The holy fool was an individual who behaved in an eccentric manner while pursuing a religious ideal.
The holy fool is found in many cultures, but particularly in the early Christian Church, where the fool’s actions could be termed “Foolishness for Christ.” Such individuals have historically been known as both “holy fools” and “blessed fools.” According to Christian ideas, foolishness included imitating Christ, who endured mockery and humiliation from the crowd, and the rejection of hypocrisy, brutality, and thirst for power and wealth. It could also mean giving up all one’s worldly possessions upon joining a monastic order.
In Byzantine times (330-1453 AD), monks often expressed their faith with extreme behavior, such as living on a high column (stylites), on a tree (dendrites) or in crowded urban centers pretending to be fools for Christ’s sake. These holy fools exposed themselves to ridicule and mistreatment, but their so-called insanity allowed them to mock and violate moral codes and social conventions. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell said that The Fool is the most dangerous person on earth, the most threatening to all hierarchical institutions.
By the 12th century, in France, such feigning of insanity led to the Feast of Fools, a celebration in which clergymen were allowed to behave as fools without inhibition or restraint.
They were joined by much of the populace, for peasants worked for crown or cross, and their lives were grim and short. A little springtime paganism was a good way for them to let off steam.
Closely associated with the “holy fool” is the “wise fool.” In his article, The Wisdom of The Fool, Walter Kaiser lists the words people have used for fools in different societies: empty-headed, dull-witted, feebleminded, idiotic; inarticulate, incoherent, given to boisterous merrymaking; loves to mock others; acts like a child; has a natural simplicity and innocence of heart. His wisdom is found through blind faith, reckless desire, hopeless romance, and wild abandon. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
While examples can be found in a wide range of early world literature, the wise fool was especially celebrated during the Renaissance. Shakespeare created a range of clownish wise men, and Cervantes his lunatic genius Don Quixote, but 16th century scholar Erasmus is often credited for creating the definitive wise fool through his portrayal of Stultitia, the goddess of folly. Influential to all later fools, she shows the foolish ways of the wise and the wisdom of fools through delivering her own eulogy. The image of the wise fool is found in numerous Renaissance artworks by a range of artists including Breughel, Bosch, and Holbein the Younger.
While society locks away violent maniacs, the harmless fool is often treated with kindness. Seemingly guided by mere natural instinct, the fool is not expected to grasp social conventions and thus is left to enjoy relative freedom, particularly of speech. This power is famously demonstrated through the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear, who works in the royal court and remains the only character who Lear does not severely punish for speaking his mind about the king and his precarious situations. This ability to be reckless, honest, and free with language has greatly contributed to the wise fool’s popularity in the literary imagination.
Plato, through the guise of Socrates, provides an early example of the wisdom of the fool in The Republic through the figure of an escaped prisoner in The Allegory of the Cave. The escaped prisoner, part of a group imprisoned from birth, returns to free his fellow inmates but is regarded as a madman because of his attempts to convince his shackled friends of a greater world beyond the cave.
In Tarot cards, The Fool is numbered 0 — the number of unlimited potential. On the Fool card, a young man stands at the edge of a cliff as he sets out on a new adventure. He is gazing toward the sky (the Universe) and is seemingly unaware that he is about to walk off a precipice into the unknown. Over his shoulder rests a modest knapsack, representing untapped collective knowledge. The white rose in his left hand represents his purity and innocence. At his feet is a small white dog, representing loyalty and protection. The mountains behind the Fool symbolize challenges yet to come.
And, finally, guess what? There is a modern rock band called The Holy Fools.