Fools & Foolishness

“Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me!”

Fools and foolishness are traits of human nature; gifts of enchantment, illusion, and wisdom. For centuries the Fool has been immortalized in stories.

In Plato’s Republic (a work on politics and philosophy published circa 380 B.C.E.) Socrates uses the analogy commonly referred to as the “Ship of Fools” to explain that, given the current societal environment, one who pursues knowledge (philosopher/fool) is not highly regarded. Noting that lack of  generally-accepted competent leadership produces chaos and disaster, Socrates speaks:


Ship of Fools

“Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary…”

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?”


The Ass in the Lion’s Skin

Early tales often cast an animal in the role of fool; such as that found in the Aesop’s fable: “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin”.

“An Ass once found a Lion’s skin which the hunters had left out in the sun to dry. He put it on and went towards his native village. All fled at his approach, both men and animals, and he was a proud Ass that day. In his delight he lifted up his voice and brayed, but then every one knew him, and his owner came up and gave him a sound cudgelling [beating] for the fright he had caused. And shortly afterwards a Fox came up to him and said: “Ah, I knew you by your voice.”

Moral: Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words will disclose a fool.

The kindhearted simpleton was another popular character to play the fool in stories. Often the fool is not favored in his/her family, but through good fortune reaches a satisfying outcome, as in the old Russian tale of the great adventure of the Fool who set out to win the hand of the Tzar’s daughter in, “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship”; which begins below and may be read in full here: The Fool of the World and The Flying Ship.

“There were once upon a time an old peasant and his wife, and they had three sons. Two of them were clever young men who could borrow money without being cheated, but the third was the Fool of the World. He was as simple as a child, simpler than some children, and he never did any one a harm in his life…this is a story that shows that God loves simple folk, and turns things to their advantage in the end.”


Court Jester

In Medieval times the Fool entertained royalty as court jester. Among those under that label were “natural” fools, mocked for some physical deformity or mental disability; acrobatic performers and bards; or sage advisors who spoke their wisdom through riddles or rhymes.


Fool’s Mate

At some point, we’ve all played the fool, been played for a fool, or been sent on a “fool’s errand”. The game of Chess offers a nod to the fool through the strategic play commonly known as Fool’s Mate; a check mate performed in a few simple moves.


Modern-day music romanticizes the role of the Fool through songs such as: Fools Rush In (where angels fear to tread), and Fooled Around and Fell in Love. Billboard even published a list of 20 top songs for Fools, including: The Fool on the Hill, by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, Kissing a Fool, by George Michael, and Everybody Plays the Fool, by Aaron Neville.

So revered is the part of the Fool that we eagerly celebrate its existence. For many, the first day of April is recognized as All Fools’ Day, a centuries-old tradition marking a special time for pranks and practical jokes, however simple or elaborate.

One of the most clever April Fools’ Day pranks was played in 2011, by none other than Sir Richard Branson. He responded to the controversial 2006 demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet (or asteroid) by claiming to have purchased Pluto, with the intention to have it’s status reinstated as “planet”. This he would do by commissioning the build of a special rocket ship to collect space debris and deposit it within Pluto’s gravitational field, thereby bulking up its mass. The 5-year mission, if successful, was to “lead to the first ever part human-created planet”.

There is an added layer not to be missed in this particular prank. In Roman mythology, Pluto is the King of Earthly Riches. From that name we derive the word “plutocracy”, which means rule of or by the wealthy. Sir Richard is a plutocrat, one of the world’s richest men, following the true meaning of the word. Well played, Sir Richard!

Fool’s Gold

Fool’s gold (iron pyrite) is a (not so precious) mineral that has been mistaken for real gold throughout history. According to the Utah Geological Survey website:

Even Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) mistakenly sent an entire shipload of pyrite to London in the early 1600s…”

Should you chose to participate in a harmless prank or two, bear in mind that: “There’s no fool like an old fool.”  Which, according to The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition means: “The most extreme fools are people whose age should have made them wise.”

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