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> The Wise Fool
noorie
post Oct 24 2007, 08:26 PM
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Wisdom Of The Fool


The paradoxical idea that the fool may possess wis-
dom, though it was not to achieve its fullest articulation
until the Renaissance, doubtless had its beginnings very
early in the civilizing process. As soon as it was possible
for man to feel nostalgia for a simpler way of life, he
must also have wondered about the superiority of a
simpler kind of wisdom, whether innate or inspired,
over whatever knowledge of the world he had acquired
through his own empirical deducation or from the in-
struction of others. Whenever reason has been able to
question itself and acknowledge that the heart has its
reasons that reason does not know, a kind of wisdom
has been attributed to the fool. Men have often noticed
that the untutored or simpleminded, in their purity of
heart, could penetrate to profounder truths than those
encumbered with learning and convention, in the same
way that we sometimes sense a more resonant verity
in homely sayings or popular proverbs than in rational
exposition. It is, in fact, no accident that the fools of
literature characteristically resort to proverbial ex-
pressions; for proverbs draw their strength, Antaeus-
like, from the humble earth and the simple heart.
Moreover, developing rationality, like developing civ-
ilization, has seemed to bring burdens along with
benefits; and the more advanced the development of
either, the more some men, longing for an earlier,
simpler, more natural state, have experienced the
beguilements of the uncivilized and the irrational. The
concept of the wise fool, in opposing a wisdom that
is natural or god-given to one that is self-acquired, is
the most sophisticated and far-reaching of those primi-
tivistic ideas with which man has questioned his own
potentialities and achievements.

The implications inherent in the figure of the wise
fool grow out of the attitudes most societies have held
about real fools. The names he has been given suggest,
in their etymological undertones, the various charac-
teristics that have been attributed to the fool: that he
is empty-headed (μάταιος, inanis, fool), dull-witted
(μῶρος, stultus, dolt, clown), feebleminded (imbécile,
dotard), and lacks understanding (ἄνοοσ, ἄφρων in-
sipiens); that he is different from normal men (idiot);
that he is either inarticulate (Tor) or babbles incoher-
ently (fatuus) and is given to boisterous merrymaking
(buffone); that he does not recognize the codes of
propriety (ineptus) and loves to mock others (Narr);
that he acts like a child (νήπιος); and that he has a
natural simplicity and innocence of heart (εὐήθης, nat-
ural, simpleton). Though violent madmen have, of
necessity, usually had to be restrained or incarcerated
by society, harmless fools have often enjoyed special
privileges. Their helplessness has earned them the
pitying protection of the more fortunate, just as their
childishness has won them the license granted children
for their irresponsible—and often irreverent—words or
actions. Since they are guided by nothing but their
natural instincts, the fool and the child are not held
accountable to the rules of civilized society. For while
mature adults are enjoined from breaking society's
accepted codes of conduct and belief on the assumption
that they ought to “know better,” the fool, like the
child, is not expected to “know” anything. Because of
this, he has often been granted considerable freedom.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is this privilege
of speaking with impunity that was to make the “all-
licensed fool” so attractive to the literary imagination.
Moreover, though the fact that fools stand apart from
normal humanity sometimes caused them to be treated
as objects of derision, it also sometimes caused them
to be venerated. In the Middle Ages, as in certain
primitive societies, they were thought to be under the
special protection of God, and the possibility always
existed that what sounded like inane chatter was, in
actual fact, theopneustic glossolalia.
The modern psychologist has, retrospectively, taken
special interest in the personality of the fool; for in
Freudian terms he embodies the untrammeled expres-
sion of the id. Lacking any vestige of a superego, the
fool surrenders shamelessly to his bodily appetites and
natural desires, and he is regularly characterized by
his hunger, thirst, lust, and obsession with obscenities.
It has been pointed out that his very etymology has
a genital suggestion (follis), and the familiar bauble
of the professional fool is undeniably phallic. With no
social personality to mask his emotions, he is childlike
in the utter frankness of his responses: when happy,
he laughs; when sad, he cries. Since he is equally short
of memory and unable to follow anything to its logical
conclusion, the past and the future are meaningless to
him as he happily lives in and for the moment. In-
structed only by his senses and his intuition and seeking
only self-gratification, he is the pleasure-principle
personified. His enemy, the superego, represents all the
ordered conventions and civilizing rationality of soci
ety which he finds both incomprehensible and intoler-
ably repressive. However we may choose to express
the antithesis—id vs. superego, heart vs. head, chaos
vs. order, anarchy vs. culture, nature vs. art, passion
vs. reason, pleasure vs. virtue, Carnival vs. Lent—his
allegiance is always unmistakably clear and one-sided.
By at least the end of the twelfth century (and
probably earlier), the fool had achieved the eminence
of having his own feast day. The famous, sometimes
infamous, Fête des Fous gave the lower clergy, if only
ephemerally, the traditional freedom accorded the fool.
Related to the Roman Saturnalia and embodying the
spirit of carnival misrule, the Feast of Fools found its
Scriptural authority in a verse from the Magnificat:
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles. Almost
three centuries later, when these blasphemous celebra-
tions had been driven out of the church, they were
taken over and expanded by the secular Sociétés
Joyeuses in the towns and universities. Emulating the
sub-deacons of the cathedrals, students and urban citi-
zens took the opportunity to lord it over their betters
and mock authority, both temporal and religious, with
assumed amnesty. But the original Scriptural sugges-
tion of The World Turned Upside-Down continued to
be closely associated with the fool. For by his very
nature, the fool is iconoclastic, not simply irreverent
but potentially subversive in his inability to compre-
hend the assumptions on which authority is founded.
He is too simpleminded to see the emperor's new
clothes and too unsophisticated to refrain from point-
ing out the nakedness of the truth.
