LA~URENCE STERNlE] AND T~HE: TRADITIONS
OF CHRISTIAN FOLLY
A DLj513tTATION PRESENTED TO THIE CRlDUATE COUNcCIL OF`
THIE U~NIERSITY' OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENTS OF THIE REQUmIREMETS F~OR THIE
DECREE OF DOCTOR; OF PHIILOSOPH1Y
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
It is a pleasure to acknowledge the assistance which I
have received from the members of my supervisory committee,
Professor George M. Harper, and Professor E. Ashby Hammond.
To Professor Thomas R. Preston, under whose guidance
this dissertation was begun, I owe the debt of inspiration and
encouragement. To Professor Aubrey L. W~illiams, I owe the debt
of the scholarly example and patient criticism which enabled me
to complete this dissertation.
Finally, I thank my wife, Gayle, for loving me enough to
avoid Mrs. Shandy's error of giving her "assent and consent to
any proposition" which her husband "laid before her."
The subject of this study is Sterne's use of the Pauline con-
cept of Christian folly: that is, that wisdom in the eyes of the
world may be folly in the eyes of God, while folly in the eyes of the
world may lead to wisdom in the eyes of God. M~y thesis is that the
various aspects of the concept of Christian folly which appear
throughout Sterne's work reflect traditional Christian attitudes toward
what this world calls wisdom and folly. Focusing particularly on
Tristram Shandy, I argue that several of the characters in the novel
personify various aspects of wisdom and folly, ranging from Walter
Shandy's obsession with worldly-wise hypotheses to Parson Yorick's
apparently "foolish" martyrdom to truth, and that the novelist-
preacher Sterne accomplishes a transvaluation of the terms "wisdom"
and "folly." Because Sterne's employment of the concept of Christian
folly is rooted in earlier treatments of the idea of the wise fool in
Christ, Chapter I of this study traces the history of the idea of
Christian folly from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century.
Chapter I shows how early Fathers of the Church and medieval
mystics such as Thomas a Kempis shaped the idea of Christian folly
into two related, yet distinct strands. For members of what Etienne
Gilson has called the "Tertullian family," Christian folly took the
form of intellectual humility in order to combat the challenge of
gnosticism, while for members of the "Augustine family," notably St.
Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa, Christian folly took the form of
"learned ignorance" in order to meet the challenge of scholasticism.
With the advent of the Renaissance, and the work of the great Chris-
tian humanists, Erasmus and Rabelais, the idea of the wise fool in
Christ leaves the confines of Biblical commentary and polemical
theology, and enters the realm of imaginative literature. The wise
fools in Christ, praised by the medieval Church Fathers as personi-
fications of a theological idea or concept, become in the works of
Erasmus and Rabelais dramatis personae, capable of acting as court
jesters, receptacles of divine truth, enemies of the proud and
worldly wise, and exemplars of charity and humility. In the person
of Sir Thomas More, these various facets of Christian folly combined
to give to the Renaissance and the world a living example of how folly
in the eyes of men leads to wisdom in the eyes of God. At the
conclusion of the Renaissance and up to the eighteenth century, the
idea of Christian folly was most evident in the form of Biblical
commentaries and sermons upon Pauline texts by Anglican divines,
such as Henry Hamnmond and Robert South.
Chapter II shows how the idea of Christian folly which appears
in Tristram Shandy is related to traditional Christian views of not
only the dangers resulting from man's obsession with worldly wisdom,
but also the temporal and spiritual benefits accruing from man's
recognition of his own foolishness. More specifically, Chapter II
attempts to demonstrate that the characters in Tristram Shandy comprise
a catalogue of fools, whose "folly" is sometimes "wisdom," depending
upon the perspective of the viewer. Because Sterne views Solomon's
observation that "the number of fools is infinite" from the sympathe-
tic point of view of Erasmian irony, he ridicules folly in Tristram
Shandy instead of inveighing against it in the manner of some of his
Augustan predecessors. While Sterne's narrator, Tristram, exposes
the foolishness of the novel's worldly wise men, particularly his
father's obsession with speculative hypotheses, he exhibits an Eras-
nian perspective on human folly by himself speaking as a fool. Parson
Yorick, Tristram's more "foolish," but paradoxically "wiser," counter-
part, complements Tristram's satire upon worldly wisdom by exposing
the foolishness of "vile canonists" and "polemic divines." In ridicul-
ing the pretensions and shortcomings of his clerical colleagues,
Yorick also reveals himself as "a man of infinite jest"l and as a model
of Christian humility and charity, thereby personifying several of the
virtues eulogized by Renaissance praisers of folly.
Chapter III shows how Toby and Trim, often dismissed as
ineffectual simpletons or amusing eccentrics, illustrate the Pauline
paradox that "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to con-
found the wise; and .. the weak things of the world to confound
the things which are mighty" (I Cor. 1.27). More particularly, the
first section of Chapter III attempts to demonstrate that Tristram's
uncle, Toby, functions as an unlearned instrument of divine wisdom
and resembles the "natural" fools praised by the medieval Fathers of
the Church for their Christ-like simplicity and charity. Functioning
as a foil to the worldly wisdom of the novel's pedants, Toby also
exemplifies the Christian virtues of charity, humility, and trust in
divine providence, which Sterne expresses in The Se~rmons of Mr. Yorick.
The second section of Chapter III attempts to demonstrate that Corporal
Trim, as seen particularly in his funeral oration upon Bobby's death,
is Sterne's projection of the ideal preacher. Dramatizing the essence
of Sterne's concept of preaching, a direct appeal to the heart, Trim
rejects both the affectations of pre-Restoration pulpit eloquence and
the emotionless severity of the Restoration pulpit. Speaking in the
rich, but unaffected, language of the Scriptures, Trim demonstrates to
the Shandeans the wisdom of what St. Paul called "the folly of
preaching" (I Cor. 1.21).
Chapter IV shows how Parson Yorick's Christian folly, in both
Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, is the highest manifestation
of wise folly which appears in Sterne's writings. Sterne's allusions
to Hamlet and Don Quixote, throughout Volume I of Tristra~m Shandy,
provide a context for establishing Yorick's Christian folly as a norm
to test the various kinds of worldly wisdom represented in the novel.
Although Tristram praises Yorick's quixotic martyrdom to truth in
Volume I of Tristram Shandy, he also blames his "Hero" for his lack of
discretion and prudence. Corresponding to his wavering, as a narrator,
between praise and blame for Yorick's Christian folly, is Tristram's
failure, as a character, to achieve the perfect wisdom of Yorick's
Christian folly. Chapter IV also shows how Yorick's wise folly in
Christ becomes evident in his similarity to Paul's "New Man," who
represents the Christian fool's joyful vision of death as the beginning
of life. In contrast, Tristram, like Paul's "Old Man," subverts the
moral and spiritual imperative of man's journey through this world to
the next by foolishly attempting to outrace Death in Volume VII of
Tristram Shandy. The "Sentimental Traveller" Yorick of A Sentimental
Journey concludes the program of wise folly in Christ which Sterne
presents throughout his writings.
My prefatory remarks would be incomplete without an acknowledg-
ment of my indebtedness to Walter Kaiser's Praisers of Folly, which
introduced me to the study of the wise fool in Christ. I am also
generally indebted to John Traugott's Tristram Shandy's World, John
Stedmond's The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne, and Gardner D. Stout, Jr.'s
edition of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick
for pointing out ways in which Sterne's use of the idea of Christian
folly could be developed and discussed.
One The Tradition of Christian Folly
Two The Folly of Wisdom
Three The Wisdom of Folly
Four The Transcendent Wisdom of Yorick's
One: The Tradition of Christian Folly
In his sermon "Advantages of Christianity to the World," based
upon Romans 1.22 ("Professing themselves to be wise, they became
fools"), Laurence Sterne states that the wisdom of the learned Greeks
and Romans was "specious" and nothing "but a more glittering kind of
ignrace"1 In "Our Conversationpin Heaven," whose text is
Phillipians 3.20 ("For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also
we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ"), Sterne encourages
his readers to follow the example of St. Paul, who "accounted all
things but loss, that is, less than nothing, for the excellency of the
knowledge of Jesus Christ" (Sermons, II, 93). These two quotations
from The Sermons of Mr. Yorick illustrate a Pauline concept or idea
which may be called "Christian folly." The essence of the idea of
Christian folly is Paul's teaching that the truly wise man rejects
this world's wisdom and becomes "a fool for Christ's sake" (I Cor.
6.10)."The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (I Cor.
3.19), argues Paul, and "the foolishness of God is wiser than men"
(I Cor. 1.25).
Expressed in various forms from the time of St. Paul, the idea
of Christian folly became a common place tradition in the Middle
Ages. For one large group of writers, hereafter called the "Ter-
tullian family,"~ Christian folly demands that man imitate Cnrist's
meekness and humility and sacrifice his reason before God's omniscience.
For these praisers of Christian folly, including Tertullian, Saints
Jerome and Gregory, and the medieval mystics, Jacapone da Todi and
Thomas a Kempis, the idea of Christian folly is closely linked to the
idea of contemptus mundi. Writing in the fifteenth century, Kempis,
for example, instructs man "to conform his whole life to that mind of
Christ" so that he may "willfully and with true wisdom understand the
words of Christ" (Imitatio, 1.1.L). By imitating Christ, Kempis
argues, man will learn that the highest form of wisdom is to
"despis/g .. this world Lan 7 to draw daily nearer and nearer to
the kingdom of heaven" (Imitatio, 1.1.6).
In contrast to the version of Christian folly advocated by the
"Tertullian family," the members of the "Augustine family," including
St. Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa, do not instruct man to renounce
all wisdom, but only to reject those kinds of worldly wisdom which
might prevent him from achieving the wisdom of Christ. In a letter,
Augmustine wrote that "wisdom is not to be avoided because there is
also false wisdom, tpo which Christ crucified is foolishness."/ For
Augustine, and his intellectual heir, Nicholas of Cusa, the para-
doxical phrase "knowing ignorance" (docta ignorantia) expresses the
proper relation between human and divine wisdom. "There is in us a
certain knowing ignorance," Augustine writes, but it is "an ignorance
taught by the spirit of God which comes to the help of our weakness"
(Fathers, XVIII, 398). Exh~ibiting a kinship to the members of the
"Augustine family," who taught that man should not renounce the world
so much as the wisdom of the world, the Renaissance humanists, Erasmus
and Rabelais, encouraged man's participation in the God-given joys of
creation and urged a rejection of only those kinds of wisdom which
prevented him from becoming a fit receptacle for the wisdom of Christ.
In a letter to Martin Dorp, who is called Erasmus' "first critic,"6
Erasmus said about The Praise of Folly, that "to be ignorant of certain
things is a part of knowledge."'
As I hope to show, the idea of Christian folly appearing
throughout Sterne's work is more similar to the Augustinian-
Renaissance version than to the Tertullian-medieval version of the
idea of Christian folly. As Sterne states in his sermon "Penances,"
one of the "many prejudices which at one time or other have been
conceived against our holy religion .. Is thad(7 it is our duty...
to renounce the world, and abstract ourselves from it, as neither to
interfere with its interest, or taste any of the pleasures, or any of
the enjoyments of this life" (Sermons, II, 175). For Sterne, as for
William Wycherley, in his poem "I on the Discretion of Folly," the
Christian fool is happy in this world and the next:
Thus Fools are here, as likewise thought elsewhere,
But for their want of Thought much happier
Which is most Wisdom: Heav'nly Wisdom, whence
Men have their Faith, their Truth, and Innocence;
Whence Heav'n to Fools wise ITrks in next Life give;
But Christian Fools are happy whilst they live.o
As the persona Stultitia observes in Erasmus' The Praise of
Folly, the Pauline paradox that human wisdom is foolishness with God
is rooted in Old Testament condemnaations of the vanity of human learn-
ing. In the concluding section of her oration, Stultitia quotes
extensively from various Old Testament writers who maintain that, in
the final analysis, man's wisdom is folly in the eyes of God. Follow-
ing the rhetorical practice of quoting authorities, Stultitia
ironically argues that all wisdom is folly:
In his tenth chapter Jeremiah states . 'Every
man is made foolish in his own wisdom.' It is to God
alone that he attributes wisdom, relegating foolishness
to mankind. A little bit before this he says: 'Let no
man glory in his wisdom' . .. But let us turn again
to Ecclesiastes. When he writes, 'Vanity of vanities,
all is vanity,' what else does he mean other thaf ..
that human life is nothing but a sport of folly?
Stultitia's transposition of the terms folly and wisdom early in her
oration prepares the reader for her serious, concluding argument that
the "Fool in Christ" is, in the eyes of God, the wisest of men.
While St. Paul's epistles to the Corinthians echo Old Testa-
ment condemnations of the vanity of human learning, his identification
of wisdom with Christ and Christ's suffering is, of course, a
radical departure from Solomon's teaching that wisdom lies in fearing
God and obeying His commandments. According to Earle Ellis, more-
over, Paul's identification of wisdom with Christ and His suffering
is also unique in terms of the New Testament:
There are no definite New Testament parallels with Paul's
Wisdom typology in which Christ and His Cross are declared
to be the true wisdom. But the apostle's several quotations
(I Cor. 1.19; 2.9,16; 3.19f) describing the vanity of the
'wisdom of this world' and its barren and foolish goal
reflect somewhat the attitude of Christ: 'I thank thee, O
Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these
things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto
babesl (Mat. 11.29; Luke 10.21). The thought in each is
that God reveals Himself not to the wiselyl but to the humblell
and simple; Paul, of course, carries the theme much further.
Paul's rejection of vain human wisdom in favor of the wisdom
of Christ does not, it should be noted, constitute a refutation of all
wisdom other than Christian Revelation.- Francois ALmiot reminds us
that "Paul does not .. condemn reason itself but only its abuse
and its refusal to accept supernatural enlightenment."1 ten
Gilson points out, however, that there have been writers, such as
Tertullian, St. Bernard, and Jacopone da Todi, who are "partisans of
exclusive otherworldliness in the order of knowledge" (Gilson, p. 11L).
The contribution made by some of these "extremists in theology"
(Gilson, p. S) to the concept of Christian folly merits examination.
