Fool Proof: How to know when, and when not, to respond to a fool.

Foolishness comes in all shapes and sizes.

Let’s look at one such shape and size.

Ever met someone who just loves to argue and hear themselves talk? We all have. When do we respond? And when do we ignore it and/or shut it down?

Permit me to direct you to what the ancient king, Solomon, wrote in the book of Proverbs, chapter 26:

4 Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
    or you will become as foolish as they are.

5 Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
    or they will become wise in their own estimation.

Is this a contradiction?  Not at all.  Read on…

It’s critical to understand the Bible is written in numerous literary genres i.e. history, narrative, prophecy, law, and in the case of the passage above, poetry.  Solomon is using a common literary device of the time called parallelism to make his point.  What is that point?  Glad you asked.

The focus in the passage cited above is on two kinds of fools.

  1. The first is exactly what you picture in your mind when thinking of a fool.  They are a legend in their own mind, having no interest whatsoever in dialogue, civil discourse or learning from opposing opinions or insights.  Look up “close-minded” in the dictionary and you will find their picture.  Sadly, believing they are brilliant, they expose themselves as the proverbial Court Jester – a joke. They’re so busy listening to themselves talk it’s impossible for them to hear how utterly foolish they sound, not to mention disrespectful, bellicose and sometimes exhibiting traits of a schoolyard bully (“a fool is quick-tempered.”)  Their  hubris and egocentricity is exhausting to the poor soul stuck listening to them.  You’ll never win an argument with this type of fool.  We’ve all heard the adage: “You can educate a fool, but you cannot make him think.”  This is precisely why the Bible says to not even engage in a conversation with this type of fool where there exists the possibility of any level of debate or difference of opinion.  Refusing to engage in dialogue will offend them because, as Solomon wrote, “fools insist on quarreling.”  But, even with their elephantine ego bruised, they will simply find some other unfortunate person they can attempt to impress with their grandiose view of themselves. The futility of trying to impart wisdom to a fool is the point of the first type of fool.
  2. The second type of fool appears foolish due to inaccurate or insufficient information they are sharing with others.  Simply put, they are ignorant of the facts.  As such, they are perpetuating information that is either half-true or altogether erroneous, making them look foolish.  Solomon wrote, Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.”  This type of fool may actually welcome correction and wisdom – but not necessarily.  A response requires discernment on the part of the those listening to this type of fool.  If you believe they are humble and teachable, willing to admit they just might not know it all, and would welcome correction, then go for it. Or, as the passage cited at the top of this blog puts it, “Be sure to answer (correct) the foolish arguments of fools.”  However, if upon an attempt to correct them they begin to more resemble the first fool, then save your breath and leave them to their own daftness. This is why Solomon added, Don’t waste your breath on fools, for they will despise the wisest advice.”

The biblical book of Proverbs has much to say about fools.  Here are just a few passages:

  • 12:15 Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others.
  • 12:23 –  Fools broadcast their foolishness…
  • 17:28 Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.
  • 18:2 Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions.

It’s futile to try and argue with a drunk. And, according to the Bible, it’s no easer arguing with a fool.

The following quote by the always sharp-witted Mark Twain is a solid place to end this blog:

One last thing: it’s always possible the fool is us. May we be kind and respectful in our interaction with others.