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Ridicule and Truth.
IN a recently published account of Shaftesbury's philosophy reference is made to a very curious dispute touching the relation of ridicule to truth, which arose out of certain propositions laid down by Shaftesbury in his Essay on Wit and Humour. Although the controversy can hardly be called an important one, if judged by the thoroughness and force of the arguments used, it touches a subject of vital and permanent interest, and a brief review of it may fitly lead the way to a new consideration of the problem it raises.
In the controversies carried on between the orthodox theologians and the deists in the last century the weapons of ridicule were freely resorted to. The champions of the light of natural reason, as opposed to the communicated light of a miraculous revelation, were eager to discover as many absurdities as possible, whether of historical statement, of ethical precept, or of any other kind, in the current orthodox opinions of the time. Into the worth of the particular species of ridicule thus employed, as measured by the interests of truth, we need not enter. "The reader," it has been said, "of the deist controversies may indeed be inclined to suspect at first sight that the ridicule was often rather a substitute for reasoning than a supplement." It was perfectly natural that the orthodox party should dislike this mode of treatment, even though perhaps they were not ungrateful when a Bentley or a Swift turned the tables on the deists, treating them with their own full measure of scornful laughter. And it was equally natural that the other side should assert their full right to employ this mode of attack.
The formal defence of this right was undertaken by Shaftesbury in his Wit and Humour. "Truth," he writes, "it is supposed, may bear all lights; and one of those principal lights or natural mediums by which things are to be viewed in order to a thorough recognition is Ridicule itself, or that manner of proof by which we discern whatever is liable to just raillery in any subject." (Part I. sect. ii.) From this passage it might at first sight seem that Shaftesbury was pleading for the employment of ridicule as a test of speculative truth or propositions relating to facts. But he does not distinctly put forth this view. Even in this extract one may see that he has in his mind rather objects of moral and æsthetic esteem than objects of intellectual belief. And this interpretation is fully borne out by a perusal of later parts of the work. Shaftesbury seems to admit that ridicule has for its proper object rather
the emotional dispositions and traits of moral character which enter into a belief than the logical basis of this belief. He speaks in one place of humour as a thing " which Nature has given as a more lenitive remedy against vice, and a kind of specific against superstition and melancholy delusion." (Part IV. sect. i.) It is manifest, indeed, that when Shaftesbury is talking of ridicule as the test of truth, he includes under this term, and means to render prominent, the proper objects of ethical and æsthetic approbation. In other words, the true is made to cover the good and the beautiful. And this intimate connection of the three great aims of our mental activity was natural enough in Shaftesbury, whose cast of intellect and mode of sentiment predisposed him to follow Plato in the imaginative construction of one large and splendid ideal, embracing all that is valued and sought by man, and fitted to call forth a sentiment of ardent worship and admiring awe.
How far this fusion of apparently distinct ideas under the term "truth" is justifiable in relation to the employment of ridicule will be discussed later on. Here it is enough to call attention to the vagueness of the term as employed first of all by Shaftesbury, and afterwards by the other parties in the dispute. The reader must bear in mind that throughout the controversy writers understand by the "truth" which is to be tested rather something moral or æsthetic than anything purely intellectual; rather the excellence or baseness of some trait of character, or its beauty or deformity, than the truth or falsity of a belief.
