“True wisdom is less presuming than folly. The wise man doubteth often, and changeth his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubteth not; he knoweth all things but his own ignorance.”–the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton
If we judge the modern world by the standards of the long departed Akhenaton, it seems that we’re awash in folly, all around us. A quick appraisal shows that we’re a bull-headed, gullible, somewhat narcissistic bunch of creatures.
Those who disavow our own folly and claim to be wise generally turn out to be otherwise. In other words, those of us who make conspicuous claims of expertise and perfection probably have an inaccurate opinion of themselves. On the surface, such folly seems harmless and even humorous. The problem with this attitude is that it quickly leads to hubris. The greater conundrum is that in a political leader, hubris often leads to danger and great harm to civilization.
“It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.”–Epicurus
My old meditation teacher was fond of saying, “Check your wisdom at the door.” It took us students awhile to figure out his warning on our own. It turned out that basically, he meant that that it’s foolish to believe in the superiority of one’s own high assessment of one’s own level of wisdom. He didn’t disavow the importance of wisdom. He reminded us that we’re not as wise as we think we are. The old teacher reminded us of the deliciousness of consuming humble pie.
Whenever I see an obsolete or semi-obsolete word in print, I like to investigate its etymology. Because the word “folly” seems antique and somewhat Victorian, I decided to look into it. My Websters Etymology Dictionary says the noun originated in the early 1200s CE. It was adopted as a Middle English term from the old French word “folie”. It was then defined as “foolishness, madness, and stupidity”. Folly is also an architectural term. In that sense it is a showy feature or structure used primarily as adornment. An example of that type of folly is the gazebo.
Of course, gazebos are not the type of folly that most of us own nor even care to own. People who are interested in self-improvement and personal growth concern themselves with the other types of folly.
To live a fulfilling, happy life is to keep things in balance. We can practice introspection, weigh the opinions of our friends and adversaries, contemplate, accept reality, read from wisdom teachings, and do the other things to improve our lot in life. One must be careful in doing so that we do not become haughty and believe we know the sole, complete answer to humanity’s problems. Proselytizers gained their negative reputation because they succumbed to the temptation to propagate their views.
To write about folly is to risk becoming a proselytizer. So any writer about this subject must be aware of the risk and simply remind readers about the fascinating subject of folly. I hope that I have not been foolish to examine it today.
I have yet another quote about folly that might be useful to the reader: “It may be the part of a friend to rebuke a friend’s folly.”–J. R. R. Tolkien
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and political theorist Herbert Spencer. “Who indeed, after pulling off the coloured glasses of prejudice and thrusting out of sight his pet projects, can help seeing the folly of these endeavours to protect men against themselves? A sad population of imbeciles would our schemers fill the world with, could their plans last.”