There is no virtue in being humourless, dour or rude.
In fact, these things are vices – at least in those who are not, for example, depressed.
This may seem very obvious. But having just completed a novena to St Philip Neri, who was well known for his tenderness of heart and cheerfulness, it will be good to see how St Thomas Aquinas treats these matters.
St Thomas follows Aristotle in reckoning “a lack of mirth” as being a vice. He writes:
“In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. Wherefore Seneca [says]:
‘Let your conduct be guided by wisdom so that no one will think you rude, or despise you as a cad.’
“Now a man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher states.”
To be sure, an excess of mirth is a vice, as it is – by definition – excessive, or immoderate. St Thomas adds, following Aristotle, that an excess of mirth is more sinful than a lack of it.
But in addressing this question, St Thomas shows that certain Scripture passages that appear to frown on mirth pertain to an excess, not a proper and appropriate sense of humour. Being humourless is equivalent to being burdensome on others – and a vice.
As a related question, St Thomas explains Aristotle’s treatment of eutrapelia, the virtue which governs the right use of games, playfulness and humour.
He quotes Augustine, and links the text to eutrapelia:
“‘I pray thee, spare thyself at times: for it becomes a wise man sometimes to relax the high pressure of his attention to work.’ Now this relaxation of the mind from work consists in playful words or deeds. Therefore it becomes a wise and virtuous man to have recourse to such things at times. Moreover the Philosopher assigns to games the virtue of eutrapelia, which we may call “pleasantness.”
He explains further:
“Just as man needs bodily rest for the body’s refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labor, so too is it with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work.
“Consequently when he goes beyond his measure in a certain work, he is oppressed and becomes weary, and all the more since when the soul works, the body is at work likewise, in so far as the intellective soul employs forces that operate through bodily organs.
“Now sensible goods are connatural to man, and therefore, when the soul arises above sensibles, through being intent on the operations of reason, there results in consequence a certain weariness of soul, whether the operations with which it is occupied be those of the practical or of the speculative reason. Yet this weariness is greater if the soul be occupied with the work of contemplation, since thereby it is raised higher above sensible things; although perhaps certain outward works of the practical reason entail a greater bodily labor.
“In either case, however, one man is more soul-wearied than another, according as he is more intensely occupied with works of reason.”
So what is the remedy for this weariness?
“Just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul’s rest is pleasure, as stated above. Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason’s study.”
It’s important to note that this remedy is ordered towards restoring oneself for higher things, and not a sort of hedonism. He illustrates his point with an event from the life of St John the Evangelist:
“When some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break.
“Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man’s mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.”
A contemporary image is that of “sharpening the saw” – if one wants to cut down a tree, one needs to spend some time keeping one’s tools in good condition. Without investing this time, the job will take forever and be unnecessarily exhausting.
What “tools” are more central to our daily activities than our own persons and those around us?
All things reasonable and in moderation
We’ve seen that St Thomas condemns dourness, boorishness and a lack of mirth as vices. Nonetheless, he is not advocating buffoonery or excessive or senseless silliness. So what is proper playfulness, according to St Thomas? He says:
- It should not be indecent or injurious to others
- It should be balanced “should reflect something of an upright mind.”
- It should be in keeping with the persons, time, place and circumstances.
From these points, he concludes:
“These things are directed according to the rule of reason: and a habit that operates according to reason is virtue. Therefore there can be a virtue about games. The Philosopher gives it the name of wittiness eutrapelia, and a man is said to be pleasant through having a happy turn of mind, whereby he gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn: and inasmuch as this virtue restrains a man from immoderate fun, it is comprised under modesty.
So in other words, eutrapelia is the virtue of being playful and having fun, kept within the bounds of what is proper and reasonable, for the appropriate end of restoring oneself and those around us.
So while those who condemn buffoonery might be right to do so, they should be careful not to fall in the other extremes of dourness, humourlessness and boorishness.
