Have you ever wondered why one Joker can beat four Kings. I mean, what does a joker have, besides a funny hat? How does a character based on the Fool, kick all these kings’ asses?

I have been considering the relationship between seriousness and sarcasm, peace and tragedy, efforts to conserve and the innate drive to create… I think there is some kind of answer to this riddle here, somewhere, among far too many ideas I am juggling in my head.

Alfred North Whitehead, my current philosophy hero, writes:

‘Satire is the last flicker of originality in a passing epoch as it faces the onroad of staleness and boredom. Freshness has gone: bitterness remains.’ p277

Whitehead writes this at a time just after the First World War had blown apart many-a-person’s optimism. He questions what it means to be “civilized” and whether the West is in rise or decline. As he looks through history, at civilisations that have crumbled, and he says that it is satire – which in my analogy I am relating to the joker – is the last thing/man standing.

I love Whiteheads philosophies mainly because of their witty blatant honesty, and because he articulates so many of my values.

In his book Adventures of Ideas, he gives an exquisite account of Peace making it clear he is not talking about the “negative conception of anesthesia” or any limiting political notion of one nation’s peace at another’s peril. He says:

‘The experience of Peace is largely beyond the control for purpose. It comes as a gift. The deliberate aim at Peace very easily passes into its bastard substitute, Anesthesia. In other words, in the place of a quality of “life and motion,” there is substituted their destruction. Thus Peace is the removal of inhibition and not its introduction.’ p284

In the pursuit of peace it is easy to stop when one reaches a state of decadence – but that is where the peace becomes anesthetic, and everything in life starts its slow decline.

Peace is the antithesis of such anesthesia.

Whitehead is a “Process Philosopher” – he sees everything in the world in constant flux, always changing, always becoming.

Peace too is a process, not a final result. You “do” peace – you don’t “find” it, at least not until you die.

One of the signs to look for is REPETITION.

‘Repetition produces a gradual lowering of vivid appreciation. Convention dominates. A learned orthodoxy suppresses adventure.’ p276

We need to learn, and couple our new knowledge with reflectivity. We need to take the learned orthodoxy and make it our own. We need to take society’s conventions and go on some adventure with them. Rather than repeating the past, and lowering our appreciation for it, we need to change it – make every day different, make every moment a new one.

‘No static maintenance of perfection is possible. This axiom is rooted in the nature of things. Advance or Decadence are the only choices offered to mankind. The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe. p273

When you read my words, and the words I quote from Whitehead, I’m sure you agree with parts and disagree with other parts. It is this process of critical examination that we come to learn where we stand. We cannot know one without the other. Even the words I type are not static. When they leave my mind, go through my fingers, and are posted on the internet, they take on a life of their own. It is in your reading of them, and your interpretation of them, that they take on new meaning. Nothing in this universe is static.

Whitehead, like myself, equates Peace with Creativity, with Beauty and Truth and Adventure and Art. Whitehead, and I agree, believes that Tragedy also has an important role to play.

‘Decay, Transition, Loss, Displacement belong to the essence of the Creative Advance. The new direction of aim is initiated by Spontaneity, an element of confusion. The enduring Societies with their rise, culmination, and decay are devices to combine the necessities of Harmony and Freshness.‘ p284-5

‘Peace is the understanding of tragedy, and at the same time its preservation.’ p284

Peace involves both the harmonizing AND the clashing of people and ideas, in a societies’ various pursuits for satisfaction. 

Peace is Freedom. Peace is the freedom to pursue satisfaction, and the freedom to stop and decline or to define a new challenge when you get there. The adventure is ongoing, the evolution continues forever.

Without adventure civilization is in full decay.’ p278

You may notice a recent Whiteheadian influence on my blog as I absorb his categories and concepts and synthesize them with my own.

Although written 80 years ago, Whitehead’s ideas and insights are still relevant – and I think as much as the five qualities of Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art and Peace apply to analyzing our society and civilization as whole, they also apply to our individual lives.

When I look at my life and the lives of people around me I wonder:

  • Does capitalism promote creativity or strip us of it?
  • Compared to past civilizations, are we more original or less?
  • What percentage of our  daily life is stale and boring?
  • What percentage of our lives is adventurous, spontaneous and novel?
  • Are we a people and a civilization on the rise, or in decline?
  • Is our satirical humor a sign that our kingdom will soon fall?
  • Is that why the Joker beats four Kings?

My eclectic choice in friendships reflects a value of laughter over money, a sense of humour over security, and witty wisdom over swords, politics and inhibitive institutions.

Clearly in my psyche the Joker trumps the King – how about in yours?


All quotes are from Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, Cambridge University Press, 1964. Originally published in 1933 in London.
Excerpt with that exemplary story of wit and wisdom came from A. H. Johnson, The Wit and Wisdom of Whitehead, Philosophy of Science. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jul., 1946), pp. 223-251.