Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times

Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times

by Ralph Lerner

NOOK Book(eBook)

$34.99 $41.00 Save 15% Current price is $34.99, Original price is $41. You Save 15%.

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


The role of the fool is to provoke the powerful to question their convictions, preferably while avoiding a beating. Fools accomplish this not by hectoring their audience, but by broaching sensitive topics indirectly, often disguising their message in a joke or a tale. Writers and thinkers throughout history have adopted the fool’s approach, and here Ralph Lerner turns to six of them—Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, Pierre Bayle, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Gibbon—to elucidate the strategies these men employed to persuade the heedless, the zealous, and the overly confident to pause and reconsider.

As Playing the Fool makes plain, all these men lived through periods marked by fanaticism, particularly with regard to religion and its relation to the state. In such a troubled context, advocating on behalf of skepticism and against tyranny could easily lead to censure, or even, as in More’s case, execution. And so, Lerner reveals, these serious thinkers relied on humor to move their readers toward a more reasoned understanding of the world and our place in it. At once erudite and entertaining, Playing the Fool is an eloquently thought-provoking look at the lives and writings of these masterly authors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226473178
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 246 KB

About the Author

Ralph Lerner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in the College and professor emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is the author of four other books, including Maimonides’ Empire of Light, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Playing the Fool

Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times


Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47315-4

Chapter One

Tomfoolery in Earnest

It takes some boldness to enter with high hopes into that early Tudor maze that may be dubbed here Tom's Foolery. After nearly five hundred years of scrutiny and interrogation, the text of Sir Thomas More's Utopia remains tight-lipped. Its author's adroit artfulness invites the belief that this book is a puzzle waiting to be solved while simultaneously undercutting that presumption. Much as Raphael Hythloday's actions, pronouncements, and reports move in opposing directions, so too do the evasive More's. Further, the philosopher-traveler and the diplomat-lawyer come across as opposed types. The former is opinionated, humorless, and all too ready to impress us with his secrets. The latter has in him nothing of the pedant. His honeyed words coat harsh medicine, and his quiet smile and soft-spoken humor can propel readers into a vertiginous tailspin. For, while his title page promises both profit and delight, his text in fact offers neither of these goods as simply free for the taking. More's golden little book continues to demand a price of admission. Anyone who would enter into its author's thoughts is obliged to reach into his own pocket or purse for whatever intellectual currency he can muster.

Just as the contradictions and tensions embedded in Raphael's character and life story are there for all to see, so too are those in his account of Utopian practices and beliefs. A multitude of patient scholars have long since documented those incongruities. Raphael's seemingly artless narration presents Utopia as a bundle of extremes parading as rational moderation. His manner invites us to unravel that bundle, to pair its oddments in such a way as to heighten their absurdity, and then to reassemble the lot with a view to understanding them better. By having Raphael employ matter-of-fact speech, More the author mutes the irony and satire. Our readerly pleasure is heightened as we detect what this world traveler apparently cannot see under his very nose. Even as he attacks European standards and behavior for being narrow and mean and Europeans themselves for failing to envision or entertain alternative ways of looking and thinking, this rootless cosmopolite succeeds in painting himself into a doctrinal and doctrinaire corner. Even when his own experience at the table of Cardinal John Morton should have taught him to qualify his assertions, he remains impervious and deaf. The final words of the fictional Thomas More on this character are telling and ring true: "I was not sure whether he could endure to listen to an opinion contrary to his own." We onlookers can only ponder.

None of this is to argue that it is futile to attempt to explore More's Utopia for its moral or political teachings. Where so much is offered, much may be presumed to be found. Yet we might be better off regarding this work as an exhibit that illustrates the pitfalls and opportunities entailed in thinking both "within the box" and "outside the box." So conceived, the work might help us achieve a disquiet more productive of good sense than what ensues from self-satisfaction. From this perspective, More's is a book that aims at being a standing provocation. It does not offer the answer and even sidesteps making a probable case for one conclusion or another about the various issues it stirs. Rather than settle matters involving religion, philosophy, and public policy, it invites us to rethink them.

For all his righteous certitude, even Raphael somehow divines that. He insinuates on a few occasions that there is daylight between the Utopians' notions of what is fitting and his own. This is significant, especially when we recall that we know nothing about the Utopians beyond what Raphael reports of them. Further, the character Thomas More both asserts and suggests that he and Hythloday do not see eye to eye on a number of points. Again, we need to remember that we know nothing of Hythloday beyond what the character Thomas More reports. Nor are we entitled to conflate the express or implied views of the character Thomas More with the views of the self-described author, "the most distinguished and learned gentleman," the citizen and undersheriff of no insignificant English city (1/2). In short, More's text repeatedly invites us to distance ourselves from every argument and alleged fact that it contains. I take this insistent suggestion to be expressive of his semiconcealed positive teaching.


