The Proverbial Fool and the Importance of Avoiding Him

Scripture is clear—Proverbs in particular—that there are such things as fools and these individuals are nothing but trouble. We shouldn’t be in their company more than necessary—much less, put important responsibilities in their hands.

Though the English word “fool” appears 60 to 65 times in most English versions of Proverbs, the book doesn’t offer a concise definition. That leaves us with some ambiguity. How many of the traits of fools does someone have to have to be rightly classified as a fool? Are we supposed to take the qualities of fools only as way to gauge the degree of foolishness?

Though we’re all foolish at times, the fool is consistently spoken of in Proverbs as belonging to a distinct category. There may be degrees of severity, but either someone is a fool, or he isn’t.

It’s probably best to approach the question of who’s a fool sort of like a disease: how many symptoms do you have to have in order to be diagnosed as having, say, rabies? Though I’m often a little photo-phobic, cranky, and confused, the probability remains low that I’m rabid. On the other hand, if somebody has six of the usual symptoms of rabies but is not oversensitive to light, probability remains high that they’re infected.

The more symptoms, the more confident the diagnosis, and you don’t need all of them to be pronounced a fool.

A high-level summary of Proverbs’ take on fools:

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From the Archives: Should We Suffer Fools Gladly?

Just about everybody complains about the quality of discourse on the Internet. In my experience, it isn’t much worse than the quality of discourse most other places—with one important exception. Foolishness of the verbal variety has always required cheap and easy forms of communication in order to really thrive. The talk of fools is not merely ignorant but impulsive, spontaneous. So, for centuries, the cost of publishing has been a mitigating factor, filtering much of the worst sort of foolishness out of the world of the written word. Printed error tended to at least be thoughtful error.

But decades of steadily-improving Internet technology have changed all that. Now any idiot who can click a mouse can publish his insights for the eyes of millions at the cost of pocket change. And since the Web also facilitates rapid interaction (of the sort previously limited to conversation), fools can now speak or write their minds (Prov.18:2) at each other at a rate, and with a passion (Prov. 12:16), previously undreamt of.1

So it’s probably fair to say: there’s no foolishness like Internet foolishness.

There is a bright side to Web publishing and interaction. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that. But today, in honor of All Fools Day, let’s consider some principles for dealing with fools and foolishness—including the Web variety.

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Should We Call Someone a Fool or Not?

Most Bible students are aware of a seeming contradiction in the Bible, one that is pretty easily resolved. The verses (ESV) are Proverbs 26:4-5,

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Since they are placed one after another, it is pretty obvious that they are to be examined together. This leads us to two conclusions: sometimes answering a fool is a no-win situation, it really doesn’t matter which approach you take. And, sometimes, one approach might serve you better than the other — but neither approach is really good (even if one might be the lesser of evils).

There is another apparent contradiction we must address that is a bit more formidable, however. It is about using the word “fool.”

The word “fool” is used frequently in the Book of Proverbs (71), 136 times in the Old Testament and 39 in the New (these statistics refer to the ESV translation). This creates no problem until we come across a passage that seems to condemn us for using the “fool” label.

Matthew 5:21-22 is that passage. The Holman Christian Standard translates this best:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, “Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Fool!” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, “You moron!” will be subject to hellfire.

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