At the same time, the fools of the Fête des Fous
and the Société Joyeuse were not, of course, genuinely
simpleminded, and the distinction must be made be-
tween the authentic or natural fool and the artificial
or professional fool. Though we do not know when
it first appeared advantageous for a normal man to
assume the guise of a simpleton, there are accounts
in Xenophon, Athenaeus, Lucian, and Plautus of pro-
fessionally amusing parasites who earned their bread
and butter with idiocies, and wealthy Romans kept
deformed buffoons in their households whose
impudence was legendary. Their descendants are the
Rigoletto-type fools of late-medieval and Renaissance
Europe with their traditional costume of motley, cap
and bells, and marotte. They had their heyday in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and a few of them
achieved such fame that their names are still known
to us. At least one of them, the fool of François I, is
supposed to have been truly witless, and the famous
fool of Sir Thomas More had suffered brain damage
as the result of a fall from a church-steeple; but most
of them were men of normal intelligence who found
it profitable to adopt motley for its ability to amuse
and the impunity it gave them to speak freely. The
professional jester, whose wry quips tended not only
to amuse but often to correct his master, personifies
the penchant all fools have for commenting on the
morals of others and affairs of state. One of the most
characteristic gestures of le fou glossateur, as one critic
has called him, is to hold a mirror up for our scrutiny
and to exclaim, “tu quoque!” It is this aspect of the
fool which was to achieve its most moving realization
in the nameless court fool who accompanies King Lear
across the barren heath of the world.

The idea of the wisdom (sapientia) of the fool always
stands in contrast to the knowledge (scientia) of the
learned or the “wisdom” of the worldly (sapientia
mundana). In this respect, the oxymoron, “wise fool,”
is inherently reversible; for whenever it is acknowl-
edged that the fool is wise, it is also suggested, expressly
or tacitly, that the wise are foolish. Perhaps the earliest
recorded expression of this paradox is Heraclitus' ob-
servation that much learning does not teach wisdom
(frag. 40), but the theme was recurrent in ancient
literature from Aeschylus to Horace. The classical
archetype for the figure of the wise fool is Socrates,
whom later theorists constantly invoked. Not only was
his educational method based on exposing the folly of
the supposedly wise, but he himself claimed that his
own wisdom was derived from an awareness of his
ignorance. In the Apology (20d-23b), he recounts how
the oracle at Delphi had once said there was no man
wiser than he. Knowing that he was not wise, however,
he attempted to disprove the oracle by finding a wiser
man among the Athenians; but he found that all those
who professed wisdom were in fact ignorant, while he
alone admitted his ignorance. Hence he concluded that
what the Pythian god had meant was: “The wisest of
you, O men, is he who, like Socrates, knows that as
far as wisdom is concerned he is actually worthless.”
Socrates' account of human ignorance, in attributing
true wisdom only to the divine, anticipates Saint Paul's
claim that God has made foolish the wisdom of this
world (I Corinthians 1:20; 3:19). The Pauline concept
of the Fool in Christ, which is given its fullest exposi-
tion in the Epistles to the Corinthians, affirms the
worthlessness of wordly wisdom in contrast to the
wisdom of the Christian, which to the world appears
folly. Claiming that we are fools for Christ's sake but
are wise in Christ (I Corinthians 4:10), he argues that
“the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (I Corinthi-
ans 1:25), and he says of unbelievers that, “professing
themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans
1:22). “Let no man deceive himself,” he exhorts; “if
any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world,
let him become a fool, that he may be wise” (I Corin-
thians 3:18). Christ Himself had exemplified this foolish
wisdom, not only when as a child He answered the
doctors in the temple, but also later when He con-
founded the scribes and pharisees in their wisdom.
Moreover, His teaching was seen to be childlike in its
simplicity, “foolish” in its homespun imagery; and, it
was later argued, although we think of sheep as foolish
creatures, He was the Lamb of God. This theological
paradox of the Wise Fool in Christ, which was to
provide the rationale for so many subsequent treat-
ments of the wisdom of folly, was kept alive all during
the Middle Ages by such writers as Gregory the Great,
Scotus Erigena, Francis of Assisi, Jacopone da Todi,
and Raimond Lull.
It is, however, in the late Middle Ages and out of
that northern mysticism of the devotio moderna taught
by the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer that
two of the most important Christian treatments of the
wisdom of the fool appear. Almost simultaneously, near
the middle of the fifteenth century, Thomas à Kempis,
in his influential Imitatio Christi, urged a Christian life
of “holy simplicity” in emulation of Christ the Fool,
and Nicholas of Cusa (or Cusanus), in various writings,
laid the philosophical groundwork for a new concept
of learned ignorance. Cusanus' docta ignorantia, “the
coincidence of knowledge and ignorance,” in rejecting
rational theology and attributing to God a wisdom
unattainable by man, poses serious questions about the
very possibility of human knowledge but finally derives
a kind of wisdom from the antithesis between the
irrational absolute and logical reason. For he argues,
as Socrates had before him and as Montaigne would
after him (though both in quite different contexts from
Cusanus'), that knowledge of our ignorance is itself a
kind of knowledge.
Throughout the Middle Ages, a less theolog-
ical—and, admittedly, often less wise—figure of the
fool capered through the sotties, carnival plays, prov-
erbs, songs, and jestbooks that appeared all over
Europe. Tyl Eulenspiegel, Marcolf, Scogin, Bertoldo,
Robin Goodfellow, and a dozen others, though often
nothing more than scurrilous buffoons and outrageous
pranksters, sometimes give evidence in their jests that
they are also vessels of wisdom. In their roguery, they
are the direct forebears of the confidence men of later
literature—the Elizabethan coney-catcher, Arlecchino,
Lazarillo, Simplicius, Scapin, Melville's deaf-mute,
Felix Krull; but in their wisdom, they display the char-
acteristics of all fools. In particular, the legendary
Marcolf, whose origins are distant and obscure, is one
of the primordial manifestations of the wisdom of folly.
Companion to the very personification of wisdom, King
Solomon, he regularly bests the sage in their encounters
by means of his earthy, natural, literal-minded acuity.
