Mind, Virtue

Don’t Fear Being Foolish

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance.”

Oscar Wilde, 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest

We as people are very preoccupied with our own dignity.

We’re constantly concerned with how other people view us and the general state of our regality. We strive to sustain our own ideas of status and what it means to be clever. This isn’t exclusive to any group of people, it transcends all classifications. A man who, to most it seems, has been stripped of any dignities, can still cast a condemnatory eye to the next man on the street. This is because we are all, without exception, haunted by our own sense of pride and self-importance. We fear appearing foolish, less-than, uninformed, and therefore, vulnerable.

“The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.”

William Osler, address to the Canadian Medical Association, Montreal (17 September 1902); published in The Montreal Medical Journal, Vol. XXXI (1902)

Our fear of being foolish inhibits us in many ways.

It’s unlikely that we can make much progress, or at least any of real significance, when we’re so fearful of being foolish. We can get to a certain stage but usually to make real strides we need to take chances, and chances always include risk. Here is where we so often stumble, the dread of damaging our dignity looming over us. On the scale of progression, this is where many of us become stationary and eventually grow stale.

“He who lives without committing any folly is not so wise as he thinks.”

François de La Rochefoucauld, 1665, Maximes, 209.

What is most frustrating, is that everyone is ignorant in some sense, ridiculous in many, and foolish in most.

It doesn’t take much observation to see that people are absurd, despite believing ourselves to be constant beacons of reason and sensibility. We all have the potential to behave in preposterous ways, our thoughts and actions often contrary to reason and sound advice. People do and think things that are just down-right bizarre. Even the most dignified of us are absurd fools in private. The all wise, ever reasonable person does not exist, we’re just all trying our best to emulate our notion of it.

“He who thinks himself wise, O heavens! is a great fool.”

Voltaire, 1762, Le Droit du Seigneur, IV. 1.
Pieter Bruegel, 1559, Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Bruegel, 1559, Netherlandish Proverbs
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