Book 4: The Several Moral Virtues and Vices—Continued.

Chapter 8: Of wittiness.

Again, since relaxation is an element in our life, and one mode of relaxation is amusing conversation, it seems that in this respect also there is a proper way of mixing with others; i.e. that there are things that it is right to say, and a right way of saying them: and the same with hearing; though here also it will make a difference what kind of people they are in whose presence you are speaking, or to whom you are listening.

And it is plain that it is possible in these matters also to go beyond, or to fall short of, the mean.

Now, those who go to excess in ridicule seem to be buffoons and vulgar fellows, striving at all costs for a ridiculous effect, and bent rather on raising a laugh than on making their witticisms elegant and inoffensive to the subject of them. While those who will never say anything laughable themselves, and frown on those who do, are considered boorish and morose. But those who jest gracefully are called witty, or men of ready wit (εὐτράπελοι), as it were ready or versatile men.

For a man’s character seems to reveal itself in these sallies or playful movements, and so we judge of his moral constitution by them, as we judge of his body by its movements.

But through the prominence given to ridiculous things, and the excessive delight which most people take in amusement and jesting, the buffoon is often called witty because he gives delight. But that there is a difference, and a considerable difference, between the two is plain from what we have said.

An element in the character that observes the mean in these matters is tact. A man of tact will only say and listen to such things as it befits an honest man and a gentleman to say and listen to; for there are things that it is quite becoming for such a man to say and to listen to in the way of jest, and the jesting of a gentleman differs from that of a man of slavish nature, and the jesting of an educated from that of an uneducated man.

This one may see by the difference between the old comedy and the new: the fun of the earlier writers is obscenity, of the later innuendo; and there is no slight difference between the two as regards decency.

Can good jesting, then, be defined as making jests that befit a gentleman, or that do not pain the hearer, or that even give him pleasure? Nay, surely a jest that gives pleasure to the hearer is something quite indefinite, for different things are hateful and pleasant to different people.

But the things that he will listen to will be of the same sort [as those that he will say, whatever that be]: jests that a man can listen to he can, we think, make himself.

So then there are jests that he will not make [though we cannot exactly define them]; for to make a jest of a man is to vilify him in a way, and the law forbids certain kinds of vilification, and ought perhaps also to forbid certain kinds of jesting.

The refined and gentlemanly man, therefore, will thus regulate his wit, being as it were a law to himself.

This then is the character of him who observes the mean, whether we call him a man of tact or a man of ready wit.

The buffoon, on the other hand, cannot resist an opportunity for a joke, and, if he can but raise a laugh, will spare neither himself nor others, and will say things which no man of refinement would say, and some of which he would not even listen to.

The boor, lastly, is wholly useless for this kind of intercourse; he contributes nothing, and takes everything in ill part. And yet recreation and amusement seem to be necessary ingredients in our life.

In conclusion, then, the modes just described of observing the mean in social life are three in number, and all have to do with conversation or joint action of some kind: but they differ in that one has to do with truth, while the other two are concerned with what is pleasant; and of the two that are concerned with pleasure, one finds its field in our amusements, the other in all other kinds of social intercourse.


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