In Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, several young monks pay with their lives for a few moments of stolen pleasure spent reading a forbidden treatise on comedy. The text in question is the second book of Aristotle's Poetics, and it is in fact lost. Eco's account of how the single remaining manuscript is destroyed is plausible and poignant; and if the details are fictional, the underlying questions they raise are as pressing today as they were in Eco's fourteenth century Italian abbey: who has access to information? what gets transmitted? by whom and for want purposes? and who decides?
Thalia is the ancient muse of comedy. She is still around and her power should not be underestimated.
Do you remember the first time you laughed at a joke? Do you remember the delicious pleasure you felt the first time you told a joke that made someone else laugh? This almost certainly happened before you could read or write.
Comedy precedes literacy: this is true of individuals, and it is true of human cultures. Before Greek was a written language, there was comic performance.
The comic impulse arises from something ancient in our humanity. Laughter has been called the ultimate civilizer: it can disarm anger, soften grief and restore perspective.
Laughter is also irreverent and dangerous—dangerous to those who underestimate its power—dangerous to those who would prefer that their authority not be questioned. For this reason laughter is one of the most powerful weapons citizens in a free society have.
We come together today to celebrate your Commencement; to recall the hard work we have done together—teachers and learners all of us, in the liberal arts. The liberal arts are so called because their purpose is to educate citizens in the arts of freedom. You are inheriting a difficult and complicated world. We believe you are ready for the challenges that lie ahead, not because you have all the answers, but because you have learned how to ask good questions; how to work and play well with others; and, we hope, how to laugh along the way.
Photo by John Baillie