The Virtues of Foolishness

I know one thing; that I know nothing.


Imagine finding yourself at the mouth of a deep, dark cave whose enormity you cannot grasp. You can exert yourself to building a brighter torch, but the darkness forever swallows it. You can never know how high the ceiling is, how far the walls extend, nor how deep the cave burrows into the mountainside. But with some perceptiveness you can at least realize that the darkness itself is far more vast than the area you can ever hope to illuminate.

Socrates had a keen enough intellect to realize that the body of knowable things so dwarfed his own knowledge that he practically knew nothing. This quote by Socrates hints at the virtue of the Fool; humility.

The virtues of foolishness are rarely considered. The reason for that is that the things in this world are often taught alongside a moral claim. Here’s this thing about the world and it is good. Here’s this other thing about the world and it is bad. And so on.

Wisdom takes the place of moral ‘good.’ Of course it does. Wise people earn respect. Being wise means having the ability to weave knowledge and experience into good judgment. The word ‘good’ is in the very definition.

Foolishness, being opposite to wisdom, necessarily falls into moral bad. The quality is conflated with stupidity and ignorance. The fool holds little prestige. He is written off as silly and trivial. He is seen as a blundering idiot, incapable of learning simple lessons. So foolishness is written off as a detestable thing to be avoided and shunned.

But the world does not fit the moral boundaries set up by common convention.

Fools often get a bad rep because the image of the fool frequently conjurs up depictions of dimwitted morons lacking all traces of dignity. But fools can retain dignity, and masterfully use the veneer of absurdity to belie their poignancy.

First take the medieval fool, clad in multicolored tights with jingly-jangly bells suspended from a spired, felt hat. He is unique in his position because only he can lampoon the King. And a good fool will use that station to effectively spotlight the wickedness of royalty. Modern comedians are the evolution of this fool, and some today are regarded with enough honor to host talk-shows viewed by millions.

For more day-to-day matters, consider another kind of fool, the Socratic one, the false Fool. This Fool holds wisdom. In fact he holds enough to be secure in his understanding of the world. And he holds enough to realize that compared to all that is known, he knows very little. The facade of his foolishness is a tool that protects him from the rigidity of arrogance. The Fool conceals his wisdom purposefully to invite new insight.

The Fool beguiles because he’s willing to hear others with reserved ears. He allows others to feel superior, knowledgeable, worldly compared to him. He validates their opinions and viewpoints simply by not opining himself. And others open up to him. Unconfronted by differences of opinion, they feel comfortable talking. In this way the Fool is amicable at the very least.

There is a position of power in this play. The Fool can respond with any of three spells; charm, audacity, or levity.

Firstly, charm. The Fool charms with his enthusiasm. People love to talk about themselves, and the Fool inquires with absolute attentiveness. True to his nature, he knows little, and thirsts to be told how the world is. After awhile he can seduce and enchant because he knows exactly where his fellow stands. He can play on their prejudice and pride. He can uplift with encouragement, or flatter with compliment.

Secondly, audacity. The Fool can also outwit and counter. He can question, challenge, and surprise. At first he appears so innocent, as a child, of the topic at hand. Then he strikes out with a trenchant remark, or an incisive question. He bemuses with the sudden reversal.

Thirdly, levity. Knowledge can be a burden. People crave the levity of the Fool, his carefree attitude, his lighthearted affect. When a conversation drags heavy with laiden topics, it is the Fool who rescues it by shifting gears. When someone drones on, or makes an asinine assertion, the Fool can state it simply because he is simple.

But the Fool isn’t out to manipulate or undermine. He is the opposite of malicious and egotistic. He seeks to understand another purely, and that means laying all his own biases to rest. He brings only his reason, his wit, and his intellect into an interaction.

Finally, the Fool at all times evades the scathing gaze of cynicism. He appears simple. No one will admit they can be duped by the fool, so they take him at face value. His perceived shallowness comes with an implicit sincerity.

Played properly, the Fool is not an image of shame.

And in so many cases we all play the fool. In life it cannot be avoided, so we might as well learn the roll. That roll is played almost as a default when traveling a foreign country.

I’ve been the Fool a hundred times by choice, but a thousand more times by circumstance. However cast, I step into the roll with full commitment, devoid of shame. In that way I preserve myself, so that that experience is not marred in embarrassment. In reflection, I can harvest insight rather than only reap humiliation.

So it is in the spirit of the fool that I travel. Silly and naive, yet with a confident understanding. With eyes open and heart trusting I shed assumption and bias.

I would recommend Fool practice to almost anyone. There are ineffable benefits to be had. You’ll be a little funnier maybe. Perhaps a little more unpredictable. You might just tap into a childlike playfulness. And you’ll prepare yourself to shrug and smile when you inevitably find yourself on the foolish side of a situation.

By navigating those moments of err with humility you might avoid pushing the bounds and crossing over into damaging frustration and rage. Put simply, the practice augments emotional resiliency.

Thank you for reading.


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