At the same time, there were also literary fools who
were only fools, and the medieval imagination took
satiric delight in cataloguing them in such works as
Wireker's Speculum stultorum or Lydgate's The Ordre
of Folys. Their more ominous confrere, the Vice, who
replaced the bauble with a dagger of lath, proffered
temptations to Everyman on the medieval stage.
Sebastian Brandt, gathering them all together at the
end of the Middle Ages, was to confirm once more the
old observation of the preacher of Ecclesiastes that
stultorum numerus infinitus est (I:15). And, indeed, the
passengers on the Narrenschiff (1494) are fools in the
somberest sense; for, like all men, they are sinners.
By the end of the fifteenth century, a fairly complex
set of ideas and associations had gathered around the
figure of the fool. At worst, he was considered a sinful
instrument of vice, who was blind to the truth and
had no hope of salvation. It has been suggested that
this attitude goes back to Saint Jerome, who translated
the opening of Psalm 53/52 with Dixit insipiens in
corde suo, rendering the Hebrew word “nabal” as
“fool” rather than as “vile or morally deficient person.”
At best, the fool was a simple innocent, devoid of the
pretentions of learning and the corruptions of worldly
wisdom, into whom the spirit of God could most easily
enter. The most universal characteristics of the fool,
however, lay somewhere in between the two opposite
poles represented by the fool of Saint Jerome and the
fool of Saint Paul; for these are his social rather than
his religious characteristics. On the one hand, he could
be found in any rank of society; on the other, he was
the shameless critic of all ranks. He saw through the
hypocrisy of social status and noble sentiments; he
exposed the vanity of beauty and learning. He did not
believe in honor, order, measure, prudence, justice,
chastity, or any of the stoical restraints society imposes
upon itself. If Hercules at the crossroads between virtue
and pleasure had traditionally opted for virtue, the fool
resolutely took the other fork and sought gratification
for the body rather than the spirit, arguing that there
will still be cakes and ale though some are virtuous.
It had long since been recognized, however, that he
was a formidable adversary, not just because he refused
to abide by the accepted rules, but because his jocose
antics, like all play, could easily turn into high serious-
ness and his unbridled tongue was capable of truth as
well as foolishness.

It was out of these antecedents that the wisest, most
important, most influential fool of all was created in
the first decade of the sixteenth century. Erasmus'
Moriae encomium, written in 1509 and first published
in 1511, is, for all its joking, the most profoundly serious
and penetrating examination of the wise fool in West-
ern literature. It is no exaggeration to say that all
subsequent fools of note are, in one way or another,
indebted to his figure of Stultitia, who delivers her own
eulogy in The Praise of Folly. Not only does she sum
up all earlier expressions of the paradox, but she also
manages, through her deep sense of humanity and her
polysemous irony, to give new dimensions to the con-
cept. The foolish creation of the most learned man of
his time, she is the literal embodiment of the word
oxymoron, and in her idiotic wisdom she represents the
finest flowering of that fusion of Italian humanistic
thought and northern piety which has been called
Christian Humanism.
Like all fools, Stultitia's basic impulse is satiric, and
her widespread notoriety throughout sixteenth-century
Europe was largely the result of those parts of her
speech in which she irreverently boasts that all the
chief secular, religious, and intellectual estates of the
Renaissance world are under her dominion. No man,
not even her own author, is exempted from her
mordant ridicule as she anatomizes the follies of man-
kind. Yet in the last analysis, it is not her satiric cata-
logue but her ironic self-description which was to have
the more lasting resonance. For in explaining who she
is—in asking, that is, what it means to be a fool—she
demonstrates that folly is not merely universal but
necessary and even desirable to mankind, that to be
a man is nothing other than to play the fool, and
that the highest wisdom is to acknowledge this very
fact.
Portraying herself as the personification of all natural
instincts, she claims to be the life-force in the universe
and argues that it is only she, Folly, who keeps men
from committing suicide. Those impulses of man which
attempt to curb or deny his own nature are objects
of her deepest scorn. Behind this foolish naturalism lies
Erasmus' deep belief, inherited from some of his
humanistic predecessors, in the goodness of nature,
especially human nature—a philosophical position
which enabled Luther later to accuse him of Pelagian-
ism. Stultitia, in reflecting this belief, emerges as the
champion of φύσις (nature) over all forms of νόμος (law,
custom, convention) which attempt to restrict nature.
She is, accordingly, an enemy of the Stoics, as all fools
inherently are. But this fool has philosophical and
theological reasons to buttress her instinctive love of
pleasure. In fact, she is one of the earliest spokesmen
for the post-medieval revival of Epicurus and suggests,
as Erasmus was to argue in detail elsewhere, that “if
we take care to understand the words properly” the
true Christian is an Epicurean (Colloquia familiaria
[1516], “Epicureus”). Though she speaks in learned
Latin decorated with Greek tags, Stultitia is equally
scornful of the pretensions of learning, whether
pedantic sophistry on the one hand or speculative
metaphysics on the other. In opposition to both sets
of “foolosophers,” as she calls them (μωροσόφοι), she
extolls the humility of ignorance and the simple
knowledge drawn from experience and faith. Beyond
this, she is, as always, acutely conscious of the cares
of mankind and the pains of existence. She laments
with Ecclesiastes that “He that increaseth knowledge
increaseth sorrow” (I:18), and she sadly concedes with
Sophocles that “to know nothing affords the happiest
life” (Ajax 554).
