The delights of mischief | Aeon

Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum

Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum


The delights of mischief

Mischievousness requires humour, wit and a playful humaneness: qualities that make for a particular kind of virtue

by Alex Moran + BIO

Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum

Now let it work, mischief, thou art afoot.
Take thou what course thou wilt!
— from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene II)

One of the stranger sights on the University College London campus is the clothed skeleton of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Stranger still is that a waxwork head sits on its shoulders, where Bentham’s own head should be, as per his will. Meanwhile, his preserved head is elsewhere – his friends thought it looked too grotesque for display, and commissioned the waxwork one instead. Legend has it that Bentham’s real head was stolen by some students from King’s College London as a prank against their University College rivals, and a ransom demanded for returning it. Apparently, this was eventually paid up, and the head was returned.

Apocryphal or not, such tales of mischief are amusing, and apt to elicit in us a certain kind of sympathy. But there is something curious about this. Mischief is essentially a form of misbehaviour, and its practitioners are generally met with punishment and reproach rather than praise, at least when they are caught. Why is it, then, that tales of mischief so often elicit in us such a positive response? Could it be that there is something virtuous about mischief, and something noble about mischievous people, considered as a type?

Of course, not all acts of mischief are created equal. Consider, for example, Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, whose members allegedly once destroyed an irreplaceable Stradivarius as a kind of prank. If this was an act of mischief, it is hard to feel much sympathy with it. Granted, those involved might have been unaware of the instrument’s value, and they later apparently left behind a cheque in an attempt to cover the damages (in keeping with their usual practice when destroying valuable property). Yet this serves somehow only to make matters worse, rather than offering any real mitigation. It would appear, therefore, that some acts of mischief are to be condemned rather than praised. Relatedly, it would appear that one cannot speak unreservedly of mischief as being something wholly good.

Still, there’s plenty to be said in praise of mischief and mischievousness, and much that is commendable about mischievous people. Indeed, I believe that mischievous people exhibit various distinctive virtues. Here I want to sketch a few of these, while also highlighting some of the praiseworthy ends and effects that mischief can have. What will emerge are some of the main reasons why mischief might be viewed as something admirable, and why mischievousness and mischievous people are often rightly viewed as deserving of praise.

In essence, mischief is a playful and light-hearted form of trouble-making, aimed chiefly at creating amusement for those involved. It should be unsurprising, then, that one main virtue of mischievous people is their correspondingly playful and light-hearted temperament. This is a temperament that many of us have as children, but which is often lost in later life. Mischievous people are therefore to be commended for managing to retain it. Many of the best acts of mischief, in fact, are little more than expressions of this temperament: they are the consequences, so to speak, of a certain zest for life or joie de vivre, of the sort that the philosopher Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness (1930) rightly identified as essential to happiness. In fact, an example involving Russell himself helps to illustrate the point.

Russell was known as ‘Lord Russell’ because he was the 3rd Earl Russell. He was also a contemporary of a very different Lord Russell, namely Lord Russell of Liverpool, aka Edward Russell, a lawyer and author. Not surprisingly, the two were frequently confused, and kept receiving one another’s post. This led to an amusing exchange of letters between them (reproduced in Bertrand Russell’s marvellous autobiography), in which the 3rd Earl Russell suggests that a fitting way of dealing with the problem is to send a letter to the editor of The Times. His namesake approved the plan, and so they submitted the following note, which appeared on 28 February 1959:

Sir – In order to discourage confusions which have been constantly occurring, we beg herewith to state that neither of us is the other.
Yours & c.,
Russell (Bertrand, Earl Russell)
Russell of Liverpool (Lord Russell of Liverpool)

That was all their letter said.

If the human condition is tragic, then the most fitting response is to rise above it with laughter

This is a lovely example of light-hearted mischief. There is no victim, no damage caused, not even any real breaking of the rules. It is innocent mischief; perhaps mischief in its simplest, purest form. It is also an instance of mischief that is manifestly praiseworthy, serving only to make the world a better, more amusing place. If Russell the philosopher was right in thinking that the sort of cheerful attitude underlying this act of mischief is an essential ingredient of happiness, then it is easy to see how he himself managed to live such a long and (on the whole) contented life.

