The Humility of Wise and Fools

Thanks to a few unfortunate conversations I’ve been forced to engage in recently, I’ve had to think a bit about what it means to be a fool (and not the good kind).

It seems to me that while people are often culpable for their foolish beliefs, at the same time no one consciously chooses to be a fool. Virtually no people who sincerely believe foolish things will see their beliefs as foolish. Indeed, their guilt consists precisely in being able to convince themselves that what they want to believe is not a thing that only fools could accept.

Through reflecting on this situation, I’ve come to suspect that there are two kinds of intellectual humility, one appropriate for fools and one for the wise.

The humility of fools is the humility of those who don’t know if they’re right. We should all begin with this sort of humility. Because both fools and the wise will be convinced that their conclusions are not foolish, we all need to begin with the recognition that no matter how strongly we feel we’re right, we may very well be wrong.

The wise always begin with this awareness, but fools rarely do. Still, I call it the humility of fools because it is a humility especially suited to fools, a humility that ennobles the fool who could otherwise never rise above folly. Humble fools may not be able to arrive at truth, but they will at least not be entirely closed off to truth, and will besides wear their folly in a way that is not shameful but endearing and respectable.

The humility of the wise, on the other hand, is the humility of the person who has seen the errors of the foolish and has also recognized the futility of trying to enlighten them in their stubbornness. In other words, this is the special humility which is elicited in the wise when a fool lacks the humility that is suitable in folly. Sadly, this will be a common situation for the wise; arrogant fools are far more numerous than are appropriately humble fools, at least in my experience. Perhaps this is especially true in democratic society.

(I should clarify, by the way, that I don’t write this as if I am the universally wise person who has completely transcended all foolishness. These insights should all in principle be available to anyone who has at some time known more on a subject than an opinionated conversation partner.)

The humility of the wise, I think, must take the form of hiding within ironies. It is most pleasant and generally most useful to cut off discussions with an arrogant fool as quickly as possible, but frequently this is not a realistic possibility.

When a wise person must continue a conversation with arrogant fools, wisdom will not endlessly answer them as if they were wise enough to see their mistakes and correct themselves. That is a fruitless endeavour that will dishonour the wise, except in rare situations such as structured, public debates.

Instead of entering into the fray with a proud fool, the wise person must find a way to withhold assent from the folly while also bringing the conversation to a gentle close. This end seems to be most intuitively pursued by means of statements which will seem to affirm the right of the fool to believe foolish things, while also signalling why the belief is foolish, preferably in a way that will not be entirely comprehensible to the fool.

The wise person, then, in order to withhold assent from folly while also dealing sociably with a fool, is required to speak with a sort of humble wisdom that by its nature subtly exposes the folly of the fool.

It is an imperfect solution, but it seems to be the best one in most social situations.

Only a humble fool can ever become wise. When someone who had attained some wisdom encounters a seemingly humble fool, that is the opportunity to offer instruction. Seeking to instruct the arrogant fool is something a truly wise person would never do.

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