The wise fool, or the wisdom of the fool is a theme that seems to contradict itself in which the fool may have an attribute of wisdom. With probable beginnings early in the civilizing process, the concept developed during the Middle Ages when there was a rise of "civilizing" factors (such as the advent of certain practices of manners in Western Europe) and achieved its most pronounced state in the Renaissance. The wisdom of the fool occupies a place in opposition to that of learned knowledge.
The implications built in to the "wise fool" figure come from societal biases, inclinations, and tendencies held about real fools. The characteristics attributed to the fool include:
- lacking seriousness and given to frivolity (inanis, fool),
- dull-witted or not very bright (stultus, dolt, clown),
- retarded in intellectual development or mentally deficient (imbécile, dotard),
- lacks understanding (insipiens),
- different from normal men (idiot),
- deprived of the use of speech or words (Tor),
- babbles incoherently (fatuus),
- noisy and lacking in restraint or discipline when merrymaking (buffone),
- nonrecognition of correct or appropriate behavior codes (ineptus),
- acts like a child,
- simplicity of the heart (natural), and
- innocence of the heart (simpleton).
Innocuous fools have often enjoyed special privileges in cultural and economic groups, whereas aggressive madmen have had to be restrained or incarcerated. A fool's powerlessness and helplessness may gain him or her protection of more fortunate people. Since the fool is only guided by his natural instincts, because he or she does not understand social conventions, he or she is not culpable for breaches of those rules. The fool is not expected to "know better" or "know" anything.
Because of this, the fool has often been given great relative freedom, particularly in speech. The advantage of speaking with exemption from punishment has made the fool attractive in the literary imagination, for example, The Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear. Lear's fool is one of only three people in the play who consistently speak to him wisely, and the other two, Cordelia and the Earl of Kent, are punished severely.
Though the fool is in a position separated from normal society which can cause him or her to be subjected to deriding acts and contemptuous treatment, it has also at times caused him or her to be regarded with respect and reverence — the holy fool. In the Middle Ages, and in some primitive societies, the fool was thought to be under the protection of God and in possession of "Godly imparted tongues".
Another aspect of the wise fool may be shown in his or her rejection of the norms of the culture in which he or she lives, if he or she deems those norms to be counterproductive. This might make him or her appear foolish. As Sam Keen says: "To call a man a fool is not necessarily an insult, for the authentic life has frequently been pictured under the metaphor of the fool. In figures such as Socrates, Christ, and the Idiot of Dostoyevsky we see that foolishness and wisdom are not always what they seem to be.
- Court jester
- Feast of Fools
- Fool (stock character)
- Hero (comic hero)
- Shakespearian fool
- Solomon and Marcolf
- Keen, Sam. Apology for Wonder. p. 128.
- Walter Kaiser, "Wisdom of the fool". The Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
- Trevor Stone, "The Wisdom of the Fool". June 1995.