The Myth of the Holy Fool

One of the mainstays of conservative writing in the last two centuries has been the “holy fool.” We find him in Russian novels and English poems, in Gandhian musings and Tolstoyan diatribes. While the term originally referred to a person lacking intelligence but endowed with great spiritual wisdom, it has since come to describe the reactionary’s notion of the common man; lacking in independent thought and uninterested in free expression, he toddles through life perfectly untroubled by the skepticism and cold reason of liberalism and modernity.

The fool is the eternal darling of the deepest reactionaries. He is the pious underling, the serf who kisses his master’s whip. He toils through life as his ancestors did before him, never questioning his station or the judgment of his “natural superiors.” Whether or not such a person exists is irrelevant. In the conservative canon, he is everywhere. He fills those enormous “red states” in the U.S., he lives in the provinces and rural villages beyond the city walls. He is “involved in his community” and is always ready to guard that community from misfits and outsiders. Finally, his faith in God, church, and family are thoroughly unshakeable.

While it is undeniably the case that wisdom is not merely to be derived from an elite education, and that the intelligence of human beings cannot be ranked in a linear hierarchy, the myth of the fool makes neither of these claims, nor does it refer to any actual working class or rural population other than that which exists in the imagination of “The Moral Majority.” What the myth of the fool does is to romanticize ignorance and superstition, when the fact of the matter is that both are an imposition, foisted upon the oppressed by the powerful, and standing in the way of emancipation.

This essay is not an exhaustive bibliography of the fool’s works, simply an illustration of his staying power in the world’s literature. Admittedly, not all conservative writers have appealed to the fool. Evelyn Waugh seems never to have affected any fondness for common people, for instance. However, the fool is a very useful device for conservative and reactionary authors. If one takes up the cause of tradition and ancient custom, one invariably defends ancient injustices and barbarisms as well. What better way to defend such injustices than to present the victims as willing lambs to the slaughter? The Holy Fool, the lover of God and King, was the perfect device for feudal conservatives, as it allowed such writers to claim that they stood for the interests of the toiling masses.

The trope may be found in particular abundance in Russian literature. Turgenev was, admittedly, a liberal (his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album was a condemnation of serfdom and a plea for its abolition). However, readers today will be surprised to see, in Fathers and Sons, the radical nihilist and opponent of serfdom Yevgeny Bazarov depicted as contemptuous of the common people. While he is one of the more sympathetic characters in the book, devoting himself to rational enquiry and mingling with the peasants on an equal footing, it is never doubted by the author and the other characters that he holds such people in low esteem. It is the “fathers” of the book’s title, the aristocratic landowners (and owners of serfs), who speak warmly of their paternal concern for the peasants’ welfare. This is obviously a patronizing attitude, but it reflects the appeal of the archetype of the fool. If the oppressed and the serfs accept their oppression merrily, then it is the masters who are their true benefactors, not the devilish liberals seeking to drag them into the blinding light of freedom. When Bazarov cuts open his frogs and explains the principles of anatomy to the serfs, he is doing them a disservice, ending their happy innocence, or so we might be led to believe.

Perhaps the most eminent arch-conservative fool-peddler was Dostoevsky. Although he was a liberal in his early days, Dostoevsky’s conversion to the Orthodox faith and reactionary politics at gun-point is now famous. The Idiot, as one might guess from the novel’s title, is the most obvious example of the fool trope, yet it recurs throughout his work. Dostoevsky was forever impressed by the simple, unquestioning piety of the Russian peasant. Early on in The Brothers Karamazov, we are treated to a weeping lady landowner moved to tears by the sight of “our beautiful Russian people… so simple in their majesty,” as they crowd around an Elder of the Church to receive miracle cures for their various ailments. While the lady in question is something of a figure of fun, it is nevertheless clear that Dostoevsky shares this romantic conception of the common people. In this case, the dangerous potential of the fool is made clear. If modern medicine pales in comparison to the power of prayer and the simple faith of the peasantry, then clearly they have no need of it. Dostoevsky, perhaps unintentionally, is making an argument that subjected generations of Russians to inadequate and ineffective medicine.

Admittedly, not all conservative writers put the holy fool to such nefarious uses. Gogol is generally said to be a truly warm-hearted writer, full of empathy for the common people and the long-suffering clerks who populate his stories. He was also truly convinced, despite all evidence, that the traditional feudal hierarchy could someday be a hierarchy of love and mutual respect. The idea of such paternalism may leave liberals and lovers of freedom cold. Most would say that the oppressed should not be forced to wait for an imagined future in which the oppressors will show uncharacteristic benevolence. However, we should keep in mind that the fool is not always a mere guise for the callous designs of the ruling classes.

For instance, the trope may be found in G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, and in much of that writer’s thought and philosophy. It also must be admitted that Chesterton quite genuinely felt himself to be on the side of “the poor—the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life.” Essays such as “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls” and “Democracy and Industrialism” will move even those who reject his pious worldview.

