To Be the Fool
Alone on a hill . . .
And, masters, do not forget to specify,
when time and place shall serve, that I am an ass.
Dogberry, the one to whom Shakespeare gave this line, is a fool. And by that, I mean to compliment him. To be such a fool may be the greatest honor any could bear.
That sounds a bit backwards, I know. How can being a fool be honorable when our scriptural tradition condemns the fool and exalts the wise? To say that the fear of the Lord is the fool’s joy seems to go contrary to everything we’ve been taught. Nevertheless, I stand by it.
The fool may at times be the wisest person in the room.
Not the Biblical fool, of course. The Biblical fool is morally astray. He has no concern for righteousness, no fear of God in his bones. He’s more interested in self-promotion and the adoration of others than he is in adorning his life with the character of Christ. His eyes are fixed on his brand and his future, and he acts in such a way to preserve, promote, and protect his seat at important tables. When his actions cross Biblical boundaries, he finds clever ways of justification. Such a fool has no honor.
I praise rather the decent fool, a throwback to a simpler life, where honor was placed upon honesty and respect upon craft. The decent fool has no platform and no position of particular notice. He, and I use the male pronoun for convenience as these roles can be inhabited by any person, is often ignored and sometimes despised. Even when tolerated, he has no access to the circles of power or prestige. Whether this is because his dress is contrary to fashion, his verbal skills limited, or his social charm askew, he really has no interest in accessing the inner ring anyway, so it’s of no great consequence. Nevertheless, he’s content and therefore a puzzle to all who see him. He fills his space as if that is the only space to fill. Where others live for the promotion, the windfall, or an invitation to speak at some major conference, the fool finds delight in pursuing the joys and opportunities that are at hand.
The fool is not really conscious of his foolishness in any life affecting way. He is who he is, and he’s okay to be himself. He may say things that sound outrageous, but he doesn’t really know it. Though his words or actions might be contrary to what is current, he’s not trying to be contrary. His contrariness arises simply because his eyes are fixed on realities that differ from the gaze of those around him.
His eyes are fixed, that is, on what is true. His heart belongs to God. And when his wholly genuine reverence for God makes him stand out, he’s hardly aware. Mockery leaves no impression.
The self aware do everything possible not to be the fool. That’s a shame because in reality the fool may be the one person with eyes that can yet see. Unclouded by lust for riches and power and celebrity, the fool sees what the rest miss. And because of this, the single-minded fool may be the one who saves the world.
Or at least Messina.
The constable Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothingis someone laughed at. He is so simple he believes being called an ass is a compliment. We are meant to laugh at him when he condemns the villains to “everlasting redemption.” His disorderly indictment of their wrongs reveals simplicity.
Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths;'secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.
We smile at him as do the powerful, who treat him with dismissive amusement.
And yet Dogberry alone sees the evil to which the others are blind. He uncovers the wickedness that was causing death in Messina. Through him order is restored. Though laughed at and dismissed, it is the fool, the holy fool, who saves the world.
It’s possible that what we call a pursuit of wisdom may be nothing more than an effort to avoid being thought a fool. We may be more moved by the fear of embarrassment than by the fear of God.
But to wear the shoes of the fool, to find contentment in who we are, to delight in the things that delight us, measured solely by our God-inspired imaginations, to follow the dreams God gives us, and to do all with our eyes fixed on an unmoving vision of goodness, this is true wisdom, though the world deems it foolish.
Dogberry in his foolishness was unaware of his goodness. He was proud simply of being thought an ass.
I’d be okay with that.
William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, 5.1
There is little more joyful than to see this play performed live in small venues. Absent that, it can be enjoyed on screen through renditions produced by Kenneth Branagh or by Joss Whedon. Either is worth the time.
William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, 5.1
Thank you for this. It's so powerful and simple. Thank you Sir.