Why cheerfulness is next to godliness.
John Lloyd | August 2009 issue
There’s a mysterious passage in the Bible, that goes like this: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This passage has the unmistakable ring of truth, which is curious, because it also appears to be meaningless gibberish. At first sight, that is. The word “Word” in this context is translated from the Greek logos, which means “word,” of course, but in the particular sense of “that which expresses the inner thought.” So we can retranslate the sentence as, “In the beginning was the Thought and the Thought was with God and the Thought was God.” Now this is getting interesting, because in all the great Eastern religions, consciousness is considered the ground of being, preceding the clumsy and annoying business of matter.
Logos can be understood, more generally, to mean “speech” or “conversation.” So another translation is, “In the beginning was Speech…” This is consistent with Genesis, wherein the first thing that happens is God says “Let there be light.” In this reading, speech is more ancient than the laws of physics, which, again, may not be very scientific (at least not yet) but is quite interesting.
Now when logos passes into Latin, it takes on yet another meaning, one that, for all I know, preserves a long-lost original Greek usage that didn’t make it into Liddell & Scott’s dictionary.
. And that meaning is “joke”: “In the beginning was the Joke and the Joke was with God and the Joke was God.” And you know, ever since I found that translation I’ve been a lot more cheerful.
If you look at the universe as a tremendously complex, very amusing practical joke, it suddenly starts to make sense. It also offers a hopeful suggestion as to how to behave. If life is neither a meaningless gene machine nor a cruel and vicious vale of tears but a damn good gag, the only logical solution is to laugh—which is convenient, because that’s what I do for a living.
Good jokes, like good spiritual scriptures, must contain a hidden truth. Take this line from the American comedienne Phyllis Diller, which perfectly expresses society’s paradoxical attitude toward education: “We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up.” Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to become stupid.”
The best jokes are also wise. Wisdom is different from intelligence because an intelligent person can be seriously bad—and throughout history, many of the brightest people have been seriously bad—but you cannot be wise without being good. Even the bleakest jokes contain a suggestion that the way things are isn’t the way they should be, and that you really ought to do something about that, as in this quip by 20th-century poet W.H. Auden: “We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” Wisdom isn’t only on the side of the angels; it’s also timeless.
In my opinion, there are only two questions worth asking: Why are we here? and What shall we do about it? It took me a long time to come to this conclusion—more than 40 years, in fact. I came across what was to me at the time a most baffling assertion by Buddha: “In the search for truth, there are certain questions that are not important. Of what material is the universe constructed? Is the universe eternal? Are there limits or not to the universe? What is the ideal form of organization for human society? If a man were to postpone his search for enlightenment until such questions were solved, he would die before he found the path.”
This has the unnerving hallmark of a previously unperceived truth and, equally important, it has the sense of the world turned upside down, just like jokes. Jokes are surprise-generators; they force you to look at the world in a different way.
So what are we here for? Your modern neo-Darwinist is perfectly certain—for no reason. That just doesn’t cut it for me. I mean, it may be true, but it doesn’t help me get through Thursday. I prefer this take by the composer Aaron Copland (simply replace the word “music” with the word “life”): “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’”
I don’t know the meaning of things any more than Copland knew the meaning of music. But it’s certainly a lot of fun speculating about it. Jokes and laughter enrich and stimulate the journey. This line by Oliver Edwards, quoted in James Boswell’s The Life of Johnson, sums it up: “I have tried too, in my time, to be a philosopher, but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”
John Lloyd is the British television producer behind the historical sitcom Blackadder
and the satirical puppet show Spitting Image. With John Mitchinson, he’s the author of If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People?, out from Harmony in August.