The fool's traditional penchant for turning things
upside-down is, in Stultitia, reinforced by the profound
Erasmian ability to see both sides of a question. Not
surprisingly, she invokes one of her author's most im-
portant adages, “The Sileni of Alcibiades” (Adagiorum
chiliades III. iii. 1), in which it is argued that the inner
essence of any matter is often the opposite of its outer
appearance, to explain that the apparently foolish may
actually be wise, the apparently wise, foolish. This is,
to be sure, the basis of her irony; but it is also the
burden of her message. For she proceeds to apply this
technique of reversal to all aspects of worldly wisdom,
reexamining those virtues and codes of conduct the
world takes for granted to be wise, and demonstrating
both their limitations and the wisdom of their foolish
opposites. For example, she hails Self-love (Φιλαυτία)
as her closest companion, only to ask if the Christian
can really love his neighbor as himself if he does not,
in fact, love himself. Similarly, she attacks Prudence,
traditional enemy of Folly in medieval psychomachies,
not simply because fools rush in where angels fear to
tread, but in order to show that experience can be
valuable and that judgments are always difficult. She
acknowledges that his illusions and self-delusions are
as important to man as his truths; she accepts the
passions of the heart as well as the reasons of the mind;
and she resolves the ancient antinomy between virtue
and pleasure by arguing that pleasure is a virtue.
These radical reappraisals of common assumptions
are derived throughout from a humane understanding
of man's condition and a belief in the essential goodness
of human nature if it is uncorrupted by man-made
institutions, false learning, and perversions of the will.
Once man has stripped himself of these false claims
to wisdom, he becomes a proper receptacle to receive
the wisdom of Christ, which is the only true wisdom.
In the conclusion of her great speech, Stultitia invokes
the figure of the Fool in Christ, derived from Saint
Paul and Cusanus, and prescribes a pietistic simplicity
of heart as the true way to divine wisdom. What is
more, she effectively argues that, since to be a man
is to be a fool, when the Son of God accepted the role
of human frailty He became the greatest of all fools.

Erasmus' Stultitia ushers in that host of wise fools
who were to play such a dominant role in European
thought and literature for the next hundred years, from
Murner's Narrenbeschwörung (1512) to Cervantes' Don
Quixote (1605, 1615). It has often been observed that
the great fools of the sixteenth century are essentially
the creation of Renaissance humanism and their ironic
wisdom the result of the assimilation of Lucian by such
humanists as Alberti, More, and Erasmus himself. At
the same time, it is equally important to recognize the
evidence such fools supply that the hopeful ideals of
humanist philosophy were already being subjected to
increasing doubt. For the concept of folly, however
“wise,” is ultimately the antithesis of the concept of
the dignity of man; and if the medieval Feast of Fools
was religion on a holiday, the Renaissance triumph of
the wise fool was humanism on a holiday—or, perhaps
more accurately, humanism in mourning. The optimis-
tic dream of man and the heaven-storming possibilities
of human reason so proudly advanced by the humanists
of the fifteenth century did not concede much if any
wisdom to folly. Though the first humanist, Petrarch,
had claimed the wisdom of his own ignorance, the
ignorance he professed was not that of the fool but
only that of the non-Averroist. It is, significantly, only
in the sixteenth century, when the shadow of skepti-
cism fell across humanist thought, that the wise fool
emerges as the spokesman for his epoch. It is precisely
when he can no longer determine whether man is the
Godlike paragon of animals or the base quintessence
of dust that Hamlet puts on the antic disposition of
the fool and walks in the corridor reading Erasmus'
Praise of Folly.
Down the length of the sixteenth century, the wis-
dom of folly is described in all its nuances by such
diverse authors as Ariosto, Skelton, Rabelais, Folengo,
Nashe, Hans Sachs, Cornelius Agrippa, Francisco
Sanchez, Montaigne, and many others; the portrait of
the wise fool is drawn again and again by Breughel
and Bosch, Massys and Holbein, and countless minor
illustrators. When Olivia, in Twelfth Night, says of the
clown Feste, “This fellow is wise enough to play the
fool” (III.i.60) and when Touchstone, in As You Like
It, proverbially observes that “The fool doth think he
is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”
(V.i.31), they are uttering what had by then become
commonplaces. In the age of Elizabeth, foolery did
indeed seem to walk about the orb like the sun and
shine everywhere; and one of Ben Jonson's last charac-
ters, looking back over the drama of the preceding
century, can nostalgically claim that “There was no
play [that is, of any merit] without a fool” (Staple of
News, 1st Intermean, 35). For in England especially,
the wise fool found his true home in the drama of
Heywood, Marston, Middleton, Dekker, Jonson, and,
above all, Shakespeare. In both the comedies and the
tragedies, the Shakespearean wise fool has his splendid
role to play, from the bantering wit of Touchstone and
Feste to Yorick's gibeless skull and Cleopatra's death-
bearing clown. If Jaques, in the sun-dappled world of
Arden, can learnedly quote The Praise of Folly to
demonstrate that all the world's a stage, it remains for
Lear, in the storm-tossed kingdom of tragedy, to ac-
knowledge that the world is “this great stage of fools.”
Lear's own fool is only the greatest of many who, for
all their motley, bring tears to our eyes because of the
profundity of their wisdom. Nor are those who wear
motley the only wise fools in Shakespeare: we better
understand such otherwise dissimilar characters as
Falstaff and Antony when we recognize that they too
manifest many of the traditional traits of the wise fool.
Significantly, the last of the great Renaissance fools,
Don Quixote, who rides forth as the age of humanism
is drawing to a close, is known to the world not for
his jesting motley but for his mournful countenance.
To be sure, his companion, Sancho Panza, is something
of a court jester without the office—or the court; but
by the beginning of the seventeenth century the pro-
fessional fool had almost had his day. Even his parti-
colored costume only partially survives in the Com-
media dell'Arte. The concept of folly, however, was far
from dead. For fools, whether specifically identified as
such or not, have continued down the centuries to call
into question the claims of learning, religion, and civi-
lization. Whenever human reason has most proudly
vaunted its achievements, it has been inevitably chal-
lenged by the mocking laughter of the wise fool. Long
after the Renaissance fool had made his exit from the
scene, from Grimmelshausen and Molière and Swift
to Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin and Hauptmann's
Emanuel Quint and Yeats's Crazy Jane, the idea of the
wisdom of folly has persisted.

