FOOLISHNESS: The Wisdom Of Holy Fools by Peter C. Phan

A Way To The Love Of Truth In Postmodernity: Foolishness As A Way To Wisdom

The Wisdom Of Holy Fools by Peter C. Phan

From Being Religious Interreligiously

Folly as Virtue

The archetypal wise fool is Socrates, who explicitly claimed that his wisdom was derived from his awareness of his ignorance and whose distinctive teaching method consisted in exposing the foolishness of the wise.  Jesus, whom Christian tradition proclaims to be the Logos and the Wisdom of God, was regarded during his life as insane by his family and was deemed by his opponents to be possessed by Beelzebul.  Not only was his behavior scandalous to the religious establishment but his teaching, from his beatitudes to his parables, challenged the sacred text and offended traditional wisdom.  Even Peter, who should have known better, was shocked by Jesus’s prediction of his passion and death and had to be reminded that he was judging not by God’s standards but by human standards, an anticipation of Paul’s contrast between “God’s folly” and the “wisdom of this world.”  Jesus’s words to those who wish to follow him represent the height of folly: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

The cross of Christ as the paradigm of God’s folly – foolish wisdom and wise foolishness – is elaborated at length by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.  To these Christians who were attempting to reconcile their faith with the philosophies of the day, Paul said that he had been sent by Christ to preach the gospel, but “Not the wisdom of discourse,” that is, by employing the technique of the philosopher or the rules of studied eloquence and artificial rhetoric – the mythos and logos of our day – “lest the cross of Christ be rendered void of its meaning.”  Quoting Isaiah 29:14, Paul says that God will, destroy the wisdom of the wise and thwart the cleverness of the clever.  In the absurdity of the cross, which is, “a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Greeks,” God’s power has “turned the wisdom of this world into folly” since “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”  Paul urges the person who wants to become “wise in a worldly way” to “become a fool,” so that he or she “will really be wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”  Paul acknowledges that he himself has become “a fool for Christ’s sake,” so that the Corinthians can become “wise in Christ.”

This Pauline fool for Christ’s sake tradition was later developed into a spiritual discipline and became an important feature of  Christian monasticism.  The desert fathers of the third and fourth centuries were enthusiastic practitioners of the foolishness of God.  While many of them were illiterate, a few were highly educated but in self-effacement pretended to be stupid or ignorant in order to learn humility from the contempt of others.  This foolishness (Jesus’s “deny themselves and take up their cross”) was not limited to giving up family, material possessions, and career, but also included the renunciation of the ego-personality, sometimes to such extremes that these practicing fools acquired the reputation of being mad.  This spiritual practice of holy folly was continued in the Russian Orthodox Church by the yurodive, who were particularly prominent during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.  After the seventeenth century, however, the figure of the holy fool vanished from the Russian religious scene, though he lingered on as a character in Russian literature, for example, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  Furthermore, with the dawning of the Age of Reason, holy fools virtually disappeared.  As Michel Foucault has shown, this was the time of the “great confinement,” in which mad people and vagrants were no longer allowed to roam freely but were publicly humiliated, beaten, and locked up in asylums or workhouses.

Though so far we have discussed foolish wisdom in Christianity and in the West, it is not an exclusively Christian and Western phenomenon.  It is also practiced in Sufism, where it is known as the path of blame.  Some Sufi mystics are known for their strange behavior as well as for their heretical doctrine of identification with the divine.  Like their Christian counterparts, Sufi practitioners of “crazy wisdom” pursued freedom and humility without concern for worldly oppositions.

In Hinduism, there is the figure called avadhuta, a Sanskrit term meaning literally “he who has cast off [all concerns].”  The distinguishing characteristic of the avadhuta, as implied by the word, is total indifference to his fate in the world.  He has no wife, children, home, job, social responsibility, or political obligation.  As a symbol of his utter detachment, the Hindu renunciate, as some fools for Christ’s sake did, would walk around naked.  In addition to the avadhuta, there is the figure of the mast, a Hindi word meaning, “numbskull.”  These are God-intoxicated individuals who roam the streets of India and whose behavior suggests psychotic disturbance.  Lastly, there are the baul, a Bengali word meaning “mad” or “confused.”  The bauls are religious eccentrics whose quest for God on the path of devotion (bhakti) takes precedence over everything else.