We may also be surprised that Tolstoy was so fond of the trope. There is the aptly named short story “Ivan the Fool,” of course, but even in such works as “Master and Man,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and the later political and religious writings, Tolstoy showcases a supreme dislike of reason and a love of simplicity. The eponymous hero of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” realizes too late that he has spent his life in entirely the wrong way, pursuing personal ambition and doing what he was told. It is only in love for others and selfless devotion to fellow creatures, Tolstoy implies, that one finds meaning in existence. Most atheists would agree, although they might question just why a God-centered ethic should promote love for our Earthly cohabitants better than a materialist ethic when its gaze is so clearly heavenward. Still, the message speaks to all people who are devoted to justice. What surprises us is that Ilyich’s change of heart comes about as the result of the spectacle of his serf’s devotion. Tolstoy believes that the master ought to serve the servant on hand and knee, yet he sees nothing reprehensible in the servant’s obedience. Again, in “Master and Man” another one of Tolstoy’s heartbreakingly poignant investigations of the beauty of altruism, we see the actions of a selfless servant contrasted with those of a selfish master, and are instructed to admire the former.

This admiration for submission to inequality may smack of conservatism, yet Tolstoy was no reactionary. Unlike Dostoevsky, he was a truly uncompromising enemy of the czar and the feudal hierarchy. He was an admirer of such liberals as Victor Hugo and an opponent of militarism. Most important of all, he loathed serfdom and praised equality. We can only understand him, then, as occupying the same odd niche of the political spectrum as such Romantics as Rousseau and William Blake. Tolstoy, Blake, and Rousseau were all radicals and revolutionaries, yet all were anti-modern, highly religious (albeit in unorthodox ways, especially in Rousseau’s case), and worshipped the fool in his many guises. One can only conclude that such people were driven by sympathy and concern for the oppressed to the point that they made a virtue of their every aspect, including their ignorance.

The particularly alarming thing about Rousseau and Tolstoy is that both are led, often by admirable motives, to a contempt for free thought and free inquiry. These are the luxuries of the ruling classes, they seem to suggest. The common people are not troubled by either, nor should they be. One wishes they had seen that free thought and free inquiry are the great enemies of tyranny, and that the task of liberals is to vouchsafe for all people the free expression of individual personality. If the vast run of people do not yet feel that they hold such a right, it is not because they do not want it, but because it has not been offered to them.

William Blake is very similar, and can, like Tolstoy, read alternately as an uncompromising revolutionary and a true blue Tory. When we first encounter him in school, he is little more than the patronizing author of “The Tyger” and “The Lamb”—the lover of childlike piety and simplicity who is bound to irritate any freethinking youngster. Such lines as this, from “The Auguries of Innocence” seemed, when I first read them, calculated to offend (as I was undoubtedly “the questioner, who sits so sly”):

He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over Hell and Death.
The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of Knowledge out.

When we discover him again, outside the classroom, he is anything but a pious school-book crank. Few poets have depicted such gut-wrenching human misery or written such enigmatic and troubling lines. “London,” the Chimney Sweeper poems, and the Jerusalem poems are some of the more famous (and best) examples of this other, more compelling Blake. Blake was also far from unquestioning in matters of religion. “The Little Vagabond” alone would make him a heretic by most standards, as would “The Garden of Love.” Finally, Blake’s revolutionary opinions, in opposition to slavery, degradation, and cruelty to animals, are quite pronounced in his verse.

In spite of this, Blake was a believer in the myth of the Holy Fool, as evidenced by his love of simple faith and by his derision of free enquiry in the poem “Mock on, Voltaire and Rousseau” (funny that he should deride Rousseau, if, as I believe, they share a great many opinions). “The Clod and the Pebble,” another poem, features a bizarre version of this archetype, with the clod as a holy fool in miniature.

In every instance in which the Holy Fool appears, whether in the work of convinced reactionaries or in that of anarchistic revolutionaries like Blake and Tolstoy, he serves to strengthen the case for ignorance, custom, and settled ways of doing things. Never does he stand for free thought, rational inquiry, and the right of the individual to determine her own life choices. He is therefore a myth to be resisted.

It is, in fact, rare that the oppressed submit to their oppression with glee, whether such oppression comes in the form of serfdom, poverty, or merely the idea of a vengeful God. People often take their oppression for granted when no other options present themselves: that is the most that can be said. The peddlers of myths about holy fools might argue that women in Iran submit to gender apartheid and formal misogyny, but Azar Majedi’s most recent article on this website described a large and growing women’s movement in deep opposition to both. Other such peddlers might argue that the religious right in the United States represents “the average Joe”—a sort of holy fool—but it is increasingly understood to be the case that the U.S. working class wants health care and jobs, which the right is not interested in giving them, and that women, especially working class women, desire the reproductive rights which reactionary forces deny them. The holy fool is therefore the enemy of the great mass of people and of individual freedom: the freedom which is the only convincing guarantor of justice we have yet discovered.

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