What Kind of Fool do You Think I am?

April 1, 2015 § 4 Comments

Let us today depart from our customary annual April Fool’s Day practical jokes, and instead focus our attention on that Everyman of the present era – the Fool. This is, after all, his (or her) day.

The information age is a paradisiacal era for Fools, what with social media, faux journalism, opinion outlets, and, yes, I daresay – blogs – that are fabulously fertile ground for Fools to grow and disseminate their fecund Foolishness.

Fools are in the news headlines daily. It’s the heyday of Foolishness and folly.

The birthmark of a Fool is lack of good sense and judgment. It’s a topic we’ve discussed here before.

On this their own special day, then, let’s ponder what wiser men have said of them:

“The trouble ain’t that there is too many Fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right”  —  Mark Twain

“A Fool always finds a greater Fool to admire him”  —  Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

“I have great faith in Fools — self-confidence my friends will call it”  —  Edgar Allen Poe

“A man may be a Fool and not know it, but not if he is married”  —  H.L. Mencken

“A Fool must now and then be right by chance”  —  William Cowper

“A Fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”  —  William Blake

“For, as blushing will sometimes make a whore pass for a virtuous woman, so modesty may make a Fool seem a man of sense”  —  Alexander Pope

“A prosperous Fool is a grievous burden”  —  Aeschylus

“Even a Fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise”  —  Proverbs, 17:28.

“The greatest men may ask a Foolish question, now and then”  —  John Wolcot

There is actually a patron saint of Fools. Saint Simeon, the Holy Fool, a sixth-century monk, is revered as the patron saint of “holy fools and puppeteers.” Holy Fools, as I understand it, are those who are “Fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor. 4:10), rejecting riches and other worldly things for spiritual pursuits. I am not here to judge, but Simeon’s activities seem to be of the more outré variety: dragging a dead dog through the gate of a city, inciting schoolchildren to call him crazy; pretending to have a limp, and other times jumping around; dragging himself along on his buttocks; tripping people walking by; baying and staring at the new moon; thrashing about; extinguishing lights in church and throwing nuts at women; overturning the tables of pastry chefs; and doing other similar capers that got him insulted, beaten, and abused, all of which he endured with good patience. By today’s foolish standards, those kind of stunts seem more mildly eccentric than foolish, but, hey, I guess that’s what made him a holy Fool as opposed to a wholly Fool.

Oh, and I still don’t understand what puppeteers did to be dragged into this discussion.

While we’re on the subject of saints, I should mention that April 1 is the feast day of St. Hugh of Grenoble, per the Catholic calendar. Although he lived in the eleventh century, he sounds like the kind of guy who faced down some of the same kinds of foolishness that nettle us today. This from a Catholic web site:

Hugh, who served as a bishop in France for 52 years, had his work cut out for him from the start. Corruption seemed to loom in every direction: the buying and selling of Church offices, violations of clerical celibacy, lay control of Church property, religious indifference and/or ignorance. After serving as bishop for two years, he’d had his fill. He tried disappearing to a monastery, but the pope called him back to continue the work of reform.

That just goes to show that, when it comes to Fools and foolishness, the passage of centuries does not appear to have any significantly remedial effect. Jonathan Swift spoke in 1726 of a Fool’s Folly in Gulliver’s Travels:

“He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw, inclement summers.”

Come to think of it, that sounds suspiciously like the prospectus for a 2015 Silicon Valley IPO offering that would likely attract billions from investors.

Which brings to mind the old adage, “A Fool and his money are soon parted.”

Have a happy and prosperous April Fool’s Day.

The Laws of Stupidity

August 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

My posts have taken on a somewhat sententious tone lately, so I am going to temper that for a while. But before I do, I want to address a subject that lawyers and judges deal with every day: stupidity.

One might expect that stupidity is a force that ricochets through human nature unconstrained by the basic principles of physics and rationality that underlie the affairs of humankind.

Not so, says Italian Economic Historian Carlo Maria Cipolla (1922 – 2000), who came up with the idea that there are actually laws that govern the operation of stupidity. By stupidity in this context, we are talking about conduct that involves unthinking and irrational behavior, willful ignorance, brutishness, obtuseness in the face of overwhelming evidence that such a course of action is self-destructive or destructive to others, and senseless activity.

Cipolla posited five fundamental Laws of Stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
  3. A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

You can reflect on these and come up with your own thoughts. Mine:

  • Law #1. As the old saying goes, “Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained as stupidity.” Most people who operate rationally assume that everyone else does also. That’s simply not so. Many people bumble along unthinkingly, leaving a wake of damage on themselves and others. The only way to protect yourself from stupid people is to recognize them and neutralize or protect yourself from their impact on your life as much as you can.
  • Law #2. Just because a person is suave and urbane, or shares your religion or political party, or is extremely likeable or has a forceful, commanding personality, does not mean that that person is not stupid. Also, bear in mind that there are stupid people who do stupid things, and there are non-stupid people who do stupid things. The former are dangerous; the latter are unfortunate (and, alas, include most of us).
  • Law #3. There are serious ramifications when we vest authority in stupid people. These are the people who clamor that the house needs to be burned down because it needs painting. In the name of principle or dogma or doctrine they ignore the possibility of unintended consequences and exhort their followers to embrace self-destructive ways. If reason conflicts with their convictions, reason be damned.  
  • Law #4. See Law #3. Too often, we realize only in hidsight that we have made the costly error of placing our welfare in the hands of stupid people, or have allowed them to lead us into a swamp that is hard to get out of.
  • Law #5. Collateral damage from stupid people can be especially galling. Despite our best efforts to protect ourselves, the ripple effect of stupidity can blindside us, capsizing us into waters that can threaten to overwhelm us.  

While we’re on the topic, it’s important to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. Knowledge cures ignorance; knowledge is irrelevant to the stupid. Many of us make the mistake of wasting time and effort to address stupidity by elucidating facts and posing rational arguments. That approach will avail for the ignorant person, but it is absolutely ineffective on the stupid.

A grizzled, old lawyer told me in my youth that, “If they ever stop making stupid people, the legal profession will be doomed.” Cynical, yes. Inaccurate, no.

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