The Virtue of Wit: A Lost Art

So this horse walks up to the bar, and the bartender looks at him and says, “Why the long face?”

Before kids, I thought I was a pretty funny guy. Nowadays, I walk around with a somewhat furrowed brow and a slightly worried look. Bill Cosby hit the nail on the head when he (back in better days) said, “My wife was a beautiful woman. . . Until we had children.” I love my kids dearly, but he was right. Kids have a way of surgically removing the funny bone and replacing it with a sink full of dirty dishes.

But I still like the idea of being funny, as most people do. And I still make meager attempts at illiciting a chuckle when and where I can. After all, laughter is one of my favorite things. When laughter comes to us in an appropriate context and for appropriate reasons, it is a wonderful gift: “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Prov. 17:22).

However, there is much to the art of being truly funny, and it is a lost art. I have one friend who really has it. He is incredibly natural at humor, and wherever he goes, the people around him are laughing. Not so for most of us. Really, only a few people in the world are capable of hosting a late night talk show.

For the Christian, like everything else, humor must be understood in light of the Word of God. It must never be used to harm, berate, or turn the minds of listeners in a nasty direction. Instead, it is an art that needs to be developed carefully for the glory of God.

In his book, How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, Dr. James S. Spiegel, a Philosophy professor at Taylor University, devotes a chapter to the virtue of wit. He writes:

It’s one thing… to start telling a few jokes; it’s quite another to strive for true wit. Like all the virtues, wit is a trait that one does not simply will into existence. It takes time and internal exposure to the right sorts of influences to develop it. Moreover, wit requires a complex of other characteristics, each of which we should strive to nurture in its own right. The witty person must be imaginative. She must possess a trained ability to come up with new or creative connections between objects, contexts, and persons. Doing so requires knowledge about various subjects, but just as important is an aesthetic sensibility. It’s no accident that the study of humor falls within the domain of aesthetics, the philosophy of art. Humor is artistic, and one might say that the witty person is skilled at the art of making people laugh.

According to Spiegel, to be truly witty, a person needs to be imaginative, have a strong amount of knowledge and the ability to access it quickly, and a strong sense of aesthetics. I think this is the reason a drunk redneck really isn’t that funny, even if he thinks he is. His imagination is very limited (so he swears a lot), his knowledge base is tiny (so he swears a lot), and his aesthetic sensibilities are at their highest when he listens to old Garth Brooks albums.

That was pretty funny. Wasn’t it?