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LEGENDRAFI
post Oct 25 2007, 02:02 AM
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QUOTE(noorie @ Oct 24 2007, 08:26 PM) *

Wisdom Of The Fool


The paradoxical idea that the fool may possess wis-
dom, though it was not to achieve its fullest articulation
until the Renaissance, doubtless had its beginnings very
early in the civilizing process. As soon as it was possible
for man to feel nostalgia for a simpler way of life, he
must also have wondered about the superiority of a
simpler kind of wisdom, whether innate or inspired,
over whatever knowledge of the world he had acquired
through his own empirical deducation or from the in-
struction of others. Whenever reason has been able to
question itself and acknowledge that the heart has its
reasons that reason does not know, a kind of wisdom
has been attributed to the fool. Men have often noticed
that the untutored or simpleminded, in their purity of
heart, could penetrate to profounder truths than those
encumbered with learning and convention, in the same
way that we sometimes sense a more resonant verity
in homely sayings or popular proverbs than in rational
exposition. It is, in fact, no accident that the fools of
literature characteristically resort to proverbial ex-
pressions; for proverbs draw their strength, Antaeus-
like, from the humble earth and the simple heart.
Moreover, developing rationality, like developing civ-
ilization, has seemed to bring burdens along with
benefits; and the more advanced the development of
either, the more some men, longing for an earlier,
simpler, more natural state, have experienced the
beguilements of the uncivilized and the irrational. The
concept of the wise fool, in opposing a wisdom that
is natural or god-given to one that is self-acquired, is
the most sophisticated and far-reaching of those primi-
tivistic ideas with which man has questioned his own
potentialities and achievements.

The implications inherent in the figure of the wise
fool grow out of the attitudes most societies have held
about real fools. The names he has been given suggest,
in their etymological undertones, the various charac-
teristics that have been attributed to the fool: that he
is empty-headed (μάταιος, inanis, fool), dull-witted
(μῶρος, stultus, dolt, clown), feebleminded (imbécile,
dotard), and lacks understanding (ἄνοοσ, ἄφρων in-
sipiens); that he is different from normal men (idiot);
that he is either inarticulate (Tor) or babbles incoher-
ently (fatuus) and is given to boisterous merrymaking
(buffone); that he does not recognize the codes of
propriety (ineptus) and loves to mock others (Narr);
that he acts like a child (νήπιος); and that he has a
natural simplicity and innocence of heart (εὐήθης, nat-
ural, simpleton). Though violent madmen have, of
necessity, usually had to be restrained or incarcerated
by society, harmless fools have often enjoyed special
privileges. Their helplessness has earned them the
pitying protection of the more fortunate, just as their
childishness has won them the license granted children
for their irresponsible—and often irreverent—words or
actions. Since they are guided by nothing but their
natural instincts, the fool and the child are not held
accountable to the rules of civilized society. For while
mature adults are enjoined from breaking society's
accepted codes of conduct and belief on the assumption
that they ought to “know better,” the fool, like the
child, is not expected to “know” anything. Because of
this, he has often been granted considerable freedom.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is this privilege
of speaking with impunity that was to make the “all-
licensed fool” so attractive to the literary imagination.
Moreover, though the fact that fools stand apart from
normal humanity sometimes caused them to be treated
as objects of derision, it also sometimes caused them
to be venerated. In the Middle Ages, as in certain
primitive societies, they were thought to be under the
special protection of God, and the possibility always
existed that what sounded like inane chatter was, in
actual fact, theopneustic glossolalia.
The modern psychologist has, retrospectively, taken
special interest in the personality of the fool; for in
Freudian terms he embodies the untrammeled expres-
sion of the id. Lacking any vestige of a superego, the
fool surrenders shamelessly to his bodily appetites and
natural desires, and he is regularly characterized by
his hunger, thirst, lust, and obsession with obscenities.
It has been pointed out that his very etymology has
a genital suggestion (follis), and the familiar bauble
of the professional fool is undeniably phallic. With no
social personality to mask his emotions, he is childlike
in the utter frankness of his responses: when happy,
he laughs; when sad, he cries. Since he is equally short
of memory and unable to follow anything to its logical
conclusion, the past and the future are meaningless to
him as he happily lives in and for the moment. In-
structed only by his senses and his intuition and seeking
only self-gratification, he is the pleasure-principle
personified. His enemy, the superego, represents all the
ordered conventions and civilizing rationality of soci
ety which he finds both incomprehensible and intoler-
ably repressive. However we may choose to express
the antithesis—id vs. superego, heart vs. head, chaos
vs. order, anarchy vs. culture, nature vs. art, passion
vs. reason, pleasure vs. virtue, Carnival vs. Lent—his
allegiance is always unmistakably clear and one-sided.
By at least the end of the twelfth century (and
probably earlier), the fool had achieved the eminence
of having his own feast day. The famous, sometimes
infamous, Fête des Fous gave the lower clergy, if only
ephemerally, the traditional freedom accorded the fool.
Related to the Roman Saturnalia and embodying the
spirit of carnival misrule, the Feast of Fools found its
Scriptural authority in a verse from the Magnificat:
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles. Almost
three centuries later, when these blasphemous celebra-
tions had been driven out of the church, they were
taken over and expanded by the secular Sociétés
Joyeuses in the towns and universities. Emulating the
sub-deacons of the cathedrals, students and urban citi-
zens took the opportunity to lord it over their betters
and mock authority, both temporal and religious, with
assumed amnesty. But the original Scriptural sugges-
tion of The World Turned Upside-Down continued to
be closely associated with the fool. For by his very
nature, the fool is iconoclastic, not simply irreverent
but potentially subversive in his inability to compre-
hend the assumptions on which authority is founded.
He is too simpleminded to see the emperor's new
clothes and too unsophisticated to refrain from point-
ing out the nakedness of the truth.
