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The Foolish Things of the World Confound the Wise

BY Bradley Olson January 1, 2023

The Fool from the Rider–Waite tarot deck by Pamela Colman Smith via Wikimedia Commons, CCO

This year in the MythBlast Series we’re exploring the symbols and archetypal images of the major arcana of the Tarot. A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the old saying goes, and the images of Tarot are laden with archetypal significance — so much so, that those thousand words barely begin to open the symbolic, representational, elements of those images. 

This first month of 2023 we’re looking at the image of The Fool, the first (or last) card of the Tarot deck, as it bears the number zero. Zero is not a counting number and, similarly, the Fool cannot be counted on to behave predictably nor conventionally. From a traditional point of view, the Fool is a zero, a nobody; one to be ridiculed and degraded. The Fool is thought to be impulsive, irresponsible, unorthodox, unmannered; an empty-headed, naive simpleton who lacks good judgment. The Fool is often understood to be graceless, senseless, and ugly — sometimes even deformed. He may be a dwarf, crippled, or otherwise deformed. Fools may also be incredibly pompous while simultaneously being shockingly incompetent. But there is another, deeper, side to the Fool, an aspect that is the most important of this multi-faceted, bewildering, disturbing, frustrating, and yet ultimately revitalizing and creative archetype: the Wise Fool.

Usage of the word fool was quite common in 1800, but over the next two hundred years fell out of fashion. By 1980 or so, it was seldom used. Around the year 2000, usage returned to became more common; Now, in 2023, it’s used nearly as often as it was in the year 1800. Why has this word made a comeback, and why now? That’s always the therapeutic question, you know; why this symptom, and why is it expressing now? The forms always emerge before understanding, just as the disease has always progressed before symptoms emerge. 

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The image of the Fool, like all archetypal images, is timeless. Archetypes are not rigidly bound to any particular time, place, or situation, however they can be constellated and shaped by the energies of a given age and place. The idea of foolishness, and therefore the image of the Fool, seems to be constellated by difficult, dangerous times — eras that may be metaphorically represented by arid and distorted landscapes, Wasteland situations, one might say, in which hearts have become hardened and heads have become empty and addled. In the sociopolitical climate of the early 2000s, when the word fool returned to common use, fear dominated the emotional landscape of the time. Fears of terrorism, of political opponents, fear of the truth, and a new fear much harder to understand: the fear of the mutability — the relativity —of truth.

We seem to be living in a time in which conservatism — as an idea, as a psychic perspective or a sociological reflex, as opposed to a political philosophy — is more and more popular. Primarily because the conservative perspective, in its preference for order and rules, stability and traditional values, offers an escape from Modernity and the bewildering uncertainty of Postmodernism. The more rapid the pace of change in a society, the more frangible, malleable, and unfathomable life becomes, the more appealing conservatism becomes.

Conservatism, with its hunger for rules and black and white thinking, sets the stage for the appearance of the transmogrifying, chaotic wisdom of the Anarchic Fool (think of Groucho Marx movies with shipboard staterooms filled to overflowing with all sorts of people, the manic comedy of Robin Williams, or the revolutionary satire of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl). When societies and cultures become too proscribed, too rigid, or too rule bound the Fool, through his militant anarchy, turns institutions and logic upside down and inside out. Jesus himself often occupied the role of the Wise Fool, and in Matthew 20:16 Jesus taught, “So the last shall be first, and the first last…” demonstrating the same foolish ability to invert and subvert the usual order of things, rebelling against the excesses of wealth and privilege and the exercise of grim authoritarianism. Echoing the words of Jesus, the Tarot Fool may also be the first card or the last, which adds a kind of symmetry or circularity to the chaos of subversion. 

Since irony is the primary constituent in the language of myth, perhaps the fool is the personification of myth itself, because irony is the language of the fool. Irony intensifies and subverts reality just as the Fool does. Like the fool, irony turns things inside out and upside down. It deconstructs and overthrows. It draws attention to the discrepancy between literal and essential meaning, all the while allowing the Fool to go about his business serenely untroubled, almost as if he’s above it all, like Paul McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill” watching the world spinning ‘round. 

The Fool sitting on the hill isn’t really “above it all,” he’s a metaphor for the clarity of perspective–the sense of seeing a big picture while at the same time, deeply engaged in life — that reveals the interdependence of everything, that all existence is harmonious and in accord, even when it appears to be a cruel, chaotic mess. It’s the perspective of the deepest Self, a way of honoring one’s own passions while simultaneously recognizing the limitations of being human; of following one’s own heart and utilizing the wisdom of one’s own mind. 

Merriment and sadness are always intertwined, and an undercurrent of melancholy flows through the fool. In the second half of Shakespeare’s career, his fools become more worldly wise, more world-weary and, consequently, more compassionate. Being full of word play, puns, and silly jokes, the gravedigger in Hamlet is one example of a fool. But there is also in him a deep wisdom that accepts the course and nature of life on life’s own terms. He unearths a skull and tells Hamlet it was once Yorick, his father’s (King Hamlet) Fool. Taken aback, Hamlet says:

Yorick! I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times…Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? (Act 5, Scene 1)

“He hath bore me on his back a thousand times…Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” Hearing or reading these lines always makes me think that Yorick, the jester, the fool, must have been the main source of whatever love young Hamlet received. It was Yorick that played with the child, not his father. It was Yorick, not his vain, self-interested mother, whom he showered with kisses. 

Even in death, the fool tried to teach Hamlet the simple truth about living: that what survives of us is love. And if we are to become fully fledged, functional adults, the love we must pursue is not that of a parent nor a lover, but a love of the conditions of life itself. These conditions of life are not congenial to human understanding or comfort, and rather than rage against this reality, we must learn to accept, even love, the conditions of life if we are to love others, the world, ourselves and our own lives and stand against hopelessness and the death of the spirit. If we can achieve this, we discover that love really is all around us. Even, perhaps especially, in the company of Fools.

Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

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I myself have been traveling around quite a bit, these years, from one college campus to another, and everywhere the first question asked me is, “Under what sign were you born?” The mysteries of the Tarot pack, the I Ching, and Transcendental Meditation . . . Well, all this is just the beginning, the first signaling of a dawning realization of the immanence of the occult, and of this as something important for our living.

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The Grail Legend

“Writing in a clear and readable style, two leading women of the Jungian school of psychology present this legend as a living myth that is profoundly relevant to modern life. We encounter such universal figures as the Fool (the naive young Perceval), the Wise Old Man (the Hermit Gornemanz), the Virgin Maiden (Blancheflor), the Loathly Damsel, and such important themes as the Waste Land, the Trinity, and the vessel of the Grail. Weaving together narrative and interpretation, the authors show us how the legend reflects not only fundamental human problems but also the dramatic psychic events that form the background of our Christian culture. Emma Jung–analyst, writer, and wife of the famous psychologist C. G. Jung–researched and worked on this book for thirty years, until her death in 1955. Marie-Louise von Franz, also eminent in the field of depth psychology, completed the project.”

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This lecture was recorded at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California in 1971 and 1975.

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