Writing in the second century A.D., Tertullian, to use
Gilson's words, expresses "absolute conviction in the self-sufficiency
of Christian Revelation" (Gilson, p. 8). The concept of Christian
folly which emerges from Tertullian's writings reflects a dichotomy
between faith and reason, particularly as seen in passages from
Tertullian against Marcion and The Body of Christ(eCrnChii)
where Tertullian argues that belief in the crucified Christ is
sufficient for man's knowledge and salvation:
Since, then, the man .. of /This7 world in his wisdom
knew not God, whom indeed he Ought to have known (both the
Jew by his knowledge of the Scriptures, and all the human
race by their knowledge of God's works), therefore that God,
who was not acknowledged in His wisdom, resolved to smite
men's knowledge with His foolishness, by saving all those
who believe in the folly of the preached cross.16
In its simplest terms, Christian folly appears in Tertullian
as an act of faithr in which the reason Ihuniliates itself before the
omniscience of God.15 Tertullian's concept of faith as intellectual
humility is clearly seen in his belief in the crucifixion because it
is "absurd." The famous passage from De Carne Christi illustrates what
James Edie calls Tertullian's concept of faith as ''an experience of
the absurd,"16 a "decision to act before one 'knows,' to act, if
necessary, against the evidence, against the evident" (Edie,
Christianity and Existentialism, p. 29):
The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed
because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the
Son of God died; it is by all means o be believed,
because it is absurd.17
To Tertullian, man's only hope for salvation lies in rejecting
philosophy, which he calls "the material of the world's wisdom,"18
in favor of the wisdom of Christ. While such a choice results in man's
being "a fool to the world," Tertullian argues, he paradoxically
cannot be wise unless he does become a fool to the world by believing
"the foolish things of God."19 One of "thae foolish things of God
/ihich7 is wiser than men," the Christian apologist explains in his
tract against Marcion, is the "cross and death of Christ."20
It is no exaggeration, then, to say that Tertullian shapes the
Pauline paradox central to the idea of Christian folly--that wisdom
may lead to folly, and folly to wisdom--into a concept of intellectual
humility which entails, to use George Boas's terms, "a sacrifice of
human reason" (Boas, p. 121). Tertullian seems to demand this sacrifice
so that man will grasp the paradox of Christian folly, and unlike the
heretics and vain reasoners, understand why "God hath chosen the foolish
things of the world to confound the wise" (I Cor. 1.27).21
St. ]Bernard and Jacopone da Todi are two members of the "Ter-
tullian family" in whose works Christian folly appears in one form or
another. Bernard, George Boas points out, "is .. clearly in the
tradition of Tertullian .. and seems indeed to be quoting the words
of some of /Th 7 members" of the "Tertullian family" (Boas, p. 126).
In a passage from De gradibus humilitatis et_ superbiae (On the Step
of Humility and Pride), Bernard distinguishes between various kinds
of ignorance. "Not all ignorance is to be condemned," he says, "for
there are .. countless things which one may be ignorant of without
lessening one's chance of salvation" (On the Steps of Humility and
Pride, quoted by Boas, p. 126).
After explaining that ignorance of neither the "mechanical
arts," such as carpentry, nor of the "liberal arts" of the university
would impede one's chance of salvation, Bernard reminds his readers
Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee and all their
fellow disciples were not taken from the schools of
rhetoricians and philosophers, and none the less the
Saviour through them wrought salvation upon the earth.
Not in wisdom, which in them.was more than in all the
living .. but in their faith and meekness did He
save them and make them saints and masters (On the Steps
of Humility and Pride, quoted by Boas, pp. 1282)
Jacopone da Todi, the Franciscan poet and mystic of the
thirteenth century, was probably familiar with the works of St.
Bernard, as he was with the writings of other medieval theologians,
because of his studies at the convent of San Forunato.22 The first
five verses of Jacopone's poem entitled "How it is the Highest Wisdom
to be Reputed Mad for the Love of Christ" express a radical type of
Christian folly analogous to both Tertullian's and Bernard's:
Wisdom 'tis and Courtesy,
Crazed for Jesus Christ to be.
No such learning can be found
In Paris, nor the world around;
In this folly to abound
Is the best philosophy.
Who by Christ is all possessed,
Seems afflicted and distressed,
Yet is Master of the best,
In science and theology.
Who for Christ is all distraught,
Gives his wits, men say, for naught;
Those whom Love hath never taught,
Deem he erreth utterly.
He who enters in this school,
Learns a new and wondrous rule:
'Who hath never been a fool,
Wisdom's scholar cannot be.'23
In another poem, which illustrates what Gilson calls the
"radical theologism" of the Spirituals, an extremist group in the
Franciscan Order (Gilson, p. 13), Jacopone expresses a mistrust of
philosophy similar to Tertullian's. For Jacopone, "only a pure and
simple mind" can find its way ,Istraight to heaven . while far
behsind/Lags the world's philosophy"' (quoted by Gilson, p. 13).
Jacopone's stress upon the virtues of simplicity, purity, and
humility may be traced back to the first chapter of First Corinthians.
According to Evelyn Underhill, Jacopone's biographer, the "ruling
conception of Jacopone's first period--that of the 'fool for Christ's
sake"'--comes directly from St. Paul (Underhill, p. 227).
The Church Fathers Jerome and Gregory the Great, who may be
classified as "distant relations" of the "Tertullian family," merit
attention because their idea of Christian folly is less polemical than
Tertullian's on the one hand, while still lacking, as we shall see,
the sophistication of Augustine's and Cusa's, on the other. In his
polemical tract The Dialogue Against the Pelegians, Jerome echoes the
theme of intellectual humility which appears in the works of Jacopone
and Thomas a Kempis. In discussing the gulf between worldly and
divine wisdom, Jerome alludes to Ecclesiastes 1.18 to illustrate the
orthodox argument that man "lacks perfection and realizes how much he
does not know when he considers what he knous "(Fathers, LIII, 302).
To Jerome, man attains wisdom by recognizing his own limitations and
contrasting them to God's omnipotence. His commentary on Romans
16.27 in The Dialolgue Against the Pelegians epitomizes his argument
that man must be humble before God's wisdom: "God alone is wise,
although both Solomon and many other holy men are called wise"
(Fathers, LIII, 305). God's wisdom, moreover, manifests itself in His
providential plan, and man's duty is to trust the wisdom of the divine
We are God's tillage; we are God's building. Accord-
ing to His grace, God lays the foundation like a wise
architect. 'Do not deceive yourselves,' he says. 'If
any one of you thinks himself wise in this world, let him
become a fool, that he may come to be wise' (Fathers,
Jerome expresses the concept of Christian folly not only in
his polemical works, such as The Dia~logue ~Against the Pe~legia~ns, but
also in his commentaries on St. Paul's epistles. Jerome does not
seek to denigrate worldly wisdom per se, but to indicate its preten-
tiousness and limitations. In his gloss of First Corinthians 3.18-19,
he stresses Paul's condemnation of the Corinthians for claiming to
be Christians while still clinging to worldly wisdom and the
retributive justice of the old law:
If anyone thinks that he is wise because, for the sake
of revenge, he has exacted an eye for an eye, let him be
reckoned a fool. For, in the opinion, of this world, the
fool is he who has tried to heed the teachings of the holy
gospel; and the man who turns his other cheek to his attacker
is a voluntary fool, but not a natural one.
No thing is as foolish as for one who is unable, to seek
revenge himself and not to leave to God the /F~epaying97 of the
wrong that has been done him. For thus will he /Ehe spiteful
man7 lose the revenge of God for the wrong he has suffered,
andi, also, the reward of patience.2~
Although the seeking of revenge is wisdom to the world, Jerome argues
that it is foolishness before God. The man who willfully turns the
other cheek is, in the world's eyes, "foolish," but since his volun-
tary action implements Christ's teaching, his "foolishness" will earn
him justice in the court of God.
Jerome's contribution to the tradition of Christian folly,
then, lies in his further emphasis on the humility, meekness, and
charity of the fool for Christ. It is no coincidence that in his
textual notes to the Vulgate Jerome suggests a comparison between
First Corinthians 1,19 and Matthew 11.25: "I thank thee, O Father,
Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from
the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes."29
Much like Jerome, Gregory the Great (Gregory I), advocates
the humble simplicity of Christian folly as an alternative to the
sophisticated prudence of worldly wisdom. As Barbara Swain points
out in her study of fools and folly in the Middle Ages and the
...eloquent indictment of the wisdom of the world
denied that right conduct like that described in
Solomon's proverbs and the Cato would win man the
bliss of eternal life, and he pleaded for an opposit26
way of life which it was only logical to call folly.
In leading the "innocent and pure life," however, man paradoxically
becomes, as Miss Swain suggests, a "heroic fool" (Swain, p. 36).2
Gregory further develops his concept of the heroic fool by
distinguishing the Christian or "noble" fool from his worldly or
It is right for us to know that some within the pale of
Holy Church are styled 'fools,' but yet 'noble,' whilst
others are 'fools,' and 'base.' For they are called
'fools,' but cannot be 'base,' who contemning the wisdom
of the flesh, desire foolishness that shall stand them
instead .. who set at naught the foolish wisdom of
the world, and covet the wise foolishness of God...
But contrawise they are 'fools' and 'base' men, who while28
in following themselves ... flee from the wisdom Above.
Both Jerome and Gregory, then, in their praise of the Christian
fool's humility, meekness, and innocence, manifest a kinship in
their views to the concept of wise folly which characterizes the
Similar to the type of folly praised by Jerome and Gregory,
is Thom~as a Kempis' praise of a life dedicated to the imitation of
Christ. In his influential treatise entitled Of the Imitation of Christ,
the fifteenth-century monk relates the idea of Christian folly to the
concept of contemptus mundi.29 Man exhibits the highest kind of wisdom,
Kempis writes in the first chapter of his treatise, by "despising ..
this world in order7 to draw daily nearer and nearer to the kingdom
of heaven" (Imitatio, 1.1.6). Like Jerome and Gregory, Kempis instructs
man to be humble: "thou mayst not right wisely think thyself learned
but oughtest rather to confess thine ignorance and folly" (Laiatio
1.2.6), for "if thou wilt be exalted in heaven, humble thee here on
earth" (Imitatio, 3.56.207). By imitating Christ, he argues, the
humble man will "receive in short time more perfectly the true wisdom
of God, than another that studieth ten years in schools and lacketh
meekness" (Imitatio, 3.63.178).
Emblematic of the entire Imitatio, the chapter entitled "That
we should eschew vain secular learning" indicates how Kempis' view
of Christian folly is both similar to, and different from, the kind
of Christian folly praised by Tertullian and his more theologically
radical disciples. After quoting First Corinthians 6.20 ("For the
kingdom of God is not in word, but in power"), Kempis paraphrases
Psalm 98.10 ("I am He that teacheth man knowledgee":
When thou hast read and understood many doubts, yet
nevertheless it behoveth thee to come to one who is the
beginning of all things, that is God himself, and else
thy knowledge shall little avail thee.
I am he that teacheth a man wisdom and giveth more
understanding to meek persons, than can be given by man's
teaching. And he to whom I speak shall soon be made wise
and much shall he profit in spirit (Imitatio, 3.83.173-7h).
Kempis' assertion that the "natural wisdom" of "meek persons" exceeds
the acquired learning of learned men echoes Matthew 11.25 and parallels
the arguments of Jacopone and Bernard that God rejects the learned in
favor of the simple-minded as receptacles of His wisdom. Deviating
from the idea of Christian folly praised by members of the "Tertullian
family," however, Kempis suggests that man achieves the wisdom of
folly after he has experienced the folly of wisdom ("when thou hast
read and understood many doubts"). In his deviation from the Tertul-
lian school, Kempis may be seen as a transitional figure among the
praisers of folly. While in agreement with those advocating Grace
alone as sufficient for salvation, Kempis, to an extent less than St.
Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa, anticipates the type of Christian
folly praised by Erasmus and Rabelais. For these two Renaissance
humanists, as we shall see, man chooses the wisdom of Christian folly
only after recognizing the limitations of worldly wisdom.
For Kempis, then, man becomes "wise in spirit" by imitating
Christ's humility and charity: "not to presume of himself, and
always to judge and to think well and blessedly of others, is a sign
and a token of great wisdom" (Imitatio, 1.2.6). Kempis' central
thesis that man should emulate the life of Christ because His teach-
ing is superior to that of the worldly wise is reflected throughout
the Imitatio and informs his statement of Christian folly.30 Like
Gregory's "noble" fool, Kempis' neophyte in the school of true
wisdom sacrifices his reason before the omniscience of Christ the
teacher, while learning that the way to divine wisdom is through
the folly of humility. Kempis' importance to the tradition of
Christian folly should not be overlooked, Walter Kaiser reminds us,
for both "Kempis and Nicholas of Cusa gave the medieval world its
final theological apologies for the fool" (Kaiser, p. 9).
Thus far we have noted the general agreement among members
of the so-called "Tertullian family" concerning the type of Christian
folly which they praised as an alternative to worldly wisdom. We
have also seen that some members of the loosely related "Tertullian
family," such as Thomas a Kempis, have expressed a type of folly less
radical than that expressed by Tertullian or Jacopone. To a lesser
extent than his school companion at Deventer, Nicholas of Cusa,
Kempis anticipates the concept of wise folly which Kaiser shows is
peculiar to the Renaissance.31 A fuller understanding of the Renais-
sance concept of wise folly may be achieved by pointing out how it
emerged from the Augustinian concept of "learned" or "knowing ignor-
ance" (docta ignorantia).
Although Augustine's version of Christian folly is similar in
many minor respects to the version expressed by the "Tertullian
family," the Augustinian concept of Christian folly radically differs
from that of the "Tertullian family" in one major respect. Whereas
Tertullian would argue that the fool for Christ must sacrifice his
reason to be worthy of receiving divine wisdom, Augustine would main-
tain that man can be a Christian fool and still exercise his reason
in pursuit of temporal things (scientia) provided that he perceive
that the knowledge of temporal things is only a step on the ladder
leading to sapientia or wisdom--"the contemplation of things
Underlying Augustine's idea of Christian folly is his concept
of docta ignorantia, a paradoxical phrase which indicates the distinc-
tion between human and divine wisdom." As expressed in one of his
letters, "knowing ignorance /Fs7 an ignorance taught by the spirit of
God which comes to the help of our weakness" (Fathers, XVIII, 398).
