Uncivil Mirth: Ridicule in Enlightenment Britain 
by Ross Carroll.
Princeton, 255 pp., £28, April 2021, 978 0 691 18255 1
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In​ a largely illiterate world, laughing was something one did with other people. Early theorists of humour considered it a form of speech rather than writing. And speech could be extremely dangerous, as the Bible warned: ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue’ (Proverbs); ‘The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity’ (James). Elsewhere in scripture the tongue is compared to a razor, a sword, a bow, an arrow – words were lethal weapons. The Bible didn’t offer much justification for laughter. Saint Paul, for instance, told the Ephesians not to indulge in ‘foolish talking or jesting’. Only the example of Elijah, who taunted the false prophets of Baal, seems to show that, as the 17th-century theologian Isaac Barrow wrote, ‘facetious wit’ was sometimes the best response to ‘base and vile’ things. ‘When plain declarations will not enlighten people … and blunt arguments will not penetrate,’ he argued, ‘then doth reason freely resign its place to wit, allowing it to undertake its work of instruction and reproof.’

But how to amuse without giving offence? ‘There are two kinds of joke,’ Giovanni della Casa, the Florentine authority on manners, explained in 1558. ‘The one, biting and severe; the other, harmless and innocent.’ Jests ought to ‘nibble like a lamb, and not bite like a dog’, otherwise they become ‘an affront’. Like his contemporaries, della Casa took for granted that laughter was mainly an expression of scorn – ‘it being a mark of greater contempt to laugh at a person, than to do him any real injury’. As the Elizabethan humanist Thomas Wilson wrote, ‘the occasion of laughter and the mean that maketh us merry … is the fondness, the filthiness, the deformity, and all such evil behaviour as we see to be in other[s].’ In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton made the same point from the victim’s perspective: ‘A bitter jest, a slander, a calumny, pierceth deeper than any loss, danger, bodily pain or injury whatsoever.’

In 17th-century England, people across society defended their honour against such verbal slights. Ridicule gave rise to frequent violent quarrels and endless lawsuits for defamation. In 1638 Thomas Hobbes advised his aristocratic tutee Charles Cavendish ‘to avoid all offensive speech, not only open reviling but also that Satirical way of nipping’ that young noblemen were prone to: it would provoke ‘many just occasions of Duel’. Laughing at others, he warned, was a sign of prideful self-love. But as a political theorist who conceived of social life as a competition, Hobbes valued laughter for the same reason: it was a terrific index of disdain. All the ‘pleasure and jollity of the mind’ consisted in feeling superior to others, he wrote in De Cive (1642), so it was ‘impossible but men must declare sometimes some mutual scorn and contempt, either by laughter, or by words, or by gesture’.

A few decades later, John Locke too ‘spoke against raillery’. It had ‘dangerous consequence if not well managed’ and he urged young people to abstain from it. He was a celebrated mimic, who took pride in his own wit, yet he considered jokes risky because they easily gave offence: ‘The right management of so nice and ticklish a business, wherein a little slip may spoil all, is not everyone’s talent.’ Just as bad were ‘frothy light discourses’ and ‘misbecoming wit’ about religious matters. In the 1670s and 1680s Locke supervised the education of Anthony Ashley Cooper, who later became the 3rd earl of Shaftesbury, and his views seem to have made an impression on his pupil. In 1698, during his self-imposed exile in the Netherlands, Shaftesbury studied the Stoics and tried to curb his own desire to be witty. ‘There is nothing more unsafe, or difficult of management,’ he wrote in a notebook; instead, one should ‘laugh alone’ and only ‘at serious times’. Like Hobbes and Locke, he saw raillery as a dangerous anti-social force and condemned ‘free talking about matters of Religion’ and the ridicule of piety.

Barely a decade later, however, Shaftesbury developed a highly influential theory of ridicule, which cast it in a far more favourable light. Religious fanaticism was dangerous, he argued, but mockery was a better response than persecution. It was important to be tolerant, at least towards fellow Protestants, but that didn’t mean one had to respect crazy ideas or let them flourish unchallenged; on the contrary, they should be attacked. This could be done with reasoned argument, or with satire – the best way of engaging a wide audience. The ‘test of ridicule’ would determine whether a doctrine was worthy of respect: because people had an innate sense of truth, virtuous ideas were impervious to mockery. ‘Nothing is ridiculous, but what is deformed,’ he wrote in Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour (1709).

