Folly and Wisdom

The wisdom of Folly and the foolishness of Wisdom

Guest article by John Temple

Introduction by Occult Mysteries

We are indebted to John Temple who we have once more persuaded to come out of retirement for this thoughtful essay on two subjects of vital importance to all seekers after Truth; wisdom and folly. Perhaps they are really one subject, or rather the opposite poles of the same Principle, so conforming to the Hermetic Law of Polarity discussed in part nine of Spiritus Hermeticum? As we have come to expect, the author explores his subject with wit, warmth and thoroughness. In his afterword, he extends his survey of the hidden wisdom in the Bible which is so very popular with our readers by analysing some verses from one of the lesser known books of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Tired and emotional

I have found retirement to be a relative, not an absolute state. It shares this quality with wisdom and folly. One can be a bit of a fool but still exhibit surprising flashes of wit or even wisdom. Equally, one can be counted immensely sagacious by those of limited wit, such as my great-grandchildren, who think I am the fount of all wisdom whereas my wife knows me to be a complete fool. I have a great deal of sympathy with both views but naturally incline towards my great-grandchildren's appraisal even though I know it to be wrong. I know it is wrong because occult-mysteries have once again bamboozled me into writing another article for them, because they said, no one knows more about folly than me. I was inclined to accept that as compliment, but when I mentioned it to my youngest daughter she ruined a perfectly good chocolate biscuit by spraying a mouthful of tea all over it. 'Compliment?' she spluttered. 'They're taking the Mickey; tell them to look in the mirror!' She does tend to get a bit emotional about my retirement which is not altogether surprising as we'll get to in a moment.

As I said, retirement is relative. Some people retire only to expire of boredom in a few months or years. Others retire to freely perspire. Indeed, I know several retirees who toil and sweat more profusely than they ever did while working. A very few retire to aspire, quite literally in the case of an unadventurous curate I knew who, at the ripe old age of 72, took up skydiving. A very much larger number of people find that retirement allows them to do more of nothing much at all. This is not something anyone has ever accused me of. On the contrary, I have retired so many times only to begin some other avocation within months or sometimes weeks of announcing the happy moment that my family have long since given up sending me congratulatory cards and now tender their commiserations by phone instead. So the emotional reaction of Youngest Daughter to the news that I had once again been sweet-talked out of retirement is not entirely unexpected. But as I shall celebrate my eighty-ninth birthday this summer and the bits of me that still work constantly complain they are well past their use-by date, I do not think it wise to write any more. Writing and research absorbs a great deal of time and energy which Youngest Daughter would much rather I expended on her children. On the other hand I am foolish enough to remember that I have made similar promises in the past only to break them. With that not altogether pointless digression we have now segued rather untidily into the subject of this article, namely:

The wisdom of Folly and the foolishness of Wisdom

The reason I have chosen this contradictory subheading will become clear as we proceed. Folly and Wisdom are not as irreconcilable as most people imagine, nor do they necessarily mean what people think they mean. I make no apology for plagiarising some of the content of this discourse from the authors of occult-mysteries. They penned an excellent essay on the subject of Fools and Folly and added it to the sidebar of their homepage from whence, the observant reader will note, it has vanished like an old oak table only to re-appear here in new(ish) clothes. Guilty as charged m'lud—it was me what nicked it! This cunning theft has forced the editors to 'rejig' their entire homepage resulting, I was told, in several hours work. "What a shame," I replied, with more than frisson of schadenfreude. That'll teach them to presume on my good nature. Let this serve as a warning to any potential commissioning editors who may be reading this that this old goat is not to be milked so easily! Or, as Francis Bacon wrote: "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit."

Bacon is not to be confused with a witless, jobbing actor and part-time ostler from Stratford-upon-Avon whose name is universally, but wrongly, associated with the dramas he never wrote. Should any readers doubt that Francis Bacon is the author of the Shake-Speare plays and sonnets, I refer them to the excellent website, for a meticulous compendium of the evidence in support of this claim. Bacon had rather a lot to say about folly and wisdom which I make no apology for quoting at some length in this article. Indeed, I cannot think of any other writer, philosopher or teacher who understood the human condition as well as he did. The reason for this, as the authors of this website tell us in their article about poetry, is because Bacon was an initiated occultist. Hence, he knew we have two minds and that it is their activity that is the cause of both folly and wisdom in the sons and daughters of Man.

