Sunday, July 24, 2016

We Need the Political Virtue of Merriness

On a recent road trip with my family, we listened to The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. What a delightful, indeed hilarious, set of adventures, of Robin Hood and his Merry Men living their merry life in the greenwood! That is the chief value of the book, and should be enough to convince you to read it (with your children, if you've got some). But the book raised another point for me as well: that to be merry is a virtue, and one that is necessary for a fulfilling political life--you know, the sort that we don't seem able to have nowadays.


In Pyle's telling, Robin Hood and his Merry Men steal only from those who have extorted money from others, such as a "baron or a squire, or a fat abbot or bishop." But when they are going to take from one of these authorities their ill-gotten gain, they first bring him to their home in Sherwood Forest, and give them a mighty feast, and perform various sports for their "guest", jesting all the while. They have a concern for justice and for the needs of the poor, but they have an equal concern for the joy of life, for the sheer pleasure of festivity and skill at arms and practical jokes. Their merriness is born of their consciousness of the equal frailty and fallenness of all men, and the sheer unmerited blessing that is life under the blue sky.

We moderns have, I think, a difficult time being merry, at feeling and acting out of that peculiar brand of humor and bodily lighthearted fun. We are adept at cynical or satirical humor (though not as some could do it--say, an Aristophanes or a Waugh), but humor or fun that is not explicitly in the service of some cause does not seem to be our forte--unless it be crude or sexual humor or fun, though not with the rich, vital bawdiness of a Shakespeare. To be merry requires that one have other virtues too: for example, that one know how to be solemn as well, and that one know how to celebrate a festival--and these are virtues that it is difficult to find. Ours is not the spirit of Robin Goodfellow or Robin Hood.

In the merry greenwood, there are no ranks, but all are meant to be merry alike. But this is only possible, only makes sense, because elsewhere there are ranks, because elsewhere the bishop and the baron do rank ahead of the commoner and the outlaw, and really do have rights over these others--albeit rights that they often, unjustly, overstep. Roles can be flattened at times by the merry festival only if there are roles. If all are equal at all times, then what is there to be merry about when we are taken out of the everyday world into the world of jest and joy?

The playfulness of merriness is not a childish, awkward playfulness, or a rude, insolent, cynical humor. It is a delight in all things encapsulated in the feast, the holiday, the flowing wine and the tables piled with meats, the mirthful faces in the firelight, the happiness of brotherhood, the dance around the Maypole, the delightful picnic by the waterside or the jolly drink and song at the public house. The merry man has nothing to prove to anyone, even to himself, unless it be his skill in bodily feats or in wit, and these for their own sake, and not for the sake of any gain. Merriness is not for the sake of anything but itself. The fact that Robin Hood and his Merry Men intend to despoil their guests of their ill-gotten gain after the merry-making is over takes nothing away from the fact that this is furthest from their minds while they are making merry; they are not merry so that or because of this despoilment or act of justice. No, to be merry is its own end. It is a step outside of the world of loss and gain, a world of gift-giving and receiving, of generosity beyond measure. Indeed, perhaps the despoilment of the wicked wealthy is itself a lifting of the wicked wealthy out of their world into this generous, jubilant spirit despite themselves--and not a few of those they entertain gain the Merry Men's merriness by emotional infection, and are sad to leave when the sports are over.

Aristotle says that a political community requires that the citizens be in some wise friends--not deep friends, but civic friends, united around their common life, taking joy in living together. Surely this requires some measure of merriness! If the citizens of a nation cannot make merry together, taking joy in their lives in the land together, eating and drinking in common not for the sake of deal-making or cause-furthering or securing sexual partners or anything else that is base, but for the sheer enjoyment of laughing together, then what is such a nation? Why should I wish to live with people who know nothing but the everyday grind of loss and gain? How can I call myself the fellow-citizen of a man that I cannot be jubilant with? To be able to live rich, full, human lives, we must of course know how to work for our living, but we must know when to stop working, when to engage in those activities that are done for their own sake, real leisure, intellectual or aesthetic or religious contemplation, and the merry joy of the public festival.

Goethe somewhere describes a visit to a Catholic festival, complete with booths selling food and drink, games of chance and performances of song and dance, and in the midst of all this gaudy hubbub, the pilgrimage procession to the shrine of the local saint. Merry-making is not a perfectly ordered thing, a neat thing. It is a suspension of the economic (though, wondrous to see, the economic can be taken up into it). I think that it is at Catholic festivals that I too have learned something of what it is to be merry (though I learned it also, if indeed I have learned it at all, from A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Christmas Carol and Manalive and Pastime with Good Company and Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity--the last of which shows just how close merriness is to the deeper and more eminently spiritual virtue of Joy), as Belloc too learned:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine
At least I've always found it so
Benedicamus Domino!

To be merry requires deep roots in the sacred and the solemn--and this too Pyle's book teaches us (as my wife recently argued.) Robin Hood and his Merry Men invoke the saints on all occasions--in prayers and in oaths, the sacred so immersing their lives that it bubbles up into their jests, and their jests reach down into their faith. Merriness is a natural component of the religious life, and one that even, perhaps, can be taken up into the supernatural life. We cannot be merry if we cannot be solemn; if we cannot be solemn we can only be light or silly or cynical or crude or some other lesser brand of humor which is always looking to some goal or advantage. To have lives together worth having, to have a politics worthy of the name, we must be religious men and we must be merry men.

What do I propose? Our political lives are the public face of our lives together. There are, of course, intimate sides to our lives together too, the time spent at table or hearth or bed in the private home, and these are in some sense political. But my concern is not for these, but for the fullness of our political lives. If we would escape the coarseness and the crudity, the lust for the gain and the lust for flesh that are increasingly the public face of our lives together, we must together reach down deep to the solemn and the merry. We must hold festivals. We must suspend work and home life frequently (as the medievals did on any and all saint days, and at all the principal seasons) and come together on common and green and plaza to merrily drink and dance--always remembering that each of these locales stands before a church, in which we offer praise, which is itself tinged with merriness. How can a nation be a nation if it does not together, publicly, take joy in its gods or its saints, and in the life that binds it together?

(Hark at me, writing so seriously and so long about what is so light and joyful! Truly, I have a lesson or two to learn in this department as well!)

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