Mischievous people tend also to have an excellent sense of humour, and this is a virtue that cannot be praised too highly. Not only is a sense of humour an essential ingredient of happiness, but it is also the best way of dealing with the darker elements of human existence. According to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, human beings were compelled to invent laughter precisely because they suffer so excruciatingly. In a similar vein, the novelist Hermann Hesse argued that all humour is really ‘gallows humour’. The idea here, or at least part of it, is that if the human condition is tragic, or absurd, then the most fitting response is to rise above it with laughter and light-heartedness. The mischievous person is notable for embodying this wisdom, taking whatever opportunity they can to poke fun not only at themselves but at everyone and everything around them.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that mischievousness, as well as helping with the living of a happy life, can even offer a rebuke against the fact of death itself. Consider two examples. The first involves the British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan, who insisted that the words ‘I told you I was ill’ should be inscribed upon his gravestone (as indeed they are, albeit in Gaelic). This is of course highly amusing, and a fitting legacy for a comedian of his calibre; but it also represents a kind of triumph over death, as laughter does in general over any unpleasant or difficult situation. It is also precisely the kind of thing one might expect a mischievous person to have had written on their gravestone. (In a similar vein, the US comic actor Jack Lemmon has ‘In’ written on his.)

Another example is a little more boisterous and even more obviously mischievous. There is a story about the Chinese monk Budai, a quasi-historical figure in Buddhism otherwise known as ‘the laughing Buddha’. Budai was well known for his pranks and mischief, and did not disappoint even in death. Knowing that he would be cremated, when he knew he was dying he stuffed his pockets with gunpowder and fireworks, so that his followers would be amazed and shocked – and would burst into fits of laughter – as his corpse exploded on the pyre at his own funeral. It is hard, I think, to imagine a greater triumph over death than this. It is also a wonderful example of the cheerfulness of mischievous people extending beyond life into death.

The light-heartedness of mischievous people is also a powerful corrective against one of the worst human vices, namely, a certain kind of over-seriousness. For instance, it is the hallmark of the zealot and the jobsworth; two equally unpleasant types, both prone to taking pleasure in the persecution of others. Similarly, over-seriousness is essential to the egotist, for egotism is born of taking oneself far too seriously. The mischievous person, however, is neither zealot nor jobsworth. They do not take things seriously enough for zealotry, preferring instead to mock things and to poke fun at things; and rather than being, like the jobsworth, the petty follower and unbending enforcer of the rules, they much prefer to break them or to see how far those rules can be bent. Similarly, the mischievous person will tend not to be overly egotistic, since this again requires a kind of over-seriousness that is foreign to their nature.

In general, the playful attitude of mischievous people is much more conducive to a happy life, and to a life that increases the happiness of others, than that of the habitually over-serious. If one approaches things with a note of humour and unseriousness, then one is much more likely not only to be happy in oneself, but also a source of delight to others. Mischievous people should thus be commended for having a temperament much more likely to foster human happiness than that of many of their peers.

The just punishment of foolishness and other similar vices is one of the nobler ends that mischief can have

Besides humour and playfulness, the capacity for mischief is also generally accompanied by intelligence and wit. One good example is the case of Giacomo Casanova, one of the most mischievous people in history. Casanova was capable not only of mischief but of real wickedness and violence. His penchant for mischief – in the sense of playful and lighthearted troublemaking – was nonetheless genuine, and he recorded such acts in his infamous memoir The Story of My Life. These Casanova began to write in earnest in the late 1780s, when he was in his 60s, having first published, with great success, the retelling of his improbable escape from the terrible prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice during the Inquisition.