Tibetan Buddhism also has its share of eccentric lamas (gurus) who use weird methods to initiate their disciples into enlightenment and of “mad lamas” (smyonpa) with their rejection of the monastic tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchy, societal conventions, and book learning.  Finally, the adepts of Zen Buddhism make use of shock techniques such as sudden shouting, physical beatings, paradoxical verbal responses, and riddles to teach enlightenment.

Foolishness as a Path to Wisdom

From what has been said above, it is clear that foolishness, as rejection of the world to concentrate solely on spiritual matters, is practiced as a means to cultivate humility, to imitate Christ, to unite oneself with the divine, or to reach enlightment.  But it is also a pedagogical device to lead others to wisdom.  This aspect lays the stress on the second member of the oxymoron, “foolish wisdom,” and is more emphasized in Eastern than in Western religious tradition.  There is no doubt that for the proponents of “foolish wisdom” – Paul’ the “fools for Christ’s sake”; the Sufi mystics; the Hindu avadhutas, masts, and bauls; the Tibetan adepts; and the Zen masters – foolishness is a path to true wisdom, however this is defined.  What, then, epistemologically speaking, is so distinct about foolishness or madness or folly that it can lead to wisdom, just as mythos and logos claim to do?

In Christian theology, negative theology, or apophatic theology emphasizes God’s transcendence and our radical inability to know what God is.  Our knowledge of God is limited to what God is not, and therefore must end in ignorance and worshipful silence.  This theology, first developed by the Cappadocians, in particular Gregory of Nyssa, has always been a central feature of the mystical tradition.  For example, according to the sixth-century mystical theologian Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, the union between the soul and God, its “deification,” is achieved by a process of “unknowning,” in which the soul leaves behind the perceptions of the senses as well as the reasoning of the intellect.  The soul enters a darkness in which it will be increasingly illuminated by the “Ray of Divine Darkness,” and brought ultimately to the knowledge of the ineffable Being that transcends affirmation and negation alike.  Similarly, according to the English mystical treatise, The Cloud of Unknowing, human reason is radically incapable of knowing God.  The “cloud of unknowing” that lies between God and the human intellect is not pierced by the intellect but by “a sharp dart of love.”  Thus, there is an essential element of ignorance in our knowledge of God.

The philosophical and theological foundation for “foolish wisdom” was however laid by two men who were deeply indebted to the mystical tradition of the “Brethren of the Common Life,” known as the devotio moderna, namely, Thomas à Kempis and Nicholas of Cusa.  Thomas is probably the author of the extremely influential spiritual manual, Imitatio Christi, in which he urges Christians to emulate Christ the Fool through “holy simplicity.”  The life of pietistic simplicity and humility recommended by Thomas is not very different from that of the “fools for Christ’s sake” and the crazy-wise adepts of Eastern religions.  Like them, he believes that nothing is more useful than self-knowledge and self-contempt.

Nicholas of Cusa is the author of De Docta Ignorantia, in which he defends two basic principles.  First, docta ignorantia or “learned ignorance” is the highest stage of intellectual understanding accessible to the human intellect, since Truth, which is one, absolute, and infinitely simple, is unknowable to humans.  Knowledge, by contrast, is multiple, relative, and complex, and therefore is at best approximate.  For Cusanus, the relationship of our intellect to Truth is like that of a polygon to a circle.  The resemblance increases as we multiply the angles of the polygon, but no multiplication, even if it is infinite, will ever make the polygon equal to the circle.  Therefore, the path to Truth leads beyond reason and the principle of noncontradiction.  It is only by intuition that we can discover God, in whom there is coincidentia oppositorum, the unification of all contradictions, which is the second principle of Cusanus’s philosophy.  Human reason, confined by the principle of noncontradiction, is demonstrably incapable of giving rational expression to the Infinite, who is the unification of all contradictions.  Herein lies our ignorance.  But the fact that we are aware of our ignorance and the basic reason for it elevates our ignorance to the status of docta ignorantia.  The more we learn this lesson of ignorance, the closer we draw to Truth itself.

