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What Is the Wise Fool?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most people have a good idea of what a fool is; indeed, most people have dated one or two. The term wise fool, however, is something else altogether. In spite of a lack of education, intelligence, or even common sense, even fools can stumble upon truths that are both poignant and deep. This fool might appear to be simpleminded or dull, but another kind of intelligence is filtered through his or her actions or words.

A wise fool is not the same as an idiot savant. An idiot savant is truly lacking in mental facility but has an inexplicable talent, even a genius, for something. Some idiot savants are brilliant artists; others have mathematical skills that defy logical explanation. A wise fool may behave foolishly or may be uneducated, but his or her pearls of wisdom are often not entirely accidental.

The metaphor of the wise fool gained popularity during the Middle Ages when certain behaviors or manners began to become codified. The fool would be someone who persistently acted in a contrary manner, either through lack of understanding or through intention. By the Renaissance, the fool had become a party staple through the character of the jester, who was permitted to mock members of the court and even the king himself, behave rudely, and otherwise cavort to the shock and delight of onlookers. This type of fool could get away with wry or piercing social commentary that would get other men hanged.

This particular fool is one who understands that violating social rules is permitted to those who appear to have childlike vulnerabilities. In some circles, it was believed that such a fool was actually a bit closer to God than other human beings. Should a fool blurt out a cutting truth regarding an individual, the words would be met with the laughter of those who recognized just how accurate the truth was; even the subject of the joke would be forced to chuckle or become the fool in turn.

The great Bard himself, William Shakespeare, had a special fondness for fools. This fondness was shared by the commoners who flocked to the Globe Theater to find foolish characters who were most often social underdogs who outsmarted the wealthy and powerful and were champions of their own society. Among Shakespeare’s most famous wise fools were Hamlet’s gravediggers, King Lear’s fool, and the delightful, naughty Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Discussion Comments

By strawCake — On Feb 14, 2012

I would say that Silent Bob in the Jay and Silent Bob movies would probably count as a wise fool. During most of the movie, Silent Bob doesn't say a word (hence, Silent Bob). He lets Jay do all the talking and often seems, well, like a fool.

However, in every movie, Silent Bob says one, really profound line. This makes it clear that Silent Bob has been intelligently observing everything that's gone on around him, and merely been saving his breathe for when he had something important to say.

By ceilingcat — On Feb 14, 2012

@sunnySkys - Very interesting. Now that I think about it, I can think of a few examples of a wise fool in pop culture myself.

I just read Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, who is known for his hilarious parodies. This book parodies Shakespeare, and one of the characters is the court Fool. He acts very childlike and oblivious to the events that are happening around him. However, in my opinion, he was one of the smartest characters in the whole story. He is also able to say whatever he wants to the other characters without any repercussions.

By sunnySkys — On Feb 13, 2012

There is actually an example of the "wise fool" in the Tarot. The first card in one half of the deck is called "The Fool." The card is about beginnings, and usually depicts a young man who is heading out on a journey, shown by the rest of the Tarot card in that half of the deck.

The Fool card is also supposed to represent a few of the other traditional qualities of a wise fool, as discussed in the article. In the beginning of his journey, he is childlike and without education. On his journey, he interacts with many characters, but he is somewhat outside of the events. Eventually, he gains "pearls of wisdom."

By nony — On Feb 13, 2012

@Mammmood - I loved reading Mark Twain when I was growing up. Could you say that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were wise fools in their own way?

Perhaps you could.

But I am more likely to think that the character of Jim fit the bill more accurately because he was the slave, and therefore uneducated. Yet every now and then he would say something that reveals social commentary.

He says in one place that it’s okay for whites to call him names but not for blacks (in so many words) for example. Clearly this is the commentary of Mark Twain filtered through Jim.

By Mammmood — On Feb 12, 2012

Well, the Bible says that “Even a fool is considered wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Perhaps that is the origin of the concept of a wise fool.

Being a wise fool is not the same as having a wise heart, however, as the article rightly points out. The wise fool just stumbles upon the truth now and then, perhaps because he is willing to go out where angels fear to tread in some of his actions, thereby inviting social commentary on some of the ills of the day.

Another saying that I remember in this regard is that “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.”

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