Casanova’s prison break, moreover, was a superlative act of mischief. It involved duping a former spy for the Inquisition into believing he was having religious visions, and enlisting the help of a monk imprisoned, like Casanova, in the cells under the palace roof. The monk agreed to join Casanova and to aid with the escape, but only after he first made Casanova promise that he had a solid plan for breaking out. Casanova assured the monk that his plan for escaping was not only complete, but fool-proof too. Thus, over several hard months, Casanova and the monk laboriously dug a hole from inside their cell, and through this hole they climbed out to freedom. However, once they were on the rooftops of the Doge’s Palace, Casanova revealed that he had no plan whatsoever, and did not even know how to get down from the roof. In despair, the monk wanted to turn back, but Casanova convinced him to carry on. Eventually, they made it out, mostly through luck, as well as much cunning and quick thinking on Casanova’s part – not to mention a brief nap he took in the library mid-way through the escapade, which he allegedly needed in order to figure out the next phase of the escape!

It is instructive to note that, of the three characters in the story, it was the mischievous Casanova who orchestrated the break-out. The imprisoned spy was too afraid of his former masters to join in the attempt, and actually posed a threat to the entire enterprise, given his misplaced loyalty to the Inquisitors. Meanwhile, the monk had neither the courage nor the confidence to attempt a break-out by himself. Casanova, by contrast, drew on his mischievous qualities of cunning and intelligence, a spirit of defiance, and a healthy contempt for the authorities that held him captive. He was therefore well-equipped for leading one of the most daring (and haphazard) prison breaks in all recorded history.

Apart from breaking out of prison, Casanova employed his great capacity for mischief mostly in deceiving those he saw as foolish, often greatly increasing his own material wellbeing in the process. At the beginning of his memoirs, he offers the following little argument justifying the practice:

You will laugh when you learn that I thought nothing of deceiving idiots, scoundrels and fools when I needed to do so … I always take great delight in remembering those I have lured into my traps, for fools are insolent and their presumptions insult the mind. Thus we avenge intelligence when we deceive a fool, and the victory is worth the trouble … Deceiving a fool, in short, is an endeavour worthy of a man of wit.

A good example of this approach is Casanova’s treatment of some elderly Venetian nobles whom he tricked into believing that he could predict the future using obscure mathematical formulae. These ageing noblemen each claimed to have an interest in magic, the supernatural and the occult, and Casanova ably exploited their gullibility. He generally predicted futures they found favourable, and that spoke to their vices of self-importance, avarice and greed. The nobles rewarded him well for his efforts, making him rich at a time when he would otherwise have found himself quite destitute. They, in turn, were suitably rewarded for their foolishness.

Casanova’s mistreatment of these ageing nobles is instructive: it tells us something interesting about the nature of mischief. The noblemen that Casanova tricked were powerful and wealthy, so Casanova was unable to cause them any real or lasting harm. Had Casanova instead conned someone out of their last penny by the same methods, then real harm would have been caused, though at this point his activities would no longer have been merely mischievous. This arguably suggests that mischief contains, as it were, an inbuilt moral element that prevents things from going too far. Tricking some elderly nobles for one’s own material gain is mischievous, and might even be classified as a noble pursuit. But this in no way implies that scams and con artistry in general can be defended on the grounds that they are instances of mere mischief.

It is, in fact, a general feature of mischief that it can profitably be used to dole out just punishment to those deserving of it. The above example is one illustrative case. Not all acts of mischief, of course, serve this kind of moral or didactic function. But the just punishment of foolishness and other similar vices is one of the nobler ends that mischief can have, and this is worth emphasising.

A related point is that mischief can fruitfully be used to challenge various kinds of authority, especially when figures of authority are being silly and unworthy of respect. Consider the following anecdote about the British philosopher G E M Anscombe. In the 1960s, Anscombe gave a guest lecture at a university in Boston. After the talk, she was taken out for dinner to a fancy restaurant nearby. Wearing her customary slacks under a long tunic, Anscombe was stopped on arrival by the restaurant’s head waiter, who informed her that, in this particular establishment, women were not permitted to wear trousers. In a brilliant display of deliberate misunderstanding, Anscombe reacted to the waiter by removing her trousers entirely, according to one version of the story exclaiming: ‘What an extraordinary rule!’