At the same time, the fools of the Fête des Fous
and the Société Joyeuse were not, of course, genuinely
simpleminded, and the distinction must be made be-
tween the authentic or natural fool and the artificial
or professional fool. Though we do not know when
it first appeared advantageous for a normal man to
assume the guise of a simpleton, there are accounts
in Xenophon, Athenaeus, Lucian, and Plautus of pro-
fessionally amusing parasites who earned their bread
and butter with idiocies, and wealthy Romans kept
deformed buffoons in their households whose
impudence was legendary. Their descendants are the
Rigoletto-type fools of late-medieval and Renaissance
Europe with their traditional costume of motley, cap
and bells, and marotte. They had their heyday in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and a few of them
achieved such fame that their names are still known
to us. At least one of them, the fool of François I, is
supposed to have been truly witless, and the famous
fool of Sir Thomas More had suffered brain damage
as the result of a fall from a church-steeple; but most
of them were men of normal intelligence who found
it profitable to adopt motley for its ability to amuse
and the impunity it gave them to speak freely. The
professional jester, whose wry quips tended not only
to amuse but often to correct his master, personifies
the penchant all fools have for commenting on the
morals of others and affairs of state. One of the most
characteristic gestures of le fou glossateur, as one critic
has called him, is to hold a mirror up for our scrutiny
and to exclaim, “tu quoque!” It is this aspect of the
fool which was to achieve its most moving realization
in the nameless court fool who accompanies King Lear
across the barren heath of the world.

The idea of the wisdom (sapientia) of the fool always
stands in contrast to the knowledge (scientia) of the
learned or the “wisdom” of the worldly (sapientia
mundana). In this respect, the oxymoron, “wise fool,”
is inherently reversible; for whenever it is acknowl-
edged that the fool is wise, it is also suggested, expressly
or tacitly, that the wise are foolish. Perhaps the earliest
recorded expression of this paradox is Heraclitus' ob-
servation that much learning does not teach wisdom
(frag. 40), but the theme was recurrent in ancient
literature from Aeschylus to Horace. The classical
archetype for the figure of the wise fool is Socrates,
whom later theorists constantly invoked. Not only was
his educational method based on exposing the folly of
the supposedly wise, but he himself claimed that his
own wisdom was derived from an awareness of his
ignorance. In the Apology (20d-23b), he recounts how
the oracle at Delphi had once said there was no man
wiser than he. Knowing that he was not wise, however,
he attempted to disprove the oracle by finding a wiser
man among the Athenians; but he found that all those
who professed wisdom were in fact ignorant, while he
alone admitted his ignorance. Hence he concluded that
what the Pythian god had meant was: “The wisest of
you, O men, is he who, like Socrates, knows that as
far as wisdom is concerned he is actually worthless.”
Socrates' account of human ignorance, in attributing
true wisdom only to the divine, anticipates Saint Paul's
claim that God has made foolish the wisdom of this
world (I Corinthians 1:20; 3:19). The Pauline concept
of the Fool in Christ, which is given its fullest exposi-
tion in the Epistles to the Corinthians, affirms the
worthlessness of wordly wisdom in contrast to the
wisdom of the Christian, which to the world appears
folly. Claiming that we are fools for Christ's sake but
are wise in Christ (I Corinthians 4:10), he argues that
“the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (I Corinthi-
ans 1:25), and he says of unbelievers that, “professing
themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans
1:22). “Let no man deceive himself,” he exhorts; “if
any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world,
let him become a fool, that he may be wise” (I Corin-
thians 3:18). Christ Himself had exemplified this foolish
wisdom, not only when as a child He answered the
doctors in the temple, but also later when He con-
founded the scribes and pharisees in their wisdom.
Moreover, His teaching was seen to be childlike in its
simplicity, “foolish” in its homespun imagery; and, it
was later argued, although we think of sheep as foolish
creatures, He was the Lamb of God. This theological
paradox of the Wise Fool in Christ, which was to
provide the rationale for so many subsequent treat-
ments of the wisdom of folly, was kept alive all during
the Middle Ages by such writers as Gregory the Great,
Scotus Erigena, Francis of Assisi, Jacopone da Todi,
and Raimond Lull.
It is, however, in the late Middle Ages and out of
that northern mysticism of the devotio moderna taught
by the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer that
two of the most important Christian treatments of the
wisdom of the fool appear. Almost simultaneously, near
the middle of the fifteenth century, Thomas à Kempis,
in his influential Imitatio Christi, urged a Christian life
of “holy simplicity” in emulation of Christ the Fool,
and Nicholas of Cusa (or Cusanus), in various writings,
laid the philosophical groundwork for a new concept
of learned ignorance. Cusanus' docta ignorantia, “the
coincidence of knowledge and ignorance,” in rejecting
rational theology and attributing to God a wisdom
unattainable by man, poses serious questions about the
very possibility of human knowledge but finally derives
a kind of wisdom from the antithesis between the
irrational absolute and logical reason. For he argues,
as Socrates had before him and as Montaigne would
after him (though both in quite different contexts from
Cusanus'), that knowledge of our ignorance is itself a
kind of knowledge.
Throughout the Middle Ages, a less theolog-
ical—and, admittedly, often less wise—figure of the
fool capered through the sotties, carnival plays, prov-
erbs, songs, and jestbooks that appeared all over
Europe. Tyl Eulenspiegel, Marcolf, Scogin, Bertoldo,
Robin Goodfellow, and a dozen others, though often
nothing more than scurrilous buffoons and outrageous
pranksters, sometimes give evidence in their jests that
they are also vessels of wisdom. In their roguery, they
are the direct forebears of the confidence men of later
literature—the Elizabethan coney-catcher, Arlecchino,
Lazarillo, Simplicius, Scapin, Melville's deaf-mute,
Felix Krull; but in their wisdom, they display the char-
acteristics of all fools. In particular, the legendary
Marcolf, whose origins are distant and obscure, is one
of the primordial manifestations of the wisdom of folly.
Companion to the very personification of wisdom, King
Solomon, he regularly bests the sage in their encounters
by means of his earthy, natural, literal-minded acuity.
