On ‘The Psychology of the Fool’; a 1968 essay by James Alexander and Kenneth Isaacs



Introductory Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

I have recently completed 25 years as an active scientist. Research papers published in peer-reviewed journals are the ‘bread and butter’ for my job. On a conservative estimate, I had read over 10,000 research papers in English during the past 25 years. Take a count. Twenty five years meant 25 x 52 = 1,300 weeks. I had read on an average, a minimum of 10 research papers per week; the tally cumulates to 13,000 research papers, in subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology. These research papers were in many categories; methodology papers, experimental papers, deductive and analytical papers, review papers, theory-hypothesis papers, essays,  autobiographical reminiscences as well as published research letters and interviews with significant information.


From these >10,000 research papers which I have read for research and teaching purposes, I keep a tally of my ‘Top Ten’ papers; for their profound wisdom, stimulating value, interesting themes, entertaining merit and provocative conclusions. The stress is on my ‘Top Ten’ list. In this list appears a superb essay on the four letter word beginning with the alphabet F –i.e., fool. It was authored by James Alexander and Kenneth Isaacs in 1968, and published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. The title was ‘The Psychology of the Fool’.


I consider this essay as an interesting one, because of its cross-disciplinary relevance and everlasting appeal on explaining the words and deeds of literati, politicians and celebrities; as varied as Churchill and Kipling (certified Nobelists in literature, who were also apologists for British imperialism), Henry Kissinger (a dubious Nobelist in Peace), Yukio Mishima (a Nobelist wannabe in Literature, who committed suicide by belly-slitting in 1970), Rajiv Gandhi (a Nobel nominee for Peace in 1987), Subramanian Swamy (a Nobelist wannabe, who once bragged about foregoing an Economics prize because he left Harvard to serve his country!), Michael Jackson (the musicican with white fetish), Imelda Marcos (the socialite-politician with shoe fetish), Sri Lanka’s own Imelda impressionist Chandrika Kumaratunga, and her side-kick Lakshman Kadirgamar(both Nobelist wannabes in Peace). Many Eelam Tamils would have pondered why ex-Foreign Minister Kadirgamar behaves so irrationally, though being a literate person. This particular essay by Alexander and Isaacs provides the answer, in portraying the inner mind of folks like Rajiv Gandhi and Kadirgamar.


Since this research paper by Alexander and Issacs appeared 35 years ago, and that too in a specialist journal, I’m pretty sure many wouldn’t have read it. But, it is a thought-provoking exposition on the working of a fool’s mind. The common words for fool in Tamil are moodan (gender-specific masculine term) and muddall (gender neutral term). One of  the popular Tamil movie songs by that singing comedian J.P.Chandra Babu began with the lines, Naan oru Muddallunga – Romba Nalla Padichchavanga Naalu Peru Sonnanga’ [In translation: ‘I am a fool; So said, quite a few of the educated folks.’]. The authors correctly observe that ‘the fool is not innocent, but is often gullible.’ The Tamil words for ‘innocent’ and ‘gullible’ are appavi and pethai respectively. The actions of Rajiv Gandhi after his 1987 signing of a ‘peace accord’ with J.R.Jayewardene explicitly illustrates the distinction. Rajiv was a fool first to sign that so-called peace accord on the advice of his foreign policy Poo Bahs, and then he became a gullible (not innocent!) in his confrontation with the LTTE.


I provide the paper of Alexander and Issacs in the belief that it will be of profit to many, including the fools and the members of their fan club. The text is undoubtedly filled with psychology jargon – but not to the extent of inhibiting the interests of a learner. So, anyone with an interest in comprehending the fool’s mind can enjoy by reading it in full. Especially to be noted is the last paragraph, before the final ‘Summary’, in which the authors conclude on the consequences of a fool with political power.



Complete Text of ‘The Psychology of the Fool’

[source: International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1968; vol.49, pp.420-423]


“This paper is an outgrowth of our studies of affects and psychoanalytic effect theory as an extension into the area of psychoanalytic characterology. The fool [Webster’s Dictionary: One who acts absurdly or stupidly; a simpleton; dolt; one who professionally counterfeits folly, as a jester or buffoon; a retainer formerly kept to make sport, dressed fantastically in motley, with cap, bells and bauble.] represents a special pathological type of character-formation, a sort of sub-group within the large category of alloplastic neuroses in which the conflict is behaviourally discharged in a manner known as acting out. Freud was a highly moral person, but he disliked the introduction of moral considerations into psychoanalysis. He always said of the moral-ethical that it was self-evident. This is probably true of those who honestly want to understand the moral-ethical and to live by this understanding. Tactically, it also was right for Freud not to get drawn into moral-ethical polemics which would have only diverted him from his main task of building psychoanalytic psychology.


