On Fools

“What fools these mortals be!” is an oft-cited passage from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my memory, I sometimes recall it to read: “What fools we mortals be,” as if it were spoken by one of our kind who looks back at man’s checkered record of living on this earth. But the passage is rather spoken by Puck, a sprite, an observer not of our lineage.

Something non-human sees our real situation. To me, this Shakespearean passage always contained a warmth about it – a “what-else-would-you-expect of this odd lot we call humanity?” The myriads of foibles, yes sins, of our kind were not, ipso facto, a reason why we should not exist. Surely someone must enjoy seeing how it all plays out. If the sheep were not lost, the “more joy in heaven” could not have happened.

In our literature, fools – such as court jesters or comedians – are often poignant characters. Men who make us laugh frequently lead rather sad lives – I think of Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, the Marx Brothers, even Jack Benny. At “Comedy Central,” which I seldom find funny, I often seem to see desperate men and women doing their level best to pretend to themselves that the world is not something other than one big joke.

Yet not surprisingly, really funny stories, incidents, yarns, parodies, and self-descriptions are found almost everywhere. What would our lives be without them? Any comedian, probably any human being, at some point has to see himself or allow others to see him as a fool.

Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Scripture does not give fools much of a break. We are not supposed to call anyone a fool. (Matthew 5:22) It is the fool who claims that, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1) Whether all those who make this “no god” claim are fools can be debated. Paul tells the Corinthians that what philosophers teach is often pretty foolish. He even tells us that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than the thoughts of men.” Meanwhile, the Gentiles think that teaching about Christ crucified is a bit “foolish.” The Second Psalm tells us: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh” at those who rage against the Lord.

A number of studies are grouped around the paradoxical notion of “Christ the Fool.” The point of such considerations is that Christ looked so odd to the world that He will always be taken for a madman or a fool. His own relatives seem to have thought this way. When confronted with the possibility that Christ really was what He said He was, we are left with little leeway. Either He was a fool or He was the Messiah. If the latter be the case, the term has a whole new meaning to us when He is called foolish.

In another sense, however, foolishness stands for a certain lightsomeness about our place in the world. Not all things are serious. Not all serious things are solemn. Almost every solemn occasion can cause an incident of laughter when something goes wrong. When we finally see the point of a joke, its reasons, when we finally succeed in “getting it,” our reaction is a sense of elation. Paul talked about the delight of those who ran the race. No joy can be found in an inert existence.

In a sequence entitled, “Charlie Brown on Self-Respect,” Charlie sits alone on a playground bench. He says to himself forlornly: “I always have to have lunch alone.” But he adds: “I’d sure like to have lunch with that little red-haired girl.” He gets a foolish idea: “I wonder if I walked over and asked her to have lunch with me.” But to himself, he figures, “she’d probably laugh right in my face.” Still by himself, he concludes poignantly, “It’s hard on a face when it gets laughed at.”

Is there such a thing as a fool? I suppose we could say: “Why, I meet one or two every day!” We know that others meet us. We wonder if they think us fools. And if so, do they have grounds for so thinking? Too often they do.

I recall a ballad that contained the refrain: “I’m a fool, I know, for loving you.” Loving famously brings out odd things in lovers. The world is amused (or at least was) by moonstruck lads, suddenly acting in an erratic manner on meeting “the right young lady.” “Lovers’ quarrels” should best end in a laughter that, on working things out, is the result of recognizing in oneself some foolishness or other.

But the paradoxical image of “Christ the Fool” still haunts. It was the Man who was thought a fool even by wise professors, clerics, and His own relatives who redeemed us. Why did they taunt Him as foolish? I suppose because they could not imagine anything better than they had. The Divine Fool could.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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