This "knowing ignorance" manifests itself in the believer's ability
to comprehend, to some degree, the mysteries of the faith. For
example, even though the trinity is "far removed from the hearts of
the prideful wise," Augustine writes in a letter entitled "On the
Presence of God," it is not removed "from Christian hearts;
consequently not from the truly wise" (Fathers, 111, 237).
Other statements expressing the Augustinian concept of
Christian folly appear in various sermons and commentaries on Pauline
texts. For example, the sermon entitled "On the Resurrection of the
Body, against the Pagans," develops the Pauline argument that folly
is a stepping stone to wisdom (I Cor. 1.18). "If the wisdom of this
world is foolishness in the eyes of God," Augustine argues, "then how
far from God is the true foolishness of the world?" (Fathers, IIXVIII,
2L3) Christian folly is distinguished from the "true foolishness of
the world," however, because it is a "foolishness .. which has led
to God, concerning which the Apostle says: 'since, in God's wisdom,
the world did not come to know God by "wisdom," it pleased God, by
the foolishness of our preaching, to save those who believe'"
(Fathers, XXXVIII, 293).
The Augustinian concept of Christian folly becomes more
apparent in Augustine's correspondence with his boyhood friend Bishop
Evodius. In a letter to Augustine, circa brlS, Evodius asks Augustine
to comment upon the various meanings of wisdom, such as "God is
wisdom, the wise mind is wisdom; and how it is spoken of as light,
as the wisdom of Beseleel .. as the wisdom of Solomon or any other,
and how they differ from each other" (Fathers, XX, 363). Augustine
replies that God has blessed "the clean of heart, for they shall see
iinJ, and then comments upon the necessity for the foolishness of
This foolishness of preaching and 'foolishness of God which
is wiser than men' draws many to salvation, and so, not
only those who are not yet able to perceive with sure under-
standing the nature of God which they hold by faith, but
also those who do not yet distinguish in their own mind
incorporeal substance from the common nature of the body,
and do not know how to live, know, and will, are still not
deprived of salvation which that foolishnes kof preaching
bestows on the faithful (Fathers, XXX, $3).
The words "those who are not yet able to perceive with sure
understanding the nature of God which they hold by faith" epitomize
the distinction between Augustine's concept of Christian folly and
that of Tertullian and his disciples. The phrases "with sure under-
standing" and "hold by faith" express the Augustinian dictum that
whereas faith is a prerequisite to understanding, "understanding is
the reward of faith."3 Summarizing the relationship between
understanding and faith in Augustinian thought, Gilson argues that,
...we are invited by Revelation itself to believe,
that unless we believe we shall not understand; /End7 that
far from inviting us to do away with reason, the Gospel
itself has promised to all those who seek truth in the
revealed word the reward of understanding (Gilson, p. 20).
Unlike Tertullian, Gilson continues, Augustine encouraged the
"passionate effort to investigate the mysteries of Revelation by the
natural light of reason" (Gilson, p. 18). Whereas Tertullian con-
demas all wisdom except faith in "the foolishness of God," Augustine
rejects only that misuse of wisdom which manifests itself in
condemning the cross:
I would say .. that wisdom is not to be avoided
because there is also false wisdom, to which Christ
crucified is foolishness, though He is 'the power of
God and the wisdom of God' (Fathers, XVIII, 306-5).
Thus, although St. Augustine expresses several common aspects of the
idea of Christian folly, such as the contrast between worldly wisdom
and divine wisdom, he clearly does not exhibit the extremism of those
like Tertullian who demand that man completely humiliate his reason
in order to qualify as a receptacle of divine wisdom.
The fifteenth-century treatise-writer Nicholas of Cusa is
known not only as St. Augustine's spiritual descendant, but also, along
with Thomas a Kempis, as an instrumental figure in laying "the
philosophical foundations for the concept of the wisdom of folly" in
the Renaissance. In the Augustinian tradition, Cusa uses the para-
doxical concept of docta ignorantia, as F. Edward Crans notes, to
"vanquish the proud spirit of reason" (Cranz, 131). In a passage from
De docta ignorantia, which first appeared in 1W10, one year after
Kempis' Imitatio,3 Cusa explains that the highest manifestation of
"learned ignorance" is its ability to comprehend the fact that God's
word is incomprehensible:
This knowledge of its incomprehensibility is the most
joyful and desirable comprehension, not as it relates to
the comprehender, but to the loveliest treasure of his
life. For if any man should love anything because it were
lovable, he would be glad that in the lovable there should
be found infinite and inexpressible causes of love ..
This is the most joyful comprehension of the incomprehensible
and lovable learned ignorance: to know partially and yet to
have no perfect knaowledge.39
In agreement with other advocates of Christian folly, Cusa
argues that God "cannot be apprehended within the context of this
world, /ror7 here we are led by reason, opinion, or doctrine from
the better known to the less known by symbols; whereas he is grasped
only when movement ceases and faith takes its place."0 In the
eleventh chapter of Of Learned ignorance, entitled "The Mysteries of
Faith," Cusa further develops the idea that only the simple and
humble are fit receptacles for God's wisdom by alluding to Matthew
11.25: "The greatest and profoundest mysteries of God, though hidden
from the wise, may be revealed to little ones and humble folk living
in the world by their faith in Jesus: for in Jesus are hidden all the
treasures of wisdom and knowledge, so that without Him no man can do
anything" (Cusa, p. 161). Cusa's contribution to the tradition, how-
ever, lies neither in his similarity to the advocates of Christian
folly in general, nor to Augustine, in particular. Among the praisers
of Christian folly, Cusa is most important in providing the Renaissance
with an "oxymoronic concept of the wise fool."b
In light of Walter Kaiser's full-length treatment of the
Erasmian and Rabelaisian concept of wise folly, any attempt here to
expand upon what has already been so admirably done would be superflu-
ous. It may be useful, however, to summarize briefly what Kaiser has
said about the Renaissance concept of wise folly, particularly since
Stern's Tristram may be seen as a maverick descendant of the Renais-
sance wise fool. It may also be useful to conclude the second section
of this chapter by seeing how Sir Thomas Mlore, whom Erasmus con-
sidered the exemplary Christian fool, embodied the oxymoronic concept
of wise folly.
While Erasmus' persona, Stultitia, devotes the first part of
her oration to ironically praising the "foolish folly" (as distinct
from "wise folly") of her many followers--"the number of fools is
infinite," she reminds her audience by quoting Solomon--she laces her
satire with sympathy for mankind. Her equivocal attitude toward folly
is evident in her very appearance. Ridiculing human folly by ironi-
cally praising its many forms, Stultitia stands before her audience
dressed not in the lofty robes of the academician, but in the simple
garb of the fool. "Even when Stultitia turns her invective against
her followers," Walter Kaiser reminds us, "we are aware that it is
done out of pity for the victims of such fools--and not wholly without
pity for the fools themselves" (Kaiser, p. 99). Emnblematic of her
attitude toward human folly is her observation that men listen to
"clowns and jesters" (Folly, p. 101), but sleep through sermons,
because "to live in folly, to err, to be deceived, and to be ignorant
. .. is . to be human" (Folly, p. 122).
But if Stultitia ironically praises all kinds of folly, she
seriously praises one kind in part~icular--thae wise folly of the fool
for Christ. In contrast to the foolish folly of the scholastic,
Stultitia holds up as a norm the wise folly of Paul, "who could
present faith .. but .. did not define it doctorally" (Folly,
p. 16).Significantly, Stultitia cites Paul as the great advocate
of wise folly, for, like Stultitia, Paul taught the lessons of wisdom
although he publicly claimed to "speak as a fool" (II Cor. 11.23).L2
as soon as she quotes from Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, Walter
Kaiser observes, her "tone changes once more, _rangf a new and higher
seriousness enters her jest" (Kaiser, p. 87).
Because she is a wise fool, Stultitia holch up the perfection
of St. Paul's Christian folly as a norm to gauge the foolishness of
this world's wisdom. The Christian basis of her concept of wise folly
is epitomized by her observation that "the whole of the Christian
religion seems to have a certain relationship with some kind of folly
but fails to agree at all with wisdom" (Folly, p. 169). Some fools,
however, never make the distinction between foolish and wise folly
and thus fail to achieve the transcendent vision of the Christian
fool. One such imperfect fool is Rabelais' Panurge.
Like Stultitia, Walter Kaiser remarks, Panurge is "the fool
as court jester, the fool as companion, the fool as goad to the wise
and challenge to the virtuous, the fool as critic of the world"
(Kaiser, p. 127). However, "in the last analysis," Kaiser continues,
Panurge "is not so perfect a fool as she, for he lacks the ultimate
wisdom of folly. .. That final wisdom is .. reserved for
someone else. At the end of the book, as at the beginning, it is
Pantagruel, not Panurge, who possesses Stultitia's highest wisdom"
(Kaiser, p. 127). In Book III of The Histories of Gargantua and
Pantagruel, the Rabelaisian idea of Christian folly emerges from the
dialectical interaction of the two fools, Panurge and Pantagruel.
A "fool may well give lessons to a wise man," the wise fool Pantagruel
says to his foolish, but not as wise counterpart, and the entire third
Book may well be seen as "a story of education du fou."
Rather than tell Panurge, Pantagruel attempts to show him
that Christian folly is the highest wisdom. At the beginning of Book
III, Panurge asks Pantegruel whether or not he should marry. Desiring
Panurge to reach his own decision, Pantagruel suggests that Panurge
must first know himself and that "all the rest is fortuitous and
depends on the disposition of the heavenly fates" (R., 3.10.313).L
Because he does not know himself, however, Panurge seeks the answer to
his question from various classical sources of truth, such as
Virgilian lots, the divination of his dreams, and a siby1. The climax
of Panurge's quest for truth comes in his meeting with a theologian,
a doctor, and a philosopher, all representing different kinds of
human wisdom. The failure of these representatives of human wisdom
in providing Panurge with a satisfactory answer is epitomized in the
dialogue between Panurge and the philosopher, "Words pinner ." The
dialogue begins as Pantagruel poses the question of whether Panurge
should marry or not.
'Both,' replied Wordspinner.
'hat are you saying to me?' asked Panurge.
'hat you heard,' replied Wordspinner.
'hat did I hear?' demanded Panurge.
'hat I said,' replied Wordspinner (R., 3.35.386-85).
As indicated by his conversation with "Wordspinner," Panurge
does not realize that self-knowledge is a necessary step on the road
to wisdom. Walter Kaiser reminds us that Panurge
...must accept the fact that he does not and cannot kn~ow,
and leave the rest to God; but God will not assist him until
he has achieved the wisdom of knowing that he is a fool.
As long as he rests in the doubt of worrying whether or not
he will be cuckolded, he is an unfit receptacle for the grace
of God. That is what Pantagruel had told him at the outset:
that he should make up his mind whether or not he wishes to
get married and them follow his will, prepared to leave the
question of cuckoldry to God and equally prepared to accept
whatever God determines. The problem is, of course, that he
cannot make up his mind and cannot be "assured of his will"
about getting married until he is able to accept his own
ignorance about the future. As long as he tries to deter-
mine the future, so long will the future worry him and
prevent his will from being free.
Panurge never learns the lesson that the events of the
Tiers Livre ought to teach him, however, and his final
appearance, when he confronts the fool Triboullet, is intended
to show us that (Kaiser, p. 176).
Dissatisfied with the answers of the wise, Panurge is
rescued from despair by Pantagruel's suggestion that he should "take
counsel of some fool" (R., 3.37.390). The argument that Pantagruel
offers for seeking wisdom from a fool echoes the teaching of the
wise fool Stultitia that man must reject this world's wisdom before
he can achieve the transcendent wisdom of Christian folly. In order
to be wise "in the estimation of the celestial spirits," Pantagruel
tells Panurge, a "man must forget himself . rid his senses of all
earthly affection .. and view everything with unconcern: all of
which are commonly supposed to be symptoms of folly" (R., 3.37.390-91).
Unlike the answers given Panurge by the representatives of
worldly wisdom at the symposium, the cryptic answer of the fool,
Triboullet ("By God, God, mad fool, beware of the monk!")6 carries
the weight of divine prophecy. As Walter Kaiser points out,
. is a "natural" fool, a witless individual with no
capacity for reason ,. ... But .. he is capable of
being a receptacle for the wisdom of God--a potentiality
that Pantagruel made clear when he first suggested him,
explaining that a fool could be "not only sage, but /Eble7
to presage Events to come by Divine Inspiration" (Kaiser,
During his meeting with Panurge, Triboullet reveals his divinely
inspired prophetic abilities when, "with a violent wag of fis7
head," he denounces Panurge as a "mad fool" and warns him to
"beware of the monk" (R., 3.6$.6l12). Triboullet calls Panurge a
"mad fool" because Panurge pompously "expound/ 7 his problem to
Triboullet in rhetorical and elegant language" (R., 3.8$.612),
thereby indicating his desire "to receive some putative source of
wisdom" instead of "being prepared to receive the decree of
heaven."Paradoxically, then, the "fool" Triboullet wisely per-
ceives that the source of Panurge's problem during his entire quest
for truth is his failure to know himself. Triboullet's warning
about the monk is a direct response to Panurge's often-posed question
about being cuckolded. Significantly, as Fantagruel reminds Panurge
(R., 3.6~6.lr16), it is Triboullet, and not the worldly wise men, who
both exhibits the power of divine prophecy and provides Panurge with
an answer about the danger posed by the licentious monk.
The contrast between Pantagruel's ability to perceive the
wisdomn of Triboullet's folly and Pan~urge's failure to do so is further
suggested by the various interpretations which Pantagruel and Panurge
assign to Triboullet's violent head-wagging. Whereas Pantagruel main-
tains that Triboullet's epileptic movement was "caused by the invasion
and inspiration of the prophetic spirits which shook it" (R., 3.6$.
L12-13), Panurge dismisses it as a sign of Triboullet's unwise folly.
