Literary Criticism Practical Notes Quotations

Laurence Sterne’s Morality

Laurence Sterne (the author of Tristram Shandy) certainly had a sense of humor. I have quoted from him before on this blog, and when I was reading volume 5 of Tristram Shandy I laughed as I don’t remember ever having done previously at a book. We may be surprised (but if we are, I think it is a symptom of a problem within us) to find that this man also had a fine moral earnestness. There is the sermon included in volume 2 of Tristram Shandy, which is really rather good and which certainly sparks interest in a republication of the volume(s) of Sterne’s sermons that were published during his lifetime. And there is also this:

Tristram Shandy, v.5 Ch. XVI

Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride of human wisdom, That the wisest of us all, should thus outwit ourselves, and eternally forego our purposes in the intemperate act of pursuing them.

Of course, this comes in a comic context within the book. But we shall be guilty of great shallowness if we thereupon presuppose that there can be no genuineness to it. Earnestness and humor are not opposed: I think they go together. Consider this fine sarcasm by one of the most wholehearted of men:

[On the Papist interpreters of the passages relating to the power of the keys] So well known are the keys to those who have thought proper to fit them with locks and doors, that you would say their whole life had been spent in the mechanic art.

John Calvin, Institutes, IV.11.2

At that line also, I laughed out loud.

2 replies on “Laurence Sterne’s Morality”

Calvin’s treatise on relics had Heidi and me howling. I think the humor in the Bible establishes not only that it is not wrong, but that it is a positive good. It seems to me like a great failing of Islam (and probably due to their anti-Trinitarian heresy) that they don’t seem to have a sense of humor: the religion of perpetual outrage, James White denominates them.

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