However, the time now seems to have arrived when psychoanalysts should no longer back off from consideration of the moral-ethical, but should use the tools of psychoanalysis to investigate the moral-ethical realm. Ethics will not be destroyed by such an investigation, but would profit from it.


Freud’s moral integrity is implicit in everything he wrote, or did. We doubt that it is possible to write of the fool and his acts of folly and avoid moral considerations. That psychoanalysis as a scientific psychology wished to avoid moralizing is easily understood and sympathized with, but the moral-ethical domain remains a reality in human existence; and somewhere in the humanities, psychology and ethics must abut upon one another. We affirm that the concept of folly belongs to the common area shared by psychology and ethics. Ortega y Gasset in a footnote in his book, The Revolt of the Masses, says:


I have often asked myself the following question. There is no doubt that at all times for many men one of the greatest tortures of their lives has been the contact, the collision, with the folly of their neighbours. And yet, how is it that there has never been attempted – I think this is so – a study on this matter, an Essay on Folly? For the pages of Erasmus do not treat of this aspect of the matter.


This is our rationale for departing from Freud’s practice of refraining from introducing moral-ethical considerations into psychoanalysis. We would like to begin at this point with a long quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1955).


‘Of Folly’


Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than malice. You can protest against malice, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Malice always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always make men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defence against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus, the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence, folly requires much more cautious handling than malice. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.


To deal adequately with folly it is essential to recognize it for what it is. This much is certain, it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are men of great intellect who are fools, and men of low intellect who are anything but fools, a discovery we make to our surprise as a result of particular circumstances. The impression we derive is that folly is acquired rather than congenital; it is acquired in certain circumstances where men make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We observe further that folly is less common in the unsociable or the solitary than in individuals or groups who are inclined or condemned to sociability. From this it would appear that folly is a sociological problem rather than one of psychology. It is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances upon men, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. On closer inspection it would seem that any violent revolution, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind. Indeed, it would seem to be almost a law of psychology and sociology. The power of one needs the folly of the other. It is not that certain aptitudes of men, intellectual aptitudes for instance, become stunted or destroyed. Rather, the upsurge of power is so terrific that it deprives men of an independent judgment, and they give up trying – more or less unconsciously – to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fool can often be stubborn, but this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is confronted with a series of slogans, watchwords, and the like, which have acquired power over him. He is under a curse, he is blinded, his very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.


But it is just at this point that we realize that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he needs is redemption. There is nothing else for it. Until then it is no earthly good trying to convince him by rational argument. In this state of  affairs we can well understand why it is no use trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why this question is also so superflous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly. As the Bible says, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. In other words, the only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God.


But there is a grain of consolation in these reflections on human folly. There is no reason for us to think that the majority of men are fools under all circumstances. What matters in the long run is whether our rulers hope to gain more from the folly of men, or from their independence of judgment and their shrewdness of mind.’


In the main, we agree with Bonhoeffer, but we disagree with him on certain points, such as his belief that folly is sociologial rather than psychological; and we disagree with his notion that outbursts of folly are connected in a causal manner with violent revolutions. Revolutions only afford the opportunity for acts of folly. The folly has been latently present as a developmental defect. Violent revolutions mobilize and make manifest what previously has been only potential.


The essential dynamic constellation in the fool consists of unacknowledged hostility, which nonetheless unconsciously produces guilt, which in turn is repressed and denied. The guilt urges toward repentance, but individuals of the kind under consideration do not wish to give up their anger, but are determined to remain angry and to behave destructively. Consciously, they subscribe to that which is right or decent. Thus, perhaps the most characteristic trait or quality of the fool is dishonesty. He deceives himself. To recapitulate, the fool is angry and is determined to remain hostile despite strong guilt feelings. A strong tendency to treachery is the inevitable consequence; and to resort to metaphor, ‘when the chips are down’, the fool is sure to betray others or himself. The fool may piously appear to forgive, but he never truly does so – neither himself, nor others.


