|On ‘The Psychology of the Fool’; a 1968 essay by James Alexander and Kenneth Isaacs|
Introductory Note by Sachi
I have recently completed
25 years as an active scientist. Research papers published in
peer-reviewed journals are the ‘bread and butter’ for my job. On a
conservative estimate, I had read over 10,000 research papers in English
during the past 25 years. Take a count. Twenty five years meant 25 x 52
= 1,300 weeks. I had read on an average, a minimum of 10 research papers
per week; the tally cumulates to 13,000 research papers, in subjects
ranging from astronomy to zoology. These research papers were in many
categories; methodology papers, experimental papers, deductive and
analytical papers, review papers, theory-hypothesis papers, essays,
autobiographical reminiscences as well as published research
letters and interviews with significant information.
From these >10,000
research papers which I have read for research and teaching purposes, I
keep a tally of my ‘Top Ten’ papers; for their profound wisdom,
stimulating value, interesting themes, entertaining merit and
provocative conclusions. The stress is on my ‘Top Ten’ list.
In this list appears a superb essay on the four letter word beginning
with the alphabet F –i.e., fool. It was authored by James Alexander
and Kenneth Isaacs in 1968, and published in the International
Journal of Psycho-Analysis. The title was ‘The
Psychology of the Fool’.
I consider this essay as an
interesting one, because of its cross-disciplinary relevance and
everlasting appeal on explaining the words and deeds of literati,
politicians and celebrities; as varied as Churchill and Kipling
(certified Nobelists in literature, who were also apologists for British
imperialism), Henry Kissinger (a dubious Nobelist in Peace), Yukio
Mishima (a Nobelist wannabe in Literature, who committed suicide by
belly-slitting in 1970), Rajiv Gandhi (a Nobel nominee for Peace in
1987), Subramanian Swamy (a Nobelist wannabe, who once bragged about
foregoing an Economics prize because he left Harvard to serve his
country!), Michael Jackson (the musicican with white fetish), Imelda
Marcos (the socialite-politician with shoe fetish), Sri Lanka’s own
Imelda impressionist Chandrika Kumaratunga, and her side-kick Lakshman
Kadirgamar(both Nobelist wannabes in Peace). Many Eelam Tamils would
have pondered why ex-Foreign Minister Kadirgamar behaves so
irrationally, though being a literate person. This particular essay by
Alexander and Isaacs provides the answer, in portraying the inner mind
of folks like Rajiv Gandhi and Kadirgamar.
Since this research paper
by Alexander and Issacs appeared 35 years ago, and that too in a
specialist journal, I’m pretty sure many wouldn’t have read it. But,
it is a thought-provoking exposition on the working of a fool’s mind.
The common words for fool in Tamil are moodan (gender-specific masculine term) and muddall (gender neutral
term). One of the popular
Tamil movie songs by that singing comedian J.P.Chandra Babu began with
the lines, ‘Naan oru Muddallunga – Romba Nalla Padichchavanga Naalu Peru
Sonnanga’ [In translation: ‘I am a
fool; So said, quite a few of the educated folks.’]. The authors
correctly observe that ‘the fool is not innocent, but is often
gullible.’ The Tamil words for ‘innocent’ and ‘gullible’ are appavi and pethai respectively. The actions of Rajiv Gandhi after his 1987 signing
of a ‘peace accord’ with J.R.Jayewardene explicitly illustrates the
distinction. Rajiv was a fool first to sign that so-called peace accord
on the advice of his foreign policy Poo Bahs, and then he became a
gullible (not innocent!) in his confrontation with the LTTE.
I provide the paper of
Alexander and Issacs in the belief that it will be of profit to many,
including the fools and the members of their fan club. The text is
undoubtedly filled with psychology jargon – but not to the extent
of inhibiting the interests of a learner. So, anyone with an
interest in comprehending the fool’s mind can enjoy by reading it in
full. Especially to be noted is the last paragraph, before the final
‘Summary’, in which the authors conclude on the consequences of a
fool with political power.
Complete Text of ‘The
Psychology of the Fool’
[source: International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1968; vol.49, pp.420-423]
“This paper is an
outgrowth of our studies of affects and psychoanalytic effect theory as
an extension into the area of psychoanalytic characterology. The fool [Webster’s
Dictionary: One who acts absurdly or stupidly; a simpleton; dolt;
one who professionally counterfeits folly, as a jester or buffoon; a
retainer formerly kept to make sport, dressed fantastically in motley,
with cap, bells and bauble.] represents a special pathological type of
character-formation, a sort of sub-group within the large category of
alloplastic neuroses in which the conflict is behaviourally discharged
in a manner known as acting out. Freud was a highly moral person, but he
disliked the introduction of moral considerations into psychoanalysis.