Shaftesbury’s view of ridicule was novel in other ways, too. He believed that laughter derived primarily from shared appreciation of an incongruity, or collective contempt for something vicious or unnatural, rather than from individual feelings of disdain. It was not an anti-social practice, but one that encouraged discussion and left people feeling ‘agreeable’. Learning to laugh at one another and be laughed at was, he argued, an important part of collective reasoning and civil discourse. Like many subsequent philosophers of the Enlightenment, he thought that humans were naturally sociable, not selfish; that civilisations advanced through the refinement of their collective manners; and that teaching people how to converse politely was vital to society’s moral progress.

In the early 18th century, the state of public discourse was a matter of particular concern. Religious invective was fuelled by the institution of religious toleration for Protestant dissenters in 1689, while the collapse of pre-publication censorship and the deregulation of printing in England six years later led to a boom in satirical writing and political invective. The advent of party politics, the introduction of triennial elections in 1694 and the growing appeal of theories of popular sovereignty after 1688 all made public opinion a significant force, yet at the same time sharpened fears about the public’s fallibility and fickleness. In the age of Defoe, Manley, Swift and Pope, Shaftesbury was among the first writers to consider whether the eruption of ridicule should be regarded as a negative or positive effect of an uncensored press.

Others followed Shaftesbury in grappling with this question. Francis Hutcheson embraced his cause of civilising manners and public speech, as well as his view of laughter as an aid to sociability; so too did Hutcheson’s pupil Adam Smith. David Hume often resorted to ridicule to undermine hypocrisy or superstition, even if he doubted its capacity to settle controversial questions, arguing that mockery was as likely to distort as to reveal the truth. Some of Hume’s philosophical adversaries, such as Thomas Reid and James Beattie, considered derision a natural response to any affront to ‘common sense’ – such as Hume’s own absurd doctrines. The Edinburgh polymath Lord Kames took a different view: ridicule was ‘too rough an entertainment for those who are polished and refined’, he wrote in 1762, predicting that it would gradually die out in polite commercial societies. It was ‘losing ground daily in England’, and already ‘banished’ in France.

This was to ignore the fact that Montesquieu had only recently employed sarcasm to great effect. In Spirit of the Laws (1748), he ridiculed the arguments commonly used to justify slavery in the New World: having ‘extirpated the [Native] Americans’, Europeans had no choice but to ‘make slaves of the Africans’. Besides, without slave labour ‘sugar would be too dear’ – and ‘negroes’ have ‘such a flat nose, that they can scarcely be pitied’. Inspired by Montesquieu, Scottish abolitionists wrote parodies of their own. When An Apology for Slavery; or Six Cogent Arguments against the Immediate Abolition of the Slave-Trade by the radical Catholic satirist Alexander Geddes was published in 1792, some readers took it to be a sincere defence. The word ‘ironical’ was added to the title in subsequent printings.

As Ross Carroll shows, even authors who shared Shaftesbury’s belief in the value of ridicule faced an obvious problem. Satire could enlighten, but it could just as quickly coarsen public discourse, especially when it failed to land. An awkward balancing act ensued. Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, condemned her opponents for speaking and writing contemptuously at the same time as mocking them herself. In her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), she attacked Edmund Burke for mean-spirited ridicule, while making fun of his ‘infantile sensibility’ and delicate ‘nervous system’. It was wrong to despise one’s inferiors, Wollstonecraft believed, but ‘dignified’ mockery could unmask the pretensions of the upper classes.

Within a few years of Shaftesbury’s death in 1713, Bernard Mandeville, who saw ‘the proper object of ridicule’ as not vice itself but moralistic claims about it, attacked him as a hypocrite whose fantasy of natural sociability was ‘good for nothing but to breed drones’ and ‘qualify a man for the stupid enjoyments of a monastic life’. Adam Smith claimed that in Sensus Communis ‘there is not one passage which would make us laugh.’ Wollstonecraft admired Shaftesbury’s ideas but couldn’t stand ‘his affected inflated periods’ and ‘parade of words’. She suspected that even his own ‘heart was unmoved whilst his head fabricated the lifeless rhapsody’ of his prose. By 1800 hardly anyone referred to his theory of ridicule.

Uncivil Mirth contains lots of interesting observations and thoughtful interpretations, but no jokes. Carroll is wary of drawing connections between the 18th century and the present, yet there are obvious parallels between the predicaments faced by Shaftesbury, Hume and Wollstonecraft and those of our own era of new media, mudslinging and politics as commodified entertainment. Most 19th-century observers believed that democracies were less fun than other forms of government. In aristocratic societies, Tocqueville wrote, ‘people freely let themselves go in bursts of tumultuous, boisterous gaiety.’ Even under despotism, there were occasional ‘mad fits’ of laughter. But in democracies citizens were always serious, because they were in charge. He was probably right about the virtues of sober politics. As Carroll notes, it’s never a good sign when ‘the jokers start scaling the ladders of power’.

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