"He's a fool all right," Panurge says of Triboullet, "and I am a
perfect fool for explainiing mry thoughts to him" (R., 3.6$.612). "To
be sure," Kaiser argues, both Panurge and Triboullet "are fools, but
they are quite different kinds of fools" (Kaiser, p. 176). Panurge
is a fool because, in his frustrated rage with the antics of
Triboullet, he refuses to accept Triboullet's judgment that he
(Panurge) is a fool. It is worth recalling K~aiser's observation that
"God will not assist /Panurgg until he has achieved the wisdom of
knowing that he is a fool" (Kaiser, p. 171r). Because Panurge rejects
Triboullet's judgment that he is a fool, he therefore becomes incapable
of accepting the possibility that the power of divine prophecy could
reside in a fool.
Unlike Panurge, Pantagruel knows that the wisdom of Christian
folly is reserved only for those who can perceive the limitations of
what this world calls wisdom. Whereas the depressed Panaurge knows no
more about himself at the end of the Third Book than at the beginning
of his quest for truth, Pantagruel's knowledge of the wisdom of folly
enables him to become "the exemplar and paragon of perfect jollity"
(R., 3.51.L26). Because he kn~ows that worldly wisdom is not a substi-
tute for self-knowledge, Pantagruel, and not Panurge, manifests what
Walter Kaiser calls "the true happiness .. /97 .. Christian
folly" (Kaiser, p. 181).
Summarizing: the similarity between the Rabelaisian and Erasmian
versions of Christian folly, Walter Kaiser cogently remarks that
...in Rabelais' hands, the Erasmian fool is split up.
By means of her irony, Stultitia was able simultaneously to
be the foolish and the wise fool; but when, in the drama of
Rabelais' narrative, these two contradictory types of fool
confront each other, each is personified by a separate
character. Foolish and wise folly are dynamically opposed
in the dialectic between Panurge and Pantagruel.. .
Such a bifurcation does not, however, signify any substantial
difference between Erasmus' and Rabelais' concepts of the
fool: it is simply the artistic result dictated by two
different modes of presentation (Kaiser, pp. 127-28).
The Erasmian and Rabelaisian ideas of wise folly may become more mean-
ingful if they are presented in the light of the words and deeds of
Sir Thomas More, who personified for his age the humanistic concept
of wise folly.
The relationship of Sir Thomas More to Erasmus' The Praise of
Folly is well kn~own. More's family name literally means "fool" in
Greek, and, Walter Kaiser reminds us, "it was in More's house that
the Moriae encomium was written; it was at his suggestion that it
was expanded; and it is to him that it is dedicated" (Kaiser, p. 27).
In his dedication to The Praise of Folly, Erasmus explains the nature
of More's proximity to folly: "your family name of More . is as
close to the Greek word for folly as you are far from the meaning of
the word" (Folly, p. 99).
The irony of Erasmus' dedication is that while More was far
from being a foolish or worldly fool, he embodied the wise type of
Christian folly praised by his fellow humanist, Erasmus. Indeed,
More, who kept a fool as part of his household, seems to have exempli-
fied for Erasmus the perfect combination of wisdom and folly fitting
a Renaissance man of this world who did not neglect his duty to the
next. In one of his letters (Epist. W17, to Ulrich von Hulten, 1519),
Erasmus points out that More was "a second Democritus, always full of
gaiety, excelling in witty repartees, and conversing with ease with
men in every rank of life." More's public speeches, as recorded by
his biographer and son-in-law, William Roper, bear out his friend's
observation and secure More's reputation as a wise jester in public
office. For example, in a speech before Henry VIII soon after his
appointment as speaker of Commons, the learned More hoped that his
"simpleness and Folly" would not "hinder or impair" the "prudent
devises and affaires" of Commons.
Moress favor with Henry, who employed him as an adviser and
speech-maker because of his wisdome and learning" (Roper's Life,
p. 22), waned as soon as More staunchly opposed the King's declara-
tion of supremacy as the head of the Church of England. His
opposition to Henry's means of validating his marriage to Anne Boleyn
first cost More the loss of public office and royal favor, and soon
led to his imprisonment and execution. More's actions and statements
during this period of his life merit attention because they dramatically
illustrate his stature as a fool for Christ.
Typical of More's reaction to his loss of political and social
prestige was his proclamation to his family of "what an happie and
blessed thing it was, for the love of god, to suffer losse of goods,
imprisonment, losse of lands and life also" (Roper's Life, p. 56).~
To More, man's religious duty and the imminent possibility of martyrdom
were not matters for jest. His life-long dedication to the teachings
of the Church and his unpretentious personal faith51 exemplify the
highest standards of Christian folly.
During one of his wife's visits to the Tower of London, his
place of imprisonment, More demonstrated the high seriousness of his
religious conviction. Upon seeing a priest and three monks marching
to their execution for opposing Henry's Act of Supremacy, More envied
their cheerfulness in goinge to their deaths as bridegroomes to
their Mariage" (Roper's Life, p. 80). More's envy of the condemned
men is characteristic of the spirit of Christian folly. Typical of
the cautiousness of worldly prudence is his wife's condemnation of
his course of action:
I mervaile that you, that have bine alwaies hitherto
taken for so wise a man, will nowe so play the foole
to lye heare in this close, filthy prison .. when
you might be abroad at you're liberty (Roper's Life,
In the eyes of his wife, as in the eyes of the world, More was
a fool because he refused to sacrifice his personal standards and his
faith for the rewards of this world. If More is judged not by worldly
standards, but by the Pauline-Erasmian paradox that worldly wisdom is
folly, and Christian folly is wisdom, his apparently absurd actions
form the basis of a transcendent faith in God's grace. Right up to
the last few moments of his life, More was the perfect wise fool. After
the death sentence was passed against him, he prayed for his judges
and reminded them of Saint Paul who "consented to the death of St.
Stephen, and kepte their clothes /L~e., the clothes of St. Stephen's
attackers that stoned him to death" (Roper's Life, p. 96). There-
after, More fervently wished to die on9 the Eve of St. Thom8as;
expressed sincere gratitude to the King for ridding him so soon "of
the miseries of this wretched world" (Roper's Life, p. 100); and
sent his executioner "one Angell of gold" (Roper's Life, p. 102).
All of More's actions set the stage for his final jest in
which the comic and the serious are perilously balanced in true
Erasmian fashion. Noting that the scaffold at the place of execution
was so weak that it was about to fall, More observed: "'I pray you,
master Leiuetenaunte, see me salf vppe, and for m~y coming down let
me shifted for my self'" (Roper's Life, p. 103). A fool who goaded
vain authority on the one hand, More was simultaneously a profound
Christian on the other, for he desired that the crowd pray for him
and bear witness that he was dying "in and for the faith of the holy
catholik church" (Roper's Life, p. 103). Only after his affirmation
of martyrdom did More "put his beard out of the way when he laid his
head on the block, remarking to the headsman, that it at least had
not committed treason."$
More's jests do not negate the horror of his execution, but they
do make bearable the absurdity of its occurrence. By the same token,
his jests do not negate his martyrdom, for More provided the Renaissance
with the living example of Christian folly. In his life and death,
then, Sir Thomas More demonstrated the Pauline doctrine that the folly
of Christianity is the highest wisdom. In addition, More showed that
Christian folly was more than an abstract theological concept, for he
made it a concrete way of life in this world. The manifestation of the
tradition in this world is the legacy which More and the Renaissance
humanists provided to posterity, and it is to the way in which some
late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century writers treated this
legacy that we turn next.
In Book VIII of Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael expresses
a Miltonic version of the Augustinian concept of "learned ignorance"
when he instructs Adam to be "lowlie wise" and to "think onely what
concerns /FWim7 and /Eis7 being" (VIII, 173-71r). Echoing the words
of Paul in Romans 1.22 ("Professing themselves to be wise, they
became fools"), Milton's Raphael warns Adam in Book VII that the abuse
of carnal knowledge "soon turns/Wisdom to Folly" (VII, 129-30). One
of the strongest arguments for embracing one of the forms of Christian
folly, such as "learned ignorance" or "lowlie wisdom," is precisely
Milton's reminder that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge often leads
to folly in the eyes of God. Seventeenth-century Anglican divines,
such as Henry Hammond and Robert South, and the French moralist,
Nicolas Malebranche,56 also reminded man that while abuses in carnal
wisdom lead to folly in the eyes of God, Christian folly is the high-
est wisdom. A brief examination of the expressions of the concept of
Christian folly appearing in the works of these late seventeenth-
century writers will provide a clearer understanding of Sterne's use
of Christian folly in the eighteenth century.
The form of Christian folly which appears in Milton's Paradise
Lost--the concept of "lowlie wisdom"--emerges from the contrast
between the two opposing conceptions of wisdom held by Satan and by
Adam, at the end of the poem. Even after the defeat of his rebellious
forces at the hands of God's angels, Satan feels that wisdom lies in
disobeying God by attempting to subvert His plan for mankind. As the
angel Gabriel scornfully warns Satan in Book IV, however, Satan's
"wisdom" in leaving Hell and attempting to subvert the divine plan is
So judge thou still, presumptuous, till the wrath,
Which thou incurr'st by flying, meet thy flight
Sevenfold, and scourge that wisdom back to Hell (IV, 912-1L).
For Satan, then, wisdom lies in the exercise of revenge and
force. On the other hand, Adam sees, at the end of the poem, that
wisdom is to "love with feare the onely God" (XII, 561). By grasp-
ing the paradox of Christian folly--that God, "by things deem'd weak/
SubvertLs7 worldly strong, and worldly wise/By simply meek" (XII,
567-69),7 Adam attains nothing less than "the summe of wisdom"
In Paradise Lost, the idea of Christian folly, which appears
as Milton's concept of "lowlie wisdom," is a further example of the
continuation of the tradition of Christian folly in imaginative
literature. In general, however, the most common expressions of the
idea of Christian folly in the seventeenth century appeared in the
Biblical commentaries and sermons upon Pauline texts by Anglican
divines. The commentaries of Henry Hammond, Daniel Whitby, and
John LockeS are relevant to this discussion of Christian folly
because they contain some of the terms which preachers such as Robert
South and Sterne himself use in translating the idea of Christian
folly out of the realm of Scriptural exegesis and into the sphere of
seventeenth and eighteenth-century life. In his commentary upon
Paul's Epistles, Hammond, chaplain to King Charles I, glosses the
"wise" men and scribes mentioned in I Cor. 1.20 as the "philosophers
and learned or searching men . .J~hose7 deep wisdom of the world ..
is absolute folly" in comparison with "the doctrine of Christ."6
To John Locke, the "wisdom of the world" which Paul denounces in First
Corinthians is "the knowledge, arts, and sciences attainable by man's
natural parts and faculties; such as man's wit could find out,
cultivate and improve,"6 and to Hammond, the wisdom of the world
which Paul attacks in I Cor. 1.19 is "an habit of science or prudence"
(Hammond, p. 512). As Daniel Whitby sums up in his "Preface" to
A Paraphrase and Comrmentary upon St. Paul's First Epistle to the
Corinthians, "the Apostle spends the latter part of the first chapter
LFe., of First Corinthians/7, from verse twenty to the end, in showing
the vanity of the wisdom which the philosophers pretended to, in
comparison to the wisdom discovered by the Gospel, preached by the
Apostles" (p. 101).
In a sermon preached at Westminister Abbey on April 30, 1676,
Robert South presents the idea of Christian folly in terms of the
contrast between the worldly prudence of "policy . /hic 7 con-
sists in a certain dexterity or art of managing business for a man's
secular advantage"62 on the one hand, and the divine "folly of being
sincere, and without guile; without traps and snares in our converse"
(South, p. 371), on the other. South points out that "the wisdom of
the world . is taken in Scripture, in a double sense . that
sort of wisdom, that consists in speculation; called Philosophy...
(pn 7 such a wisdom as lies in practice, and goes commonly by the
name of policy" (South, p. 335). To south, it is this latter kind of
wisdom which Paul "intended in the text; namely, that practical
cunning that shows itself in political matters, and has in it the
mystery of a trade or craft" (South, p. 336).63
The first part of South's sermon consists of a discussion of
the four "principles" by which "policy or wisdom governs its actions"
(South, p. 336). The first is dissimulation; the second, the notion
"that conscience, and religion ought to lay no restraint upon men at
all, when it lies opposite to the prosecution of their interest"
(South, p. 336); the third, "that a man ought to make himself, and
not the public, the chief, if not the sole end of all his actions"
(South, p. 31r6); and the fourth, "that in showing kindness .. no
respect at all is to be had to friendship .. sense of honor; but
that such favors are to be done only to the rich or potent, from whom
a man may receive a further advantage" (South, p. 31r6).
In the second part of his sermon, South demonstrates "the folly
and absurdity" of the four principles by which policy governs its
actions "in relation to God" (South, p. 352). From the perspective of
God, man is foolish for following these principles, for, in the first
place, he "pitch Es? upon such an end which7 is unsuitable to his
condition" and second, he "pitch/Es7 upon means unsuitable to the com-
passing of his end" (South, p. 352). "There is folly enough in either
of these," South continues, "and mly business shall be to show, that
such as act by the fore-mentioned rules of worldly-wisdom, are eminently
foolish upon both accounts" (South, p. 362). In opposition to these
principles for success in the world, which the world applauds as wisdom,
South exhorts his audience to embrace his version of the idea of
Let us not be ashamed of the folly of being sincere,
and without guile; without traps and snares in our converse;
of being fearful to build our estates upon the ruin of our
consciences . .. I say, let us not blush to be found
guilty of all these follies, (as some account them) rather
than be expert in that kind of wisdom, that God himself ...
has pronounced to be earthly, sensual, devilish; and of the
wretched absurdity of which, all histories .. have given
us such .. convincing examples (South, p. 371).
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the idea of
Christian folly also took the form of a reaction against neo-stoicism.
