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The Role of the Jester

The more serious world events get, the more necessary satire, parody and humor become. One can only take so much “Breaking News” before needing to chill with The Simpsons, Stephen Colbert, or Jon Stewart.

I was reminded of this while re-visiting Jacques Barzun’s massive tome, From Dawn to Decadence. At one point, Barzun upends the traditional caricature of the court jester. It seems the jolly fool held an important role in the king’s court:

Rulers, royal or republican, all have to take advice from one or more among their entourage, but rarely get it absolutely sincere. The adviser almost always has some ulterior interest that deflects judgment. There is only one exception to this generality: the medieval and early modern fool. The post — the institution — of king’s fool is a political device based on sound psychology, as well as on ancient religious belief. As he occurs in Shakespeare and elsewhere the traditional fool is not quite normal; at best, his mind is like a child’s, innocent, therefore truthful and sometimes inspired. His sallies are unexpected and amusing. This makeup, native or assumed, is essential to the profession that the fool exercised for centuries at the side of kings. Much of the time he is an entertainer, the jester in cap and bells; but at other times he says things nobody wants to hear and nobody dares to utter. The wise ruler listens and benefits. But by the monarchical age , rationalism had progressed so far that it drove out the belief in the inspired idiot; he or his intelligent facsimile disappeared. (emphasis mine)

Our world has no shortage of modern jesters. However, we often miss the “sound psychology” of their office.  For many of us, humorists and comedians are just a diversion, a way to vent amidst pressure and temporarily forget about our problems. But if the classic jester is any indication, these buffoons may serve an important role and we do well, like the “wise ruler,” to listen.

Yes, there is a time to consult the intellects and strategists. But then there is also a time for Homer Simpson, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Which makes me wonder: Does being an “enlightened king” require having an “inspired idiot”?

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Guy Stewart September 3, 2009, 5:19 PM

    Paul gives credence to your conclusion: "We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor." I Corinthians 4:10

    Jesus is (if you side-step the New Age-yness of the first word) an "enlightened king" — we play the fool. Our comments AREN'T addressed to Him, they ARE addressed to the servants of the House (jesters are included here): "Much of the time he is an entertainer, the jester in cap and bells; but at other times he says things nobody wants to hear and nobody dares to utter." If you can get us laughing, you can say just about anything. It's what THE (WITTENBERG) DOOR used to do for me. Mike Warnke did the job tolerably as well. I HAVE noticed that where comedians for women are many, MEN seem to have gotten more and more serious and are less and less likely to laugh. Does this mean we're getting more rigid and less able to hear God's hard words of correction? Hmmmm…

  • billgncs March 17, 2013, 6:37 PM


    Yes, I think that the gadfly would be useful on more presidential inner circles and corporate boards.

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