Aristotle considered wit a virtue, but took great pains delineating the boundaries of wit, which he separated from what he termed buffoonery and boorishness. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle noted wit arises from a state of relaxation and leisure – which he considered necessary elements of life – and that its chief aim was to provide tasteful amusement. Adhering to his overall philosophy of remaining within the golden mean, Aristotle defined the ideal form of wit as that which avoids vulgar buffoonery (carrying humor to excess and striving at humor at all costs) and boorishness (the inability to create or accept humor). In Aristotle’s mind, true wit was a matter of good-breeding, self-control, and taste.
My notion of wit aligns with Aristotle’s idea for the most part. For me, true wit is humor that brings joy. It is light and sweet; it reveals, exposes, or expands a simple truth, thereby expanding our understanding of the world and ourselves. It is a clever play on words, but more than that, it is a clever play on words that makes us pause with delight and say, “Hey, I never thought of that before” or “I never looked at it that way before.” Also, in the most ideal sense, true wit rests upon solid metaphysical assumptions about Reality and Creation, assumptions that instantly and intuitively mark the boundaries of what Aristotle defined as the limits of taste and tact. In my opinion, the best kind of wit draws its inspiration from love, more specifically Christian love.
Having written the above, I believe Aristotle’s concept of the employing the golden mean to wit – of being tactful and ready-witted – has been rendered practically impossible in our contemporary world, and if it has not been rendered impossible, being tactful and ready witted today means something altogether different from what Aristotle intended. Most of this stems from the contemporary West’s flawed, dying, or non-existent metaphysical assumptions, though much could also be attributed to what is current notions of being “well-bred”, to use Aristotle’s phrase. Encountering true wit – wit that exudes intelligence, shrewdness, insight, and understanding, wit that brings delight and joy, wit based in love and faith –is increasingly rare today. What we tend to encounter instead are the extremes Aristotle mentions – buffoonery and boorishness. Today, the former is passed as off as wit, while the latter functions to exclude true wit from the public sphere altogether.
Contemporary vulgar buffoonery resides primarily in facetiousness, which is erroneously equated with wittiness. In my mind the key difference between wittiness and facetiousness is motivation. One displays wit when one treats a serious issue in a deliberately appropriate way through humor or clever remark. Facetiousness, on the other hand, treats serious issues in a deliberately inappropriate way through humor and clever remarks. In other words, a witty person can be genuinely funny or insightful about a serious topic while a facetious person can only be inappropriately funny and, usually, rather witless about a serious topic.
In my opinion, the chief cause of this may be rooted in metaphysics. Facetiousness has effectively replaced wit in the West because the West has turned its back on meaning, logic, sense, reason, and Reality and has instead embraced illogic, nonsense, un-reason, and Absurdity (or Virtuality). Such conditions lead to relativism and meaninglessness, both of which challenge the seriousness of any issue. Ultimately, this state of mind demands serious issues be treated inappropriately. Facetiousness is the hallmark of those for whom life is nothing more than a massive cosmic joke. Very little can be taken seriously when this perspective is adopted, and everything must, by default, be approached with flippancy and frivolity. Wit is reduced to jeers and sneers rarely rising above hostile sarcasm, vitriolic irony, or open contempt at the ridiculousness of veritably serious issues. In the end, this is all supported by a solid foundation of scorn and derision, perhaps even hatred.
Contemporary boorishness tends to appreciate and encourage vulgar buffoonery, but it mostly challenges and restricts real wit, which is regarded as offensive and in bad taste. The simple truths real wit reveals and expands are anathema to the boorish. Unlike buffoons, boors are incapable of making jokes, and even more incapable of taking them. Contemporary boors rarely experience relaxation or leisure. They are forever tense and wound-up. In keeping with the inversion inherent in the West, contemporary boors support attacks against real serious issues, but will not tolerate any jests against their own inverted “serious” issues. Within this framework, meaning, logic, and reason are open targets, while absurdity, nonsense, and stupidity are heavily protected.
To sum up, much of what accounts for wit today is really nothing more than facetiousness. The best kind of wit displays intelligence, shrewdness, insight and understanding all emanating from an honest recognition of Reality. True wit provides joy and delight, but more than that it reveals and expands truth in a playful and amusing way and helps increase our understanding of the world and ourselves. Conversely, facetiousness strives to ridicule and mock truth. Facetiousness also works to support lies. Facetious people refuse to treat serious issues appropriately because they cannot accept the truths serious issues contain. At its core, facetiousness is a thin veil for nihilism – the outright rejection of all moral and religious principles and the belief that life is essentially meaningless.
Aristotle’s advice to be tactful and maintain the golden mean in matters of wit are essentially meaningless within the context of our contemporary milieu because most attempts to do so would immediately be regarded as offensive or in bad taste. In light of this, Aristotle’s notions about the golden mean must be discarded and replaced instead wit based on proper metaphysical assumptions. Though this will be considered untactful and ill-bred by most contemporary people, to do otherwise would be to render oneself a buffoon or a boor.
It goes without saying that true wit will be mocked, ridiculed, and misunderstood if employed in the wrong circles. Nevertheless, I believe true wit is needed in life. It serves a valuable purpose. Thus, facetiousness should be avoided and the sharing of true wit must be restricted to certain individuals and groups of people, more specifically, those whose metaphysical assumptions align with Reality. To do otherwise is pointless today – not only would it dispel any sense of leisure and amusement, but the act would be akin to casting pearls before swine.