aristophanes, whose comedies in ancient Greece were a great source of humor and some wisdom.
Like Bakhtin and Harold Bloom in his book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? , Kundera also believes that there was much wisdom in the humor of Cervantes and that he taught future novelists an important lesson. When Don Quixote went out in the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead.
The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties. 18 But more than Rabelais, Erasmus, or Cervantes, it is Shakespeare that many consider the wisest writer. Bloom writes, “Shakespeare, grandest of entertainers, is also the wisest of teachers.”
As Kundera saw Rabelais and Cervantes, Bloom sees Shakespeare—as one more intent on depicting reality than making dogmatic judgments and one “whose grandest achievements cannot be reconciled . . . with any creed or ideology whatever. ” Although detecting certain Christian influences on Shakespeare, Alan Nordstrom also states that “though most observers are naturally inclined to project their own attitudes upon an enigmatic other they cannot decipher, spying out familiar confirmations of what they already assume, Shakespeare eludes easy cosmological classification.”
Nordstrom also provides important insights into the relation of Shakespeare’s humor and wisdom. He writes that “examples of folly and error predominate in his plays” —in the tragedies as well as the comedies—and since he “is not an essayist but a playwright, he does not tell but show, thus we must learn not by precept but by instance and example. ” By viewing folly through Shakespeare’s eyes, “ironically we may infer something of what wisdom is and why it is so rare.”
Further, “if we cannot fully grasp the wisdom he possesses, we can better recognize our own folly by his fools and learn to laugh at it or mourn the miseries it brings. ” His characters “constitute a full catalogue of fools, a motley menagerie of lunatics and dunces of all colors and degrees. Among them we’ll find images of family and friends, acquaintances and strangers and, most strangely, us, if we look truly enough into our own blinking idiocy.”
Nordstrom tells us that “Shakespeare represents the struggle of human beings to be wise, to transcend their innate and nearly all-consuming proclivity to folly and to attain rare spiritual insight into the principles that make for ultimate human happiness, those principles revealed by our race’s most enlightened luminaries,” and that “wisdom for Shakespeare has far more to do with the heart than the head,” with “a true and faithful heart, radiant with love, care, and devotion, brimming with compassion and forgiveness.”
The mixture of insight (or perspective), compassion, and a non-dogmatic portrayal of human life in all its complexity that we see in Shakespeare helps explain why so many thinkers have regarded him as wise. He perceived that life—“this great stage of fools,” in King Lear’s words—could be seen from a tragic and/or comic perspective. Nordstrom emphasizes the importance of treachery in Shakespeare’s plays. But after pointing out what an important role it plays in his histories and tragedies, he observes that “even Shakespeare’s comedies—especially Shakespeare’s comedies—turn to treachery for their success.
Duping and delusion, knavery and gulling are the warp and woof of all their motley foolery. ” After mentioning the comedies he adds, “Pretty depressing, when you view it all. But then, that’s life, and Shakespeare gives us life. He shows us what we are, yet also what we may be, at our best: honest and honorable, faithful and true, loyal and trustworthy, constant in love. ” In his Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Bloom deals with several other writers after Shakespeare, but hardly mentions humor except some occasional references to irony, a type of humor we shall examine more later.
Although we will not take the time here, it might be useful to investigate further his statements about Germany’s greatest writer and sage: “Only irony for Goethe makes wisdom available to us,” and “Goethe’s wisdom always verges on the outrageous, and I like Faust II best for its excesses. Most of Faust II is a parody. ”
Two European Russians: Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Soloviev
Many critics have discovered much wisdom in the great non-Communist Russian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I intend to write more on this subject in a future essay.
But here a few Russians should be mentioned, and the first is Anton Chekhov, Russia’s best dramatist and short story writer. From his youth when he wrote a play entitled Laugh It Off If You Can until the last evening of his life at a German spa, still only 44 years old, when he made his wife laugh by inventing a funny story, humor was important to this grandson of a serf. After enrolling at Moscow University to study medicine in 1879, he became the chief provider of his family by writing, primarily at first for popular humor magazines.
During the next seven years he wrote more than 400 pieces, most of them short stories. In addition, an editor of one of his collections of letters wrote of “their irrepressible humor” and noted that Chekhov repeatedly insisted that his final play, The Cherry Orchard, was a comedy. “All his life, from his early childhood, he had laughed off any disagreeable situation in which he had happened to find himself; the joke became his most effective weapon in a crisis.”
He viewed “laughter as medicine, and a vital prerequisite for any treatment of his fellow human beings. Implicit is the sense that laughter—and comedy—are restorative. . . . Chekhov’s comedy is therefore not only a stylistic feature in his works, but is also a vital part of his philosophy. It is the point where content and form meet, the one usually inseparable from the other. ” But Chekhov’s view of life, strongly influenced by his medical training and experiences as a doctor, saw both the tragedy and comedy of life.
He sought to write realistically, and his tragicomic approach was a reflection of his ability to do so. Vladimir Nabokov observed that “things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up. ”26 One of the characters in Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate declares, “Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, every age.”
Grossman’s character then lists some of the people we discover in Chekhov’s works: “doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, lecturers, landlords, shopkeepers, industrialists, nannies, lackeys, students, civil servants of every rank, cattle-dealers, tram-conductors, marriage-brokers, sextons, bishops, peasants, workers, cobblers, artists’ models, horticulturalists, zoologists, innkeepers, gamekeepers, prostitutes, fishermen, lieutenants, corporals, artists, cooks, writers, janitors, nuns, soldiers, midwives, prisoners on the Sakhalin Islands. ” Whether depicting the tragic or comic, Chekhov’s writings dealing with all these people reflected his compassion. In 1902, he said that when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, ‘Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!’”
