If you would find wisdom, seek out a wise man. Well, not always.
Sometimes the deepest and most profound wisdom lies hidden with the weak and the foolish. Such wisdom is thought folly by the world, and such strength is thought weakness. Most of the time, of course, the Bible warns against consorting with fools, but not in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. In that proud and profligate city, puffed up with its gold and its own self-importance, the wisdom of God was too often rejected as folly.
In such places and times, Paul warns, the seeker after truth must become a fool in the eyes of the world; only thus can he find the true wisdom that is from above and that so often manifests itself in weakness. When the truth is rejected or ignored by the wise of this world, when it proves to be a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, then only the fool can guide the way back to order, sanity, and health.
So the saddest of all my tragic heroes, King Lear, discovered, though the discovery came too late to save him.
Lear was King of Britain in the old days before the Christian faith came to my beloved island. As old age crept upon him, he realized he would have to take thought for the future of his kingdom. Having had no sons, he decided to divide his realm amongst his three daughters. Alas, he chose to do so in the most vain and foolish way possible.
Calling his daughters to the throne room, he commanded them to declare before him and his court the full extent of their love for him. His eldest two, Regan and Goneril, felt neither love nor respect for their aging father and were concerned only with taking his power and wealth. Accordingly, they lavished praise upon him, swearing undying love. Their flattering answers gratified Lear’s vanity, and he accepted without question the sincerity of their declarations.
Then it was the turn of Lear’s favorite daughter, Cordelia, the one from whom he expected the most extravagant praise. But Cordelia, who truly loved her father, would not be bullied into hypocritical flattery. She would neither demean herself or her father by mimicking the empty, deceitful words of her sisters. She replied curtly that she loved her father as a daughter should: neither more nor less.
In the face of her father’s folly, Cordelia refused to adopt the pragmatic, self-serving ‘wisdom’ of her sisters — refused, that is, to play the world’s game. Instead, she chose to play the fool. As a result, her father disowned her, but her willingness to adopt the guise of a fool out of true filial devotion had a profound impact on two onlookers.
First, the King of France, impressed by her sincerity, immediately agreed to marry her despite the loss of her dowry. Second, the Earl of Kent, a loyal friend of Lear, took Cordelia’s side, causing Lear to banish him in a fit of rage. In their own way, both men fell prey to Cordelia’s good contagion and played the fool by her side.
In the end, Lear himself would be helped by this triple act of folly. As Cordelia and Kent knew would happen, Regan and Goneril, after briefly hosting him in their homes, insulted, humiliated, and then cast their powerless father out on to the heath, leaving him to fend for himself in a storm. It was in Lear’s greatest hour of need that the fools came to his aid. Kent disguised himself and became a servant to Lear; Cordelia, with the help of her husband, invaded England to rescue her father from the plots of her villainous sisters.
Meanwhile, I provided Lear with an actual Fool, a court jester, to accompany him in his lonely ordeal in the storm. Due to his position, the Fool was the one person who could confront the king, in the guise of satire and buffoonery, with the truth about himself and his choices. Thus it was that only the Fool was able to tell Lear what no one else dared tell him: that he should not have grown old before he had grown wise. As in Paul’s letter, God often uses the weak ones and the fools to shame the politically strong and the worldly wise.
Such was the case as well for the Earl of Gloucester, an old man who shared Lear’s blindness as to the true nature of his children. Fooled by his evil, illegitimate son, Edmund, into believing that his good, legitimate son, Edgar, was a traitor, Gloucester turned out Edgar as Lear had turned out Cordelia.
Whereupon Edgar, like Cordelia and Kent, abandoned the practical way of power and hypocrisy for the way of the fool. In Edgar’s case, he disguised himself as a mad beggar, Poor Tom, and allied himself with the weak, outcast Lear.
Later, when Gloucester, betrayed by Edmund, Regan, and Goneril alike, was blinded (literally) and cast out into the cold, ‘Poor Tom’ took him by the hand and rescued him from the depths of suicidal despair.
Like Cordelia, Edgar became an orphan in the storm that he might better serve the very father who had so unjustly disowned him. The two rejected the world’s way of doing things for a path of vulnerability and humiliation. They succeeded in stripping away the illusions and pretensions of the world by first having the courage to strip them away in themselves.
Oh, my friends of the future, your world, even more than mine, is in desperate need of wise fools. Not just the rich and powerful, but the common men of your day are hypnotized by superficialities. You want to be lied to, to be puffed up in your pride and vanity. You want to be told that you will never die, that you will be forever young, that your flaws are actually your strengths. And you turn with disapproval and wrath against those who would tear away those illusions and so fool you into facing reality.
Yes, my age was plagued by charlatans and mountebanks who told us that we could not lead happy and successful lives if we did not buy their elixirs. Your culture too seems to be built on such illusory promises. You have been convinced by your far-slicker salesmen that you lack countless things within yourself. But that sense of lack, rather than breed humility, has caused you to feel entitled to fill that lack in any and every gluttonous way possible.
If you would survive another generation, then you must cultivate your fools. For it is they, and they alone, who can tear away the façade and reveal things for what they are.
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of 22 books, including The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Literature: A Student’s Guide, and three Canon Press Worldview Guides to the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid.