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Aristotle on The Necessity of High-Brow Mischief

Aristotle on The Necessity of High-Brow Mischief

"Wit is well-bred insolence."Aristotle, Rhetoric

When I was a freshman in college, I had a small role in a production of an insane play called Marat/Sade. On closing night, as the cast was loading out of the church basement, I was chatting with the rather brilliant literature major who had played Marat. His character had spent the entire play recumbent in a bathtub, and while everyone else hustled stuff out the door, he kicked back with a cigarette. A student with his hands full of props huffed over to scold him: “you know everybody is supposed to be helping, and that includes you!” He waited for it to land, but the lit major took a long drag, turned to me and said, “you know, Evan, self-righteousness is merely a lack of irony.”

The insolence of that response shocked me into uncontrollable laughter, and this quotation from Aristotle always makes me think of that moment.

The original quotation addresses the impulsiveness of the young, about which Aristotle has a lot to say:

All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently.…They love too much and hate too much, and the same thing with everything else. They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it; this, in fact, is why they overdo everything.…They are fond of fun and therefore witty, for wit is well-bred insolence.

Granted, there’s a grumpy grandpa vibe in there, but old man Aristotle also devised a fantastic definition of fun, as education plus insolence. (“well-bred” is also sometimes translated as “educated”). I think we can all appreciate the difference in kind between the smart, subversive, irreverent kind of insolence, and the other kind exhibited by your crass, drunk uncle during the holidays. Almost as bad are the folks with excellent manners but devoid of any impiety, who put their impressive educations exclusively to work trying to kill fun wherever it may lurk.

Insolence can come in different guises. For instance, every great satirist combines a keen perception of things as they are with a fearless ability to question why social pieties exist in the first place, sometimes to poke fun at the powerful and the puritanical, to nudge hypocrisy into the light with a clever analogy or turn of phrase, or just to encourage us to rethink our assumptions.

A few great examples:

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” - Voltaire

“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” - Dorothy Parker

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” - H.L. Mencken

“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.” - Jane Austen

“Those whose conduct gives room for talk / Are always the first to attack their neighbors.” - Molière

“I can resist everything except temptation.” - Oscar Wilde

So who are our contemporary wits? Who is cleverly quipping about the powers that be? Do we have a contemporary Wilde, a modern-day Parker? If we wanted to go looking, history dictates that we would find them in the stocks, or perhaps obstinately facing down a finger-wag somewhere.

Please share your favorites in the comments, I’d love to hear some of your favorite scathing quotes from scandalous authors!

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