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As another related issue, let’s look St Thomas’s discussion of the virtue of affability, rendered as “friendliness”:
“[I]t behooves man to be maintained in a becoming order towards other men as regards their mutual relations with one another, in point of both deeds and words, so that they behave towards one another in a becoming manner.
“Hence the need of a special virtue that maintains the becomingness of this order: and this virtue is called friendliness.”
We often hear people talk as if friendliness just means being nice, or “charitable”. In fact, St Thomas classes affability under the virtue of justice, not charity. Although it does not properly correspond to a debt which must be paid, he teaches that there is a sort of “debt of equity” which requires that “that we behave pleasantly to those among whom we dwell, unless at times, for some reason, it be necessary to displease them for some good purpose.”
From this definition we can see that the opposing vices are being pleasant or disagreeable when we shouldn’t be, through flattery or peevishness. St Thomas also says that clearly “it is not fitting to please and displease intimate friends and strangers in the same way” – and this applies to those who are our superiors or subjects in some way.
Acting like a normal human being
This may seem like a long-winded and technical means of proving something which is common sense for most people.
However, as we all know, common sense isn’t always common.
A key part of affability is just being normal and appropriate, acting “in a becoming manner” like a normal person, according to the manners of our society.
In other words, just being polite, in an ordinary way.
There are some Catholics who seem to think that observing the manners of our day is a sign of weakness, and that abrasive, rude and interrogative ways of talking are somehow doing service to the Gospel. There’s a time and a place for being abrasive: and everyday interactions aren’t it.
Others feel that the world is not polite enough, and that it is their duty to pick others up on excessive casualness – as if they have been appointed the teachers of etiquette. Now, I am by no means saying that our society’s standards of manners are perfect – of course not. But a boorish, hectoring insistence on the manners of an arbitrarily-chosen period of recent history is pedantic and – ironically – profoundly discourteous.
In such cases, is it not obvious that one should teach persons who want to learn, or whom one has a duty to teach – and otherwise be reasonably tolerant and affable towards everyone else?
The point of mirth, fun and affability is to bring joy and to restore oneself and others, in accordance with what is appropriate. All of these points can be summarised in this way:
“It belongs to the wise man to share his pleasures with those among whom he dwells, not lustful pleasures, which virtue shuns, but honest pleasures, according to Ps. 132:1, ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’”
Mirth, fun and affability, when in accordance with reason and moderation, are good things, and intended as means of recreation and rest for oneself and one’s neighbour. We see this in St Philip’s life: his mirth and good humour were aimed not just at hiding his own spiritual gifts and humbling the proud, but also at bringing joy to those who were sad.
Now, for some sad or depressed people, joking around will not be effective: but look again at how he treated the sad Fr Bernardi: he did not crack a joke – nor did he hector him as vain – but rather, he invited him for a run. St Philip’s tenderness was tempered for the recipient.
Sadness and depression are important topics in themselves, and in due course, I will publish a continuation of this piece, showing what these two saints teach us about them.
But in the meantime, as Cardinal Newman puts it succinctly in the meditation on St Philip’s cheerfulness:
“When he was called upon to be merry, he was merry; when he was called upon to feel sympathy with the distressed, he was equally ready.”
Would that we do the same.
Image: Sts Philip Neri and St Thomas Aquinas, with other saints, adoring Christ in the arms of his Mother. Source: Wiki Commons CC
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St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica Parts I-II and II-II. Available in the following formats:
- Trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (5 vols.) Ave Maria Press, Hardback (and UK readers) and Paperback (and UK readers). Also online at New Advent and iPieta.
- Trans. by the Aquinas Institute (8 vols.) Latin-English, based on the English Fathers’ translation, without the Supplementum parts. (And for UK readers) Supplementum I-68 (and UK readers) Supplementum 69-99 (and UK readers)
Some other books on St Philip Neri
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Always read the footnotes – sometimes containing hidden gems. See here for the full WM Review Reading List.
 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q168 A4.
 ST II-II Q168 A2
 Ibid, Q114 A1.
 Ibid, A2
 Ibid, A1