Raie Blanchard reminds us that "the Stoic exaltation of reason had been
revived at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the
seventeenth .. and was still a potent force at the time Steele
wrote."6 According to the neo-stoics, the wise man comsbats his
passions by means of his reason. In the words of one propagandist for
Reason is then Man's only benefit; he must use it to
climbe heaven, he must consult it to govern his Life, and
if he do but hearken unto her, he shall be vertuous, and
tame the most insolent of his Passions.65
For the advocates of such byper-rationalism, the doctrines of
Christianity were all but worthless. As one writer sums up,
.. neo-stoicism /Is7 . made for rational people,
for intellectuals who rationalize everything; their faith
and the deeds which it prescribes for them, but who will
never have the folly of the cross. Neo-stoicism is finally
a Christian rationalism, in which Christianity does n
always appear as essential, but rather as superadded
The reaction of Christian apologists to the dictums of neo-
stoicism may be viewed, in part, as an attempt to eulogize those who
possessed and rejoiced in "the folly of the cross." In The Christian
Hero (1701), for example, Richard Steele describes the primitive
Christians as "the most truly Gallant and Heroick _/meg7 that ever
appeared to mankind."6 Another defense of Christianiity, Nicolas
Malebranche's Treatise concerning the Search after Truth, rejects
the wisdom of the stoic's virtue in favor of the folly of the early
Christians' faith. In the chapter entitled "Of the Leagination of
Seneca," Malebranche states:
The Vertue of the Stoicks could never render them
impregnable; since 'tis not inconsistent with true Vertue
for a Man to be Miserable, and pitiable at the time of his
Suffering some evil: St. Paul and the Primitive Christians,
had doubtless more Vertue than Cato and all the Stoicks: and
yet they confess'd they were miserable through the Pains
they endur'd; though they were Happy through the Prospect
of an Eternal Retribution . .. Alas, poor Cato! thou
fanciest thy Vertue raises thee above all things: whereas
thy Wisdom is Folly, and thy Magnanimity abominable before
God; whatever the Wise-Men of the World may think of it
(Malebranche, p. 98).
Similar to the Patristic writers, medieval theologians, and
Renaissance humanists who preceded them, then, some of the late
seventeenth and early eighteenth-century apologists for orthodox
Christianity utilized the idea of Christian folly to combat the par-
ticular evils of their age. Tertullian presented Christian folly in
the form of intellectual humility vs. gnosticism; Cusa, in the form
of "learned ignorance" vs. scholasticism; Milton, in the form of
"lowlie wisdom" vs. forbidden knowledge; South, in the form of
sincerity and honesty vs. opportunism and "practical cunning"; and
Malebranche, in the form of piety and faith in providence vs.
stoical morality. Regardless of its various forms, the idea of
Christian folly is based upon the Pauline paradox that the foolish-
ness of God is wiser than the wisdom of this world. Both as a preach-
er and a novelist, Laurence Sterne incorporated some of these tradi-
tional forms of Christian folly into a norm against which he tested
the foolishness of this world.
1. The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, 2 vols., in The Writings of Laurence
Stern, T-r~h e Shakespeare Head Press ed. (Oxfor~d and New York, 1927)
Vol. II, p. $6. Subsequent references are to this edition and will
be cited hereafter as Sermons.
2. In Praisers of Folly (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), walter Kaiser
points ou-t th~a;t "all tru hrog the Middle Ages the tradition of the
Fool in Christ, whether articulated precisely as such or not, was
preserved by such figures as Gregory the Great, Scotus Erigena,
Francis of Assisi, Jacopone da Todi, and Raimond Lull" (pp. 8-9).
3. For a discussion of the distinction between the "Tertullian
family" and the "Augustine family" of Christian thought, see
Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York,
1938), pp. 8-33.
4. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Richard
Whitford, ed. Edward J. Klein (New York and London, 1961r), Book I,
chap. 1, p. L. Subsequent references are to this edition and will
be noted in the text as Imitatio.
$.St. Augustine, "Letter No. 120," trans, in The Fathers of the
Church, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari (Washington, D.C., 1965), vol.
XVIII, p. 30k. The title The Fathers of the Church will hereafter
appear as Fathers.
6. Kaiser, Praisers of Folly, p. 38.
7. Quoted by Kaiser, Praisers of Folly, p. 88.
8. W~illiam Wycherley, Works, ed. Montague Summers (Soho, 1926),
vol. III, p. 25.
9. Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, trans. John P. Dolan in The
Essential Erasmus (New York, 1966), pp. 162-63. Subsequent
references are to this edition and will be cited hereafter as
10. In The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge, Mass., 1958),
E~ugene F. Rice, Jr.,observes that "since Paul named Christ 'the
power of God and the wisdom of God' /1 Cor. 1.23-2L7 and
Augustine elaborated this suggestion into coherent -doctrine in the
De Trinitate, this identification had been a Christian commonplace"
11. Earle Ellis, Paul's Use of the Old Testament (Edinburgh, 1957),
12. For a discussion of those who had "absolute conviction in the
self-sufficiency of Christian Revelation," see Gilson, pp. 8-16.
1.Francois Amiot, The Key Conce ts of St. Paul, trans. John
Dingle (New York, 1962), p. 129.
116. Tertullian, The Body of Christ, trans. in The Ante-Nicene
Fathers (Buffalo, N.Y., 1885), vol. III, p. 639.~ ----
15. In his Essays on Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle
well be that this famous Father maintained simply that man could
not completely humiliate himself before God, so long as he retained
his reasoning powers. The belief in the absurd is a belief in the
Incarnation and Resurrection, and the words .. 'Certum est quia
impossible est,' and 'Prorsus credibile est quia ineptum est,'
may be taken as a sacrifice of human reason analogous to the
sacrifices demanded by the vows of chastity and obedience" (p. 121).
16. James M. Edie, "Faith as Extistential Choice," in Christianity
and Existentialism, ed. William Earle et al (Evanston, Ill., 1963),
17. Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, III, 525.
19. Ibid., p. 526.
20. Ibid., p. 660.
21. Quoted by Gilson, p. 8. Cf. Tertullian, On Prescription
Against Heretics, Chapter VII: 'What indeed has Athens to d with
Jerus3JaleWa concord is there between the Academly and the
Church? what between heretic and Christians?" (quoted by Gilson, p. 9)
22. Gilson, p. 8.
23. Jacopone da Todi, "How It Is The Highest Wisdom To Be Reputed Mad
For The Love Of Christ," trans. Mrs. Theodore Beck, in Evelyn Underhill,
Jacopone da Todi: A1 Spiritual Biography (London, 1919), p. 283.
26. Saint Jerome, B. Pauli ad Corinthios prima, Patrologiae cursus
completus... Series Latina, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1878l-1890),
vol. XX, col. 726:
Illic proprie mundi increpat sapientes, quos humana
sapientia non permittebat entire divine, Aliter: Si quis ad
reddendam vicem injuriae, si eadem fecerit, iputet se esse
sapientem, stultus fiat. In hoc enim saecula stultus est,
qui evangelica voluerit implere praecepta: Qui enim
percutienti aleram praebat maxillam: voluntate stultus est,
Nihil stultius est, quam ut velit se, qui non potest,
vindicare, et Deo suam non reservat injurium. Et ita de
contimelia vindictum apud Deum perdet, et de patientia
I am indebted to Professor Joseph Brunet, of The
University of Florida, for translating Jerome's commentary on
I Cor, 3.18-19.
25. Bibliorum Sacrorum, luxta Vulgatum Clementinam. Nova Editio
(The Vatican, 1959), p. 1070.
26. Barbara Swain, Fools and Folly During the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance (New York~, 19'~'3i2), p. 36
27. Miss Swain cites the following passage from Gregory's Moralium
libri sive exposito in librum B. Job (PL, LIKY, col. 967), in
which he describes the "innocent and pure life":
The wisdom of this world is, to conceal the truth of one's
heart by trickery, to veil one's meaning in words, to make those
things which are false appear to be true, to present the truth as
falsehood ,. . But on the other hand the wisdom of the just is,
to make no pretences for a show, to make plain one's meaning by one's
words, to pursue those things which are true, to shun the false, to
do good deeds gladly, to bear evil more willingly than to do it....
But this simplicity of the just is laughed to scorn, for worldly wise
men believe the virtue of purity to be foolish. Indeed all things
that are done innocently seem to them undoubtedly foolish (trans.
and quoted by Swain, pp. 198-99).
28. Gregory the Great, PL, IKYVI, col. 161-62, trans. and quoted
by Swain, pp. 199-200.
29. For a study of the concept of "the contempt of the world" and
its relevance to fourteenth-century English literature, see Donald
R. Howard, "The Contempt of the World: A Study in the Ideology of
Latin Christendom with Emphasis on Fourteenth Century English
Literature, unpubl. dissertation, University of Florida, 1951h.
30. In Chapter ILIII, for example, Kempis becomes a mask for
Christ: "I teach without sound of words, without diversity of
opinions, without desire of honour, and without strife and argu-
ments. I am he that teacheth all the people to despise earthly
things, to loathe things that be present /and7 co seek and to
savour eternal things" (Imitatio, 3.63.17'G).
31. For the influence of Kempis and Cusa on Erasmus, see Kaiser,
32. In his article, "Saint Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa in the
Tradition of Western Christian Thought," Speculum, XXVIII (1953),
297-316, F. Edward Cranz points out that "Augustine begins his
discussion of faith and wisdom by making a general distinction
between two types of knowledge. There are two offices of the mind,
the one higher and the one lower, and there are two corresponding
types of knowledge. In the first case, there is wisdom (sapientia),
devoted to the contemplation of things eternal; in the second case,
there is science (scientia), devoted to action in things temporal"
In De Trinitate (Bk. 13, chap. 19, para. 26), St. Augustine
maintains that Christ "places within us the faith of things temporal;
He exhibits to us the truth of things eternal. We move through Him
to Him. We move through science to wisdom" (quoted by Cranz,
33. For a discussion of Augustine's concept of wisdom, see Rice,
The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom, pp. 11-1L.
3.Cf. St. Augustine, The Divination of Demons: "In truth, the
Christians' very foolishness of ignorance ...to the humble and
the holy and to those diligently devoted to it appears the lofty
and the only true wisdom" (Fathers, XXVII, 839).
35. Gilson, p. 19.
36. Kaiser, p. 9.
38. For Cusa's identification of divine wisdom with the "incom-
prehensible word of God, see Eugene F. Rice, Jr., nNicholas of
Cusa's Idea of Wisdom," Traditio, IIII (1957), 385-68.
39* Quoted by Rice, "Nicholas of Cusa's Idea of Wisdom," 363.
Of. Cusa's "Sermon of 165L" where, after quoting Rom. 1.20 ("For
the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are
clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even
his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse"),
Cusa defines "knowing ignorance" as "'the sight of invisible things"'
(quoted by Crans, "Saint Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa," 312).
LO. Nicholas Cusanus, Of Learned Ignorance, trans. Germain Heron
(New Haven, Conn., 19596), p. 161.~----
1.Kaiser, p. 9.
62. Cf. I Cor. lr.10: "We /Epostles7 are fools for Christ's sake."
1(3. Kaiser, p. 127.
k.Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans.
J. M. Cohen (Batm'lt ;~;imoe 95) okIIIchater10,p. 1
Subsequent references are to t his edition and will be noted in the
6$. As Walter Kaiser points out, "the subject of the Tiers Livre is
truth and not, as has so generally been said, marriage" (Cp. 125)
66. R., 3.65.612.
87. Kaiser, p. 175.
~88 Quoted in The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sirs Leslie
Stephen and Sidney Lee (London, 191), vol. XIII, p. 886
lr9. William Roper, Esq., The Life of Sir Thomas Moorf; Knight, ed.
Elsie Vaughan Hitchcock (Lond_~on, 19~3?), p. 13. All subsequen
references are to this edition and will be noted as Roper's Life.
50. More may possibly have been thinking of Philippians 3.8, where
Paul states: "I count all things but loss for the excellency of
Christ Jesus m~y Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all
things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ." In his
sermon "Our Conversation in Heaven," based on Phil. 3.20, Sterne
exhorts his congregation to imitate the Apostle Paul's wise and
51. The day before his execution More sent his wife a letter
together with his hair-shirt, which he always wore, because he was
"not willing to haue it seene" (Roper's Life, p. 99).
52. Quoted in The Spectator, No. 3L9, ed. George Aitken (London,
1898), vol. V, p. 155 n.1.
53. John Milton, Paradise Lost, in The Student's Milton, ed. Frank
Allen Patterson (N~e~w York, 30, Book VIII, lines 173-76. Subse-
quent references are to this edition and will be noted in the text.
Sh. In reply to Boswell's question concerning which Biblical
commentators he should consult, Johnson replied: "I would recommend
Lowth and Patrick on the Old Testament and Hammond on the New"
(James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. L, F. Powell /ixford, 19367,
vol. III, p. 58). Hammond's A Paraphrase, and Annotations Upon All
the Books of the New Testament, first pullished~ in 165L, had~ gone
through its seventh edition in 1702,
55. Robert South was installed canon of Christ Church in 1670 and
was known for his use of humor in the pulpit and for his "direct...
dealing with the vices of the age" (DNB, XVIII, 686-85).
56. Malebranche's De la Recherche de la Verite first appears in
167L and passed through six editions during the-i~; author's lifetime.
It was first translated into English by T. Taylor (Oxford, 1696)
as Father Malebranche's Treatise Concerning the Search after Truth.
57. Cf. I Cor. 1.27: "For God hath chosen the foolish things of
the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things
of the world to confound the things which are mighty."
58. Daniel Whitby's A Paraphrase and Commentary upon all the Epistles
of the New Testament (London, 1700) went through eight editions in
the eighteenth century.
59. Sterne's general indebtedness to the "sagacious" Locke whom he
praises in Tristram Shandy is well known. Lansing van der Heyden
Hammond cites Sterne's particular indebtedness to Locke's theological
works in Laurence Sterne's 'Sermons of Mr. Yorick' (New Haven, 1968),
60. Henry Hammond, A Paraphrase and Annotations Upon all the Books
of the New Testament (London, 1659), p. 511. All subsequent refer-
ences are to this edition and will be cited in the text by the
author's name. Cf. Whitby's paraphrase of I Cor. 1.20: "What hath
been done by the wisdom of the philosopher, or by the Jewish doctor,
or by the searcher into Nature's secrets, to bring men to the true
knowledge of God, and of his will? Hath not God discovered their
wisdom to be but folly, in comparison of this way which he hath
chosen to bring men to the knowledge of himself?" (p. 113)
61. John Locke, A Paraphrase and Notes on St. Paul's First Epistle
to the Corinthians, in The Works of John LoPi~ncke (Londn, 1823)
vol. VIII, p. 86,
62. Robert South, Twelve Sermons Preached upon Several Occasions
(London, 1715), vol. I p. j33 All referencesareto i etin
and will be cited in hetext by the author's name.
