Why Persons of Sense Act Like Fools


MEDITATING on the fact that many a person who is not a fool is nevertheless found on occasion to act like one, I am led to inquire into the causes of this phenomenon. These appear to group themselves under certain heads, which I will herewith set forth in order, as old-fashioned preachers did their hour-long discourses.

And first, I need only briefly note one of the commonest causes of foolish action and speech, since it is so well known and so simple of apprehension as to call for little comment. Anger being a short madness, it follows that the subject thereof does not see things or persons as they really are. He has lost, for the time, that power of godlike reason which distinguishes man from the brute.

Secondly, a less obvious cause of folly is the lack in man or woman of what I will comprehensively term sensibility, by which I mean the capacity for the more generous emotions of the soul. I shall best illustrate my meaning by an example. Let us imagine a man, A, to be thrown into pretty close relation with another, B ; and let us suppose that in this relation the latter displays toward the former an affection and kindness testified to by word and deed. Later on, clouds come over their intercourse, chiefly caused by A’s self-regarding cautiousness, and inability to comprehend B’s disinterested attitude toward himself. Feeling in his own colder nature no glow of regard answering to that bestowed by B, he also experiences but a slight emotion of gratitude for the same ; he fails to interpret magnanimously B’s words, misjudges his conduct, ungenerously repels his efforts at explanation, and throws away the friendship of a man worth himself ten times over. Can any folly be more self-retributive than to refuse such a jewel, when offered ?

Thirdly, impulsiveness is the cause of many an unwise speech and action, sadly regretted, perhaps, when reflection follows ; and with some persons reflection is apt to come close upon the heels of impulse. If only the impetuous person could have put the curb upon himself, and for one little half hour taken time to think ! This is commonly supposed to belong to youth, but it is in truth more a question of temperament than of years, and there are men and women who retain the fresh force of impulse to the last of life.

Fourthly, a fertile cause of blundering is the habit of being guided by popular formulas and wise saws, instead of trusting to one’s own reason and to the unbiased instincts of the heart. This is a sort of folly which alone would furnish matter for lengthy discourse, and is vividly and abundantly illustrated in the world of every day. People will follow words, words, and if once they begin doing so, as it has been said, they never can tell where they will end. “ The eyes, the sympathies, even the appetites, know a thing or two ” that have never been put into syllogism, nor into those phrases of convention and sage maxims whose “ narrow truth is but broad falsity.” Never to think and to judge for one’sself is to give away one’s birthright for nothing, and the fatal result thereof to make a man into a fool, when Nature did not intend him to be one.

Fifthly, a form of foolishness which some very acute persons are guilty of is the striving too hard for certain things they want, or grasping to get too much of them, whereby they fail to secure any. The unscrupulous selfishness that wastes energy in overreaching its mark is so analogous to another species of folly that the two may come under the same head. If a man is a fool who plays the rogue more actively than is necessary, he is a fool of like quality who sets out to be a knave, and cannot decide to be a thorough-paced one. Who wills the end must will the means; he must not lack what may be called immoral courage.

Sixthly, a sagacious person will sometimes behave like a fool by being irritated into arguing with one.

Seventhly, and lastly, people, otherwise sensible enough, but wanting in the sense of humor, may be guilty of absurdity at any moment of the twenty-four hours. They will put ideas together without a suspicion of their incongruity, gravely place themselves and other people in ridiculous situations, and never be aware that they have done anything amiss.

The fanatic, a species of earnest and often most respectable fool, is generally wholly without humor.

I may quote an example of aspiring and enthusiastic folly, accompanied with total want of humor, from a biographical sketch lately issued by a Boston publishing firm, in which the author declares of his subject that we have in her “the true focus of Mind,” one who has struck out to demonstrate truth “ with the dash of an Amazon and the strength of a Hercules ; ” who has cleared up the “ muddle ” in which Kant left metaphysics, and sent “ irresistible thunderbolts of pure fact through solid intellect into the eye of materialistic philosophy,” and also, “ beginning with the two-edged sword of Truth, has strewn her pathway with Huxley & Co.’s intellectual ruins.” After this feat, we are not surprised to learn that the labors of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel are simply left nowhere in comparison with the intellectual work achieved by this phenomenal mind, nor that other philosophical writers may have “ discerned somewhat, but through pride or love of popularity they fell back, like the worm that has nearly ascended the tree.” The biographer adds the remark that they — the unfortunate philosophic worms — “ return to earth to cater to public taste.” Is it the public of the poultry yard that is alluded to ? This gifted being is pictured for us by the glowing imagination of the biographer as listening to the music of the spheres, and emerging from her rapt solitude to “ mount the world’s pulpit,” — a Mont Blanc height of abstract thought is the pulpit, the biographer kindly explains. Then her hearers find themselves in the audience-chamber of supreme understanding, “ the walls only limited by the mental horizon of eternity, decorated with thought-gems, and then the throb of inspiration bursts forth, vibrates through the congregation of ideas, and enwraps us in celestial repose.” History must reveal this woman and her works, we are told, yet they have already “ marvelously survived, and nothing can stay her thought’s circumnavigation of the globe.” Let us all go sit at the feet of this teacher, since “ there is no kink in the problem of life which does not find in her its full and ready disentanglement.”

I do not know if a rivalry exists between the system so enthusiastically advocated by the above ardent disciple and the neo - Buddhism so much in vogue in some quarters ; it may be that the radiance of spiritual glory emanating from these sublime ideas has the effect of somewhat dazzling the vision of the neophytes, so that they are found entering the temple of theosophic worship when they properly belong to that of Christian Science. The teachers hold the distinctions of their respective creeds clearly, no doubt; and if the devotees of these new-old religions and philosophies remain a little vague in their apprehension of mystical doctrines, why, perhaps it does n’t so much matter.