Playing the FoolSubversive Laughter in Troubled Times

Playing the FoolSubversive Laughter in Troubled Times

Ralph Lerner

Print publication date: 2013

ISBN: 9780226473154

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


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 the book 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 this book 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, the book 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, this book is an eloquently thought-provoking look at the lives and writings of these masterly authors.