Monday, September 3, 2012

Don’t Answer A Fool

Human Moral Development

“He had no knowledge and had no desire to acquire any; wherein he conformed to his genius whose engaging fragility he forbore to overload; his instinct fortunately telling him that it was better to understand little than to misunderstand a lot.”
Anatole France [1844-1924],
La Révolte des Anges [“The Revolt of the Angels”], chapter 1 (1914),
Nobel Laureate in Literature

A nar ken fregen mer frages in a sho vi a kluger ken entferen in a yor.
Yiddish proverb

Ignorance might not be bliss, but it does confer a degree of certainty on persons who lack both knowledge and the desire to attain it. But it is neither an ideal state nor a benign one, as you shall soon see. Such describes the fool: not interested in learning, not interested in attaining knowledge, nor of facts and truth, nor of the moral life. It might be that such certainty is inversely proportional to one's education and learning, but such is not always the case. When such a person has a faith, whether religious or secular, to support his arguments and beliefs—whatever they might be—you can be assured that he entertains no doubts.

His certainty is certain; his rightness right. No intellectual or rational arguments can unlock the door to a freer self. He is in prison of his own choosing, of his own design; he might even be happier and more cheerful than most, having found a life's plan to follow. I can see how a poorly educated person, with limited mental and intellectual abilities, would find attractive and comfortable the simple and reductive explanations—a few passages of doctrine explaining everything. Not that I advocate for ignorance; I never do. Yet, it surrounds us and we often bump into it.

So, what does one do when confronted with a fool? Does one try to persuade and argue, using rational and factual arguments to dissuade? to educate? You can, but it will likely not succeed for the reason that a person under the "spell" of simple faith doesn't allow his mind to take in new facts. Any argument that runs counter to the ideology of faith that he supports and has entrusted his whole being to, which greatly informs his identity, is immediately considered false, and thus discarded. In the mind of the fool, all those who don't hold similar ideas and don't believe similar articles of faith are, well, "foolish." You will walk away frustrated, perhaps confused and even a little angry.

Such a point is made in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters and Papers from Prison (Ed. Eberhard Bethge, 2000). Eberhard Bethge, a German Christian theologian who was implicated and imprisoned by the Gestapo in the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, and who after the Second World War worked tirelessly to bring Bonhoeffer's work to the public's attention, writes in the "Prologue":
So, the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied: in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous. (7-8)
There’s more. Further on, Bethge writes that we shouldn't mistake the fool’s stubbornness for independent thought or independence of mind; quite frankly, it's often the opposite. The fool is under a delusion and lives in a world of illusion:
One feels in fact, when talking with him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings. (8)
Therein lies the danger. You can and should condemn the words of a fool, notably if he is a public figure. But as for private dialogue, it's a waste of time. Given his lack of moral development, it's best to leave the fool alone, much in the same way that one does not approach a mad dog.


  1. Is "fool" the word we mean? People who cling to ridiculous or harmful ideas may, at the same time, be quite intelligent.

    1. Fool is precisely the right word. Intelligence without the ability to change one's mind, in the face of overwhelming evidence, is dangerous and leads to the type of foolish thinking and behaviour that one sees today in many so-called intellectual circles.


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