78 Notes to Self: A Tarot Journal

We are all wanderers on this earth. Our hearts are full of wonder, and our souls are deep with dreams.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Foolish Hero


"The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."
 William Shakespeare

When the Fool appears in a reading he is often welcomed as a "fresh start," a "new beginning," brimming with possibilities.  But, he's not wise and he's quite prone to making dangerous mistakes.  He doesn't give a care what consequences may come, he's impulsive and naive.  I wondered, however, if back in the day when tarot began if the image of the Fool was viewed in such a positive light as he is today? When did the Fool become a Hero?

He's a complicated character, to be sure. He's good and not so hot. In the game of tarocchi, the Fool carries the same points as any of the Trumps which hold the highest point value, but he has a special function.  He's the Excuse card which can be laid down in place of any suit when the player doesn't have a card of that suit to play.  As such, he's a very good card to have in one's hand.  However, at the end of the game, if the score is split even, the side that played the Fool will lose. Not good.

In the olden days when tarot was new, there was already much commentary about fools.  The Bible for example, has tons of proverbs and pithy sayings that warn against being one, the most notable verse being Psalms 14, "A fool says in his heart there is no god."  It is important to note that the Hebrew word for fool used in that phrase means someone who is morally corrupt.  That's important because tarot images of the Fool range from a court jester to a beggar to a mentally disabled person who each have different characteristics and reasons for acting the fool.  The Psalms 14 statement appears to be condemning only the ones who, with full mental capacity, knowingly choose evil over good. Fool is used in the New Testament in ways that point out wrong decision making and Jesus had no problem calling out a fool if it illustrated his point.  It was considered a very harsh term back then, though, because it inferred the person was hell-bound if they didn't change their ways, and it calls not only their faith but their intelligence into question.  And if "fool" wasn't bad enough, he sometimes added to it by calling some extra ignorant people "blind fools."  Fools also get a bad rap in the ancient writings of the Greek philosophers, Confucius, and, well, pretty much everyone who tried to explain the difference between right living and wrong living used the fool as an object lesson in what not to do, who not to be.  He has been our shining bad example. 

But then St. Paul turned the fool around.  In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul stated that man's wisdom is foolishness to God and where we think we're crafty and wise, God knows we're ignorant.  He contended that the message of the Gospel was seen as foolish to those who were smart and educated by society's standards, so to counter their arguments he embraced the fool and said, "We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised." (1Cor 4:10) Basically, he was saying that anyone who accepts and promotes the wisdom of man is the real fool because the wisdom of God, which seems foolish to men, is the real deal.  Being a fool for one's faith was suddenly better than all the man-made education in the world.  It was a pretty clever way to say, "I'm rubber, you're glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you."  This statement changed the symbolism of the Fool to someone who was only temporarily lost or misguided but could be enlightened. Not only that, but once enlightened would continue to be disdained by conventional society because they just don't get him.  Someone who, despite all outside appearances to the contrary, was actually wiser than those who followed the well-trod path of human convention. And now we have our Wise Fool, the bumbling hero who manages to overcome obstacles and challenges, endures trials and tribulations, gets tempted and falls, rises above the consequences, learns from wise teachers, focuses on the goal, succeeds admirably, and finally is rewarded with a crown of glory.  The Fool's Journey is the Hero's Journey.

The notion of the "wise fool" was developed during the Middle Ages and  became very popular during the Renaissance and promotes the concept of learned knowledge and wisdom.  The wise fool became so popular that no Elizabethan drama was complete without the fool.  The original idea of a wise fool is seen in children and in the phrase, "Out of the mouths of babes."   Heraclitus observed that much learning does not teach wisdom, implying that wisdom can be possessed by the unlearned.  The "wise fool" is not mentally deficient, but possesses an otherworldly wisdom beyond his status.  He is also not a jester that merely plays the fool in order to be allowed to speak his mind to and about those in power.  But all manner of fools have these elements in common:

  • They are ignorant and so live a happy and carefree life.  They are not intelligent enough to worry about tomorrow or regret past decisions, so they lead a blissful existence in the present moment.
  • They are not expected to abide by societal conventions, they may say whatever they please, do whatever they wish and are exempt from consequences imposed on them by societal norms and rules. 
  • Any wisdom a fool possesses is presumed to have come from a supernatural source rather than from normal intelligence or traditional education.  They have not earned their wisdom, it was granted to them.  It is a gift.

Tarot's Fool has appeared to evolve into the Wise Fool over time, but I think he was always a questionable composite.  While our modern philosophies tend to prefer the Wise Fool over the sarcastic Court Fool, the Mentally Challenged Fool, the Morally Corrupt Fool, and the Beggar, we can find all these archetypes in historical representations of the Fool that predate Tarot.  The challenge in tarot reading is to discern which face of the Fool is dominant for that particular reading.  I've certainly seen the Fool represent the simple, literal message: "You're being foolish, stop that." It has also conveyed the assurance that, while conventional wisdom would disagree, you are wiser than you know, so don't pay any mind to naysayers.  It can also convey warnings to watch your step, danger ahead, and don't dismiss the signs.  It can tell you the action someone else took was well-intentioned and innocent, even though it may have ended badly.  Interpreting the Fool may also be swayed by which type of Fool is depicted in the tarot deck you've chosen for the reading.  One that portrays a more traditional Beggar Fool versus one that looks like a Court Jester will render different meanings.  The Court Jester was known for "speaking truth to power" in a more humorous and palatable way, whereas the Beggar Fool could bring welcome wisdom from an unlikely source if you would dare to set aside your prejudices and welcome him onto your porch for a spell.

The main reason the Wise Fool agrees with us is because he is us.  Erasmus disagreed with the prevailing idea that folly was sin.  In his essay "In Praise of Folly," written in 1509, Erasmus suggested that foolishness is the natural state of humans:
"But methinks I hear the philosophers opposing it and saying 'tis a miserable thing for a man to be foolish, to err, mistake, and know nothing truly. Nay rather, this is to be a man. And why they should call it miserable, I see no reason; forasmuch as we are so born, so bred, so instructed, nay such is the common condition of us all. And nothing can be called miserable that suits with its kind, unless perhaps you'll think a man such because he can neither fly with birds, nor walk on all four with beasts, and is not armed with horns as a bull."

We start off life as innocent fools and continue through life making mistakes, learning from them, and subsequently find out more and more that we don't know.   The Fool is Tarot's bumbling hero, and subsequently, that Fool is us. As he meanders among the Arcana, takes chances, asks questions, falls down, gets back up, faces tragedy, triumph, temptation, and trials, we easily identify with his experiences and so identify with and can apply the meanings of the cards to our lives with immediate relevance. Although we do hopefully become more wise as our path progresses, we find, often to our dismay, that we are never immune from our own foolishness no matter how long we have been on our Fool's Journey.  Michelangelo said at age eighty-seven, "Ancora Imparo,"  I am yet learning.