He always said of the moral-ethical that it was self-evident. This is
probably true of those who honestly want to understand the moral-ethical
and to live by this understanding. Tactically, it also was right for
Freud not to get drawn into moral-ethical polemics which would have only
diverted him from his main task of building psychoanalytic psychology.
However, the time now seems
to have arrived when psychoanalysts should no longer back off from
consideration of the moral-ethical, but should use the tools of
psychoanalysis to investigate the moral-ethical realm. Ethics will not
be destroyed by such an investigation, but would profit from it.
Freud’s moral integrity
is implicit in everything he wrote, or did. We doubt that it is possible
to write of the fool and his acts of folly and avoid moral
considerations. That psychoanalysis as a scientific psychology wished to
avoid moralizing is easily understood and sympathized with, but the
moral-ethical domain remains a reality in human existence; and somewhere
in the humanities, psychology and ethics must abut upon one another. We
affirm that the concept of folly belongs to the common area shared by
psychology and ethics. Ortega y Gasset in a footnote in his book, The
Revolt of the Masses, says:
I have often asked myself
the following question. There is no doubt that at all times for many men
one of the greatest tortures of their lives has been the contact, the
collision, with the folly of their neighbours. And yet, how is it that
there has never been attempted – I think this is so – a study on
this matter, an Essay on Folly? For the pages of Erasmus do not treat of
this aspect of the matter.
This is our rationale for
departing from Freud’s practice of refraining from introducing
moral-ethical considerations into psychoanalysis. We would like to begin
at this point with a long quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1955).
Folly is a more dangerous
enemy to the good than malice. You can protest against malice, you can
unmask it or prevent it by force. Malice always contains the seeds of
its own destruction, for it always make men uncomfortable, if nothing
worse. There is no defence against folly. Neither protests nor force are
of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts
contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if
they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions.
Thus, the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably
self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not
take much to make him aggressive. Hence, folly requires much more
cautious handling than malice. We shall never again try to reason with
the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.
To deal adequately with
folly it is essential to recognize it for what it is. This much is
certain, it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are men
of great intellect who are fools, and men of low intellect who are
anything but fools, a discovery we make to our surprise as a result of
particular circumstances. The impression we derive is that folly is
acquired rather than congenital; it is acquired in certain circumstances
where men make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of
them. We observe further that folly is less common in the unsociable or
the solitary than in individuals or groups who are inclined or condemned
to sociability. From this it would appear that folly is a sociological
problem rather than one of psychology. It is a special form of the
operation of historical circumstances upon men, a psychological
by-product of definite external factors. On closer inspection it would
seem that any violent revolution, whether political or religious,
produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind. Indeed, it
would seem to be almost a law of psychology and sociology. The power of
one needs the folly of the other. It is not that certain aptitudes of
men, intellectual aptitudes for instance, become stunted or destroyed.
Rather, the upsurge of power is so terrific that it deprives men of an
independent judgment, and they give up trying – more or less
unconsciously – to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The
fool can often be stubborn, but
this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels
somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to
talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is
confronted with a series of slogans, watchwords, and the like, which
have acquired power over him. He is under a curse, he is blinded, his
very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has
surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of
evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see
that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of
humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.
But it is just at this point
that we realize that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he
needs is redemption. There is nothing else for it. Until then it is no
earthly good trying to convince him by rational argument. In this state
of affairs we can well
understand why it is no use trying to find out what ‘the people’
really think, and why this question is also so superflous
for the man who thinks and acts responsibly. As the Bible says, ‘the
fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. In other words, the only
cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man
to live as a responsible person in the sight of God.
But there is a grain of
consolation in these reflections on human folly. There is no reason for
us to think that the majority of men are fools under all circumstances.
What matters in the long run is whether our rulers hope to gain more
from the folly of men, or from their independence of judgment and their
shrewdness of mind.’
In the main, we agree with
Bonhoeffer, but we disagree with him on certain points, such as his
belief that folly is sociologial rather than psychological; and we
disagree with his notion that outbursts of folly are connected in a
causal manner with violent revolutions. Revolutions only afford the
opportunity for acts of folly. The folly has been latently present as a
developmental defect. Violent revolutions mobilize and make manifest
what previously has been only potential.
The essential dynamic
constellation in the fool consists of unacknowledged hostility, which
nonetheless unconsciously produces guilt, which in turn is repressed and
denied. The guilt urges toward repentance, but individuals of the kind
under consideration do not wish to give up their anger, but are
determined to remain angry and to behave destructively. Consciously,
they subscribe to that which is right or decent. Thus, perhaps the most
characteristic trait or quality of the fool is dishonesty. He deceives
himself. To recapitulate, the fool is angry and is determined to remain
hostile despite strong guilt feelings. A strong tendency to treachery is
the inevitable consequence; and to resort to metaphor, ‘when the chips
are down’, the fool is sure to betray others or himself. The fool may
piously appear to forgive, but he never truly does so – neither
himself, nor others.
