The Problem of The Holy Fool

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…

Foolishness for Christ – Wikipedia

Wise Fool – Wikipedia

How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.