Humor is an essential element of human existence. C.S. Lewis recognized that our very nature was molded to incorporate joy and laughter.
In a great article on the subject, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall introduces the subject with the story of an early Christian monk who wrote this truth.
In the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number.
But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.
But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified as the blessing of hilaritas as essential to Christian living, even if you were an ascetic monk and especially if you are a lawyer or accountant.
Amen. We can all, whatever our vocation, do with an extra dose of hilaritas. After all, it’s good for your health.
I highly commend Lindvall’s entertaining article, which you can read online here or download as a pdf here.
It is filled with references to C.S. Lewis, as one would expect from the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.
One particularly beneficial section of the article is his discussion of the four types of laughter mentioned by Screwtape in his epistles.
If you don’t have access to your copy of The Screwtape Letters, the following quotation will provide the context for Lindvall’s remarks.
Because Screwtape is a devil, viewing God as the “Enemy,” his viewpoint is reversed. Keep that in mind as you read.
I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.
Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell . . .
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.
Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.
It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it,
So, a wise person will savor joy and fun, along with jokes proper that are offered in good taste. But they will remain wary of flippancy, from which more ill than good usually flows.
Have a joy-filled life.