Typically, the fool will
waver and be undecided on important issues such as the grave crises of
politics and war, all the while professing the most sincere of good
intentions and good will. He will apparently yield to argumentation and
appear to be convinced of the right and proper course of action, the
course of action obviously appropriate to his professed moral decency,
but at the critical juncture, breaks his promise and betrays what he
pledged himself to protect and support. The proverb, ‘Fools rush in
where angels fear to tread’, asserts that the fool is reckless
rather than courageous.
The fool is not innocent,
but is often gullible. Innocence is a state of freedom from guilt. It
involves a pristine guilelessness and a credulousness because of a lack
of experience with deceit. The innocent may be deceived through that
credulousness – but does not unconsciously seek to be deceived.
Without cynicism, but in seriousness, it is to a considerable extent
correct to equate innocence with ignorance.
The gullible have a
credulousness which stems from the need to be deceived. That is, they
must deny their distrust and, therefore, place trust in situations with
their intelligence clearly tells them is improbable and unsafe. Thus,
the gullible differs from innocent in that the latter has no
intrapsychic drive to be deceived.
The fool, on the other
hand, is driven by guilt to remain always ambivalent. His character is
such that unconscious ambivalence will underlie all his commitments.
Therefore, he is never fully committed or loyal to any cause or person.
As with all ambivalences, the repressed or suppressed side is likely to
appear in startling and sometimes surprising ways. Learning from
experience is not possible; for learning would have to include adoption
of a belief; the ambivalence prevents adoption of a belief. The folly
appears as wholly intrapsychically motivated. Duping is partly
intrapsychic and partly situational. The innocent is not driven to be
fooled, nor is he unable to learn from folly.
Freud wrote to Pfister
(Freud and Pfister, 1963) that ‘In practice I am dreadfully
intolerant of fools’. This statement is just another instance of
the myriad we have that testify to Freud’s wisdom, and wisdom is the
antithesis and antonym of folly. The fool is typically more prone to
defend another fool than he is to defend the wise and the decent.
While no one is free from
all tendency to folly and playing the fool, we are not writing about
those persons having the minimum ineradicable traces of folly; nor yet
about the professional counterfeiting of folly, because the jester,
clown, buffoon, knows what he is doing, has his behaviour under
conscious control. His behaviour is not that of the humourless, the
dead-earnest; but he is playing at folly, though the ultimate irony of
it all does have a serious intent. In other words, this essay is
directed toward the consideration of the neurotic character type, the
real fool. The buffoon-jester-clown is not truly foolish, except in the
sense of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who is Everyman and portrays the
measure of the absurd, the ridiculous, in all of us. The professional
counterfeiter of folly is not really foolish because his ‘folly’ is
leavened by wit, humour, and the comic intent. The true fool is one who
denies his folly but eternally acts it out and does so because he is at
the most fundamental level a nihilist. The nihilist is one to whom guilt
is an intolerable narcissistic wound. Luciferian pride precludes that
humility is necessary for the acceptance of the human condition and the
resulting greater need for mercy than for justice. The nihilist can
neither give nor receive forgiveness. The theologian Thielicke (1961),
writing on the subject of nihilism, states:
The plethora of ‘isms’
provides eloquent testimony that no notion is too petty and no idea too
odd for somebody to fabricate from it an ‘ism’ and a philosophy.
Whatever it is that is thus made into an absolute is a part of the
created world. A particular area of creation is separated from the total
context of created things, taken by itself, and made into an absolute.
This explains why it is that when we make an absolute of one part of
creation, we then cannot rightly understand large areas of the rest of
creation. The tendency to make absolutes of relatives produces areas
which are non-subsumable and to that extent left unbounded and
unregulated. As soon as truth ceases to be a binding authority that
stands above a man it becomes a merely servile function whose purpose is
to give some kind of legitimacy to his interests. Nihilism is a unique
‘ism’. All other ‘isms’ are pragmatically directed toward
certain ends, whereas nihilism is completely without any end or purpose.
Nihilism has only one truth to declare, namely, the truth that
ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless. The second
difference between nihilism and other ‘isms’ consist in the fact
that it is not a program but a value judgment.
