Wise fool

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Stańczyk by Jan Matejko. The jester is the only person at a royal ball who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. This event happened in 1514.

Wise fool, or the wisdom of the fool is a theme in literature that plays on the oxymoron in which a fool expresses wisdom. The concept developed during the Middle Ages when there was a rise of "civilizing" factors, such certain practices of manners, in Western Europe and achieved its most pronounced state in the Renaissance. The wisdom of the fool is often opposed to learned knowledge or elite knowledge.


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 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 fools are separated from normal society and sometimes subjected to derision and contemptuous treatment, at times they are 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".[citation needed]

Wise fools also may reject, and therefore call attention to, norms of the culture which they deem to be counterproductive. This might make him or her appear foolish. 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.[1]

Examples in literature[edit]

Patchface from A Song of Ice and Fire is a fool to King Stannis Baratheon who was the only survivor of a shipwreck that killed Stannis' parents. As a result, he was apparently driven mad and makes seemingly nonsensical statements. However, his words seem to prophecy significant events in the series, such as the Red Wedding.

The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo's 1959 novel Wonderful Fool presents its protagonist, Gaston Bonaparte as a relative of Napoleon's who visits Japan. He bumbles his way through troubles by naively ignoring or not understanding a series of problems and attacks, but leaves his Japanese friends enlightened. [2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keen, Sam. Apology for Wonder. p. 128. 
  2. ^ Endo, Shusako (1959), おバカさん Obaka san (Wonderful Fool), Wonderful Fool (Harpers 1974 translated by Francis Mathy, Chuo 

References and further reading[edit]