Solomon says it well. “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” It is a good answer. But there is another one. “Answer the fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” This is also a good answer. But they cannot both be correct. To make matters even more maddening, Proverbs sets these statement one after the other in 26:4-5. While most biblical contradictions are unintentional, this one is intentional. Why? Do we answer or keep our mouths shut? Social media brings these words to my attention every day. What is the best course to take when a person makes an obviously asinine statement?
The Answer of Fools
Truly foolish people think they are clever. They recognize a sense of cleverness in their words and revel in it. Somehow, a little rhetorical flourish stands for fact. Zeno’s paradoxes, such as the arrow that never reaches the target, are clever statements based on faulty premises and assumptions.
This is where the wisdom of fools comes from. False premises and assumptions obscure reasoning. A libertarian friend once tried to persuade me of the truth of the position by Socratic method. “Is stealing wrong?” The direction of the argument was easy to see. The idea that taxation is theft is erroneous. There is no moral equivalency between the two. But the argument is based on whether the person holding the money desires to keep it. To mix examples, death would be considered theft by such reasoning. Yet, this person accused me of not respecting logic. They did not understand my point that logic only works if the premises are sound. Only Zeno’s arrow moves eternally.
The Hebrew word translated as “fool” here is keseel. The word describes a person who is ignorant, a simpleton, or arrogant. It is as difficult to answer an arrogant person as it is an ignorant one. The problem is not more difficult if the they are the same person. If arrogant and ignorant people cannot win an argument, they often resort to some other tactic. The person may claim victimization, make accusations, or give insults.
There is no more a telling reply than for a person to say, “that’s your education talking.” Why phrase it that way? Because no one likes the sound of saying, “I am comfortable in my ignorance.” This form of foolishness is will eventually support its position with lies. False statements that claim a point of view is right because it is right were behind the formula Cicero gave as “because he says so” (ipse dixit). It can be called a form of confirmation bias. But it is a lie that defends the arrogance of ignorance. In fundamentalist circles it is the answer given to a hard question. “You are just arguing with Scripture.”
Are the two proverbs placed together to demonstrate a conversation that cannot be concluded? One argues that it is useless to answer the fool. The other argues fools should at least have the opportunity to see their error. I am inclined to take this position. But I also think the proverbs demonstrate something else.
Joseph Heller coined the term “Catch-22” to describe what I have often experienced in arguments with some people. Honestly, it does not matter what you choose to do. You are “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” It does not matter how one answers a fool. There is no getting away from the frustration caused by the foolishness of others.
Are we being instructed to ignore fools? No. We are to accept the foolishness for what it is. And then not to let the foolishness perplex us. Do not allow a fool to dictate one’s responses or peace of mind.
Foolishness defends evil. Foolish people defend evil and relish it. A wise person does not answer evil. A wise person opposes it. Foolish people uphold evil and refuse to scrutinize it. I watch many people do this. But in their eyes, I seem to be the fool. I do not answer the fool. I respond to the evil I know. The fool is lost.