Foolish Fanatics and Wiser Men

Bertrand Russell grieved that “the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

I find Russell’s words to be very insightful because I believe that there is a great truth to them but I do not think that the ignorant confidence of fools and the self-doubts of wise men are problems that plague our world. Perhaps, fools and fanatics are such because of their unsubstantiated belief in themselves and wise men are wise because they untiringly question their every action, motive and perspective. Maybe the grand notion of the “triumph of the human spirit” makes men fools while prudent self-doubt makes them wise. In which case perhaps the problem with the world is not that the worship of one’s own intellect makes a man a fool but that so many men do it.

Fools begin with an answer and they search the world wearing shades darkened by their own hubris, ever vigilant for the questions where they can swoop down and “enlighten” the world with the torch of their divine brilliance – for, if they did not “find” the answer but possessed it always what else can it be but divine? And what else can the sorry fool consider himself but a god? Further still, when we believe that we truly have the answer every question looks like our question to answer as long as we can draw some connection, no matter how tenuous. Everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer.

The wise man begins with a question. He has his pre-concieved notions, what the fool calls his answer to the world’s problems, but he questions even those too. Often, he finds that his notions are quite wrong, even foolish, and, had he built upon that faulty foundation he must then tear down his creation and build anew – but this time upon what is hopefully bedrock and not sand. It is only hopeful because the wise man must question the bedrock too lest he find that it only be clay. Thus, the wise man may never come to find his answer but at the very least he will have some idea of what that answer cannot be.

A wise man then is a natural philosopher: a lover of wisdom. The fool, however, perpetually claims to be something that no human being can ever be: a possessor of wisdom, a sophist.

G.K. Chesterton asserted that “a man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” If the wise man is certain of some truth it is because he has brought it under the fire of a thousand questions and out of this barrage that truth came out solid and unscathed. Then, it becomes the duty of the wise man to change himself to conform to that piece of reality that he has found. A fanatic, on the other hand, believes in his own personal truth for no other reason than that he came up with it (or “his” people came up with it: his party, his ideologues, his fellow nationalists) and he constantly seeks to change the world to conform to his own fancy. The fanatic must doubt everything outside of himself because to admit even a sliver of objective truth is to admit a world outside of the cosmos of his own mind and that splinter will surely deflate his blown up self-confidence.

Karl Marx so famously stated that we must “question everything” yet most people seem to take this as meaning “everything but myself.” However, it is precisely ourselves which we should question above all else. The world around us simply is but only human beings can be right or wrong.

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