Playfulness is a mode of living that always seemed to me stupendously desirable – almost the acme of experience! But if we want to know what it is, that’s rather hard to pin down.

Evidently, it’s not acting like a damn fool. Nor playing the court jester, who can be counted on to mock or upend the stuff that others take at face value. The fool and the jester are outsiders. They stand at the margins of the convivial scene, telling truths tolerable only because of their distance from the rest of the company.

We know that they play a sad, even sacrificial role. It’s not uncommon to find out that well-regarded professional comics were acutely unhappy people. Their funniness compensated for feeling unloved but did not cure the loneliness, which drove some to the edge of self-destruction.

Irony would seem a possible candidate for playfulness, except that it is rather a serious business.   It deals with whatever must be said but can’t be openly declared. The ironist might say the contrary of what she or he means, but with a degree of exaggeration that alerts hearers to take it with a grain of salt.

In fact, if you take out the fool, the jester and the ironist, it begins to seem as if not many people can be playful.

Canvassing memory for an instance, what comes to mind is the day a senior colleague had to devote many hours to dancing attendance on a distinguished guest, who was a possible candidate for something prestigious. As he dutifully squired the guest philosopher from one important administrator’s office to the next, my colleague began to look quite tuckered out.

“Can I do anything for you?” I asked sympathetically.

“Yes,” he said wearily. “You can go to the bathroom for me. They say each of us has to face death alone and I have no trouble with that. But it’s less often noted that each person must go to the bathroom alone and I haven’t been able to manage that.”

Like anything comical, this too shows the discrepancy between what’s expected and what occurs. But not everything funny is playful — and this is. Why? It’s that we are being invited into the circle where the thing that is askew is being lived.

The only difference between this comic moment and the times of the jester, the fool or the ironist is that here the whole comedy is lived in the shared medium – smooth as water – of friendship.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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