63.o In his sermon on "The Advantages of Christianity to the World, "
Sterne expresses the falseness of worldly wisdom in terms similar to
South's: "The politicians of this world ... admit of no other
claims of wisdom, but the knowledge of men and business the little
man of this world thinks the main point of wisdom is to take
care of himself to make use of opportunity whilst he has it"
(Sermons, II, 56-5)
6L. Rae Blanchard, ed., "Introduction" to Richard Steele's The
Christian Hero (London, 1932), p. xvii.
65. Le Grand, Man Without Passion or the Wise Stoick (trans.
G. R., 1675), p. 27, q;uoted by Blanchard "Introduction p. xviii.
66. Translated from Leontine Zanta's La Renaissance du Stoicisme
au XVI Siecle (Paris, 1918): "En risumb, le ~-;~;;'~ndo-stoicime es
tout proche d'un christianisme moyen, fait pour des gens raisonnables,
pour des intellectuals qui raisonnent tout, leur foi et les acts
qu'elle leur dicte, mais qui n'auront jamais le folie de la croix.
Le ndo-stoicisme est en definitive un ratilonalisme chr~tien, dans
lequel le christianisme n'apparait pas toujours comme essentie1,
maispluot ommesurjoud" p. 3)
67. Richard Steele, The Christian Hero, p. 19.
Two: The Folly of Wisdom
In Tristram Shandy, Sterne presents the idea of Christian
folly in terms of two general contrasts between foolish wisdom and
wise folly. The first contrast is between the folly of the novel's
worldly wise pedants, represented by Walter Shandy, and the wisdom
of the novel's fools, represented by Tristram the narrator, Toby,
Trim, and Parson Yorick. The second basic contrast between wisdom
and folly which Sterne presents is between the wisdom of Parson
Yorick's view of Death and the folly of Tristram's. Whereas Yorick
views Death from the perspective of the Christian fool--as the
beginning of life, Tristram foolishly fails to achieve the wisdom of
folly as a character in attempting to outrun Death in Volume VII even
though he exposes the folly of worldly wisdom as a narrator. Before
attempting to demonstrate how Sterne projects the idea of Christian
folly into the sphere of the Shandean universe, it may be helpful to
examine the confusing relationship between Sterne's two personae,1
Tristram and Parson Yorick. This relationship, I hope to show, illu-
minates the concept of Christian folly which appears throughout
Since the publication of Tristram Shandy, there has been a
general tendency to associate Sterne with the "heteroclite" (TIS,
1.11.29)2 Parson of Shandy Hall.3 Sterne's biographer, Wilbur Cross,
contends that Sterne's "more ideal self .. bears the name of Parson
Yorick,"" while James Work agrees by viewing Yorick as "a sublimated,
idealized Sterne" (TS, "Introduction," p. 1viii). In an article on
"The Laughter of Laurence Sterne," Norman N. Holland suggests that
"parson and jester are one .. /jiorf behind the face of piety, the
skull of Yorick laughs."' As Henri Fluchere has recently summed up,
however, "the character of Yorick tends to be neglected. He is often
merely identified with Laurence Sterne the parson, without any real
examination into the validity or consequences of such an identifica-
tion."" Fluchere's observation that Yorick functions as a court jester
in "castigating the proud .. on the dim outskirts of Shandy Hall"
(Fluchere, p. Wh~) indicates, I think, a way of grasping how Sterne
exposes the foolishness of worldly wisdom in order to present the
wisdom of Christian folly.
Sharing Yorick's function in Tristram Shandy as a kind of court
jester is the narrator, Tristram,7 who likewise satirizes man's pride
in the "weakness and imbecility of human reason" ('IS, 8.6.563).
By exposing the proud spirit of human reason, both Tristram and Yorick
develop Sterne's "plan" in Tristram Shandy, which he said was to
satirize not only "the weak part of the Sciences, in which the true
point of Ridicule lies--but every Thing else, which I find laugh-at-
able in my way--" (Letters, No. 36, p. Th).V Unlike Tristram, however,
Yorick combines the court jester's satirical function with the Chris-
tian fool's dedication to the humility and wisdom of Christ. The
relationship between Tristram and Yorick is reminiscent of the
relationship between Rabelais' Panurge and Pantagruel.9 Like Panurge,
Tristram fails to become a Christian fool because he is, paradoxically,
not "foolish" enough. Even though Yorick's perfect folly earns
Tristram's "esteem," it also earns his "blame" (IS, 8.27.328), thus
indicating his failure, like that of Panurge, to achieve the final
vision of Christian folly. The relationship between Tristram and
Yorick becomes less complex if both personae are seen as dramatic
representations of complementary aspects of Sterne's "foolish"
nature.1 If Cross' contention that Sterne's "more ideal self...
bears the name of Parson Yorick" is correct, we can, on the basis of
Tristram's actions in the novel, view him as representing a more
prudent and discrete Sterne.11 Although he personally condemned the
"understrapping Virtue of Prudence" (Letters, No. 389 p. 76), Sterne
was both well aware and wary of the world's treatment of its fools.12
In Tristram's eyes, Yorick's humility and his imprudent
refusal to abandon his "open war" against the affectation of "gravity"
(TS, 1.12.26) inform him with an "heroic cast" (TIS, 6.27.326) which
reflects Sterne's praise of what the world calls "folly." Wilbur
Cross reminds us that "prudence, caution, discretion, the virtues that
smooth one's way through life, were ever classed by /Sternel among the
evil propensities of human nature" (Life, p. 66). By examining cer-
tain biographical evidence which shows Sterne's impatience with
prudence, we may mwore clearly view Parson Yorick as an idealized
Sterne. In the summer of 17591 a few months before the publication
of the first installment of Tristram Shandy, Sterne replied to a
friend who had advised him to exercise more prudence as a clergyman:
Mr. Fothergil, whom I regard in the Class I do you, as
My best of Cri~ticks & will wishers--preaches daily to Me
Upon your Text--"get Your Preferment first Lory! he says--
& then Write & Welcome" But suppose preferment is long
coming (& for aught I know I may not be preferred till the
Resurrection of the Just) and am all that time in labour--
how must I bear my Pains? (Letters, No. 38A, p. 76)
Sternegs condemnation of the "understrappinlg Virtue of Pru-
dence," expressed in the same letter as his "promise to be Cautious"
(Letters, No. 38A, p. 76), provides a larger context for understanding
the respective roles of Yorick and Tristram in Tristram Shand~y. In
his fearless castigation of the affectation of "gravity" (TS, 1.11.26),
Yorick becomes an idealized Sterne who would never admit, as did
Sterne himself, under the pressure of public criticism, to having
"Burn'd More wit, then /;=ic7 I have published" (Letters, No. 38A,
p. 77). In his wavering between "esteem" and "blame" (TS, 4.27.324)
for Yorick's indiscretion, then, Tristram may be seen as representing
Sterne's more cautious self in Tristram Shandy, for he is more aware
than Yorick of the penalties this world exacts upon its fools.
A further indication of Yorick's role as an idealized Sterne
is revealed in a letter Sterne wrote to Elizabeth Montagu, shortly
before his death in March, 1768. In a likely attempt to remind his
wife's cousin of Yorick's jest in the face of death (TS, 1.12.31),
Sterne expressed a desire to die laughing:
...I brave evils. -- et quand Je serai maort, on mettra
mon nom dans le liste de ces Heros, qui sont Morts en
plaisantan~lt (CL~erj;,-ttesN. 3, .81)
As I hope to show later on in this study, Sterne idealizes Yorick's
"jest in death" at the beginning of the novel in order to illustrate
a kind of folly which becomes increasingly more wise in Christ as the
Like Erasmus' Stultitia, Sterne's Tristram shows that all men
are fools, but that the folly of some fools is wiser than that of
others. Tristram's ability to distinguish between kinds of folly is,
as we shall see, indicative of his own wisdom. In Tristram Shandy,
Sterne's narrator, Tristram, participates in the Erasmian tradition
of imparting wisdom while speaking as a fool. Sterne's employment of
a "foolish" narrator indicates that the novelist heeded Stultitia's
observation that men who are bored at sermons are responsive to fools.13
By employing a foolish narrator in Tristram Shandy, Sterne not only
assured himself of a more captive audience, but a larger one as well.
On one occasion, Sterne recorded that his entire congregation con-
sisted of "one Bellows Blower, three singing men, one Vicar, and one
Residentiary."1 Samuel Richardson was hardly exaggerating when he
remarked to the Bishop of Sodor and Man that Sterne "passed unnoticed
by the world till he put on a fool's coat, and since that everybody
In Tristram Shandy, Sterne's Tristram reveals his "fool's
coat" whenever he claims to be a fool. Tristram's claim at the
beginning of his story that he is not "a wise man" (TS, 1.8.16) echoes
Stultitiags remark at the beginning of her oration, that her outward
appearance reveals she is not "Minerva, or Wisdom" (Folly, p. 103).
Like Stultitia, moreover, Tristram's claim of folly is ironic, for
the folly which both of these fools appropriate to themselves paradoxi-
cally leads to wisdom. Unlike Stultitia, however, who states that her
outward appearance "ltell/s7 well enough" who she is, Tristram begs
the reader, at the beginning of his story, not to accept his outward
appearance at face value:
...if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road,
--or should sometimes put on a fools cap with a bell to it,
for a moment or two as we pass along, --don't fly off, --but
rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom
than appears on m~y outside (TS, 1.6.11).
At the end of the story of his life and opinions, Tristram reminds the
reader that a book must "keep up that just balance betwixt wisdom and
folly" if it is to "hold together a single year" (TS, 9.12.616).
Tristram's praise of Yorick's wise folly demonstrates such a "just
balance" insofar as Tristram, a foolish narrator, is wise enough to
praise the wisdom exhibited by Parson Yorick.
Tristram begins his praise of Yorick's wise folly early in
Volume I when he eulogizes the Parson of Shandy Hall as his "Hero"
(TS, 1.12.28). The remainder of the novel indicates that the phrase
"my Hero" is more than a stock narrative formula, for it accurately
describes Tristram's esteem for Yorick's courage in refusing to
abandon the virtues of humility and righteous indignation in the name
of prudence and discretion. Observing that Yorick, unlike his famous
Shakespearean ancestor,17l was more than just "'a masn of jest"' (TS,
6.27.326), Tristraml claims that his "hero's" character was "temaper'd
with something which withheld .. him from .. many .. ungracious
pranks, of which he .. undeservedly bore the blame" (TS, 6.27.326).
Because "his spirit was above it," Tristram adds, Yorick refused to
deny false accusations which "he could have explained .. to his
honour" (TS, 6.27.324). Instead of setting himself right in the eyes
of the world, Yorick "trusted to time and truth to do it for him"
(TS, 6.27.326). In telling the story of Yorick's brief life, Tristrami
may be seen as executing this trust, for like Erasmus' Stultitia, he
shows that what this world calls folly may well lead to wisdom.
Not only does Tristram show that folly may lead to wisdom,
;but he also shows that false learning may pervert wisdom into folly.
Tristram is a wise fool because he sees both the wisdom in folly and
the folly in wisdom. In his "Author's Preface," which appears between
chapters twenty and twenty-one of Volume III, Tristram addresses him~-
self to the issue of false learning when he says that "the main and
principal point I have undertaken to clear up .. is, How it comes
to pass, that your men of least wit are reported to be men of most
judgment" (TS, 3.20.200). For Locke, wit lies "most in the assemblage
of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety,
wherein can be found any resemblance .. judgment, on the contrary,
lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another,
ideas wherein can be found the least difference."18 In disagreement
with Locke, Tristram argues that there is as little difference between
wit and judgment as there is between "farting and hickuping" (TS,
3.20.193). As Tristram indicates by his choice of similes, he wishes
to reduce to absurdity the claims of worldly wise men, such as
"Agelastes," "Triptolemus," and Phutatorius,"19 which forced Locke to
make his distinction between wit and judgment. Tristram's "Author's
Preface," which openly invites comparison to the "Author's Prologue"
in Booke I of Rabelais,20 deals with Locke's distinction in order to
show how the practitioners of false learning can pervert wisdom into
fo1 y. The object of Tristram's satire here is not "the great Locke,"
who "free/d7 the world from the lumber of a thousand vulgar errors"
(TS, 3.20.202), but the false learning and worldly wisdom of the
"graver gentry" (TS, 3.20.201) who duped or "bubbled"(IS, 3.20.202)
Locke into making his distinction.
In showing how Locke was "bubbled" into making his distinction
between wit and judgment, Tristram explains that since the "graver
gentry" realized that they lacked wit, they appropriated judgment to
themselves and successfully persuaded Locke to make his distinction
between wit and judgment in favor of the latter. Tristram's descrip-
tion of the manner in which the "graver gentry" beguiled Locke into
making his distinction indicates Tristram's low opinion of worldly
I need not tell your worships, that this was done with
...such cunning and artifice ....The cry /LTe., of
the "graver gentry,"7, it seems, was so deep and solemn a
one, and what with the help of great wigs, grave faces, and
other implements of deceit, was rendered so general a one
against the poor wits in this matter, that the philosopher
himself /1.e., Locke/~ was deceived by it (TS, 3.20.202).
By discrediting the manner in which the distinction between wit and
judgment was made, Tristram discredits the distinction itself as
"one of the many vile impositions which gravity and grave folks have
to answer for hereafter" (TS, 3.20.202).
By recognizing that Locke's distinction between wit and judg-
mnent resulted from the pressures brought to bear by the worldly wise
"graver gentry," Tristram shows that he is wiser than his cap and
bells might indicate. He also shows that he is a wise fool by avoid-
ing a "set dissertation" (TS, 3.20.200), such as Locke's distinction
between wit and judgment, because such a distinction would involve
"placing a number of tall, opake words, one before another...
betwixt /Eis7 own and /iis7 reader's conception" (TS, 3.20.200).
