“The Philosopher reckons the lack of mirth to be a vice.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, (citing Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, book 2, chapter 7; book 4, chapter 8), Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 168, art. 4.
Being boring can indeed be a sin, if you strive to bore others — or if you simply take no care to avoid it! Let’s listen to St. Thomas Aquinas on this one: “In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now, it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment.” Further, he points out: “A man who is without mirth, not only is lacking playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others” (ST, II-II, Q. 168,art. 4). Clearly, then, the Angelic Doctor would not have us be party poopers! He knew well that all work and no play indeed make us dull boys and girls (and in a venial sense, even sinful ones). Let us then do our duty and spread good cheer with joyous and “moderate mirth”!
Perhaps you’ve detected a bit of a paradox though. “Hmm, St. Thomas makes good points for sure, but isn’t his own masterwork, the 3,000 plus page Summa Theologica, known for being incredibly long, detailed, nuanced, dry, unemotional, or perhaps, in a word — boring?” Well, here I beg to differ. A hearer of St. Thomas’s deathbed confession said that his sins were like those of a child. Now, if there is a sin any child will seek to avoid it is to be bored or boring!
Though St. Thomas had one of the most mature, powerful, and penetrating intellects of all of human history, coupled with the incredible patience to sift through the nuances of the most abstract philosophical and theological opinions of great thinkers who came before him, among his most striking personal traits were his ever-youthful excitement and wonder about the amazing goodness of God’s creation, along with gratitude to the God who created it and sustains it. No, St. Thomas was not a man to be bored or boring. Everything good interested him. In the words of philosopher Jacques Maritain, Thomas “cast his net upon the universe and carried off all things…”
There are amusing stories of Thomas’s “absent-mindedness.” He clearly obtained his own pleasures more from study and contemplation than from social gatherings. After he was cajoled to attend a dinner party with the saintly King of France, Louis IX, at one point in the festivities the quiet Thomas suddenly slammed his fist down on the table, declaring loudly, “That then settles the Manichees!”, having allowed his mind to be absent from courtly small-talk while he enjoyed the pleasures of deep theological musings. King St. Louis was not offended in the least, asking that Thomas be provided pen and paper lest he lose his thought! Thomas was no “party pooper,” since his episode provided “moderate mirth” to those party goers and to readers of the incident for more than 700 years now!
People become bored when they don’t have enthusiasm for all of God’s goodness and when they haven’t stockpiled the mental resources and habits to amuse themselves when they find themselves stuck in situations they find potentially boring to them (perhaps, waiting in a doctor’s office or in a line at the airport.) But what now of being boring to others? This is the “sin” that St. Thomas addresses.
Thomas examines the issue in his treatment of the virtue of temperance in a question entitled, “Whether There is a Sin in Lack of Mirth?” We have seen that he answers, “Yes!” Temperance, or self-control in regard to our passions, is not then a virtue of pleasure-killing, but a virtue that guides us to the best and highest pleasures. Thomas references Aristotle’s writings in the Nichomachean Ethics, where he emphasizes that virtues seek “golden means,” being neither too much nor too little, but rather, just right. Thomas focused on virtue more than sin, addressing 93 pages to vice and sin and 716 pages to virtue and good deeds within his Summa Theologica. We do need some understanding of bad habits (vices) and sinful (vicious) behaviors deriving from those vices though, if we are to understand the good habits of virtue and the pleasant and fruitful behaviors to which they give rise.
Now, as for being “mirthful”, some might think that Christians should not focus on simple pleasures, but always be focused on weightier, serious things. St. Thomas soundly disagrees. There is a right degree of cheerfulness, playfulness, and lightheartedness that we all should seek. The man to whom all of life is a joke makes the error of excess mirth, and sets himself up as a buffoon, a person not be taken seriously. On the side of deficiency, the person who is without enough joyful playfulness becomes boorish or rude. Neither of these folks at the extremes lives life to its fullest or is likely to attract others to the joys of a faith in Christ. Further, our minds function best to think about things that matter the most when we give them a reasonable amount of relaxation and leisure to focus on life’s simple pleasures in our interactions with one another.
So then, especially as this season of holiday get-togethers draws upon us, let’s lighten things up a bit, shunning buffoonery and boorishness too, doing as St. Thomas would bid us to do, relaxing our jaws and unclenching our hands, spreading “moderate mirth” throughout the land!