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The Wisdom of the Fool

An Essay By Trevor Stone

June 1995, Freshman Year, New Vista High School

[Author's note: this was the first philosohpy paper I ever wrote. I didn't get a very good grade on it, and looking back, it's a pretty bad paper. However, it's got some good content.]


Wisdom and fool are two words which are generally considered incompatible. However, the fool is one of the wisest people of all.

What, you may ask, would the ideal fool look like? There is no specific answer to that question, as there are many sorts of fools. There is the court jester fool who is, in the words of Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "Wise enough to be the fool." There is the fool who has discovered the eternal truth and is the sort of person you would expect to find in a shack in the middle of a wasteland writing philosophical poems. There is also the child who is a very wise fool until the adults have converted her to being "proper." There is of course the blissful idiot and those who have been labeled "fool" by society because the people in charge don't want others to become wise fools.

To begin with, we must do some defining. What do we mean by "wisdom" and "fool?" Let's start with Webster.

wisdom n. 1. the quality of being wise, the power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; discretion; sagacity. 2. learning; knowledge, erudition: as, the wisdom of the ages. 3. wise discourse or teaching, [Rare], a wise saying, action, etc.

wise adj. 1. having or showing good judgment; sagacious; prudent; discreet. 2. prompted by wisdom; judicious; sound: as, a wise saying, wise action. 3. informed: as, none the wiser. 4. learned; erudite. 5. shrewd; crafty; cunning. 6. [Obs, or Dial.]. having knowledge of black magic, etc.

fool n. 1. a person with little or no judgment, common sense, wisdom, etc.; silly person; simpleton. 2. a man formerly kept in the household of a nobleman or king to entertain by acting as a clown; professional jester. 3. a victim of a joke or trick; dupe.

Well, Webster seems to think "the wisdom of the fool" is an oxymoron. Let's see what Roget says is equivalent to wisdom in the sagacity sense.

wisdom, wiseness, sageness, etc. adj.; sapience, sagacity, etc. above, good or sound understanding; rationality; reason. reasonableness; sense, good ~ , common or plain sense, horse sense [coll., U.S.]. due sense of; judgment, good or sound perception of reasoning, soundness of judgment, good or sound judgment, judiciousness; long head [coll.], longheadedness; solidity, depth, profundity; enlargement of mind, enlarged views

And to fool in the simpleton sense (ignoring the stuff in brackets, as most of them are either [coll.] or [slang]).

fool, tomfool, precious fool, ninny, ninny hammer, mutt, boob, boob, chump, sap, prize sap, saphead, loony, looby, hoddy-doddy, noddy, tomnoddy, tommy noddy, nonny, noodle, doodle, nizy, gabby, dizzard, jobbernowl, nincompoop, witling, badaud, jerk, zany, daw, flat, put, stick, stock, sop, numps, tony, spoony, goose, buzzard, owl, donkey, ass, asshead; colt, calf, mooncalf, bull calf, sill, silly, silly ass, soft, softy, softhead; sot; stupid, stupid head, dolt, dunce, duffer, doit, niais, dummy or dumby; dumbhead, dumbbell, dumb-bunny; dullard, dully, dullhead, dunderpate, dunderhead, block, blockhead, woodenhead, squarehead, bonehead, solid ivory, numskull, thickhead, thickskull, thickwit, lunkhead, chucklehead, chowderhead, jolthead, jolterhead, muttonhead, loggerhead, beetlehead, grosshead, noodlehead, cabbagehead, pumpkin head, fathead, blubberhead, doughhead, bakehead, bullhead, blunderhead; clod, clodpole or clotpole, clodpoll or clotpoll, clodpate or clotpate; oaf, lout, loon, lown, lubber, swab, sawney, galoot, gowk, gawk, gawky, lummox, rube, yokel, clodhopper; shallowbrain, shallowpate; simp, simpleton, Simple Simon, idiot, driveling idiot, imbecile, moron, changeling, nitwit, dimwit, half-wit, lackwit, lack-brain; natural, natural idiot, born fool, natural-born fool; scatterbrain or scatterbrains, shatterbrain, shatterpate, rattlebrain, rattlehead, rattlepate; harebrain, featherbrain; giddybrain, giddyhead, diddypate; dizzy, dizzy dame; dotard "the sickly dotard," dote; driveler, babbler, radoteur; senile, old fogy, old wife or woman, crone, grandmother, henhussy, cotquean, betty, cot betty; childish person, child, mere child, baby, infant, innocent

So, the standards of the English language equate wisdom with knowledge (although if you were to ask most wise people, they would just laugh) and that a fool is another way to say, in politically correct language, "mentally challenged," although if you were to ask a wise person, he would again laugh.

The "wise people" of whom I am speaking are wise in how they look at life. If you were to give an IQ test to, for example, a traditional American Indian medicine man, he would likely flunk it due to cultural differences in the way he was raised. However, even the most "intelligent" people today can't figure out how we can live sustainably.

It also took intelligence to become a fool in the court of the nobleman. Fools were allowed to tell the truth and keep their head. And who else could make fun of the king to his face and get paid for it? Says the fool to King Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear (act I, scene IV, line 182) "Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning. Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now : I am a fool, thou art nothing." Were anyone else to say "I am better than the king," they would be thrown in the dungeons without a moment's consideration.

