As the story goes, the Emperor Augustus one day spotted a man from the provinces who looked much like himself. He asked if the man’s mother had ever worked in the palace. ‘No.’ came the reply, ‘but my father did.’ Augustus laughed – a reminder that a sense of humor makes rulers wise, court jesters winsome, and innovation work.
In her new book Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations, Mary Beard highlights the history of humor, which has a link to innovation. She cites the Philogelos (‘laughter-lover’), a joke book from the fourth century AD. “Laughter was always a favorite device of ancient monarchs,” she writes. “The good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death.”1
The Philogelos is a collection of 260 or so gags in Greek. In it, we find jokes about doctors, men with bad breath, barbers, and bald men. However, the Philogelos mostly pokes fun at ‘egg-heads,’ or academicians. They’re the subject of almost half the jokes, such as an Abderite (scholars of that day) who sees a eunuch talking to a woman. He asked if she was the eunuch’s wife. When the eunuch replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked, “So is she your daughter then?”
The Greeks believed humor is essential to tolerance. The Calvinist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher agreed. “Humor makes all things tolerable” (yes, a Calvinist appreciating the comic). A sense of humor helps people tolerate hearing bad news about themselves, as Max Eastman noted. “Humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully.” Who inflicts pain? Those who see irony and idiocy. In King Arthur’s Court, they were court jesters.
In scripture, they’re prophets. They make kings wise. Solomon cautioned that we can be “excessively righteous” and “overly wise” (Eccl. 7:16). When successful people start reading their press clippings, the head swells and self-awareness shrinks. Leaders soon become annoyed at jokes at their expense. The safeguard against this is satire. In the Old Testament, satirists were prophets. Elijah ridiculed the prophets of Baal and psalmists decried idols as essentially emperors without clothes. Prophets saved lives by spoofing blind spots. But this required that kings be able to take a joke.
What applied to kings back then applies to all leaders today; those in business, media, the arts, education, and politics. Take politics. Here’s a joke: John Kerry walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “Hey, why the long face?” I imagine Kerry would find this amusing. If he can’t take a joke, he’s at risk. Recent findings from neuroscience tell us why.
In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes the brain’s right hemisphere as “prophetic.” But he also notes how “it is only in the right hemisphere that we understand the point of a joke. Patients with right-hemisphere damage cannot make inferences, and inferences are a prerequisite for grasping moral lessons as well as getting a joke.” Studies indicate that folks in the Western world operate mostly out of the left hemisphere. Prophets, or court jesters, shift our thinking to the right hemisphere, more so if they’re able to tell a joke. And leaders are wise if they are able to take a joke. This makes them more likely to grasp moral lessons, leading to wisdom and innovation.
In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the prophet is a consigliore. He poked fun at Mafia dons without risking death. Pope Francis, admired for his sense of humor, was for 23 years Pope John Paul’s consigliore. In both cases, the prophetic voice kept these leaders self-aware. Self-awareness is a precursor to paradigm shifts, which yield innovation. The lesson from the Philogelos is that innovative leaders have to be able to take a joke. And court jester has to be able to tell a good one. The best corporate roundtables have these kinds of leaders and court jesters. Otherwise, innovation is unlikely to happen.
This is admittedly difficult for some to digest. Peter Berger says humor often appears as an intrusion, as less serious. A businessman might break up a tense negotiation by telling a joke. Colleagues will return to the subject with something like: “But now, seriously.” Berger counters, “the comic is the most serious perception of the world there is.”2
We live in an age lacking in perception. Henry Ward Beecher (that Calvinist comic again?) believed “a person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.” Too many of today’s leaders are wagons without springs. They find jokes at their expense too jolting. Wise leaders on the other hand have a sense of humor, even if the jokes are at their expense. It’s how we foster innovation. But you have to know the history of humor to understand that.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 Mary Beard, Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), pp. 55-61.
2 Peter L. Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (Berlin: De Gruyter; First Edition, 1997), p. 6.