By the same token, that teaching gently directs us back to none other than—Plato. The opening poem by Anemolius, the "Poet Laureate" (of some other "Nowhere"?), makes that fact abundantly clear, and the text's subsequent overt and covert references to Plato reinforce it. The conclusion is inescapable; a line has been drawn in the sand (1/18). The point of comparison is Plato's polity, one that exists only as a city constructed in speech. This Utopia, in contrast, is a living presence. For that we have the assurance of a fictional eyewitness, a philosopher who is above lying. Plato's imagined city was founded by and for philosophers, men who love the truth but are not above lying. This Utopia enjoys the benefit of being philosophical without having to endure resident philosophers. We might expect or hope that the account given on a sunny afternoon in a pleasant garden and bracketed by two good meals would be more open and forthcoming than that long night's conversation (unrelieved by food or drink) within the house of Cephalus. At the very least, a consideration of similarities and differences might conduce to understanding both works better. One might think of More's book as tracing a heavenly body's elliptical trajectory: It draws near Plato's writings, then pulls away, ultimately swings around, and then approaches yet again. The Republic and the Laws swim into and out of focus, leaving us confident that our author has never let his deep study of those works simply fade from his mind.

Nor would he have us forget. When the character Thomas More tells (or accuses) Raphael to his face that he is Plato's friend (35/80–82), he as much as signifies that he holds Raphael to be Plato's man and that any reservations that he, Thomas More, may voice with respect to Raphael's arguments may apply to Plato's as well. The justice or unfairness of this conflation is not at issue, even when Plato's position is being misrepresented (e.g., 47/100–102). The point, rather, is that Raphael's account of Utopia lays bare what a contemporary "true city" or "healthy city" might look like (Stephanus 372E). It is in this sense that we are being invited to take its measure.

Let us approach this question of health from another angle. Imagine the historic Thomas More asking himself: How might a latter-day Plato recast his thoughts, addressing not the feverish and fractured world of the Greeks but the feverish and fractured world of Christendom? Looked at from a great height, nothing has changed. Injustice and folly flourish as in olden times. Yet there is this development that Plato could not have foreseen: A message of universal love and brotherhood has been enlisted in the service of worldly ambition and ruthless power. Bearers of the message of the Prince of Peace have themselves become the greatest disturbers of the peace. A new Plato, posing his old question, would not be free to close his eyes to these developments.

Given the presence now (in 1515) of technology (a legacy of Egypt and Rome), a body of literature and learning (a legacy of Greece), and a highly politicized transnational church, it is inevitable that health should take on a somewhat different aspect. To be sure, stretching out on rushes strewn with yew and myrtle, capping one's simple vegetarian feast with roasted acorns, will not quite do. We aspire to more than the healthy simplicity (or, if you will, the idiocy) of rural life. Anticipating this resistance, the great far-seeing engineer and founder, Utopus, adjusted his prescribed institutions and laws accordingly. His success may be gauged by this startling fact, that his handiwork has withstood potentially powerful disruptions. Thus, the chance landfalls on his island's shores—in the early fourth century of Romans and Egyptians and in the early sixteenth century of a very peculiar evangelist of enlightenment—did not entail what might normally have been expected: social, political, or religious upheaval for the inhabitants. A people with healthy habits of mind and simple tastes were kept that way by a system of social control as omnipresent and virtually undetectable as atmospheric pressure itself. Judicious accommodation and selective appropriation of alien imports proceeded apace—"not unwillingly," as the Utopian quatrain would have it (2/22). But, whatever sense the Utopians made of Raphael's stripped-down version of Christianity, it had to fit in nicely in the world crafted by Utopus, a world where society, not God, is all-seeing and where dread of shame, not of sin, reigns supreme.

It might seem perverse to insist that Utopia is a land effectively purged of erotic longings. After all, the inhabitants are reported as denying that one must choose between virtue and pleasure. Nature herself commands the inhabitants, "Pursue pleasure, be happy!" Yet their pleasures and joys, their carnal satisfactions and their intellectual delights, are confined and slight, as routinized and judicious as a well-run camp for children. Raphael's account sets forth a way of life cleansed of surprises that might agitate the soul. Utopia's music is programmed to aid digestion every evening, and twice each lunar month it elicits the emotions appropriate in vast churches with designedly "dim and doubtful lighting" (126/234). Individuals who might incline to follow their own inner music—fanatics, fornicators, adulterers, idlers with wanderlust—are brought to heel quickly and decisively. One may doubt that Utopia has a poet laureate or (if it does) that one would relish his productions.