At the same time, there were also literary fools who
were only fools, and the medieval imagination took
satiric delight in cataloguing them in such works as
Wireker's Speculum stultorum or Lydgate's The Ordre
of Folys. Their more ominous confrere, the Vice, who
replaced the bauble with a dagger of lath, proffered
temptations to Everyman on the medieval stage.
Sebastian Brandt, gathering them all together at the
end of the Middle Ages, was to confirm once more the
old observation of the preacher of Ecclesiastes that
stultorum numerus infinitus est (I:15). And, indeed, the
passengers on the Narrenschiff (1494) are fools in the
somberest sense; for, like all men, they are sinners.
By the end of the fifteenth century, a fairly complex
set of ideas and associations had gathered around the
figure of the fool. At worst, he was considered a sinful
instrument of vice, who was blind to the truth and
had no hope of salvation. It has been suggested that
this attitude goes back to Saint Jerome, who translated
the opening of Psalm 53/52 with Dixit insipiens in
corde suo, rendering the Hebrew word “nabal” as
“fool” rather than as “vile or morally deficient person.”
At best, the fool was a simple innocent, devoid of the
pretentions of learning and the corruptions of worldly
wisdom, into whom the spirit of God could most easily
enter. The most universal characteristics of the fool,
however, lay somewhere in between the two opposite
poles represented by the fool of Saint Jerome and the
fool of Saint Paul; for these are his social rather than
his religious characteristics. On the one hand, he could
be found in any rank of society; on the other, he was
the shameless critic of all ranks. He saw through the
hypocrisy of social status and noble sentiments; he
exposed the vanity of beauty and learning. He did not
believe in honor, order, measure, prudence, justice,
chastity, or any of the stoical restraints society imposes
upon itself. If Hercules at the crossroads between virtue
and pleasure had traditionally opted for virtue, the fool
resolutely took the other fork and sought gratification
for the body rather than the spirit, arguing that there
will still be cakes and ale though some are virtuous.
It had long since been recognized, however, that he
was a formidable adversary, not just because he refused
to abide by the accepted rules, but because his jocose
antics, like all play, could easily turn into high serious-
ness and his unbridled tongue was capable of truth as
well as foolishness.

It was out of these antecedents that the wisest, most
important, most influential fool of all was created in
the first decade of the sixteenth century. Erasmus'
Moriae encomium, written in 1509 and first published
in 1511, is, for all its joking, the most profoundly serious
and penetrating examination of the wise fool in West-
ern literature. It is no exaggeration to say that all
subsequent fools of note are, in one way or another,
indebted to his figure of Stultitia, who delivers her own
eulogy in The Praise of Folly. Not only does she sum
up all earlier expressions of the paradox, but she also
manages, through her deep sense of humanity and her
polysemous irony, to give new dimensions to the con-
cept. The foolish creation of the most learned man of
his time, she is the literal embodiment of the word
oxymoron, and in her idiotic wisdom she represents the
finest flowering of that fusion of Italian humanistic
thought and northern piety which has been called
Christian Humanism.
Like all fools, Stultitia's basic impulse is satiric, and
her widespread notoriety throughout sixteenth-century
Europe was largely the result of those parts of her
speech in which she irreverently boasts that all the
chief secular, religious, and intellectual estates of the
Renaissance world are under her dominion. No man,
not even her own author, is exempted from her
mordant ridicule as she anatomizes the follies of man-
kind. Yet in the last analysis, it is not her satiric cata-
logue but her ironic self-description which was to have
the more lasting resonance. For in explaining who she
is—in asking, that is, what it means to be a fool—she
demonstrates that folly is not merely universal but
necessary and even desirable to mankind, that to be
a man is nothing other than to play the fool, and
that the highest wisdom is to acknowledge this very
fact.
Portraying herself as the personification of all natural
instincts, she claims to be the life-force in the universe
and argues that it is only she, Folly, who keeps men
from committing suicide. Those impulses of man which
attempt to curb or deny his own nature are objects
of her deepest scorn. Behind this foolish naturalism lies
Erasmus' deep belief, inherited from some of his
humanistic predecessors, in the goodness of nature,
especially human nature—a philosophical position
which enabled Luther later to accuse him of Pelagian-
ism. Stultitia, in reflecting this belief, emerges as the
champion of φύσις (nature) over all forms of νόμος (law,
custom, convention) which attempt to restrict nature.
She is, accordingly, an enemy of the Stoics, as all fools
inherently are. But this fool has philosophical and
theological reasons to buttress her instinctive love of
pleasure. In fact, she is one of the earliest spokesmen
for the post-medieval revival of Epicurus and suggests,
as Erasmus was to argue in detail elsewhere, that “if
we take care to understand the words properly” the
true Christian is an Epicurean (Colloquia familiaria
[1516], “Epicureus”). Though she speaks in learned
Latin decorated with Greek tags, Stultitia is equally
scornful of the pretensions of learning, whether
pedantic sophistry on the one hand or speculative
metaphysics on the other. In opposition to both sets
of “foolosophers,” as she calls them (μωροσόφοι), she
extolls the humility of ignorance and the simple
knowledge drawn from experience and faith. Beyond
this, she is, as always, acutely conscious of the cares
of mankind and the pains of existence. She laments
with Ecclesiastes that “He that increaseth knowledge
increaseth sorrow” (I:18), and she sadly concedes with
Sophocles that “to know nothing affords the happiest
life” (Ajax 554).
The fool's traditional penchant for turning things
upside-down is, in Stultitia, reinforced by the profound
Erasmian ability to see both sides of a question. Not
surprisingly, she invokes one of her author's most im-
portant adages, “The Sileni of Alcibiades” (Adagiorum
chiliades III. iii. 1), in which it is argued that the inner
essence of any matter is often the opposite of its outer
appearance, to explain that the apparently foolish may
actually be wise, the apparently wise, foolish. This is,
to be sure, the basis of her irony; but it is also the
burden of her message. For she proceeds to apply this
technique of reversal to all aspects of worldly wisdom,
reexamining those virtues and codes of conduct the
world takes for granted to be wise, and demonstrating
both their limitations and the wisdom of their foolish
opposites. For example, she hails Self-love (Φιλαυτία)
as her closest companion, only to ask if the Christian
can really love his neighbor as himself if he does not,
in fact, love himself. Similarly, she attacks Prudence,
traditional enemy of Folly in medieval psychomachies,
not simply because fools rush in where angels fear to
tread, but in order to show that experience can be
valuable and that judgments are always difficult. She
acknowledges that his illusions and self-delusions are
as important to man as his truths; she accepts the
passions of the heart as well as the reasons of the mind;
and she resolves the ancient antinomy between virtue
and pleasure by arguing that pleasure is a virtue.