The episode is amusing, not least because Anscombe was at the time an eminent philosopher at the University of Oxford, with a reputation as a stern Catholic and moralist. It is also a wonderful instance of one of the more praiseworthy kinds of mischief. Anscombe’s response to the waiter, of course, was not only amusing, but absurd. Yet in its own way, it was also wholly appropriate, given the even greater absurdity of the rule that it was a reaction against.

Another excellent example of this sort comes this time from the ancient world, and again involves a philosopher, namely Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes is famous for various amusing acts of defiance, among them his contemptuous treatment of Alexander the Great. In one version of the legend, the latter is said to have offered to Diogenes, as a token of respect, the fulfilment of any wish he desired. But when asked what he wanted by Alexander, the sunbathing Diogenes replied curtly: ‘For you to get out of my light.’ But the example I have in mind, following on from the anecdote of Anscombe’s trousers, is Diogenes’ challenge to Plato’s definition of a man as a ‘featherless biped’. Diogenes is said to have walked into Plato’s academy holding up a plucked chicken, exclaiming ‘Here is Plato’s man.’ By means of this nice piece of mischief, he thereby offered one of the best counterexamples to a putative philosophical definition in the entire history of the subject.

Mischievousness underlies many of the best and most effective acts of civil disobedience

(As an aside, while the art of the mischievous counterexample in philosophy seems to have originated with Diogenes, one finds at least one further instance of it two millennia later, this time thanks to the US philosopher and decision-theorist Sidney Morgenbesser. At a lecture at Columbia University, J L Austin, then professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, had been explaining that, while in some languages a double negative yields an affirmative and in other languages a double negative yields a more emphatic negative, there is no known language in which a double affirmative yields a negative. On hearing this, Morgenbesser, seated at the back of the audience, is said to have replied: ‘Yeah, yeah!’)

Mischief is also capable of having a fairly direct political function. Consider the phenomenon of satire – essentially, political mischief. An illustrative case is the publication of A Modest Proposal (1729) by the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, in which he ‘proposes’ the following solution to the Irish Famine: that the impoverished Irish should sell their children to be eaten, thereby improving their own economic status while also getting rid of their burdensome offspring. This kind of straight-faced satire is of course highly effective, but it is also precisely the sort of thing that could be produced only by someone embodying the mischievous spirit in full.

Such mischief can even be used to mount effective political protest. One recent example is the slew of donations made to Planned Parenthood as a ‘birthday present’ to the former US vice-president Mike Pence; an ironic gift, given his hardline stance against abortion. This was a fun bit of mischief, but it also served an admirable political purpose. In general, it seems to me that mischievousness underlies many of the best and most effective acts of political protest and civil disobedience. If that is right, then mischievous people, far from being merely a nuisance, may be an essential component in any healthy and properly functioning democracy.

The kind of challenge to authority that mischievousness can mount, however, is not narrowly confined to the political sphere. Here I am thinking of none other than Socrates, one of the most mischievous people in the ancient world. Socrates took great delight in challenging and making fun of various Athenian authority figures, showing up generals, for example, for not knowing the true nature of war, or lawmakers for not knowing the true nature of justice. Wherever there was some received wisdom, there was Socrates ready to challenge it and pose difficult questions. His usual method, moreover, was to feign ignorance about the topic, and then ask probing questions designed to undermine his interlocutors, many of whom were among the most prominent members of Athenian society. Doubtless, Socrates was motivated at least partly by the love of wisdom, and the pure desire to seek knowledge and truth. But it seems clear that he was also motivated by mischievousness, and the desire for some amusement.

Mischievous people make the world a lot more interesting, and a much better place to live. Many of the best and brightest stars in history have been mischievous types, from artists and poets to adventurers and political agitators. If my remarks about Socrates are correct, for instance, then, were it not for the spirit of mischief, we would not have the Socratic method, and hence we would not have science and philosophy in the forms we know them today. Nor would we have so much that is consequent upon these things, including much of our best art. This, it seems to me, is among the most powerful things that can be said in mischief’s defence. Indeed, it is hard to think of a better apology for mischief than that.

Correction note, 22 August 2022: Minor corrections have been made to the text to avoid any unintended impression that Casanova’s criminal behaviour was excusable.

EthicsVirtues and vicesThinkers and theories

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