In 1869, Dostoevsky captured the problem of the holy fool as he was during his time and as he has been from time immemorial, from every people and place. His novel The Idiot portrays Prince Myshkin’s attempt to integrate into secular Russian society. As Dostoevsky’s ideal of Christlike love, he is childlike yet spiritually profound. But instead of respect, he is caught up in a world of vanity and desire. He is the butt of jokes, and often finds himself ridiculed, mocked and even despised. Much of it is because those around him are unable to use him in their social games as he seems to exist in a world alien to everyone else:
‘My joy is that there is no such world at all, but that the substance of life is in everyone! There is no reason to be troubled because we are absurd, is there? For we really are: we are absurd, frivolous, we have bad habits, we’re bored, we don’t know how to look around ourselves, we don’t know how to understand, we are all like this, all of us, you, and I, and everyone! And you aren’t offended by my telling you straight to your faces that you are absurd? There is the basic stuff of life in you, isn’t there? You know, I believe it’s sometimes even good to be ridiculous. Yes, much better. People forgive each other more readily and become more humble, we can’t understand everything at once, we can’t begin with perfection! To reach perfection there must first be much we do not understand. And if we understand too quickly we will probably not understand very well. I tell this to you who have been able to understand so much and — do not understand.’
Around the same time, Nietzsche’s message that those around him had not grasped the implication of God’s death in European culture could only take shape in his character of the madman:
God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console our selves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has so far possessed, has bled to death under our knife, who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? Nietzsche, 1882. The Parable of the Madman.
But those around him could only laugh and stare stunned at the madman. Realizing he had come too soon, he departs. He quips that just as the light from the stars take time to reach earth, the meaning of God’s death had yet reached his hearers.
Besides the 19th century, the holy fool existed in the ancient world too. The apostle Paul himself expressed that Christians should live in such a way, rejecting worldly concerns in their imitation of Jesus. But the rejection of common social rules — hypocrisy, brutality, greed and domination, the very drivers of human life itself, comes at the cost of being a figure to be mocked and an insult.
“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” (1 Corinthians 3:19)
So what can these timeless grains of wisdom teach us about temporal life? I think it is that underneath the appearance of gullibility that is so easily derided, there is another face to the holy fool. It is that his words and actions reveal a heart hidden with truth and sincerity which can only be spiritually discerned. He makes plain what is hidden, and draws light out from darkness. But can those used to living in darkness bear to look at the sun? By the words of Anthony the Great: “Here comes the time, when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say: ‘You are mad,’ — because he is not like them.” In Dostoevsky’s case, I think what he teaches us is that there is a cost to living with simplicity and sincerity. Yet the problem of the holy fool isn’t him but his hearers. Blinded by their own ambitions, they’re unable to receive his words as they are. It is a strange world we live in when those who seem mad can teach us the most about living. We would all do well to pay attention to fools from time to time as we pursue what it means to live well. If in revealing themselves they all reveal something about us, this world could certainly do with more holy fools.
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. – Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder
To read on…