Tuesday, June 18, 2013


A Wise Man Is Known by Much Laughing

John Donne (1572-1631), "Paradox X: That a Wise Man is knowne by much laughing," from his Iuvenilia or Certaine Paradoxes and Problems, 2nd ed. (London: Printed by E[lizabeth] P[urslowe] for Henry Seyle, 1633), pp. 22-24 (paragraphs and bracketed material added by me):
Ride, si sapis, ├┤ puella ride [Martial 2.41.1: Laugh if you are wise, o girl, laugh]; If thou beest wise, laugh: for since the powers of discourse, reason, and laughter, bee equally proper unto Man onely, why shall not hee be onely most wise, who hath most use of laughing, as well as he who hath most of reasoning and discoursing?

I alwaies did, and shall understand that Adage,
Per risum multum possis cognoscere stultum,
That by much laughing thou maist know there is a foole, not that the laughers are fooles, but that among them there is some foole, at whom wisemen laugh: which moved Erasmus to put this as his first Argument in the mouth of his Folly, that shee made beholders laugh; for fooles are the most laughed at, and laugh the least themselves of any.

And Nature saw this faculty to bee so necessary in man, that shee hath beene content that by more causes we should be importuned to laugh, then to the exercise of any other power; for things in themselves utterly contrary, beget this effect; for wee laugh both at witty and absurd things: At both which sorts I have seen Men laugh so long, and so earnestly, that at last they have wept that they could laugh no more.

And therefore the Poet [Martial 3.20.1, 21, paraphrased] having described the quietnesse of a wise retired man, saith in one, what we have said before in many lines; Quid facit Canius tuus? ridet. [What is your Canius doing? He's laughing.] We have received that even the extremity of laughing, yea of weeping also, hath been accounted wisedome: And that Democritus and Heraclitus, the lovers of these Extremes, have been called lovers of wisedome. Now among our wisemen I doubt not, but many would be found who would laugh at Heraclitus weeping, none which weepe at Democritus laughing.

At the hearing of Comedies or other witty reports, I have noted some, which not understanding jests &c. have yet chosen this as the best meanes to seeme wise and understanding, to laugh when their Companions laugh; and I have presumed them ignorant, whom I have seene unmoved.

A foole if he come into a Princes Court, and see a gay man leaning at the wall, so glistering, and so painted in many colours that he is hardly discerned from one of the pictures in the Arras, hanging his body like an Iron-bound-chest, girt in and thicke ribb'd with broad gold laces, may (and commonly doth) envy him. But alas! shall a wiseman, which may not onely not envy, but not pitty this monster, do nothing? Yes, let him laugh.

And if one of these hot cholerike firebrands, which nourish themselves by quarrelling, and kindling others, spit upon a foole one sparke of disgrace, he, like a thatcht house quickly burning, may bee angry; but the wiseman, as cold as the Salamander, may not onely not bee angry with him, but not be sorry for him; therefore let him laugh: so he shall bee knowne a Man, because hee can laugh; a wise Man that hee knowes at what to laugh, and a valiant Man that he dares laugh: for he that laughs is justly reputed more wise, then at whom it is laughed.

And hence I thinke proceeds that which in these later formall times I have much noted; that now when our superstitious civility of manners is become a mutuall tickling flattery of one another, almost every man affecteth an humour of jesting, and is content to be deject, and to deforme himselfe, yea become foole to no other end that I can spie, but to give his wise Companion occasion to laugh; and to shew themselves in promptnesse of laughing is so great in wisemen, that I thinke all wisemen, if any wiseman doe read this Paradox, will laugh both at it and me.

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