instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jokes and jocose lies

Early in his book On Lying, St. Augustine makes one thing perfectly clear:
Setting aside, therefore, jokes, which have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true: touching which kind of discourse, whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds, is another question which we have not at this time taken in hand to clear; but setting jokes apart, the first point to be attended to, is, that a person should not be thought to lie, who lies not.
Later, he writes about people
who by a lie wish to please men, not that they may do wrong or bring reproach upon any man; for we have already before put away that kind; but that they may be pleasant in conversation. These... lust to please by agreeable talk, and yet would rather please by saying things that were true, but when they do not easily find true things to say that are pleasant to the hearers, they choose rather to tell lies than to hold their tongues. Yet it is difficult for these sometimes to undertake a story which is the whole of it false; but most commonly they interweave falsehood with truth, where they are at a loss for something sweet.

Now these ...sorts of lies do no harm to those who believe them, because they are not deceived concerning any matter of religion and truth, or concerning any profit or advantage of their own. It suffices them, to judge the thing possible which is told, and to have faith in a man of whom they ought not rashly to think that he is telling a lie. For where is the harm of believing that such an one's father or grandfather was a good man, when he was not? Or that he has served with the army even in Persia, though he never set foot out of Rome?

But to the persons who tell these lies, they do much harm: ... because they want to please people better than the truth.
St. Thomas identifies this kind of lie told "to please men" with the "kind of lie that is told in fun" mentioned by a gloss on Psalm 5:7 ("You will destroy all who speak a lie"); these he calls "jocose lies."

So far, so good. But St. Thomas also considers certain jokes -- which St. Augustine set aside since they "have never been accounted lies" -- as jocose lies, and therefore sins:
Objection 6. Further, apparently a lie is a sin because thereby we deceive our neighbor: wherefore Augustine says (Lib. De Mend. xxi): "Whoever thinks that there is any kind of lie that is not a sin deceives himself shamefully, since he deems himself an honest man when he deceives others." Yet not every lie is a cause of deception, since no one is deceived by a jocose lie; seeing that lies of this kind are told, not with the intention of being believed, but merely for the sake of giving pleasure...

Reply to Objection 6. An action may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, secondly, with regard to the agent. Accordingly a jocose lie, from the very genus of the action, is of a nature to deceive; although in the intention of the speaker it is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told...
Note that, having already concluded that "the essential notion of a lie is taken from formal falsehood, from the fact namely, that a person intends to say what is false," and that jocose lies are those told for the sake of pleasure, St. Thomas has to conclude that a joke in which a person intends to say what is false is a jocose lie. [Note also that the objection (at least as translated) seems to reduce the category of jocose lies to only jokes, which isn't consistent with St. Thomas's identification of "jocose lies" with St. Augustine's lies told "to please men."]

So, is St. Augustine right to set aside jokes, or is St. Thomas right to count them as jocose lies?

My answer: Can we say "both"/"and"?

More precisely: St. Augustine is right to set aside jokes, and St. Thomas is right that the essential notion of a lie is taken from the fact that a person intends to say what is false. What St. Thomas misses, I suggest, is that the way in which a joke is told is an essential part of the act of telling the joke. Tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions signify the content of one's mind as much as, and sometime more than, the words used. In the case of a joke, they say, "The words I am speaking do not represent my mind" -- and that is not a formal falsehood.

That said, the incongruity between spoken word and accompanying gesture, if not a moral fault in itself, does make for an inherently imperfect signification -- or, if you will, an easily determined equivocation, and even trivially determined equivocations need some sort of justification. Hence (at least in part) St. Augustine's words about "whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds." And hence, while I don't consider jokes told in a way that signifies they are jokes to be formal falsehoods, I don't think St. Thomas's contrary teaching is at all ridiculous, and I think we who disagree with him would still do well to consider how far our joking is consistent, not just with justice, but with prudence.