Instead of relying upon the philosophical rhetoric of a "set disserta-
tion," Tristram utilizes the two knobs on the back of his "cane chair"
to illustrate that the isolated presence of either wit or judgment
merely emphasizes the absence of the other:
Now would any man who valued his character a straw, have
turned a piece of work out of his hand in such a condition?
-- nay, lay your hands upon your hearts, and answer this
plain question, Whether this one single knobb /sic7 which now
stands here like a blockhead by itself, can serve any purpose
upon earth, but to put one in mind of the want of the other?
In order to justify his use of two knobs on the back of his chair as
a means of illustrating the extent to which Locke was fooled into making
his distinction, Tristram quotes from Book III of Rabelais: "'for
what hindrance .. doth the laudable desire of knowledge bring to
any man, if even from a sot, a pot, a fool, a stool .. or a cane
chair,'" (TS, 3.20.200).21 As indicated by his quotation from Rabe-
lais, Tristram is asking the reader to identify him with other wise
fools who have imparted lessons of wisdom.
Tristram's satire on Locke's distinction between wit and judg-
ment in his "Author's Preface" serves as a parable for the entire novel.
By showing how the "grave folks" ('IS, 3.20.202) of this world can
beguile someone like the "sagacious Locke" (TS, 1.S.9) into accepting
false reasoning as true wisdom, Tristram alerts the reader to the
dangers posed to society by false learning. His expose of "gravity
and grave folks" for beguiling Locke into distinguishing between wit
and judgment is a Shandean variation upon Milton's theme of the abuse
of carnal knowledge. More particularly, Tristram's warning to the
reader is analogous to Raphael's warning to Adam in Paradise Lost,
that the abuse of carnal knowledge "soon turns/Wisdom to Folly"
(VII, 129-30). Tristram's "Author's Preface," then, reminds the reader
that the knowledge" which emerges from the mouths of "grave folks"
may well be folly, whereas the knowledge which comes from "a fool"
(TS, 3.20.200) may well lead to wisdom.
Walter Shandy's hypotheses likewise demonstrate how worldly
wisdom may lead to folly. Tristram describes his father as a "philo-
sopher in grain--speculative--systematical" ('LS, 1.21.68), whose way
"was to force every event in nature into an hypotheses, by which
means never man crucified TRUTH at the rate he did" ('IS, 9.32.666).
Walter's theory of auxiliary verbs, which is part of his Tristra-
poedia, or "system of education" for Tristram (TS, 6.16.372),
exemplifies his "crucifixion" of truth. Hoping to salvage his son from
the misfortunes of his misconception, crushed nose, and misnaming,
Walter fabricates his theory that auxiliary verbs are "a North-west
passage to the intellectual world" (TS, $.h2.6r06). The folly of
Walter's faith in his theory of auxiliary verbs is seen in his claim
that the "right use" of auxiliary verbs will allow Tristram to convert
"every word .. into a thesis or hypothesis" (TS, 6.2.609). "No one
idea can enter /Tristram's7 brain how barren soever," Walter asserts,
'but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn from it"
Walter attempts to demonstrate his assertion that auxiliary
verbs are a short-cut to the intellectual world in the "white bear"
scene at the end of Volume V of Tristram Shandy. As John Stedmond
points out, Walter attempts to demonstrate "the efficacy of his method
by showing how Trim might discourse on a white bear without ever
having seen one" (Stedmond, p. 115). In the first part of his demon-
stration, Walter runs through a partial conjugation of the verb to see,
using the auxiliary verbs have, be, ought, would, and should:
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one?
Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought
I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If
I should never see a white bear, what then? (TS, 5.63.606-07)
In the second part of his demonstration, however, Walter
seem~s to disprove his assertion about auxiliary verbs. Whereas the
gramm~atical emphasis in the first part of Walter's discourse is upon
the auxiliary verbs have, be, ought, would, and should, the grammatical
emphasis in the second part shifts to a variation of adjectives (alive,
painted, described), nouns (father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers, and
sisters), and predicate adjectives (wild, tame, terrible, rough, and
If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear
alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see
one painted? --described? Have I never dreamed of one?
Did m~y father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or
sisters, ever see a white bear? Wh8at would they give? How
would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame?
Terrible? Rough? Smooth? (Ts, 5.63.607)
In the conclusion of his discourse, Walter raises evaluative and
theological questions when he asks whether the white bear is "worth
seeing," whether there is any "sin" in seeing one, and whether seeing
a white bear is better than seeing "a BLALCK ONE" (TS, 5.63.607).
Because he has distorted a simple grammatical exercise in the use of
auxiliary verbs into an absurd philosophical discourse involving
questions of value judgment and theology, Walter has disproved his
assertion that auxiliary verbs are a short-cut to the intellectual
world; in spite of himself, he has succeeded in showing how his
worldly wisdom has perverted truth by imposing an untenable hypothesis
The failure of Walter's theory of auxiliary verbs, which con-
stitutes a chapter in his Tristra-poedia, is emblematic of the failure
of the Tristra-poedia as a whole. In spite of his expectations about
its educational value, Walter's "system of education" does not accom-
plish its task of redeeming Tristram from the ill effects of his
misconception, crushed nose, and misnaming. Ironically, Walter spends
so much time on his Tristra-poedia that Tristram's education is left
to his mother, a woman whose lack of interest in intellectual pursuits
is suggested by her habit of "using a hard word /Tor7 twenty years
.. and replying to it too .. without giving herself any trouble
to enquire about it" (TS, 9.11.613). Furthermore, Tristram points
out, one half of Walter's system of education was outdated by the time
that it was ready to be used:
That is the best account I am determined to give of the
slow progress my father made in his Tristra-poedia; at which
(as I said) he was three years and something more, indefatigably
at work, and at last, had scarce completed /Fic7, by his own
reckoning, one half of his undertaking: the misfortune was,
that I was all that time totally neglected and abandoned to my
mother; and what was almost as bad, by the very delay, the
first part of the work, upon which mry father had spent the most
of his pains, was rendered entirely useless, --every day a page
or two became of no consequence (TS, 5.16.375).
The failure of Walter's Tristra-poedia epitomizes the foolish-
ness of worldly wise schemes which fail to square with the realities
of human experience. In his comment upon the failure of his father's
educational scheme, Tristram again reveals his wise foolishness by
recognizing the Tristra-poedia as a moral lesson in the dangers of
human pride: "Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride
of human wisdom, That the wisest of us all, should thus outwit our-
selves, and eternally forego our purposes in the intemperate act of
pursuing them" (TS, 5.16.375).
The Tristra-poedia's lack of success also illustrates the
failure of the "speculative man" described in Sterne's sermon,
"Advantages of Christianity to the World, to make the Alugustinian
distinction between wisdom and knowledge. In his sermon, Sterne
applies his Pauline text--"Professing themselves to be wise, they
became fools" (Rom. 1.22)--to those "pretenders ;Glo think our
titles to wisdom built upon the same basis with those of our know-
ledge, and that they will continue for ever" (Sermons, II, 55).
To the foolish "speculative man," Sterne continues, true "wisdom
dwells .. in finding out the secrets of nature; sounding the
depths of arts and science, measuring the heavens" (Sermons, II, 55).
Reminiscent of the Triboullet-Panurge episode in Book III of
Phbelais, Tristram's recognition of the foolishness of Walter's
worldly wisdom amounts to one fool calling another foolish. While
both Tristram and Walter are fools, they are different kinds of
fools.2 Tristram's comment upon the foolish vanity of Walter's
Tristra-poedia and his observation that Walter "crucified" truth
indicates that Tristram is a "wise fool" because he recognizes that
in worldly wisdom there is folly. As I hope to show in Chapter IV of
this study, Tristram's failure to achieve the transcendent wisdom of
Christ results, paradoxically, from his failure to be foolish enough.
Waiter, on the other hand, has been made foolish by his useless,
pedantical learning. In Pauline-Erasmian terms, Tristram professes
to be a fool and emerges with some degree of wisdom; Walter professes
to be wise, and becomes a fool.
In commenting upon his father's speculative schemes, Tristram
does not insveigh against them so much as he ridicules them with a
laughter moderated by sympathy. While pointing out that "where an
hypothesis was coancerned," Walter gave more pain than he received,
Tristram at the same time observes that his father was "frank and
generous in his nature fing at all times open to conviction" (TS,
2.1.11).Sterne's sympathy for his characters in Tristram Shandy
and tolerance for their obsessions, ranging from Nalter's speculative
flights to Tristram's hobby-horsical hypotheses about writing in his
"own way" (TS, 1.6.11), prevents him from engaging in the sharp
invective characteristic of the Augustan satirists. "The propensity
of ridicule to overreach itself," A. E. Dyson has pointed out, "is
exactly one of those things which Sterne's ridicule sets out to
check."26 In the tradition of Erasmus, whose "sense of humanity"
all but excluded the possibility for "railing satire,"29 Sterne
loves and accepts his characters or "dear creatures" (TS, 5.9.36L)
for what they are. By accepting human nature, foolish as it may be,
Sterne calls attention to his greater wisdom in siding with the wise
fool Stultitia who claimed that "to live in folly .. is what it is
to be human" (Folly, p. 122).
Far from viewing Walter's hypotheses as threats to society,
Tristram views them as signs of man's foolish, but natural attachment
to his hobby-horse. Man's attachment to his hobby-horse is so natural,
Tristram argues, that from "a clear description of J~ts7 nature, one
could "form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character" of its
rider (TS, 1.26.77). Early in his story, Tristram observes that
...the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon
himself, --have .. had their HOBBY-HORSES; --their
running horses, --their coins and their cockle-shells ..
--their maggots and their butterflies--and so long as a man
rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's
highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,
--pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?
Soon after making his observation about the popularity of hobby-
horses among wise men, Tristram states that he himself is not
exempt from riding one:
Be it known to you, that I keep a couple of pads myself,
upon which, in their turns, (nor do I care who knows it)
I frequently ride out and take the air; --thog sometimes,
to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journies
than what a wise man would think altogether right. --But
the truth is, --I am not a wise man (TS, 1.8.16).
Tristram's claim that he is "not a wise man" is offset by the
conclusion which follows from his statement about owning a hobby-
horse himself.2 Because he recognizes that he, like the "wisest of
men in all ages" has a hobby-horse, then he is not as foolish as he
may at first appear. Indeed, Tristram's observation that hobby-
horses are harmless as long as a man does not become obsessed with one
implies a distinction between the natural condition of possessing a
hobby-horse and the unnatural condition of being possessed by one.
Tristram later makes this distinction between possessing a hobby-horse
and being possessed by one explicit when he warns that "when a man
gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion, --or, in other
words, when his HOBBY-HORSE grows head-strong, --farewell cool reason
and fair discretion!" (TS, 2.5.93) Tristram's observation that hobby-
horses, in spite of their apparent foolishness, have traditionally
been the natural possessions of wise men echoes what Walter Kaiser
has called Erasmus' '"belief in the benevolence of the force of nature
in man" (Kaiser, p. 95). Because Tristram shares Erasmus' conviction
that man's natural inclination toward folly is not an inclination
toward evil, he would support Stultitia's claim that "if it is...
natural to be a fool, to be a fool is also to be natural."2
In spite of his Erasmian tolerance for man's natural foolish-
ness, Tristram ridicules his father's speculative hypotheses because
Walter has allowed them to become an unnatural obsession. In dis-
tinguishing his hobby-horse from his father's, Tristram says:
I must here observe to you, the difference betwixt
My father's ass
and my hobby-horse--in order to keep characters
separate as may be, in our fancies as we go along.
For my hobby-horse .. is no way a vicious beast; he
has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him--'Tis
the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for
the present hour--a maggot, a butterfly, a picture...
or an any thing, which a man makes a shift to get a stride
on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life
--'Tis as useful a beast as is in the whole creation--nor
do I really see how the world could do without it--
--But for m~y father's ass .. mount him not: --'tis
a beast concupiscent--and foul befall the man, who does
not hinder him from kicking (TS, 8.31.586).
Walter is the wrong kind of fool, Tristram seems to be saying, not
because his hobby-horse is speculative hypotheses, but because he is
so obsessed with his hobby that he has become its slave. Also
implicit in Tristram's statement distinguishing his hobby-horse from
his father's is an appeal to the reader to recognize that he, too,
will become a fool like W~alter Shandy if he lets his hobby-horse
possess him. For Sterne, John Traugott has observed, hobby-horsical
schemes such as Walter's "can be the death, of society . only wh~en
meni refused to recognize themselves as fools. His rhetoric, like that
of Erasmus, in:~vites the reader to acknowledge himself as fool"
(Traugott, p. 20).
Although Tristram implies that man must recognize his natural
bent toward folly ins order to prevent himself from becoming the wrong
kind of fool, Tristram does not assume that he is wise and everyone
else is foolish. Even if Tristram the narrator is wiser than Walter,
Toby, Trim, and the reader, he rarely forsakes the traditional garb
of the fool. Sitting in his study at the beginning of Volume II, Tris-
tram informs the reader that on thiss twelfth day of August, 1766,"
he, Tristram, is dressed "in a purple jerkin and yellow pair of slippers"
(TS, 9.1.600).28 Speaking as a fool among fools, Tristram asks
':Madam" the reader, "Pray reach me my fool's cap--I fear you sit upon
it . 'tis under the cushion--Igll put it on--Bless meb you have
had it upon your head this half hour--There then let it stay" (TS, 7.26.
511). Because Tristram, like Stultitia, identifies himself with his
fellow fools, he can remain compassionate towards those whose folly
In The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, Sterne's appropriation of the
pseudonym Yorick, some ten years after nearly all of his sermons were
written,2 does not offset their didactic tone. Alan McKillop reminds
us that "it is in The Sermons of Mr. Yorick rather than in Shandy that
we find ourselves firmly established in the world of the eighteenth
century didactic novel."30 Whereas Mr. Yorick of the Sermons often
castigates man's vain desire to achieve a reputation for wisdom,
Tristram, who speaks as a fool among fools, ridicules mlan's faith in
"There is no one project to which the whole race of mankind is
so universally a bubble, as to that of being thought Wise, Yorick
says at the beginning of "Advantages of Christianity to the World."
