Like thousands of his followers, I enjoyed the comedy of George Carlin, found myself challenged by his cynicism, and years later looked back and more than once had to say: “George Carlin was right when he said this or that!”
What many people don’t know is that he was a Philosophy major. Carlin mastered the art of critical thinking and applied it incisively and eloquently to all things.
What’s more, he never minced words, spoke concisely, spoke his mind truthfully, and was able to draw laughter from people by doing so, which is a great Epicurean virtue. He falls within the tradition of the laughing philosophers, a tradition championed proverbially by Democritus, the father of atomism, who believed that cheerfulness was the supreme virtue.
One of the things that characterize the laughing philosophers is that they mock traditional authorities. Materialists, because they believe the criteria for reality involve direct perception by the senses and the empirical method, invariably fall within this lineage. No outside authority is needed. The materialist Canon, therefore, has the power to emancipate man from external authority. Hence, in the Epicurean writings we find verses like:
To be frank, I would prefer as I study nature to speak in revelations about what is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the scattered praise that is broadcast by the many.
Since the attainment of riches can rarely be accomplished without servitude to crowds or sovereigns, a free life cannot obtain much wealth, but such a life has all necessities in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to fall upon great wealth, this too it can share as to gain the good will of those about.
– Vatican Sayings 29 and 67
Detached from societal conventions, liberated from peer pressure, laughing philosophers don’t just dismiss false authority. It is called by its name, ridiculed. Seen as empty and vain. Charlatans are charlatans, frauds are frauds, whether they are well-meaning or not.
The philosophers of the polis cater to the ruling classes and worry about the ideal (and docile) citizen, but for the laughing philosophers, truth is held in higher regard than societal conventions.
One of the most prophetic speeches Carlin ever gave had to do with the bankers. He gave it several years prior so the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. The discourse that emerged from Occupy resonated and was almost in unison with Carlin’s polemic against the bankers.
In the New World, among the First Nations, clowns were considered sacred people. They were considered necessary. Some tribes called them ‘contrarians’ because they did and said everything backwards, and in doing so challenged all the conventions.
Every society needs laughing philosophers who are willing to look at the culture as a questioning outsider, challenging misguided presumptions and national mythologies, mocking authority, removing the veil from what is sacred, helping people to remember not to take themselves too seriously.
Without these thinkers, societies become stagnant, stale, and self-destructive: the sheeple become docile and the elites exhibit authoritarian tendencies, and hostilities increase as this tension goes on without the lubricant of philosophical insight.
And so while, at first, I found it curious that Carlin was not a Theater major but a Philosophy major, it now makes perfect sense.