Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Burke on the Cult of Comedy

Though an agnostic, Kenneth Burke nails what is ultimately a theological need of man, that of the comic.

In his Parts of Animals, Chapter X, Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the “laughing animal,” but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. (The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality.) Also, I’d file “risibility” under “symbolicity.” Insofar as man’s laughter is to be distinguished from that of the Hyena, the difference derives from ideas of incongruity that are in turn derived from principles of congruity necessarily implicit in any symbol system. (Language as Symbolic Action, p. 20 n. 2).

Burke would presumably see this hope on a purely temporal, here-and-now level (and would look especially at comedy’s disruptive potential)–that is, it is man’s only way of saving himself from himself (the essay from which the quote comes ends with a nursery rhyme modernized to be about nuclear annihilation). But Christians should understand, too, the importance of the comic in eschatology. We do not participate in a cult of comedy, but in cult (=worship) that is, ultimately, comic in the broad sense–which is to say that it tends toward ultimate resolution. The tragedy of the cross leads to the triumphal comedy of the Parousia, when all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Thus, while despair may always lurk at our doors, it is hope that is a virtue.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.