Typically, the fool will waver and be undecided on important issues such as the grave crises of politics and war, all the while professing the most sincere of good intentions and good will. He will apparently yield to argumentation and appear to be convinced of the right and proper course of action, the course of action obviously appropriate to his professed moral decency, but at the critical juncture, breaks his promise and betrays what he pledged himself to protect and support. The proverb, ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’, asserts that the fool is reckless rather than courageous.


The fool is not innocent, but is often gullible. Innocence is a state of freedom from guilt. It involves a pristine guilelessness and a credulousness because of a lack of experience with deceit. The innocent may be deceived through that credulousness – but does not unconsciously seek to be deceived. Without cynicism, but in seriousness, it is to a considerable extent correct to equate innocence with ignorance.


The gullible have a credulousness which stems from the need to be deceived. That is, they must deny their distrust and, therefore, place trust in situations with their intelligence clearly tells them is improbable and unsafe. Thus, the gullible differs from innocent in that the latter has no intrapsychic drive to be deceived.


The fool, on the other hand, is driven by guilt to remain always ambivalent. His character is such that unconscious ambivalence will underlie all his commitments. Therefore, he is never fully committed or loyal to any cause or person. As with all ambivalences, the repressed or suppressed side is likely to appear in startling and sometimes surprising ways. Learning from experience is not possible; for learning would have to include adoption of a belief; the ambivalence prevents adoption of a belief. The folly appears as wholly intrapsychically motivated. Duping is partly intrapsychic and partly situational. The innocent is not driven to be fooled, nor is he unable to learn from folly.


Freud wrote to Pfister (Freud and Pfister, 1963) that ‘In practice I am dreadfully intolerant of fools’. This statement is just another instance of the myriad we have that testify to Freud’s wisdom, and wisdom is the antithesis and antonym of folly. The fool is typically more prone to defend another fool than he is to defend the wise and the decent.


While no one is free from all tendency to folly and playing the fool, we are not writing about those persons having the minimum ineradicable traces of folly; nor yet about the professional counterfeiting of folly, because the jester, clown, buffoon, knows what he is doing, has his behaviour under conscious control. His behaviour is not that of the humourless, the dead-earnest; but he is playing at folly, though the ultimate irony of it all does have a serious intent. In other words, this essay is directed toward the consideration of the neurotic character type, the real fool. The buffoon-jester-clown is not truly foolish, except in the sense of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who is Everyman and portrays the measure of the absurd, the ridiculous, in all of us. The professional counterfeiter of folly is not really foolish because his ‘folly’ is leavened by wit, humour, and the comic intent. The true fool is one who denies his folly but eternally acts it out and does so because he is at the most fundamental level a nihilist. The nihilist is one to whom guilt is an intolerable narcissistic wound. Luciferian pride precludes that humility is necessary for the acceptance of the human condition and the resulting greater need for mercy than for justice. The nihilist can neither give nor receive forgiveness. The theologian Thielicke (1961), writing on the subject of nihilism, states:


The plethora of ‘isms’ provides eloquent testimony that no notion is too petty and no idea too odd for somebody to fabricate from it an ‘ism’ and a philosophy. Whatever it is that is thus made into an absolute is a part of the created world. A particular area of creation is separated from the total context of created things, taken by itself, and made into an absolute. This explains why it is that when we make an absolute of one part of creation, we then cannot rightly understand large areas of the rest of creation. The tendency to make absolutes of relatives produces areas which are non-subsumable and to that extent left unbounded and unregulated. As soon as truth ceases to be a binding authority that stands above a man it becomes a merely servile function whose purpose is to give some kind of legitimacy to his interests. Nihilism is a unique ‘ism’. All other ‘isms’ are pragmatically directed toward certain ends, whereas nihilism is completely without any end or purpose. Nihilism has only one truth to declare, namely, the truth that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless. The second difference between nihilism and other ‘isms’ consist in the fact that it is not a program but a value judgment.


Most nihilists repress and deny their nihilism, in fact, build up reaction formations that seem to be positive. So, the fool – which is to say the basically nihilistic person – is bent on acting out sadomasochistically his destructive aggression, but absolutely denying it at the same time. This dishonesty constitutes the most formidable resistance in the psychoanalytic, or any other type of psychotherapeutic, treatment of the type of individual whose neurosis takes the form of the character disorder of the fool. The severe forms of this disorder probably seldome come into psychoanalysis, or any other form of psychotherapy. The dominant affect and attitude toward the fool is contempt, which constitutes a rather severe task for the psychotherapist to see that he does not relate to such a patient with a too severe negative countertransference.


