Jokes as Common Goods

Surely Advent of all seasons is the time when one ought especially to remember St Benedict’s warning against “speech provoking to laughter,” (Regula Benedicti, VI) and yet seldom have I heard such uproarious laughter in the monastery as at chapter the other day. We were discussing the fact that during the recitation of the rosary some people omit the “Amen” after the Our Fathers. Now, in German the last petition of the Our Father runs “erlöse uns von dem Bösen. Amen”. (deliver us from evil. Amen.) One of my confreres (the venerable old man pictured above) recounted that as a child he always heard it (an therefore prayed it) as,  “erlöse uns von den bösen Damen”. (Deliver us from the evil ladies).

Why is it that on hearing really good jokes one immediately wants to tell them to others? Marcus Berquist takes this fact as a kind of paradigmatic case of the attitude that follows on the communicability of the common good:

A private good, in the strict sense, can only be the good of a single individual –it cannot at the same time be the good of another individual. My shoes, for example, are my private good; the cannot be given to another without being lost to me. Other goods, however, are universal or common in their goodness, in that they can belong to many at once, with[out] ceasing to be the good of each one of that many. They are shared by many without being lost or diminished in the sharing. […] Thus, one does not try to appropriate such a good; rather, one seeks to share it with others. (This attitude is illustrated even in small matters. When one hears an especially good joke, one can hardly wait to tell it to others; it is “to good to keep to oneself.”)

“To good to keep to oneself” is almost a definition of common good, and yet, is a joke really a common good? A bit lower Berquist writes:

One [natural consequence of recognizing a good as common] is that one orders oneself to the good, rather than the good to oneself. Wonder, reverence, and dedication naturally result from recognizing that one is exceeded, in some cases infinitely, by the good one desires.

It would be strange to say of people enjoying a joke that they are ordered to it rather than the other way around. The solution surely lies in the distinction between useful, pleasant and honest goods, which Berquist calls “more fundamental” than the distinction between common and private goods. A common good in the fullest sense is a common honest good, but jokes are pleasant goods. Or are they? What is a joke exactly? It seems to me that there are basically two ways of looking at jokes, what we me might call the Prussian and the Austrian way, or the American and the English way. But that distinction deserves a post of its own…


2 thoughts on “Jokes as Common Goods

  1. Pingback: On Jokes and the Difference between Austria and Prussia « Sancrucensis

  2. Pingback: In Commemoratione Omnium Defunctorum Qui Sub Regula Sancti Patris Nostri Benedicti Militaverunt | Sancrucensis

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