Organised Foolishness: Two Fools and a Goddess

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January 7th, 2020

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Not Altogether Foolish

Leading, managing, designing and generally being part of organisations is, as we all know, a serious business.  Organisations have duties of care, deliver peoples’ livelihoods, drive revenues, maintain health and safety, serve stakeholders, and much else besides.  All serious stuff.  But is there room in all this for a bit of foolishness?

Well, yes, but a cautious yes.  My caution arises not because foolishness is an intrinsically bad thing – though it is often treated it that way – but because paradoxically it can be very powerful.  Like many powerful things foolishness can be a force for good, but it can also be a problem.  Before we get to that, though, you are probably wondering what place foolishness might have in any organisation.  What, you may be thinking, is this fool on about?

Folly has long held a prominent place in the history of organisational leadership.  This is most visible in the tradition of the court Fool that featured for centuries in many European monarchic systems, though it dates back much further than that.  The role of the Fool varied considerably.  In some instances he or she was little more than a form of cruel entertainment.  People with a variety of physical or mental abnormalities or disabilities would be dressed in the motley and presented as a form of amusing mascot for the court.  Let me be very clear, that is not the type of folly I am referring to here.  The folly I am alluding to is a much more sophisticated use of the figure and practice of the Fool as a tool of governance.  Here the Fool could be anything but foolish.  Perhaps the most famous example was Will Somers, who served as Fool for Henry VIII for many years.  Despite his job title, Somers was a wise political operator.  He performed the role of Fool to the hilt – sleeping with the dogs when at court and generally being obsequious.  But he was also Henry’s closest counsellor.  As the king became increasingly mentally unstable in his later years Somers was the only person Henry trusted enough to advise him.  When not at court Somers was a wealthy and independent landowner – not such a fool after all.

The most detailed account of the function of folly at the time Will Somers was plying his trade – but with resonances to this day – comes from another person connected to the Tudor court: Erasmus of Rotterdam.  In 1511, Erasmus – better known as a leading theological scholar – published his Praise of Folly, an elaborate thesis advocating the use of foolishness in all aspects of life[1]Praise of Folly is a complex document.  It was written with tongue firmly in cheek, but was also intended as an entirely serious contribution to the philosophy of the age.  Erasmus hands the task of describing the many advantages of foolishness to a fictional goddess of Folly, Stultitia.  Her impassioned advocacy for all things silly focuses on key characteristics of foolish behaviour.  Folly is, she claims, an attribute of energetic youth: fresh and vivacious.  Folly presents her face ‘unrouged’: a bearer of authentic, unadorned truth.  Folly may be rash and thoughtless, but is also spontaneous – a necessary foil to stuffy intellectualism and ‘wearisome old age’.  Folly is also an attribute of ‘self-love’ which, she claims, is the key to happiness.  As Stultitia puts it:

The chief element of happiness is this: to want to be what you are. And the short cut that my dear Self-love offers to achievement of this is that no one should be defensive about their appearance, their personality, their ancestry, their home, their upbringing, their nationality: no Irishman should wish to change places with an Italian, no wild man from Thrace with a cultured Athenian, no nomad from the eastern steppes with a Canary Islander. (28)

This is not about knowing your place, but knowing yourself and being accepting of and confident in that self.  Stultitia would find herself comfortably at home in many a wellbeing, mindfulness and diversity awareness programme, albeit that she’d be messing around at the back.

Overall Erasmus’ account of the power of folly lies in its capacity to gently challenge and critically question hierarchies of authority.  As he puts it himself in the letter he wrote dedicating Praise of Folly to his friend Sir Thomas More:

What if the jokes bring with them some serious ideas? What if the absurdities are handled in such a way that the not altogether undiscriminating reader gains rather more benefit from them than from some people’s forbiddingly elaborate treatises?  […] Nothing’s more futile than to treat serious subjects in a frivolous way – but at the same time nothing’s more entertaining than to treat frivolities in such a way that you come across to others as the opposite of frivolous.(4)

Fools rush in

In contemporary parlance, Erasmus’ Folly, ‘speaks truth to power’.  That it does so in a witty and self-deprecating way makes a touch of foolishness a lot less confrontational than the ideological haranguing now more commonly associated with that phrase.  As organisations increasingly find themselves needing to harness the wisdom and knowledge of all their people – not just the bosses – so ways are needed to enable and empower critical dialogue.  Spontaneity, authenticity and self-confidence are all part of that.

But here’s where caution stalks back in.  Fun and frolics are all very well, but they can fall disastrously flat.  And there is nothing new about this either.  Archibald Armstrong, court Fool to James I was, like Will Somers, a powerful man in his own right.  Unfortunately he did not share Somers’ political nous.  Notorious for his biting sarcasm, Armstrong finally went too far in repeatedly attacking the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.  Entirely lacking the clever frivolity that Erasmus sought, in 1637 Laud had Armstrong stripped of his office and banished from the court.

It is important to note that the leaders of these courtly organisations were not themselves ‘foolish’ – even if some of them were clearly idiots.  Rather, they employed Fools to serve as a carefully structured conduit for a critical voice.  It had to be formally instituted simply because court life was so dangerous to anyone speaking out of turn.  Now that most organisations do not also have torture chambers, there is no need to revive the post of Fool.  But there is a need for organisations to recognise, value and invest in critical voice.  If creative, light-hearted and positive ways can be found for those criticisms to be expressed, all the better.  Such voices are always present but without a culture of confident dialogue, permission and openness they often go unheard or, worse, end up like Archy Armstrong – bitter and excluded.

So there is room of a dash of foolishness in the contemporary organisation: it’s there already so why not make a virtue of its cheerful aspect?  It just needs to be done with care.  As Erasmus concluded about his own attempt to encourage such dialogue, ‘Though it’s Folly we’ve praised, it’s not altogether foolishly we’ve done it.’ (5)

 

[1] There are many editions of Praise of Folly.  That used here is an excellent recent translation by Roger Clarke: Erasmus, 1511, Praise of Folly, Richmond, Alma Books (translation 2008 R Clarke).