There can also be wisdom in the fool as an idiot. The idiot, not knowing why he should care about anything, doesn't. Whereas everyone else runs around worrying and stressing out, the idiot can just live in their own world of bliss. This seems a rather admirable lifestyle, yet still people use fool and idiot as an insult. Why would that be? Perhaps they haven't realized how fun ignorance is. The idiot can also have a lot of frustration due to what society does to them.

Another kind of fool is the one who looks at the world from an entirely different perspective. They see truths that we are either taught not to notice or don't want to notice, and so they are called fool.

Day after day, alone on a hill,
the man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still.
But nobody wants to know him,
they can see that he's just a fool
and he never gives an answer.
But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down
and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.
Well on the way, head in a cloud,
the man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud.
But nobody ever hears him
or the sound he appears to make
and he never seems to notice.
But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down
and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.
He never listens to them,
he knows that they're the fools.
They don't like him.
The fool on the hill sees the sun going down
and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.
-- The Beatles "The Fool on the Hill"

One such fool who looks at life with a different pair of glasses is the child. You may notice that at the end of the synonyms for "fool," many had to do with children. Listing them implies that we were all fools for a good portion of our lives. But what is so bad about children? They don't know what to worry about, so they don't. They are constantly full of energy. Could you swing on the swings, do cartwheels all the way across the playground, and then run with the merry-go-round and still have enough energy to win a race? They are not afraid to let their creativity or curiosity show. And they don't care if they, pardon the expression, make a fool of themselves. Would you, in all your business suits and ties, roll down a hill? All they care about is fun. The Taoists, in fact, find the state of the child to be something to try to attain. And we all love children so much that we are making them every three seconds! So why is child along with all those insulting words? One word: secret admiration.

There have been many famous fools as well. Socrates claimed he was wise because he knew nothing. Yoda could easily have ruled the universe, but he decided to live in a small hut in the swamp of a disregarded planet. According to Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the ruler of the universe lives in a shack with his cat wondering if the other people he keeps being told about really exist. Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx got lots of money for acting like complete fools. Einstein was considered absent-minded and stupid when he was young. Forrest Gump showed that even an idiot can be successful.

The fool also appears in the literature and oral traditions of many cultures. Coyote was part trickster, part fool, and part sage. In Africa, Anansi is often tricked and made to look a fool. In Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories we see that the elephant has a long snout due to a fool. Jesus Christ said "Unless ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." And, according to The Bible, the human race was saved by a fool. ("Noah, you fool, you're building a boat in the middle of the desert!")

There are also fools among us. We tend to call them lunatics and toss them in the insane asylum, but that is probably because the government doesn't want them to open other people's eyes to the truth. The church threatened to kill Galileo for claiming that the earth moved around the sun. Who knows how far our society would have progressed if we had listened to the fools instead of those who would say anything to stay in power?

Foolishness is a two-way perception. Who you think of as a fool probably thinks that you are the fool, not she. Our society would think the Aborigines pretty foolish (I mean, they don't care about money or power or fame, all they do is dream). They, on the other hand think that we are pretty foolish for inverse reasons. (I was listening to a radio program where Michael Toms was interviewing a woman who had written a book about her experiences with the Aborigines. At one point, she said "Let's all race from here to there and the one who gets there first is the winner." The Aborigines replied "Why? Then only one person is the winner.")

Not all fools are humans, though. One might say that cats are fools. They do nothing all day but sleep, eat, and stare out the window. They are, however, very wise. If we took time to fully enjoy and appreciate eating, sleeping, and admiring the planet around us, do you know how many fewer suicides, nervous breakdowns, murders, greedy slobs, and anything else that could be deduced as wrong with our society there would be?

The same can be said of dogs. No matter what, a dog will always be enthusiastic to chase a stick that you throw for him. They will enjoy your presence any time you return, even if you just went outside to check the mail. If you give them a large field, they won't have a care in the world except how fast they can run across it, whereas if you give a businessman a large field he will immediately try to figure out how much money he can make from it.

One wonderful example of a foolish animal can be found in the timeless philosophic character, Winnie-the-Pooh. The bear with little brain seems at first a simple character made for small children, but then we see that he has become an expert on everything from business to Taoism. And though he may be a bear with very little brain, he is the one who always manages to get things done. Who else but a fool would go round and round a tree hunting his own footprints? Yet this fool managed to save his friend in a rainstorm by finding use in an everyday honey pot. Time and time again, Pooh does something foolish that saves the day. And without a fool to think of it, it would not get thought of.

As we look at society, we find that the fools are actually the wise, and those who call them fool, the fools themselves. I am referring to the fools on Capital Hill and those who follow their lead and that of the popular media. The people can't get away from the O.J. Simpson case while the Contract with America revolutionizes their future. As Obe Wan Kenobe said, "Who is more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?"


I would like to close with some philosophic poetry.

Power, money, greed.
Called society to man.
Fools did not heed it.

Who
Is
So wise to
Do what
Others
Might not?

There once was a fool from Earth
Who wasn't given a berth.
They put him away
For a year and a day,
'cause he couldn't contain his mirth.

If you don't mind, I'll go and sit on my hill and philosophize.


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