It is in these two paradoxical principles of Cusanus’s philosophy, namely, the docta ignorantia and the coincidentia oppositorum, that the Renaissance elaboration of the wise fool, both substantively and stylistically, as we shall see, finds its chief inspiration.  Cusanus’s questioning of the possibility of knowledge, his antithesis between irrational absolute and logical reason, his affirmation of knowledge beyond reason through intuition, his insistence on the necessity of a conscious recognition of the limitations of our intellect as a condition for wisdom, and his unification of all contradictions in God, all of these elements pave the way for the “coincidence” of foolishness and wisdom, ignorantia and scientia, in docta ignorantia.

The work that embodies these ideas par excellence is Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium, or Laus Stultitiae, which he wrote in 1509 and first published in 1511.  Foolishness, personified as Lady Stultitia, praises “foolish wisdom” or “wise foolishness” as a way to truth, because truth, which is never simple, cannot be known by either knowledge or ignorance alone, but only by a combination of both.

It is important to note that in The Praise of Folly it is not the learned and wise that praise foolishness but foolishness that praises foolishness.  The subject and object of the encomium is the same.  Hence, it is a mock encomium.  Here lies the profound irony of Erasmus’s work.  If foolishness gives itself mock praise, then it censures itself.  But if foolishness censures itself, it is really wise, because it recognizes foolishness for what it is, which is possible only to the wise.  Thus, foolishness’s mock praise of itself is really a praise of wisdom; the path to wisdom is foolishness mockingly praising itself.  Irony is displayed again when at one point in her eulogy, Stultitia says that what she is saying may appear at first sight foolish or absurd, yet it is really profoundly true.  But if this statement if true, then it cannot be said by a foolish person.  However, if it is false, then it has been uttered truthfully and wisely by a foolish person.  What is implied here is a wise person may be foolish, and the fool may be wise, and hence foolishness may be a way to wisdom.  Here, Cusanus’s docta ignorantia and coincidentia oppositorum find a perfect literary embodiment.  Like the professional fool, whose function is to make people laugh, and like the wise person, whose role is to teach the truth.  Erasmus, by combining laughter with seriousness in his use of irony, develops the oxymoronic concept of the wise fool.  Thus, folly is necessary to reach wisdom, and to be human is to play the fool, and to be wise is to acknowledge this truth.

Stultitia proceeds to apply this technique to reversal to all that society holds as true, noble, and beautiful.  Not unlike the “fools for Christ’s sake” and adepts of Eastern religions who use shock tactics to flout the conventions of society, Stultitia scorns the pretensions of learning, especially in its medieval and Scholastic forms, and shows the limitations of worldly wisdom.  Thus she praises the drinking of wine and self-love; she attacks prudence, the enemy of foolishness; she appreciates experience as a mode of knowing and a path to wisdom; and she affirms that pleasure is virtue.

Finally, because Stultitia believes that Christians are fools for Christ’s sake, she knows she is more than a fool.  She knows that it is the wisdom of this world that is really folly and that her foolishness is wisdom.  Indeed, she says that, for her, “the Christian religion taken all together has a certain affinity with some sort of folly and has little or nothing to do with wisdom.”  The fool of fools is the pious Christian who imitates the folly of Christ by accepting the cross of Christ.  The Christian is a fool because, in accepting the folly of Christ and in rejecting the wisdom of the world, the Christian accepts that “the foolishness of God is wiser than man.”Save

3 Comments on FOOLISHNESS: The Wisdom Of Holy Fools by Peter C. Phan

  1. Very nice article, Peter. Thanks. (Mullah Nasreddin is also worth checking out).


    • Peter C. Phan is an American Catholic theologian who is a native of Vietnam, and a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas. He was investigated by the Vatican for writing the book, “Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue,” (where this piece comes from), because the church felt he wasn’t making the Roman church the ONLY church in the world. He went to write more on the matter of being interreligious. I don’t know what happened to the investigation of, but he currently teaches at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I may chase up his book. The only Church? There’s nowt stranger than folk.


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