Is sarcasm really the lowest form of wit?

Someone recently reminded me that sarcasm is supposed to be the lowest form of wit. This got me thinking. Is there an established hierarchy of wit that I’m not aware of? Is it purely linear, with satire at the top, and sarcasm at the bottom? Or is it multifaceted, with each type scored on a number of different qualities, like some sort of abstract series of Top Trumps?

Anyway, in order to help improve the world a little bit (or at least make it conform closer to my own world view), I present the pigfender guide on how to respond to someone who says “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, you know” to you.

Step 1 – Ask them to complete the quote

If you are going to rely on random quotes from a bygone era as the sole tenet of your argument, at least make sure you get the full quote right. It isn’t “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”, it’s “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit… but the highest form of intelligence.

If the second half of the quote didn’t give it away, the fact that it’s from Oscar Wilde, well-known witticist from times gone by, should give you a clue. There’s a pretty good chance that Oscar was being sarcastic when he said it.

Step 2 – Ask what the highest form of wit would be

I’m guessing pretty close to the top would be satire. You know… Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut. Animal Farm by George Orwell. The New Statesman by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.

Those oh so clever tales. They seem to be about one thing but really they are a commentary on what is bad about that thing. So saying one thing, but meaning something else. Sound familiar?

Let’s say you make a fabulous satire on some particular viewpoint. People who agree with you will see the satire and laugh. The others will agree with your characters and laugh. It’s a classic case of hedging your bets. Sarcasm does the same thing, but comes off the fence. It picks a side.

Sarcasm is satire without the insurance policy. Done properly it is about as high a form of humour as you can get.

Step 3 – Use sarcasm

But, yeah. “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.” Great argument.

4 thoughts on “Is sarcasm really the lowest form of wit?

    1. pigfender Post author

      Hi Michael. Thanks for the question.

      Well, I never met Oscar and so haven’t personally heard him say it so it’s fair to say that I was speaking in reliance on other sources.

      As far as I am aware (I’ve not read all of Oscar’s printed works) the phrase doesn’t appear in any of his writings, and this has led some commentators to state quite vehemently that Mr Wilde isn’t the source. Oscar said an awful lot of things in his life that he didn’t bother to put into one of his plays (or into Dorian), so I don’t take that as suitable reason to dismiss. I’ve not seen any detracting arguments that go further than “prove he said it” (although admittedly I haven’t really looked), so I’m again go ahead and stick with the prevailing opinion. Especially since:
      – It’s very widely (wildly?) attributed to him, and not at all attributed to anyone else.
      – It sounds like him.
      – I’ve seen no evidence of the use of the phrase prior to Oscar, but quite a bit after.

  1. Intercity Ash-ville

    Excellent post, Pigfender, and I am with you on many counts, but would add 2 additional facets to this discourse;

    1. Another example is that irony is often held up as a higher form of wit than sarcasm, yet is it really? the converse can often be true. Let me explain. For many, the distinguishing the difference between irony and sarcasm is often incredibly difficult to explain. Many maintain that the defining difference between the two terms lies in the idea that Irony can be involuntary, while sarcasm is deliberate.

    Irony, generally speaking, can naturally occur in both language and circumstance; one experiences irony when the opposite of an expected situation or idea occurs. In essence, an individual does not need to go out of their way to experience an ironical situation or idea, they can occur naturally – the ‘wit’ occurs in their recognition of the irony, and their pointing it out.

    Sarcasm, for its part, can make use of irony to make an observation or remark about an idea, person or situation. But, perhaps for this very reason, good sarcasm requires both a sense of irony, coupled with the inventiveness, imagination, and intelligence to create the juxtaposition of circumstance which is both ridiculous and dryly witty.

    2. Interesting that some current research shows that sarcasm demands the highest function of the brain;

    http://www.news-medical.net/news/2005/05/23/10322.aspx

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