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The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.
Sometimes theists say this to me. They mean to call me a fool. Of course, it’s not them saying it; they are merely quoting the bible. If I weren’t properly medicated, that sorta thing might hurt my feelings. I used to just tell myself, “nah, it’s not true, Seth. You’re not a fool.” But maybe I am a fool. After all, it says so in the bible.
But let’s take a closer look at it, and see if we can’t find a more positive reading. Perhaps we can follow Tyrion’s advice, and wear the epithet like armor.
Harold Bloom tells us “there is no god but god, and his name is William Shakespeare.” So, let’s see what William Shakespeare thinks of the Fool.
The Shakespearean Fool archetype appears in a number of his plays, providing comic relief for the audience, but also representing a powerful statement about seeing through the bullshit of the powerful elite, full of self-delusions.
The Fool has the courage to violate social norms and question claims of authority. In this way, the Fool is the best representative of skepticism from all of literature.
One thing all Fools have in common is that they fearlessly speak the truth to the socially powerful. Fool (his name) in King Lear ruthlessly criticizes the eponymous character, and lives to tell about it! Few others boast as much. We skeptics should delight in being compared to so noble a character, fearlessly speaking in defense of truth, despite the potential social ramifications of doing so.
And don’t even get me started about Falstaff! Falstaff is by far my favorite character in all of Shakespeare. He is both Fool and Vice rolled into one. Surely the bible says elsewhere that we atheists and skeptics are vicious. I think later in that same Psalm passage we are accused of being corrupt and vile. Well then, if any character represents us, it is Falstaff.
You see, Falstaff is an old knight who wanders the streets and taverns of the wrong side of town with the young Prince Hal, who later becomes King Henry V (“…we few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”). He straightforwardly serves as a corrupting force for the prince, inviting him to question the righteousness proclaimed by the aristocracy, as well as the justification of what they deem to be virtues. He also impiously dismisses religious authority.
He was definitely a heavy drinker, and in his death is reported to have cried out about drink. This suggests that he drank himself to death. To summarize, he was an anti-authoritarian impious corrupter of youth who challenged social norms and who died as a result of drinking. Who else does this remind you of?
Socrates? Me too!
So, Falstaff is an allusion to Socrates. That’s pretty neat! In fact, Socrates himself was a sort of Fool character. He is best represented by the character in Plato’s allegory of the cave who returns to the cave from the outside world, whose eyes are no longer adjusted to the dimness of the reality recognized by the prisoners. He stumbles around and questions the importance of the shadows on the wall, and demands that the other prisoners question their received view of reality as well. Eventually, Plato’s characters agree, the prisoners will kill the foolish stumbler; what he’s saying is inconvenient. Surely this is a reference to the fact that the Athenians killed Socrates for impiety and corruption of the youth. All he really did was wander around pointing out the unjustified assumptions made by the socially powerful, making them look stupid. He may have been a Fool, but he definitely wasn’t stupid.
And the same goes for the rest of us Fools, I think. Let the theists quote their Psalm. Let us quote to them Shakespeare and Plato, who revere the Fool’s courage to question and probe the most basic assumptions of society.
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
– As You Like It
I am wiser than this man … he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing … I do not fancy I know what I do not know.
So, I’m pretty damn flattered that the bible would count me among the ranks of these folks. And it’s in the bible, so you know it’s true. You’re goddam right I’m a Fool. And proud of it.
Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality. He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers. Feel free to contact Seth at email@example.com with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!