Most nihilists repress and
deny their nihilism, in fact, build up reaction formations that seem to
be positive. So, the fool – which is to say the basically nihilistic
person – is bent on acting out sadomasochistically his destructive
aggression, but absolutely denying it at the same time. This dishonesty
constitutes the most formidable resistance in the psychoanalytic, or any
other type of psychotherapeutic, treatment of the type of individual
whose neurosis takes the form of the character disorder of the fool. The
severe forms of this disorder probably seldome come into psychoanalysis,
or any other form of psychotherapy. The dominant affect and attitude
toward the fool is contempt, which constitutes a rather severe task for
the psychotherapist to see that he does not relate to such a patient
with a too severe negative countertransference.
The type of behaviour
justly called silly is one way of playing the fool. Dictionaries define
‘silly’ as being of no significance. So silly behaviour is
sadomasochistic exhibitionism, subjectively demeaning, and annoying and
provocative toward the object. Masochistic and sadistic sexual
perversions seem always to have as one of their aims that of playing the
fool, or of making a fool of the other.
Stekel (1922) in writing
about the perversions says:
The phenomenon of playing
the fool deserves investigation. It is very common in children, and the
tragic nature of this exaggerated gaiety is evidenced by the almost
inevitable crying scene which usually follows immediately after the
strenuous horse-play. [Footnote by authors: We find an extraordinary
presentation of this type of buffoon in the person of Karamazov, the
father, in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.] The
regressive form of ‘childish foolishness’ is present in various
types of infantilism, and its psychological motivation is quite clear.
Infantilism emerges ordinarily in the wake of a severe blow to the ego,
and the forced gaiety is compensatory, an attempt to drown out defeat
Lucian, in Greek, wrote on
the praise of folly in the years around 200 A.D. Brant, in the late
fifteen century had written in the Swabian-German dialect, The Ship
of Fools. Both these writers and their satirical treatment of folly
were familiar to Erasmus as worth pointedly recommending to the world to
teach it humility. Erasmus intended to confound the seemingly wise. He
satirized them as fools. In short, all three writers belong to the class
of literary jesters. They are, therefore, not fools in the sense that
this essay is mainly concerned with.
Kohut (1966), writing on
the forms and transformations of narcissism was, of course, not writing
about the character type of the fool; but we believe his formulation of
the problem of narcissim could be applied correctly to the
characterology of the fool. For example, what Kohut has to say about
wisdom’s being the outcome of man’s ability to overcome his
unmodified narcissim, which rests upon the capacity to accept the
limitations of his physical, intellectual, and emotional powers is true;
and, as already pointed out, wisdom is the antithesis of folly.
In summary, the fool
suffers from a neurosis characterized by a type of acting out known as
folly, the unconscious aim of which is destructive aggression, which is
denied by the fool both to himself and to everyone else. Fools profess
high ideals, and so profess to uphold all good and decent things.
However, the fool is practically sure to be the cause of tragedy in his
family and personal life; and worse still, sociologically, when the fool
has political power. The fool, when in possession of power and backed by
his false assertion that he firmly believes the high ideals he
professes, is certain to yield to the temptation to act out
treacherously and destructively on the widest scale.
The type of character
disorder considered in this paper is not the buffoon-jester-clown type
of fool who plays the ‘fool’ with conscious intentionality, but the
type that consciously has no recognition of being a fool and hence, who
acts out his folly against himself and others – usually under the
guise of decent or even lofty ideals. Freud said that the moral-ethical
was self-evident. This was true of Freud, but it is not true of
everyone. To us it appears that it is not possible to deal with the
psychology of the fool without considerable reference to the
Guilt is an intolerable
narcisstic wound to the sort of person who deserves the epithet of
‘fool’. Hence, the fool denies the guilt and the destructive rage
which lies behind it. Reaction formations of idealism are erected, but
they fail to prevent the destructive acting out. The fool does not
believe in the reality of forgiveness.
Essentially, the fool is
nihilistic. His seeming idealism and seeming possession of humane
convictions sometimes permit him to obtain power, such as political
power, but he is very prone to betray any trust reposed in him. The
fool, because of his fundamental dishonesty, seldom enters
psychoanalytic or any other form of treatment.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1955). Prisoner
for God, New York, Macmillan.
Erasmus, D. The Praise
of Folly (Hudson translation), Princeton University Press, 1941.
Isaacs, K.S., Alexander, J.
and Haggard, E.A. (1963). Faith, trust and gullibility. Int. J.
Kohut, H. (1966). Forms and
transformations of narcissism. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assoc. 14.
Freud, S and Pfister, O.
(1963). Psychoanalysis and Faith; The Letters of Sigmund Freud and
Oskar Pfister. London, Hogarth.
Stekel, W. (1922). Patterns
of Psychosexual Infantilism. New York, Liveright, 1952.
Thielicke, H. (1961). Nihilism.
New York, Harper & Row.
Submitted: June 11, 2003.