The idea of the fool is an old one. In modern times the word implies a lot of things, most frequently including a lack of common sense. But the concept of the fool is an old one. The court jesters and mythic tricksters were also considered to be fools.
Very often these characters were foolish simply to disguise their intelligence. The court jesters were also often spys as people would say things in front of them assuming someone so “foolish” was also to stupid to understand the conversation. This misperception was enhanced by the fact that many courtly fools also had some manner of disability or disfigurement that added to their “outsider” lack of status.
The other role of the courtly fool was to play up the absurdity of the actions of the nobility. Satire and wit were their weapons. Our most notable modern day fool is probably Stephen Colbert. He plays a likable character who embodies the viewpoint he most frequently pokes fun at. His sense of wit, timing and both self aggrandizement and self depreciation make him seem harmless and somewhat “foolish”. But there are indications that most young people get their news, not from the news stations but from Comedy Central’s Daily Show and from the Colbert Report.
There is a turn of phrase in English “too smart for your own good.” This phrase is the epitome of the mythic trickster. Reynard the fox in European mythology has associations both for intelligence and foolishness. The Tlingit Raven embodies similar qualities. Coyote, the most familiar trickster in the Americas, is very smart, but not very wise. Still the tricksters, like Stephen Colbert, are often teachers.
The bumbling professor is another modern archetype of the fool. Fred MacMurray in The Absentminded Professor is the classic example of this. In recent times Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series appears to cultivate that silly absent-mindedness and he is underestimated because of it. He is seen as a fool in spite of his fame and historical feats in the wizardly world.
There is a great deal of discussion in the Pagan blogosphere about the term BNP (big name Pagan). It seems that several folks who are coming into the title are pushing back against the idea of their own popularity or fame within the community. (Peter Dybing “Killing Big Name Pagans”, Crystal Blanton “Sensationalizing Pagan Leaders: The damaging social structure behind BNP status”)
Crystal and Peter make some good points. Being labeled as a BNP decreases their ability to be “one of the people.” This impacts their effectiveness at serving a community since they all share a viewpoint that everyone’s contribution is valuable and necessary.
On the other hand, having some notoriety allows someone to share their knowledge more broadly. Bloggers have something to share and they look for more readers. Likewise authors aren’t always as interested in sales for profit as they are for sharing their work broadly. Becoming a big name often requires a serious effort of underlying self promotion.
Dumbledore isn’t the head of Hogwarts because of the way he hides his abilities. Stephen Colbert isn’t as popular as he is because he doesn’t have anything worth listening to. Raven, Coyote, and Reynard the fox often get their fellow mythological creatures invested in their grand schemes because, on some level, they make sense. They are also accessible.
Bill Nye the Science Guy, and classic fool, is easier to understand and accept than the pompous academic scientist who uses jargon and expects the students to keep up. Part of Alton Brown‘s charm is his foolishness, but his culinary science and depth of knowledge isn’t foolish at all, just accessible. Ultimately, true fools are teachers. Teachers need an audience and that, especially in the modern world, requires some level of fame. It’s a conundrum. It’s a balancing act between credibility and accessibility.
In courtly circles, and in modern times, a physical disability often provides the balance. Someone with Cerebral Palsy, or Tourette’s, or dwarfism doesn’t need to work to hide their intelligence. The disability does a sufficient job of that. Those people work hard to get past the imposed perception of foolishness to be taken seriously. Another balancing factor that people fight hard against is age. There comes a point where age both demands we be heard and also allows us to be dismissed as “foolish”.
We revere our successful fools and celebrate them this day. But wouldn’t it be nice to be simply accepted. All of us have our foolishness. All of us have our faults and failings to be made fun of or to remind us we are human. All of us have something to offer, to teach.
How do we as leaders, as teachers, as writers reach our audience without becoming a “big name”? I don’t know that we can. I do think we can remember the balance. We can allow ourselves to be foolish and therefore not revered quite as highly. By embracing our foolishness we remain human, members of our community, and therefore even more effective communicators and teachers.