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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)

Disputation between a Fool and a Friar

From “Utopia

I DO not know whether it be worth while to tell what followed, for it was very ridiculous; but I shall venture at it, for as it is not foreign to this matter, so some good use may be made of it.

There was a jester standing by, that counterfeited the fool so naturally that he seemed to be really one; the jests which he offered were so cold and dull that we laughed more at him than at them, yet sometimes he said, as it were by chance, things that were not unpleasant, so as to justify the old proverb, “That he who throws the dice often, will sometimes have a lucky hit.” When one of the company had said that I had taken care of the thieves, and the Cardinal had taken care of the vagabonds, so that there remained nothing but that some public provision might be made for the poor whom sickness or old age had disabled from labour, “Leave that to me,” said the Fool, “and I shall take care of them, for there is no sort of people whose sight I abhor more, having been so often vexed with them and with their sad complaints; but as dolefully soever as they have told their tale, they could never prevail so far as to draw one penny from me. For either I had no mind to give them anything, or, when I had a mind to do it, I had nothing to give them; and they now know me so well that they will not lose their labour, but let me pass without giving me any trouble, because they hope for nothing—no more, in faith, than if I were a priest. But I would have a law made for sending all these beggars to monasteries, the men to the Benedictines, to be made lay-brothers, and the women to be nuns.”

The Cardinal smiled, and approved of it in jest, but the rest liked it in earnest. There was a divine present, who, though he was a grave, morose man, yet he was so pleased with this reflection that was made on the priests and the monks that he began to play with the Fool, and said to him, “This will not deliver you from all beggars, except you take care of us Friars.” “That is done already,” answered the Fool, “for the Cardinal has provided for you by what he proposed for restraining vagabonds and setting them to work, for I know no vagabonds like you.”

This was well entertained by the whole company, who, looking at the Cardinal, perceived that he was not ill-pleased at it. Only the Friar himself was vexed, as may be easily imagined, and fell into such a passion that he could not forbear railing at the Fool, and calling him knave, slanderer, backbiter, and son of perdition, and then cited some dreadful threatenings out of the Scriptures against him.

Now the jester thought he was in his element, and laid about him freely. “Good Friar,” said he, “be not angry, for it is written, ‘In patience possess your soul.’” The Friar answered (for I shall give you his own words), “I am not angry, you hangman; at least, I do not sin in it, for the Psalmist says, ‘Be ye angry and sin not.’”

Upon this the Cardinal admonished him gently, and wished him to govern his passions. “No, my lord,” said he, “I speak not but from a good zeal, which I ought to have, for holy men have had a good zeal, as it is said, ‘The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.’ And we sing in our church that those who mocked Elisha as he went up to the house of God felt the effects of his zeal, which that mocker, that rogue, that scoundrel, will perhaps feel.”

“You do this, perhaps, with a good intention,” said the Cardinal, “but, in my opinion, it were wiser in you, and perhaps better for you, not to engage in so ridiculous a contest with a Fool.”

“No, my lord,” answered he, “that were not wisely done, for Solomon, the wisest of men, said, ‘Answer a Fool according to his folly,’ which I now do, and show him the ditch into which he will fall, if he is not aware of it. For if the many mockers of Elisha, who was but one bald man, felt the effect of his zeal, what will become of the mocker of so many Friars, among whom there are so many bald men? We have, likewise, a bull, by which all that jeer us are excommunicated.”

When the Cardinal saw that there was no end of this matter he made a sign to the Fool to withdraw, turned the discourse another way, and soon after rose from the table, and, dismissing us, went to hear causes.