Shaftesbury's plea for unlimited liberty in the use of ridicule was answered by the bulky and ponderous if not too keen logic of Warburton, in the dedication to Free Thinkers prefixed to the first edition of his Divine Legation. The reader of the dispute may be inclined to smile as he sees the airy and elegant figure of the refined optimist confronted by the somewhat unwieldy form of the litigious and vehement demonstrator of the truth of the Mosaic religion. One might have expected that Shaftesbury's vague contention would fare badly in the hands of so massive if not always so discriminating an intellect. And the reader is forced to allow that the bishop has, on the whole, the best of the argument. He urges that the unbridled liberty of ridicule claimed by Shaftesbury would lead to the grossest abuses, and pours out his haughty indignation and contempt in the exclamation: "For what greater affront to the severity of reason, the sublimity of truth, and the sanctity of religion than to subject them to the impure touch of every scurrilous Buffoon!" He quotes a remark of Wycherley, that "wit is generally false reasoning." So far from ridicule being the test of what is rational, the converse proposition is the truth of the matter: reason is the test of ridicule. He proceeds to show, against the affirmation of Shaftesbury that "truth cannot be obscured however disguised, nor consequently be made ridiculous however represented," how a statement, in itself not ridiculous, may be made so by the mere substitution of a vulgar for a decent term. It will be noticed that Warburton keeps
more distinctly in view than his predecessor the application of ridicule to logical propositions having truth or falsity. At the same time he sees clearly enough that in most cases in which this application is made it is not the logical quality of the affirmation which forms the object of the ridicule, but some of its extra-logical aspects or associations.
The other side of the question was taken up and argued by Kames, the author of Elements of Criticism, and the poet Akenside. The former tells us that in accurate terms the question is "whether the sense of ridicule be the proper test for distinguishing ridiculous objects from those which are not so?" "To answer this question," he continues, "with precision, I must premise that ridicule is not a subject of reasoning, but of sense or taste." This seems to mean that the special object of intellectual or logical appreciation, namely truth or falsity in propositions, is never at the same time the object of the sentiment of ridicule. The writer uses this argument in order to combat Warburton's proposition, that reason must first show whether a thing is really ridiculous before we have any right to laugh at it. At the same time it cuts against Shaftesbury's contention that the sense of ridicule is fitted to test what is reasonable and unreasonable.
This disposition to separate the provinces of reason and the sentiment of the ludicrous becomes still more distinct in Akenside's arguments (Pleasures of Imagination, note K to Book III.) The object of ridicule, he tells us, is not speculative truth, but actions, passions, &c. By this he seems to understand the quality of moral deformity. He urges that to ask whether ridicule be a test of truth is in other words to enquire whether that which is ridiculous can be morally true. Here Akenside clearly identifies truth with moral right- . ness. "It is most evident," he continues, "that as in a metaphysical proposition offered to the understanding for its assent, the faculty of reason, examining the terms of the proposition, and finding an idea which was supposed equal to another to be in fact unequal, of consequence rejects the proposition as a falsehood; so, in objects offered to the mind for its esteem or applause the faculty of ridicule, finding an incongruity in the claim, urges the mind to reject it with laughter and contempt." Here it is evident that while a close parallelism is drawn between the activities of reason and "the faculty of ridicule," the two functions of the mind are regarded as mutually exclusive. The understanding recognises what is logically false, the sense of ridicule what is really unworthy of esteem. This point, however, will be elucidated more fully directly.
Warburton replied to both of these defenders of the liberty of ridicule in the preface to a later edition of his Divine Legation. He accuses the author of Elements of Criticism of shifting the question from the point somewhat vaguely fixed by Shaftesbury. The latter had, ostensibly at least, raised the question whether ridicule be one of the proper tests of
truth. His successors contended for the very different proposition that only the sentiment of ridicule can judge what is ridiculous. It is evident, however, that Warburton himself had really paved the way for this diversion by contending against Shaftesbury that reason has to decide what is really laughable. In answer to the arguments of Akenside and his companion in favour of a complete separation of the two fields of speculative truth and the ludicrous, Warburton continues to urge that the function of reason may be interfered with by a too free indulgence in laughter. "When our taste for ridicule gives us a sensible pleasure in a ridiculous representation of any object, we do not stay to examine whether that representation be a true one, but conclude it to be so from the pleasure it affords us." He adds: "When reason, the only test of truth I know of, has performed its office, and unmasked hypocrisy and formal error, then ridicule, I think, may be fairly called in to quicken the operation." These quotations appear to show that what Warburton meant by calling reason the test of ridicule is, that reflection has to determine, not whether a quality attributed to an object is ludicrous, but whether the object has the precise quality ascribed to it. He would make reflection a preparation for ridicule, not a substitute for it. Warburton's attempt to define the relation between the two activities is no doubt important as pointing to the moral aspects of ridicule, which may or may not be an allowable action under given circumstances. Whether, however, he has here succeeded in accurately fixing the relations of the two mental operations is a question to be discussed later on.