It is for this reason that the Divine Hermes taught that there is no permanently wise man or woman; rather, men and women are capable of wisdom or folly, depending upon which mind—the Higher or the lower—has the upper hand. So, come with me as together we sit at the feet of Bacon and others and hearken to what good things they have to say about folly and wisdom. Let us begin with "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." This comes to us from the play As You Like It in which Touchstone, the court jester, utters these famous words. He utters a good deal more as we shall see later on. Meanwhile, it is worthy of note that Bacon employs fools to dispense wisdom and the worldly wise to spout foolishness. This reminds me of the words of St Paul which some of you may know. "Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Corinthians 1:20-21). Is this too subtle for you? Then you will not find the following further quotations from As You Like It any easier to construe, though I hope you will try.

In Act 1, scene 2, Touchstone says: "The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." I have often sung the same lament, never more so than during the recent coronaspiracy lock-me-down-again farce. The fools responsible for this modern tragicomedy were an overweight Court Jester by the name of Boris and his entourage of malcontented nincompoops. The 'wise men' doing foolishly were played by the rag-bag of scientists, psychologists and statisticians advising the Court—sorry—Government. Now, is the Bard's meaning any clearer? I hope so, for there's a lot more of the same to come! Celia, the wise daughter of a foolish father, Frederick, who has banished the rightful Duke Senior to the forest of Arden and usurped his title and position, is given some of the wittiest lines in the play. In the scene just mentioned she replies to Touchstone: "By my troth, thou sayest true. For, since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show."

This, as you may have guessed from my previous remarks, has a double meaning. Bacon here swaps folly for wisdom and vice versa, just as St Paul did in the example I quoted above. For what most men think is wisdom, the wise know to be foolishness. Conversely, what the wise know to be the truth fools think is foolishness. Need I give examples? Is not the whole of this website an example of the wisdom of God which most men and women regard as utter foolishness?

My next quotation is taken from King Lear, Act 1, scene 2. Though it does not specifically mention either folly or wisdom, it encompasses both as the judicious reader will see. It has often been cited in support of the prevailing view that astrology is superstitious foolery, but in fact does quite the opposite by holding the popular notions about the Royal Art up to ridicule while absolving the science itself of any responsibility for these misconceptions. "This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc'd obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing."

Bacon puts these words into the mouth of Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester; a thoroughly mendacious, scheming rascal whose foolishness is exceeded only by his ambition. The father of this poltroon speaks wisdom when, prior to his son's outburst, he says: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father." Those of my readers who know somewhat of real astrology will know Gloucester speaks wisely while Edmund apes the foolishness of those who swallow the commonplace claptrap they read in the astrology columns of women's magazines. They will also know what Edmund did not; that the stars incline, they do not compel. Love cools, friendships end, siblings fight and nations rise and fall through the actions of men and women who, inclining more to folly than wisdom, blindly succumb to the influences of the Heavens and so are undone by them, whereas the wise rule their stars, and prosper accordingly.

Later in the play, in Act 1, scene 4, King Lear rounds on his Jester with the words: "Dost thou call me a fool, boy?" His Fool's clever reply is replete with wisdom: "All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with." How true this is of so many who count themselves wise! Observe the starry-eyed young man or woman, afire with the desire to right wrongs who enters politics with noble ideals only to give them away, one by one....See them fall away like discarded leaves: honesty, decency, humility, charity, understanding, generosity, compassion. Until all that is left is....folly. And folly, by its very nature, encompasses all the vices man is heir to, while their opposite virtues find their lodging in the breast of the wise. But a little folly may sometimes be wisdom, as Bacon shows us in another of his incomparable dramas—Twelfth Night. Listen to what Viola tells us in Act 3, scene 1 of this play.

"This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man's art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit."

These lines contain a number of occult truths the wise and not-so-wise may employ to their advantage. Folly becomes a form of wisdom when it is used as a mask behind which the wise man or woman conceals themselves from the fools of this world as I discuss more fully later on. In such cases it is better to be a witty fool than a foolish wit, as I said earlier, quoting Feste, Olivia's Fool in Twelfth Night. It is also wise at times to mix a little folly with one's wisdom, to lighten the burden and bring relief to the mind which might otherwise become semi-paralysed by one's erudition! There should ever be a just modicum of balance between foolishness and wisdom. For he who believes that he can exist without folly is not so wise as he thinks he is. There I must reluctantly leave the wit and wisdom of the Immortal Bard though I encourage all my readers to familiarise themselves with his plays and sonnets, for, as I said earlier, no one has described the human condition better than Francis Bacon.

wisdom and folly

The anatomy of Wisdom and Folly

La Rochefoucauld, the great French moralist, wrote that: "The desire of appearing clever often prevents our becoming so." One may apply this to wisdom too; Prime Ministers and Presidents please take note. He also said that: "Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them." I would add that pretension is the unfailing vice of fools by which the wise may recognise them. Another unmistakable sign of foppery identified by La Rochefoucauld is a superfluity of windy verbiage, or as he put it: "As it is the characteristic of great wits to say much in few words, so small wits seem to have the gift of speaking much and saying nothing." Does this remind you of anyone currently occupying number ten Downing Street?

