Thursday, July 3, 2014

Isaac Watts on Humor


I found some cautionary comments on humor in the 1727 book The Improvement of the Mind by Dr. Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  Dr. Watts was an English Nonconformist minister, a noted logician, and a famous writer of such mighty hymns as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."  Dr. Watts's wisdom deserves attention, even if  -- or perhaps especially if -- it conflicts with my inclinations.  I may have to consider moderating my affection for literary silliness from the time of the Great War.


[Note: ignis fatuus refers to a marsh light also known as will-o'-the-wisp.  Ignis fatuus is a particularly appropriate metaphor to adorn the following discussion, as the term is derived from the Medieval Latin for "foolish fire."] 


From the 1885 abridgement by Stephen Fellows (jettisoning most of Watts's theological foundations):

Chapter I.  General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge

XII.  He that would raise his judgment above the vulgar rank of mankind, and learn to pass a just sentence on persons and things, must take heed of a fanciful temper of mind and a humorous conduct in his affairs.  Fancy and humor, early and constantly indulged, may expect an old age overrun with follies.

The notion of a humorist is one that is greatly pleased, or greatly displeased, with little things; who sets his heart much upon matters of very small importance; who has his will determined every day by trifles, his actions seldom directed by the reason and nature of things, and his passions frequently raised by things of little moment.  Where this practice is allowed, it will insensibly warp the judgment to pronounce little things great, and tempt you to lay a great weight upon them.  In short, this temper will incline you to pass an unjust value on almost every thing that occurs; and every step you take in this path is just so far out of the way to wisdom.

XIII.  For the same reason have a care of trifling with things important and momentous, or of sporting with things awful and sacred: do not indulge a spirit of ridicule, as some witty men do on all occasions and subjects.  This will as unhappily bias the judgment on the other side, and incline you to pass a low esteem on the most valuable objects.  Whatsoever evil habit we indulge in practice, it will insensibly obtain a power over our understanding and betray us into many errors.

{ Jocander is ready with his jests to answer every thing that he hears; he reads books in the same jovial humor, and has gotten the art of turning every thought and sentence into merriment.  How many awkward and irregular judgments does this man pass upon solemn subjects, even when he designs to be grave and in earnest!  His mirth and laughing humor is formed into habit and temper, and leads his understanding shamefully astray.  You will see him wandering in pursuit of a gay flying feather, and he is drawn by a sort of ignis fatuus into bogs and mire almost every day of his life. }


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