The type of behaviour justly called silly is one way of playing the fool. Dictionaries define ‘silly’ as being of no significance. So silly behaviour is sadomasochistic exhibitionism, subjectively demeaning, and annoying and provocative toward the object. Masochistic and sadistic sexual perversions seem always to have as one of their aims that of playing the fool, or of making a fool of the other.


Stekel (1922) in writing about the perversions says:


The phenomenon of playing the fool deserves investigation. It is very common in children, and the tragic nature of this exaggerated gaiety is evidenced by the almost inevitable crying scene which usually follows immediately after the strenuous horse-play. [Footnote by authors: We find an extraordinary presentation of this type of buffoon in the person of Karamazov, the father, in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.] The regressive form of ‘childish foolishness’ is present in various types of infantilism, and its psychological motivation is quite clear. Infantilism emerges ordinarily in the wake of a severe blow to the ego, and the forced gaiety is compensatory, an attempt to drown out defeat and disappointment.


Lucian, in Greek, wrote on the praise of folly in the years around 200 A.D. Brant, in the late fifteen century had written in the Swabian-German dialect, The Ship of Fools. Both these writers and their satirical treatment of folly were familiar to Erasmus as worth pointedly recommending to the world to teach it humility. Erasmus intended to confound the seemingly wise. He satirized them as fools. In short, all three writers belong to the class of literary jesters. They are, therefore, not fools in the sense that this essay is mainly concerned with.


Kohut (1966), writing on the forms and transformations of narcissism was, of course, not writing about the character type of the fool; but we believe his formulation of the problem of narcissim could be applied correctly to the characterology of the fool. For example, what Kohut has to say about wisdom’s being the outcome of man’s ability to overcome his unmodified narcissim, which rests upon the capacity to accept the limitations of his physical, intellectual, and emotional powers is true; and, as already pointed out, wisdom is the antithesis of folly.


In summary, the fool suffers from a neurosis characterized by a type of acting out known as folly, the unconscious aim of which is destructive aggression, which is denied by the fool both to himself and to everyone else. Fools profess high ideals, and so profess to uphold all good and decent things. However, the fool is practically sure to be the cause of tragedy in his family and personal life; and worse still, sociologically, when the fool has political power. The fool, when in possession of power and backed by his false assertion that he firmly believes the high ideals he professes, is certain to yield to the temptation to act out treacherously and destructively on the widest scale.




The type of character disorder considered in this paper is not the buffoon-jester-clown type of fool who plays the ‘fool’ with conscious intentionality, but the type that consciously has no recognition of being a fool and hence, who acts out his folly against himself and others – usually under the guise of decent or even lofty ideals. Freud said that the moral-ethical was self-evident. This was true of Freud, but it is not true of everyone. To us it appears that it is not possible to deal with the psychology of the fool without considerable reference to the moral-ethical domain.


Guilt is an intolerable narcisstic wound to the sort of person who deserves the epithet of ‘fool’. Hence, the fool denies the guilt and the destructive rage which lies behind it. Reaction formations of idealism are erected, but they fail to prevent the destructive acting out. The fool does not believe in the reality of forgiveness.


Essentially, the fool is nihilistic. His seeming idealism and seeming possession of humane convictions sometimes permit him to obtain power, such as political power, but he is very prone to betray any trust reposed in him. The fool, because of his fundamental dishonesty, seldom enters psychoanalytic or any other form of treatment.




Bonhoeffer, D. (1955). Prisoner for God, New York, Macmillan.


Erasmus, D. The Praise of Folly (Hudson translation), Princeton University Press, 1941.


Isaacs, K.S., Alexander, J. and Haggard, E.A. (1963). Faith, trust and gullibility. Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 44.


Kohut, H. (1966). Forms and transformations of narcissism. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assoc. 14.


Freud, S and Pfister, O. (1963). Psychoanalysis and Faith; The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. London, Hogarth.


Stekel, W. (1922). Patterns of Psychosexual Infantilism. New York, Liveright, 1952.


Thielicke, H. (1961). Nihilism. New York, Harper & Row.



Submitted: June 11, 2003.