These radical reappraisals of common assumptions
are derived throughout from a humane understanding
of man's condition and a belief in the essential goodness
of human nature if it is uncorrupted by man-made
institutions, false learning, and perversions of the will.
Once man has stripped himself of these false claims
to wisdom, he becomes a proper receptacle to receive
the wisdom of Christ, which is the only true wisdom.
In the conclusion of her great speech, Stultitia invokes
the figure of the Fool in Christ, derived from Saint
Paul and Cusanus, and prescribes a pietistic simplicity
of heart as the true way to divine wisdom. What is
more, she effectively argues that, since to be a man
is to be a fool, when the Son of God accepted the role
of human frailty He became the greatest of all fools.

Erasmus' Stultitia ushers in that host of wise fools
who were to play such a dominant role in European
thought and literature for the next hundred years, from
Murner's Narrenbeschwörung (1512) to Cervantes' Don
Quixote (1605, 1615). It has often been observed that
the great fools of the sixteenth century are essentially
the creation of Renaissance humanism and their ironic
wisdom the result of the assimilation of Lucian by such
humanists as Alberti, More, and Erasmus himself. At
the same time, it is equally important to recognize the
evidence such fools supply that the hopeful ideals of
humanist philosophy were already being subjected to
increasing doubt. For the concept of folly, however
“wise,” is ultimately the antithesis of the concept of
the dignity of man; and if the medieval Feast of Fools
was religion on a holiday, the Renaissance triumph of
the wise fool was humanism on a holiday—or, perhaps
more accurately, humanism in mourning. The optimis-
tic dream of man and the heaven-storming possibilities
of human reason so proudly advanced by the humanists
of the fifteenth century did not concede much if any
wisdom to folly. Though the first humanist, Petrarch,
had claimed the wisdom of his own ignorance, the
ignorance he professed was not that of the fool but
only that of the non-Averroist. It is, significantly, only
in the sixteenth century, when the shadow of skepti-
cism fell across humanist thought, that the wise fool
emerges as the spokesman for his epoch. It is precisely
when he can no longer determine whether man is the
Godlike paragon of animals or the base quintessence
of dust that Hamlet puts on the antic disposition of
the fool and walks in the corridor reading Erasmus'
Praise of Folly.
Down the length of the sixteenth century, the wis-
dom of folly is described in all its nuances by such
diverse authors as Ariosto, Skelton, Rabelais, Folengo,
Nashe, Hans Sachs, Cornelius Agrippa, Francisco
Sanchez, Montaigne, and many others; the portrait of
the wise fool is drawn again and again by Breughel
and Bosch, Massys and Holbein, and countless minor
illustrators. When Olivia, in Twelfth Night, says of the
clown Feste, “This fellow is wise enough to play the
fool” (III.i.60) and when Touchstone, in As You Like
It, proverbially observes that “The fool doth think he
is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”
(V.i.31), they are uttering what had by then become
commonplaces. In the age of Elizabeth, foolery did
indeed seem to walk about the orb like the sun and
shine everywhere; and one of Ben Jonson's last charac-
ters, looking back over the drama of the preceding
century, can nostalgically claim that “There was no
play [that is, of any merit] without a fool” (Staple of
News, 1st Intermean, 35). For in England especially,
the wise fool found his true home in the drama of
Heywood, Marston, Middleton, Dekker, Jonson, and,
above all, Shakespeare. In both the comedies and the
tragedies, the Shakespearean wise fool has his splendid
role to play, from the bantering wit of Touchstone and
Feste to Yorick's gibeless skull and Cleopatra's death-
bearing clown. If Jaques, in the sun-dappled world of
Arden, can learnedly quote The Praise of Folly to
demonstrate that all the world's a stage, it remains for
Lear, in the storm-tossed kingdom of tragedy, to ac-
knowledge that the world is “this great stage of fools.”
Lear's own fool is only the greatest of many who, for
all their motley, bring tears to our eyes because of the
profundity of their wisdom. Nor are those who wear
motley the only wise fools in Shakespeare: we better
understand such otherwise dissimilar characters as
Falstaff and Antony when we recognize that they too
manifest many of the traditional traits of the wise fool.
Significantly, the last of the great Renaissance fools,
Don Quixote, who rides forth as the age of humanism
is drawing to a close, is known to the world not for
his jesting motley but for his mournful countenance.
To be sure, his companion, Sancho Panza, is something
of a court jester without the office—or the court; but
by the beginning of the seventeenth century the pro-
fessional fool had almost had his day. Even his parti-
colored costume only partially survives in the Com-
media dell'Arte. The concept of folly, however, was far
from dead. For fools, whether specifically identified as
such or not, have continued down the centuries to call
into question the claims of learning, religion, and civi-
lization. Whenever human reason has most proudly
vaunted its achievements, it has been inevitably chal-
lenged by the mocking laughter of the wise fool. Long
after the Renaissance fool had made his exit from the
scene, from Grimmelshausen and Molière and Swift
to Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin and Hauptmann's
Emanuel Quint and Yeats's Crazy Jane, the idea of the
wisdom of folly has persisted.



Thanks for this highly interesting piece of information!
Sorry, couldn't go through the whole piece (blame it on the times we live in) but from whatever I could gather "the Wise Fool" sure makes for a great concept and perhaps for an even greater human being! If you know, what I mean (I hope you do as it would save me some explaining).
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