In Shaping the Future (2005), Horst Hutter describes the philosopher as a kind of cultural physician who administers medicine to sick people living in a sick society. The medicine is good for you but it tastes bad. Really bad. So the cultural physician’s primary task is to find creative ways to compel you to consume the cure. Since Socrates, philosophers have, for the most part, sought to compel us solely with rational argument, with reason. Like Plato, Nietzsche saw the folly in this strategy. Reason alone will never slay the dragons of delusion that guard the exit to The Cave. It’s unequal to the task.
If philosophy is to even have a fighting chance, it has to call upon the persuasive powers of poetry, the mesmerizing magic of music, and the elemental energy of the emotions; it has to get used to relying upon rhythm, rhyme, and rhetoric; and it has to learn how to sing with the saints and prophesy with the prophets. In short, if it is to even have a fighting chance in the war against ignorance, philosophy must become beautiful.
But Socrates was famously ugly. And there’s an ugliness to philosophy which repulses most people. That’s why philosophy will never move the masses the way religion does. It’s always going to be a road less traveled. If the life and death of Socrates proves anything, it’s that philosophy is an acquired taste. Most people don’t naturally enjoy having their assumptions challenged. All to the contrary, most people get really mad when you ask them to justify their beliefs. And yet overcoming this defensiveness is the cultural physician’s primary task.
The major obstacle on the road to wisdom is not stupidity, lack of intelligence, or ignorance, but rather an unwillingness to question that which we love and care about. Nietzsche saw this with unusual clarity. For instance, in Ecce Homo (1888), he writes: “How much truth does a spirit endure, how much truth does it dare? More and more that became for me the genuine measure of value. Error (belief in the ideal) is not blindness, error is cowardice.”
Philosophers would have you believe that their rugged royal road is the only way around this cowardice. But there’s another way, a shortcut which steers clear of philosophy altogether. It’s a path paved with laughter. And its name is comedy.
Reagan Could Be Funny
Reagan could be funny; and, at times, wildly inappropriate. A translator who accompanied him on one of his first meetings with Gorbachev maintains that he often hesitated before translating Reagan’s jokes. He’d think to himself: Seriously? Seriously! The President actually wants me to say that! But then he’d say it anyway and Gorbachev would laugh harder than anyone else in the room.
This is my personal favorite: An American farmer wakes up one morning and discovers that his neighbor has a beautiful new cow. That night he prays: “Lord, please give me the strength to work harder, and smarter, so that I might one day have a beautiful new cow like my neighbor.” Next day, a Russian farmer wakes up and discovers that his neighbor has a beautiful new cow. That night he prays: “Lord, please cause my neighbor’s cow to sicken and die, so that we can again be equal.”
There’s so much wrong with this joke. And yet there’s some truth to it, too. If, like me, you believe that justice and equality are worthwhile goals, it’s good to ask yourself from time to time: Am I trying to raise everyone up to a higher level? Or am I merely trying to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator? Am I motivated primarily by love of the downtrodden or hatred of the successful? Is this humility or humiliation?
The Great Gadsby
I saw Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette live a few months ago. It was the last show of her last tour. She’s done with comedy—leaving it for good—because she no longer believes in its emancipatory power.
Many comedians, especially progressive comedians, think of themselves as cultural physicians administering bitter medicine to a sick society. The medicine (harsh truths about yourself and the world) is good for you but it tastes gross. So the comedian sugarcoats it with comedy. In other words, they trick you into swallowing a message you might otherwise reject.
That’s the theory. In practice, however, it rarely works that way. Most of the people in the audience lap up the laughs but miss the medicine. What’s worse, sometimes this strategy backfires. For instance, the creators of the hit TV-show All in the Family were progressives who were trying to ridicule a certain kind of white, working-class bigot. Archie Bunker wasn’t supposed to be a sympathetic character. But for millions of viewers, he was. When Archie made racist remarks, his audience didn’t laugh at him, they laughed with him.
Self-deprecating humor has always been central to Hannah Gadsby’s shtick. But she says she’s no longer comfortable with this: “When people who’ve always existed at the margins engage in self-deprecating humor, it’s not humility, it’s humiliation.” In other words, you’re not encouraging your audience to laugh with you; you’re giving them permission to laugh at you. And others like you.
It’s good to remember that the greatest comedian in Ancient Greece, Aristophanes, was ultimately an apologist for the status quo who helped to bring down the greatest philosopher in Ancient Greece, Socrates, a man who regularly challenged the status quo.
Although she hails from the Tasmanian Bible Belt—one of the most intensely Protestant places on the planet, a place that only decriminalized homosexuality in 1997—Hannah Gadsby says that her mother takes pride in the fact that she raised her kids without religion. After seeing her Netflix special live, I beg to differ.
Hannah Gadsby’s preternaturally powerful style is that of the itinerant evangelist who knows how to move hearts, change minds, and call sinners to repentance. For a second or two at the end of the show, I was actually waiting for an altar call. Her ability to work a crowd is nothing short of astounding.
Although he’d surely disapprove of her “lesbian content,” if Billy Graham’s ghost was there last night, standing at the back of the Olympia Theater with his favorite angel, I’m sure he was thoroughly impressed. I can see him now: smiling in spite of himself, nodding his head in approval and whispering to his angelic homie: “She’s got game, Gabe, she’s got game.”
Laugh at the Philosopher, Fear the Comedian
Socrates believed philosophy was all about telling the truth and confronting your own ignorance. At its best, comedy does just this, but it does so far more gently than philosophy, and for this very reason, comedy will always be a far better consciousness-raising tool. Comedy is far more of a threat to the powerful than philosophy, as it can get through to people who are never going to hear the harsh criticism of a Socrates.
When comedians start playing the part of cultural physician, they can get lots of otherwise resistant people to consume the cure because it’s sugar-coated with humor. If I were to write an updated version of Machiavelli’s Prince, it would include the following advice to the tyrants of this world: Laugh at the philosopher, fear the comedian. And if I were to write a letter to Hannah Gadsby, it would conclude with the following entreaty: Please reconsider your decision.
—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)