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The Power of Self-deprecating Philosophy

“To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” ~Blaise Pascal


A ruthless sense of humor is a sword of truth. It cuts through all things. It even cuts through all “truths.” It is a philosopher’s saving grace. Without it, a philosopher is lost to the rigidness of religion, and therefore can no longer be considered a true philosopher.


With the Sword of Humor, however, a philosopher is free to cut through any and all so-called truths. A philosopher is free to make light of philosophy. A philosopher is free to test the untested, unsettle the settled, disturb the comfortable, and ruffle all overly serious feathers. A philosopher is free to put God’s feet to the fire. No obsequiousness. No placation. No fear!


Without a ruthless sense of humor, a philosopher can never become dynamic. As Nietzsche said, “I am not a man. I am Dynamite!” Armed with the Sword of Humor, a philosopher is free to be dynamite. A philosopher is free to become, as Nietzsche further said, “a terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger.”


The thing that makes philosophy useful is that it keeps all domains of knowledge in check. This includes, especially, the domain of philosophy itself. No mode of thought should be off limits. No “way” of thinking should be off the hook. Everything should be nailed to its respective cross and stabbed with a question mark spear—with a smile.


In the wake of a self-deprecating philosopher armed with the sword of humor, there’s no room for holier-than-thou pretense. There’s no resting on one’s laurels. There’s no place for certainty, rigidity, or dogmatism. There’s no space where fragile beliefs can hide. In the presence of the self-deprecating philosopher, everything is put on blast. Everything is broken down with ruthless incredulity. Everything is interrogated.


Philosophy should always be in attack formation. It should never be in defense-mode. Philosophy is the one place where you can use the ruthlessness lying dormant inside you to wreak havoc over all things. As Rebecca Goldstein said in Plato at the Googleplex, “Philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.”


A ruthless sense of humor is what made all the great philosophers great. They didn’t have “settled minds.” They didn’t take philosophy too seriously. They were philosophical wrecking balls. They didn’t hold back the power of their humor. They used it to level the playing field, to get ahead of reason, to stay ahead of the curve.


Plato demolished the Cave and gave us the freedom of thought. Nietzsche killed God and gave us the bridge to the Overman. Camus ripped the sentimental guts out of a meaningful universe and replaced them with deep skepticism and absurdity. Becker shredded the human condition down to its essentials and then built it back up using high art and immortality projects.


All of this was done through self-deprecating philosophy. For had they been married to the old, they could never have embraced the new. They wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to rise above the seriousness of “being a philosopher.” They wouldn’t have had the courage, the insouciance, or the hunger.


As Jonny Thomson advised, “Put away the safe and healthy prescriptions of an anodyne age and go on a thirsty rampage. In the drunken swirl of the carnival trance, the terrifying gravity of life is made lighter.”


Indeed. In the klieg light of self-deprecating humor all dominoes topple. In the drunken haze of trickster jazz, the darkness is transformed into lightheartedness. In the throes of playful humor absurdity loses its grip and we are free to laugh. We free ourselves to inquire, to question, to dig deep. To put our tongue in our cheek and sidestep the landmines of nihilism and existential despair. To laugh at our silly labels and culturally conditioned kneejerk reactions. We free ourselves to live.


Life can’t always be blue skies, smiley faces, and scented roses. Sometimes it’s thunderstorms, roadblocks, and clogged toilets. And that’s okay. It takes courage to choose a humorous disposition over a rigid expectation. It takes courage to choose a frivolous disposition over a serious intention. It takes courage to choose an updated and healthier way of being in the world over an outdated and unhealthy way of being in the world. And that takes risk. Philosophical risk. Existential risk. The risk of being wrong about a great many things.


What happens when we choose humor over expectation and frivolity over seriousness? We prove to ourselves that, as Dostoevsky put it, “Men still are men and not the keys of a piano.” We see how we’re not meant to be played upon; we’re meant to play. We’re not meant to be serious and hardhearted; we’re meant to be playful and lighthearted. We’re not meant to be rigid and right; we’re meant to be open and wrong.


Through playful curiosity we unlock the door on our rigidness. Heavyheartedness becomes lionheartedness when counterbalanced with lightheartedness. A light heart awakens the sleeping lion within. We free ourselves to roar, to howl, to be overtly courageous despite our covert seriousness.


When the world gives us daily grinds, unyielding clockwork, and aggrandized bureaucracy, we are able to counter it with primal passion, fierce frivolity, and lionhearted lightheartedness. The all-too-serious juggernaut of Apollo must be offset by the playful nonchalance and daring insouciance of Dionysus lest our culture eat itself.


The Apollonian archetype stands for order, logic, sobriety, seriousness, and reason. The Dionysian archetype stands for chaos, madness, drunkenness, frivolity, and imagination. We need both. Too much of one without the other is a disaster.


But, too much comfort, safety, and security handicaps creativity, expansion, and potential. Healthy expansion requires a little discomfort and insecurity. It requires a leap of courage into the unknown. Which in turn requires risk. Which in turn requires a good sense of humor.


This is why self-deprecating philosophers armed with the Sword of Humor are so powerful: they are free to risk, to take the Dionysian leap into the unknown, to question the rigid Apollonian rules, to sacredly disobey. They realize that the will to humor must always stay ahead of the will to power. And they are not above poking holes in the inflated balloons of power. Even, especially, their own.


Any philosophy that doesn’t poke fun at itself is a dead thing. It becomes stale, dry, and weighed down by the heaviness of its own seriousness. Humorless, overly concerned, and lacking in humility, it shrivels up on itself, desiccated and uncouth.


Philosophical depreciation allows for a playful space. It allows humility to be more powerful than hubris. It keeps flexibility and openness ahead of rigidness and hardheartedness. It prevents Beginner’s Mind from ever getting lassoed in by the Master’s Complex. It frees the philosopher to do his job: Be curious; be playful; be dynamite.


As Khalil Gibran wisely stated, “Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children.”

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by John Jude Palencar

About the Author:

Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.


This article (The Power of Self-deprecating Philosophy) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.


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