Chekhov’s balanced perspective on life, his ability to see his own comic shortcomings as well as others, contributed to making him one of the most modest, tolerant, open-minded, pragmatic, and wisest Russian intellectuals of his day. He knew that life was a mystery, and neither he nor anyone else had all the answers. Thus, his opposition to dogmatism. The Tsarist political system encouraged not only a conservative political dogma, but also authoritarianism, obsession with rank and decorations, and obsequiousness, all of which Chekhov satirized.
In an analysis of Chekhov’s humor, one scholar refers to this type of humor as the “comedy of subversion. ”29 Although he avoided dogmatism, he possessed a strong sense of social justice. To take just one example, he praised French novelist Emile Zola’s famous open letter in a French newspaper in 1898, which accused the French military of convicting the innocent Captain Dreyfus of treason, partly because he was Jewish, then covering up the injustice.
Chekhov also contributed to aiding Jewish victims after a horrendous pogrom directed at them in Kishinev in 1903. Vasily Grossman, in his novel Life and Fate, has one of his characters say that “Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history—the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. ” In Soviet Russia some of Chekhov’s successors were considered subversives when they dared to poke fun at Soviet society.
One was Mikhail Zoshchenko. His story “Adventures of a Monkey” got him in trouble because Soviet leaders thought this story about a monkey who got free from his zoo cage and roamed a town suggested that life was better in a zoo cage than in Soviet society. A contemporary of Chekhov was Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900). During Chekhov’s time, he was Russia’s leading philosopher, an ecumenical religious thinker, a defender of human rights (including those of Jews), and perhaps the best poet of his generation.
Moreover, he emphasized wisdom more than any other Russian writer. It was a central theme in his philosophy and a central image in his poetry, but he generally dealt with it on a much more transcendental plane than did the worldlier Chekhov. Aristotle once distinguished between theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom, and Soloviev better exemplified the first type and Chekhov the second. On a very basic level Soloviev defined wisdom as “the knowledge of the best ways and means for attaining the purpose before us, and the capacity to apply these means aright.
But on a higher level it was also one of the cardinal virtues, and as such it depended “on the moral worth of the object itself. ” It was only a virtue when applied to “objects of the greatest worth. ” On a higher level still it was Sophia or Wisdom of a divine sort that had been emphasized in the Bible, the Jewish Kabbala, and the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, all of which influenced Soloviev’s view of Sophia. He thought of her as the universal oneness, the oneness of God with creation.
He saw history as a process of man and nature falling away from God and splintering into separateness and then eventually reuniting in a higher synthesis. Sophia symbolized that potential synthesis. For Soloviev that all-oneness with God became the goal of history. But Sophia was to him more than just the abstract idea of Divine Wisdom. Influenced by the symbolic language of the mystics and by the description of Wisdom in the Bible’s “Book of Proverbs,” he perceived Sophia in feminine form.
She was the Eternal Feminine, “the feminine soul of the world. ” In his most famous poem dealing with Sophia, “Three Encounters,” first published just two years before his death in 1900, he tried to convey some sense of the three mystical encounters that he apparently had with her. The last was in an Egyptian desert in 1875, and he wrote of her eyes full of azure flame, appearing amidst the purple of heavenly splendor and the smell of roses. The image of her filled his being. Only she existed.
Past, present, and future were all encompassed in her gaze, as were the blue “seas and rivers,” the “distant forest,” and the “heights of snowy mountains,” all of which Soloviev stated he saw stretched out before him. Earlier, before even leaving Egypt in 1876, he wrote a poem about Sophia, his “queen,” who comes to him bathed in light and full of quiet tenderness. She covers him with her radiance. Thus, to Soloviev, Sophia represented not only the mystical oneness of the universe, but also a tender, loving, maternal force, and his most potent symbol of beauty.
An enlightening article on Soloviev’s poem “Three Encounters” and his rich sense of humor notes that the philosopher-poet “possessed a great sense of humor and a frenzied, almost tormented passion for humorous verse, parodies, and puns; he loved even the most inept play on words, senseless buffoonery, coarse, even obscene anecdotes. Gaiety would descend upon him in elemental fits, like a kind of epilepsy. ”The article goes on to quote Soloviev’s words that “the [only] characteristic peculiarity of man is found in the fact that only he has the ability to laugh.
This ability is extremely important, and lies at the very essence of human nature. I therefore define man as a laughing animal. ” In his poem about his three mystical meetings with Sophia he pokes fun at himself, saying to Sophia, for example: “You must have laughed truly, as I walked into the desert \ In coat and top hat. ” 36 Soloviev never clearly spelled out his perception of the exact connection between wisdom and humor, but he perhaps best suggested it in the following lines written before his return from Egypt to Russia:
Laughter supposes a state of freedom; a slave does not laugh. [. . ] In natural laughter, in the laughter of a child or young girl, humanity’s metaphysical freedom manifests itself unawares. It acquires consciousness of self [only] in the reflective laughter of a thinking person. Such a person has a clear understanding of another, ideal world contrasted to this apparent reality, the latter being the entire reality of a beast or of uncivilized man. He sees the contrast and he mocks the false reality: he laughs. How could he laugh if he truly believed in this miserable reality?