In his “Life of Akenside" (Lives of the Poets), Johnson seeks, in his own curt, and not too discriminating fashion, to sum up the results of the discussion. "If," he writes, " ridicule be applied to any position as the test of truth, it will then become a question whether such ridicule is just; and this can only be decided by the application of truth as the test of ridicule." In illustration of what he means, he goes on: 'Two men fearing, one a real, another a fancied danger, will be for a while equally exposed to the inevitable consequences of cowardice, contemptuous censure, and ludicrous representation; and the true state of both cases must be known before it can be decided whose terror is rational and whose ludicrous; who is to be pitied and who despised." This agrees substantially with Warburton's view. The object of laughter being here terror before an illusory danger, it is sufficiently obvious that the fact of the reality or the unreality of the danger must first be decided before the spectacle can be said to be really ludicrous. It is, however, not quite accurate to say that truth is here the "test" of ridicule.
A review of the whole controversy is apt to suggest that each writer in turn gets involved in the meshes of a verbal snare by seeking to uphold a plain paradox. To a mind unperplexed by such verbal subtleties it probably seems self-evident that ridicule can no more be the
test of truth, whether speculative or other, than reason the test of the ridiculous. The only criterion of logical correctness is, one supposes, that our intellects perceive this quality, and similarly the only criterion of the ridiculous is that our sentiment of laughter responds to its appropriate object. These propositions appear indeed to an impartial mind to be little more than roundabout definitions of what we mean by truth and the ridiculous. If this be so, however, how does it happen that so much thought has been spent on such mistaken issues? What is there in the relations of the true and the false, the good and the bad, on the one side, and the ludicrous on the other, to lead people to confuse the provinces of the two in the way they appear to have done? Let us look a little more closely at the nature of these mental activities, in order to see whether the prima facie view of the matter is the correct one; and, if so, what has led to this confusion of distinct mental acts both by those who assert that ridicule is the test of truth, and by those who maintain (in appearance at least) the converse proposition.
First of all, then, we will interpret truth in the sense commonly adopted by Shaftesbury and his followers, namely as connoting what is conformable to our moral and æsthetic sentiments.
There are two contentions here put forward, each of which needs to be considered apart. On the side of Shaftesbury it is urged that ridicule is a test of moral or æsthetic value. On the side of Warburton it seems to be maintained that the moral or æsthetic judgment must be called in as a test of what is truly ridiculous. We will first of all examine the former view.
And here we must try, at starting, to give a precise meaning to the expression "test" or criterion, as used by Shaftesbury and his followers. It is evident that ridicule is here regarded as a negative test; that is to say, as something which proves the absence and not the presence of a quality. This quality, moreover, must be understood to include all degrees of moral or æsthetic worth, down to the zero point of bare approbation. Ridicule is said to prove the absence, not simply of exalted virtue or of high beauty, but of all moral and aesthetic worth whatsoever. According to this interpretation, to laugh at a piece of conduct shows that it is neither virtuous nor right, neither noble nor æsthetically satisfactory.
And now let us see for a moment what is needed in order to establish this conclusion. It might at first sight appear as if the proof of the statement that ridicule is the test of moral and æsthetic worth involved the establishment of two distinct propositions: (a) Every object destitute of moral or æsthetic worth is ridiculous; (b) the converse proposition: All ridiculous objects are such as lack moral or æsthetic worth. And this would be so if the worth test were used in its full and proper sense, as it is employed, for example, by chemists. If A is a test of B, B must always be present when A is present, and never present except when A is present. But it is plain that Shaftesbury and his companions