The poet William Blake thought that if a fool persisted in his folly he would become wise in the end. This seems an especially foolish remark from a man who wisely saw a whole world in a grain of sand. On the other hand is a wise man or woman incapable of folly? La Rochefoucauld thought not, for he said that "he who lives without folly is not as wise as he may think." Perhaps Blake meant that folly must give way to wisdom eventually if the bitter lessons of life on Earth are well and truly learned, so making a fool wise by experience. Regarded from the perspective of my ninth decade on what Bacon called 'this stage of fools,' I remain unconvinced that human folly is so easily exchanged for Divine Wisdom. If it were not so, we would not need to spend so many lifetimes playing the fool.

The great French playwright Moliere, who knew a thing or two about folly, said that there is nothing quite so odious as a learnéd fool. This has never been truer than today when we are surrounded on all sides by learnéd fools, telling us what we should and should not do, eat, drink and think. The surprising thing is that so many not-so-foolish people believe the learnéd fools so readily. Perhaps the answer lies in that fact that, as Mark Twain said: "It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled." This raises an interesting point many of you may have asked yourselves during the present panicdemonium. How do you persuade a fool of his foolishness? None but a fool is always right in his beliefs, prejudices, and opinions; and the German poet Schiller once said words to the effect that the world belongs to fools. It certainly seems so as one looks around the world today. Yet a time must come eventually—or one hopes so—when the fool is disillusioned and finally comes to his senses. Should that happen at any time in the near future there is going to be a terrible reckoning for those who have made it their business (and a very lucrative business) to fool millions into selling their God-given freedom to purchase protection from a virus that leaves 95% of the population unaffected and from which 99% of those who do catch it, fully recover.

There are so many wise sayings about folly that it is a wonder the world still remains so full of fools! The 3rd century Chinese Sage Li Wang Ho summed up the matter in a paragraph when he said: "All men are Fools, and fools only have wisdom if they know they are fools. The rest are still fools—only more so: for they do not know it. On the other hand when a fool in his foolishness is happy it is cruel to make him wise before the appointed time. Better a happy Fool than a miserable Sage." There is much truth in this last sentence. I have encountered a number of seekers over the years who might have progressed quite far along the path to the Light but for the fact that their simple faith was undermined by well-meaning but misguided teachers who mocked at their beliefs. Such unwise guides might remember the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels: "....whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22). Let those of us who teach the Eternal Verities, or hope to do so, remember that each one of us is at a different stage upon the path. What to one is Manna from Heaven in the way of spiritual teaching may be the rankest poison to another. Hence, the true Teacher has to walk a very narrow path if he or she would be the benefactor of their pupils and not their unwitting nemesis.

Most of us are familiar with the saying that "a fool and his money are soon parted," which probably has its origin in Proverbs 21:20: "There is treasure to be desired and oil in the dwelling of the wise; but a foolish man spendeth it up." Another well-known proverb comes to us from Alexander Pope: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Both sayings suggest that considered thought—or perhaps any thought at all—and folly are mutually exclusive. It would certainly seem so from the tales we hear today about phishing scams, most of which are so very improbable it is a wonder anyone with the capacity to think falls for them. Do fools think or do they merely react instinctively to stimuli like Pavlov's famous dogs? This is a question only the wise can answer, and they remain silent! This brings us back to a conundrum I posed earlier: how does one persuade a fool of his foolishness? Dr Michaud provides the answer in his occult novel of initiation—The Quest of Ruru, in which we may read: "No one can compel a stone to stay fixed in the empty air by continually throwing it up."

Of course, there are degrees of foolishness. A person may be as much a fool from the want of sensibility as the want of sense. The foppish clown presently piloting the leaking ship Britannia onto the reefs of ruination is the living proof that a little foolery can go a long way in governing the affairs of a country. His tricksy u-turns and jolly japes have made him immensely popular with large swathes of the electorate whereas his staid and sober predecessor incurred their enmity and disdain. Having proved to our satisfaction that fools don't think or, to be charitable, have a very tenuous relationship with thinking, it is not surprising that the unthinking masses prefer to be governed by their own kind. Some people say that wisdom comes with age. This may well be true so far as the wisdom of this world mentioned by St Paul is concerned, but having met plenty of old fools I remain unconvinced that it applies to spiritual wisdom. This begs the question of whether a young fool is any different to an old fool, like the writer perchance? Agatha Christie's answer was that all young men think that old men are fools; but old men know that young men are. The sublime poet Shelley, who was driven out of England by the fools who could not abide his wisdom, said that those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves. How true these words are today when bigots, fools and slaves are in the ascendant and the wise are seen as fools.