Though their uniformly drab clothing leaves something to be desired, the daily lives of Utopians are not devoid of rations of cheer—even of tomfoolery. They play games and play at war. Spiritedness, too, has its prescribed time slot. The people have the gratification of adorning gardens under their temporary care and of trying to best others in the process. But, as might be expected in a scheme of things in which "there is no place at all" for pride (68/138), singularity of any kind is at least suspect and kept on a short leash. This is not to assert that the community is blind to considerations of special and, hence, unequal merit. Utopia privileges learning by exempting those who excel at it from the routine of physical labor to which the rest of the adult population is bound. The very few able-bodied men (and women) who enjoy this special status have to undergo long scrutiny and, finally, some sort of election. This is a system that rewards merit wherever it appears and is equally ready to demote those who fail to live up to expectations. A city's entire priestly, scholarly, and political elite—"barely five hundred"—including its shadowy ruler, a "Son of Zeus," is drawn from this class (64/130). "Their priests are extremely holy and therefore very few" (123, 124/230, 232).

The rarity of genuine holiness is a drumbeat in More's text. And then there is another kind of holiness pursued by a significant number of Utopians whose notion of deserving rewards in the next life demands their rigorous rejection of the pleasures of this life. In the name of piety, these prodigies of self-denial seek out and joyfully accept whatever filthy, unremitting, backbreaking toil their island affords. But for this protective aura, their freely chosen hard life of ascetic, vegetarian celibacy would be regarded by the vast majority of Utopians as laughable (122/228), perhaps even insane (81, 91/162, 178). It is emphatically not out of this group of extraordinarily religious folk that the country's priests are selected. More generally, those Utopians who think of themselves as singular had better keep their peculiar brands of self-satisfaction under wraps. They would be ill understood by their fellow citizens, men in sheep's clothing—lovers of ease, comfort, pleasing smells, and a good night's sleep untroubled by outlandish thoughts and aspirations. Properly brought up and cared for, the free men and women of Utopia are not inclined to imagine anything more gratifying than what they already enjoy.

In contrast to the sharp confrontations that mark the first part of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday's long narrative in the second part runs its course without interruption or formal challenge. To be sure, the Utopian practices and beliefs depicted there fairly cry for commentary and rejoinders going far beyond the marginal parerga. But Thomas More, the character, is too mature and diplomatic to play Glaucon. Instead, he plays the gracious host, at the end leading his exhausted and self-satisfi ed guest by the hand to dinner, all the while muttering amenities that conceal deeper misgivings. Even in sharing some of his thoughts with us readers, Thomas More, the character, refrains from total candor. Yet, for all their studied ambiguity, the reservations that he does report do effectively and gently bring us back down to earth from Hythloday's vaporous heights. It appears that neither the author nor the character of the same name saw any pressing need to relieve us of what after all is our business once we have turned the last page.

Raphael's account draws us into a world where pride is fingered as the root of all evil. Gold, the darling coin of pride, is forcibly expelled from this fantasyland so as to corrupt other nations. Alternatively, it is used domestically to make chains for slaves and receptacles for collecting the wastes of human colons and bladders. This is body language with a vengeance. The preoccupations and behavior of most people, great and small, in most places and in most times, can hardly be dignified with the appellation human.

Yet does all this Utopian rejection of excess and vainglorious display betoken health? And, if so, what kind of people would choose to be healthy? When we recall that exile, not death, is the extreme punishment in Utopia, we begin to realize how powerful is the society's grip on its citizens' imaginations. The economic security they enjoy, the comforting predictability of their lives, the all-encompassing sameness of places and persons: all these stroke and calm the soul, even unto numbness.

Nonetheless, very large claims are made on behalf of this island commonwealth. We are invited to think of it as being both healthy and philosophical. This is, to say the least, puzzling. What would be its claim to the latter characterization? It has neither philosophy nor philosophers. Its unruffled social life makes it a most improbable venue for the appearance of some future Socrates. If the claim rests on an unstated presumption that the ancient conqueror-founder-lawgiver-engineer was guided by philosophical understanding, then it must be said that his was a philosophy to end all philosophizing. There is as little room in Utopia for gadflies as for proud disturbers of the peace. The same, however, is true of the healthy city portrayed in book 2 of the Republic, the one scuttled by Socrates after Glaucon pouted over the absence of relishes. Granted, the Utopia portrayed by Raphael is not without its relishes, but it falls far short of veering into the feverishness of worlds in which an Alexander VI and a John Morton, a Henry VIII and a Thomas More, can arise and flourish. This is enough—indeed, decisive—for Raphael as he celebrates Utopia and the Utopians' success in beating down pride. He, for one, is proud of their achievement. It is hard to say that he gives any mind to the price they pay for that triumph. Compared to the grotesque abuses of contemporary Christendom, the human and social costs of Utopian living (barely hinted at) pale into insignificance. Hythloday's pursuit of the perfect good trumps all other considerations.


Excerpted from Playing the Fool by RALPH LERNER Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction 1

1 Tomfoolery in Earnest

2 The Jihad of St. Alban

3 Burton’s Antics

4 Remedial Education in Professor Bayle's History Class

5 Franklin's Double Take on Rights

6 The Smile of a Philosophic Historian


Customer Reviews