The Promise and Danger of Deliberate Folly

What is “deliberate folly”? I quoted three “wise heretics,” as I called them, on this topic before. Essentially, the idea is that, as Blake puts it, if a fool were to persist in his folly he would become wise. And as Barfield and Alan Watts paraphrase the same concept, the key to gleaning wisdom from deliberate folly is to be very deliberate. Watts — who despite or perhaps because of his slick ways, is an apt elucidator of concepts such as this one — points out that to prove that the earth is round, a flat-earther must continue along a single line of latitude without deviation until he finds himself back where he began. At this point, says Watts, the man will at least be convinced that the earth is cylindrical. This is very amusing and has the ring of truth.

Deliberate folly, then, pursued as a path to wisdom, is a method of investigating the truth of one’s convictions. The “folly” part of the equation is not perceived as such from the inside. Rather it is the deliberateness that counts. “I am convinced I am on the right path,” says the seeker. “And to prove it, I will follow this path without deviation.” The wise heretics I quoted claim that such a policy, faithfully maintained, will end in wisdom.

Jesus Christ, in Matthew 7:7, famously teaches a similar concept (or something that may be interpreted as similar): “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

Seek, and ye shall find. If the truth is really the Truth, then all truly honest seekers can end nowhere but in Truth. Such is the idea, at least. I’m inclined to think this is essentially true. If one can walk on a truly straight line, one will eventually discover the Truth… the earth is round.

But! How is one to walk in a straight line? It cannot be done for even a hundred yards, let alone 1,000 miles, let alone all the way around the globe. You need a map, a compass, and a guide. You need some sort of corroboration from an outside observer. You need a GPS device!

Hearing “seek and ye shall find,” hearing “walk in a straight line, no matter what direction, and you will arrive at the Truth,” is very seductive for the seeker. It seems to imply, you have everything you need to achieve wisdom and Truth, right within your own soul. And who does not want to hear that? It’s incredibly flattering to the ego.

The old Zen masters (I am thinking of Hui-neng and Dogen, specifically) practiced something like this perfect line-walking. These were great and holy men. They understood the difficulty — the seemingly other-worldly difficulty — of the paths they followed and preached. They did not seem to have a lot of faith that many would follow them, even though they insisted it was possible for all. The old Zen version of a spiritual GPS to keep you on a straight line was a harsh master, an unending discipline, and hours every day spent in meditation and a life of complete asceticism. Who today follows this line, even among the Asians? (Among Western Buddhists, it’s absurd to even ask the question!)

But they felt it could work, and more importantly, they could see no other way.

It seems the only people who end up at spiritual fulfillment out of a life of folly, these days, are the ones that don’t intend it. Extreme alcoholics are the only ones that ever end up saved, for example. They end up at the point of: die or give up. They follow the path of foolish drunkenness so far, so devoutly, that they’re left with no other options. The mild alcoholic always has another self-deceiving strategy to try. The severe alcoholic has tried them all already.

That’s the extreme danger of the “deliberate folly” approach to spiritual wisdom. It is foolish to take drugs… is it therefore wise to take a lot of drugs? Of course not. It is foolish to drive 100 mph… is it therefore wise to drive 200? Absurd.

What feels like the “straight road of folly” is usually just the downward slope to hell. We veer and careen as we “progress,” following the path of least resistance, staggering “forward” and never noticing how the path twists and descends deviously. We can even pick up momentum as the slope declines ever further, and all the while claim that we’re being “deliberate fools,” and that the dizzy feeling is a sign we’re getting close to enlightenment. It’s not a straight path at all, though it is one difficult to break out of.

A truly straight “path around the world” would go up impassable mountains, down through briars and frozen lakes, across raging rivers and parched deserts. It would go across vast stretches of endless sea. I think I’m going to need a guide, some provisions, and a good book to read by the campfire.



2 comments on “The Promise and Danger of Deliberate Folly

  1. Bruce Charlton says:

    Yes, you are right – and that it is usually the gradual, incremental decline which is hardest to perceive or reverse.

    Yet it very seldom happens that folly leads to wisdom – even extreme folly. The reason is that people are fools in multiple ways – so there can be no self correction.

    In the Watts example the person suffers a single delusion – but remains honest and truth seeking. Nowadays, most fools have abandoned all the transcendnetal virtues, including the habit of truth – they seek, if anything, positive psychological states.

    So reasoned refutation is not possible; no possible experience could challenge them to acknowledge that their world view was mistaken.

  2. outofsleep says:

    The kind of folly that is most obviously dangerous — I am thinking here of drug addiction, for example — is perhaps the only kind that can wipe out the other “multiple ways” of foolishness. The hardcore drunk or drug user sacrifices just about everything to remain in his preferred state of foolishness. Eventually when no other form of foolishness is possible, he either dies or goes all the way through to the other side of his error.

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