This raises another interesting point in our survey of the anatomy of Wisdom and Folly. It is one thing to be a fool and quite another to be seen as one. As I said earlier, folly can be a kind of wisdom when it is used as a mask behind which the wise man or woman conceals themselves from the fools of this world. I especially commend this practise to any wise readers who are suffering ridicule, animosity, or worse as a result of their foolish and reckless reluctance to embrace the 'new normal' by leaping into hedges or throwing themselves in front of buses whenever or wherever a masked fellow human being crosses their path. I have found that an inane grin stretching from ear to ear and wobbling one's head while exclaiming "What a lovely day!" in a stentorian voice acts like a magic spell on the muzzled masses. If the weather is inclement, as is usually the case in this damp and chilly little island, this greeting is even more effective in convincing the oncoming terror-stricken citizen that you are a fool and best avoided. Catching the dreaded covid plague is one thing, catching foolishness, quite another. But to appear foolish requires a lot more wisdom than you may imagine. If you take up my suggestion you will quickly discover that fools often ape the defects of their betters. This is well worth knowing, for by seeing ourselves at our worst when we behold a fool in all his gaudy glory, we may acquire more wisdom. But only if we were wise already. Otherwise it is a complete waste of time to bother with fools.

Another hallmark of fools is their appetite for flattery. But only a fool dares flatter a wise man or woman, who, in turn, flatter the fool, and smile to themselves. The flatterer is among the lowest of all men, except he who courts the flatterer. True praise is like the panegyric of Pythagoras which encouraged the young people of Croton to give up their lives of debauchery and idleness. But the Emperor Tiberius became obstinate in vice from the flattery of his fawning senators. This is the difference between flattery and praise; one is the vice of fools, the other the virtue of the wise. Each has different effects, according to the mind it meets with, making a wise man modest, but a fool more ignorant and arrogant. For this reason what a person praises is often a surer sign of their own character, beliefs and abilities than that which they condemn.

Anger is regarded as foolishness by many spiritual teachers past and present, if not an actual sin that leads to perdition. I think this is going too far. Ordinary anger is often the result of some physical ailment or worry of some kind; something we all suffer from occasionally. The man or woman who has never been angry in their life is a bloodless worm or snail. What does lead to hell is deliberate malice, cruelty and spite. But such tendencies are the hallmark of evil not folly, and the average person does not suffer in that way. The Roman orator Seneca once said "He is a fool who cannot be angry; but he is a wise man who will not." This sums up the problem in a nutshell.


Wisdom went forth, very long ago, to dwell among the sons of men; but she found not even a roof-tree under which to shelter her head. Such men who might be able to dwell with Wisdom were so few that it was impossible for Wisdom to find them, nor was it possible for them to know Wisdom even if the contact was made: for none were ready to consummate this holy union twixt man and Wisdom. So Wisdom returned again to Heaven, and she seated herself before God. And He gave unto her a Throne beside himself, and there she dwells in Glory with all the Angels of Beauty and men mourn her not, nor miss her passing.

Folly also went forth, and reached the Earth in the days after Wisdom had left it. There she found a ready home with the sons of mortals; she changed their green pastures into barren wildernesses and their houses into hovels and is still engaged in the same evil work today. And it is upon the Earth that Folly evermore remains, for here she couches comfortably among her own who wax mighty in the sight of the foolish and lord it over them. Wisdom dwells still in HEAVEN where all bright things have their Home; but the dark ones have their palaces on Earth, where they rejoice in ignorance, sloth and sin, not knowing that there is a Heaven where pain and disaster are unknown. If my poor essay has brought these two protagonists into sharper relief and shown that Folly is the shadow cast by Wisdom by which we may climb aloft to regain our lost place in Heaven, I shall be well content.

The phrase 'tired and emotional' used in the introduction to my article is a common euphemism for alcohol intoxication in these islands. It is said to have been invented by the satirical rag Private Eye to describe the condition of a certain 20th century Labour politician who spent more of his time in office drunk than sober. I have always liked the phrase as it is so quintessentially English in its understatement, and, as I was stuck for a subheading for my introduction, thought it suited the rambling, disjointed style of my monologue rather well!

'John' (no relation)

About the author

John Temple is the pen-name of a writer who has studied and practised the occult sciences for more than 60 years. He graduated from Cambridge University with a first in Theology and Religious Studies and was ordained as a Minister in the Anglican Church in 1957. He left the Church in 1972 and has since lectured to students around the world on a wide variety of occult, religious and mystical subjects.

John retired in 2002 and now lives quietly in London with his wife, two Yorkshire terriers and a talkative African Grey Parrot called John, shown in typically meditative mood at left.


© Copyright John Temple & Article published 12 April 2021.
Updated 12 April 2024.

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