Later in the same sermon, the preacher continues to castigate human
pride by asserting that "in general you will find it safer to tell a
man, he is a knave than a fool" (Sermons, II, 53-L). In another ser-
mon, "The Ways of Providence Justified to Man," Yorick holds a mirror
up to the self-professed wise men of this world in order to expose
the limitations of worldly wisdom when seen against the standard of
Go then, --proud man!--and when thy head turns giddy
with opinions of thy own wisdom, that thou wouldst correct
the measures of the ALINGHTY, --go then,--take a full view
of thyself in this glass; --consider thy own faculties,--
how narrow and imperfect; --how much they are checquered
with truth and falsehood; --how little arrives at thy
knowledge, and how darkly and confusedly thou discernest even
that little as in a glass (Sermons, II, 256-55).
In a third sermon, "Job's Account of the Shortness and Troubles of
Life, Considered," Yorick expresses the traditional Christian view
of human pride when he admonishes man to "cloath him self7 with
humility, which is a dress that best becomes a short-lived and a
wretched creature" (Sermons, I, 12L).
In Tristram Shandy's World, John Traugott argues that St. Paul's
warning to the Romans ("Professing themselves to be wise, they became
fools") is "Sternae's text in the profane as well as sacred pulpit"
(Traugott, p. 25). Although Traugott's argument is essentially
correct, it fails to point out the difference in tone between Tristram
Shandy and the Sermons. In Tristram Shandy, Sterne, through his
narrator, Tristram, not only exposes the folly in worldly wisdom; he
exhibits an Erasmian tolerance for folly as well. The more tolerant
tone of the novel is suggested by Tristram's emphasis upon his role as
a fool and de-emphasis of his actual profession as a priest. In
repeatedly referring to his fool's garb rather than his clerical robes,
Tristram indicates his desire to project himself as a fool instead of
as a clergyman. This emphasis upon his identity as a fool suggests
that the novel contains a greater tolerance for folly than the Sermons
do for the two basic reasons that we have seen: one, because Tristram
shows that a self-styled "fool" can be wise; and two, because he
shares Stultitia's conviction that to be foolish is to be natural.
Even though he may "preach" upon the same Pauline text as Mr. Yorick
of the Sermons, then, Tristram's "preaching" is based upon a greater
sympathy for the follies of mankind.
Sterne's tolerance for the foolishness exhibited by his
characters distinguishes him from the Augustan satirists who preceded
him. In his comment upon the "white bear" scene at the end of Volume
V of Tristram Shandy, Martin Price compares Walter to the "priest of
Pope's Dulness" for: succeeding in "confining the mind to words alone."32
Price's comparison is correct only if one fails to note that neither
Sterne's compassion for his characters nor his tolerance for folly is
contained in Pope's savage attack upon the dunces in the Dunciad.
From the viewpoint of the Augustans, Walter's attempt to reduce
reality to words, as reflected in his theory of auxiliary verbs, would
represent the same danger to society as the schemes of the dunces in
Book IV of the Dunciad, to separate words from ideas useful to the
whole man.33 Walter's abuse of language would, for Pope, not be far
removed from that of the "school-master," who claims that "Since Man
from beast by Words is known/ Words are Man's province, Words we teach
alone" (IV, 169-S0). While observing that "Tristram Shandy, in its
way, is an extension of Pope's vision" in the Dunciad, John Stedmond
argues that Sterne's
...approach is much more tentative, his attack much less
bitter--presumably because his positive beliefs are much
less surely held. Swift's writings "express" ideas, or
communicate firmly held points of view, by attacking opposing
ideas. Stern, on the other hand, is seeking to reveal
states of mind. Swift attacked the Grub Street back by
parodying his style; Pope sallied against the pedantic dunce
by burlesquing his method; and Sterne, in his turn, donned
cap and bells in order to show up foolishness by playing the
fool (Stedmond, pp. 66-5).
In view of Pope's savage attack in the Dunciad upon the forces
of Dulness responsible for threatening to destroy the humanistic
tradition of western civilization," there is little cause for dis-
agreement with Stedmond's argument that Sterne's approach is more
equivocal and his attack less bitter than that of his Augustan
predecessors. As we have seen, Sterne's method of ridiculing folly
by speaking through a fool, Tristram, results in a less bitter tone
than if the novelist had chosen to satirize human folly virulently in
Tristram Shandy. On the basis of what has been shown about Tristram's
wise folly, however, there is reason to challenge Stedmond's assump-
tion that "showfing7 up foolishness by playing the fool" illustrates
that Sterne's "positive beliefs are much less surely held" than
Swift's and Pope's. Stern's particular method of ridiculing folly
indicates that he accepts man's natural inclination toward folly
because he, Sterne, is wise enough to recognize that fools differ from
wise men only in degree. As Ernest Tuveson has succinctly pointed out,
"the pride satirized /In Tristram Shandy7 is not that which Swift or
Pope had attacked .. /Eterne7 seeks to correct our smug assumption
that all within our heads is neat and orderly, and that the mad and
even the eccentric are different in kind from ourselves."
For Sterne, "playing the fool" by speaking through his foolish
narrator, Tristram, reflects a positively held belief about the
universal existence of folly in all men, including himself. Sterne's
positive purpose in "playing the fool" by speaking through Tristram
sets him apart from the distrustful Augustan attitude toward foolish-
ness suggested in Pope's observation that although "a little /Tolly?
is excellent .. a whole Mouthful is justly called the Devil."6
As seen in his statement that "the greatest advantage .. of being
thought a wit by the world is, that it gives one the greater freedom
of playing the foo,"113 Pope considered "playing the fool" less a
positive virtue in itself than a useful advantage in a witty man. It
appears unlikely, then, that Pope would risk subjecting himsPelf to the
charges of frivolity leveled against Sterne when, through both Tristram
and Yorick, he "played the fool" in Trist~ram Shandy in order to show
that fools may impart lessons of wisdom.3
Sterne's tolerance for the kinds of worldly wisdom exhibited
by the Shandeans, however, did not extend to the kinds exhibited by
the canonical divines, Didius, Phutatorius, and Kysarcius. To Sterne,
the kinds of worldly wisdom exhibited by these "vile canonists" (TS,
6.23.302) at the canonical dinner in York represented a clearer danger
to man than the danger posed by Walter because, in perverting their
clerical function of preparing man for the next world, the "vile
canonists" could more easily prevent man from achieving the wisdom of
Christ. Together with Yorick, who is to deliver a sermon before the
visiting clergy, Walter and Toby attend the canonical dinner hoping
to annul Tristram's baptism. By bringing the Shandy brothers and
Yorick face to face with the learned canonical divines, Sterne creates
a symposium attended by spokesmen and critics of various kinds of
worldly wisdom. The York dinner brings the Shandy brothers and Parson
Yorick, the enemqy of "vile canonist-/g/" (IrS, l.23.302), together with
such representatives of worldly wisdom as Didius, "the great church
lawyer" ('lS, 3.20.193); K~ysarcius, ("probably Sterne's translation of
Baise-cul, a 'great lord' in Rabelais, 2.10-13");3 and Phutatorius,
thelicntius hurhma.60The York dinner-meeting is analogous to
the symposium~ in Book III of Rabelais to the extent that each is a
colloquy addressed to a major question concerning one of the characters:
Pantagruel calls the symposium in Book III to debate the issue of
Panurge's marriage, and the York dinner provides Walter with the oppor-
tunity to seek the annulment of Tristram's baptism. While the sympo-
sium in Rabelais dramatizes the limitations of worldly wisdom, the
York dinner in Tristram Shandy dramatizes the perversions in reason
which manifest themselves in what the world calls wisdom.
The canonical dinner at York begins with Yorick's tearing up
of the sermon he had planned to deliver, because it "came from figs7
head instead of gifs7 heart" (TS, lr.26.317). Yorick's criticism of
abstract, pedantical preaching--"'tis not preaching the gospel--but
ourselves" (TS, b.26.317)--is interrupted when Phutatorius cries out
in pain after being burned by a hot chestnut. A humorous, almost
slapstick scene results, as the participating clergy debate whether
or not Yorick was responsible for having dropped a hot chestnut into
the opening in front of Phutatorius' breeches. For some, Yorick's
picking the hot chestnut up after it had fallen out of Phutatorius'
breeches implicates Yorick as the prankish wrongdoer. This circum-
stantial evidence about Yorick's guilt, in turn, provides ballast for
the churchmen's hypothesis that there was a "mystical meaning in
Yorick's prank" ('IS, 6.27.323) of dropping the chestnut into Phuta-
torius' breeches, since Yorick held little respect for Phutatorius'
"filthy and obscene treatise" (TS, lc.27.321) on the keeping of
Tristram's comment that the conjecture of the learned divines
about the mysticall meaning" of Yorick's prank "was as groundless as
the dreams of philosophy" (TS, 8.27.321r) indicates Tristram's low
opinion of the absurd uses to which the clergymen put their learning.
It is worthy of note that Tristram had earlier avoided direct comment
upon his colleagues' abuse of wisdom:
As for the clergy--No--If I say a word against them,
I'll be shot. --I have no desire,--and besides, if I had,
--I durst not for my soul touch upon the subject, --with
such weak nerves and spirits, and in the condition I am
in at present, wouldd be as much as may life was worth,
to deject and contrast myself with so sad and melancholy
an account (TS, 3.20.199).
Tristram's cautiousness in refraining from direct criticism of his
fellow clergy epitomizes the more prudent, and thus, less "foolish,"
nature of his satire upon worldly wisdom. Whereas Yorick does not
hesitate to Lash out at the foolishness of the worldly wisdom
exhibited by his colleagues at the canonical dinner, Tristram claims
that "'tis safer to draw a curtain across" (TS, 3.20.200) the Anglican
priesthood's misuse and abuse of human wisdom.
Both Phutatorius' treatise on keeping concubines and the absurd
attempt of the canonical divines to impose a "nltystical meaning J:po 7
Yorick's prank" thus dramatize the way in which Yorick's fellow priests
have allowed worldly wisdom to pervert the proper duties of their
clerical office. For Yorick, such displays of worldly wisdom as
Phlutatorius' treatise on concubines had to be exposed "as thing 27
which .. had done hurt in the world" (TS, 6.27.323). The abuses
in clerical learning exhibited by Phutatorius' treatise pale in com-
parison to the debate over the legality of Tristram's baptism, however.
Citing a pre-Reformation precedent, the Duchess of Suffolk's case, the
canonical lawyers rule that the wishes of Mr. and Mrs. Shandy concern-
ing their son's Christian name are irrelevant, since the parents are
not of kin to their child (TS, lc.29.328).
Stern castigates such abuses in learning for beguiling man
into believing in false wisdom at the expense of genuine learning.
One of his aims in writing Tristram Shandy, Sterne once remarked, was
"the hopes of doing the world good by ridiculing what I thought
deserving of it--or of disservice to sound learning" (Letters, No. 87,
p. 90). The extent to which man is beguiled by false wisdom becomes
evident in Walter's reaction to the canonical debate about Tristram's
baptism. Although Walker is at first "hugely tickled with the subtle-
ties of these learned discourses" (TS, 8.31.331) about the legality
of his son's baptism, his pleasure soon gives way to despair. Both
the symposium in Book III of Rabelais and the canonical dinner end
without resolving the issues proposed at the outset. Panurge's dis-
appointment at the end of the symposium, resulting from his failure
to find satisfaction in the counsels of the worldly wise, is similar
to Walter's disappointment at the end of the York visitation dinner.
While Panurge's expression reminds Pantagruel of "a mouse caught in a
trap" (Rabelais, 3.37.390), Walter is bent over with "the weight of
his afflictions," which returned "upon him but so much the heavier"
Whereas Walter is temporarily stimulated by the "subtleties "
of the ecclesiastical court, Toby and Yorick expose the foolishness
of its worldly wisdom. Yorick's reply to Toby's question about the
court's decision on Tristram's baptism indicates his contempt for the
worldly wisdom of the "vile canonists" (TS, 6.23.302):
--And pray, Yorick, said mry uncle Toby, which way is this
said /Eic7 affair .o'f -Tristram at length settled by these
learned men? Very satisfactorily, replied Yorick; no mortal,
Sir, has any concern with it (TS, 6.30.331).
Wilbur Cross makes a good case for reading the canonical dinner
as "local satire," particularly upon Dr. Francis Topham, a Machiavel-
lian church lawyer, whose political machinations in the York parish
were unalterably opposed by Sterne.2 According to Sterne's biogra-
pher, "Topham surely appeared as Didius and shifted into Phutatorius
before the dinner was over" (Life, pp. 261-62). In addition to being
read as "local satire," the canonical dinner may be seen as a concrete
illustration of Gregory's distinction between "noble" fools (those who
reject this world's wisdom for the wise foolishness of God) and "base"
fools (those who "flee from the wisdom Above" by following themselves ).3
The canonical dinner begins and ends with Yorick's castigating the way
in which his fellow clergymen abuse their clerical office. We recall
that at the outset of the dinner, Yorick castigates his colleagues for
preaching themselves rather than the gospel (TS, L.26.317) and that he
exposes their pedantical practice of writing "from the head" instead
of from the "heart" by tearing up his own pedantical sermon into
shreds. Just as dramatic is his method of bringing the meeting to a
close. During the debate about the legality of Tristram's baptism and
the consanguinity of the parents to their child, Didius claims that
the prohibition in levitical law of copulating with one's grandmother
does not apply "in nature." In reply to Kysarcius' question--"But who
ever thought .. of laying with his grandmother?" (TS, h.29.330) --
Yorick cites a story recorded in John Selden's Table Talk:
The young gentleman .. whom Selden speaks of--who not only
thought of it, but justified his intention to his father by
the argument drawn from the law of retaliation--"You lay'd,
Sir, with my mother, said the lad--Why may not I lay with
yours?" --'Tis the Argumentum commune, added Yorick, --'Tis
as good, replied Eugeni~us taking down his hat, as they
The company broke up-- (TS, L.29.330-31).
Yorick's function of castigating the proud again becomes
evident in his description of "polemic divines." Wishing that there
"was not a polemic divine .. in the kingdom," Yorick tells Walter
that "'one ounce of practical divinity--is worth a painted ship load
of all their reverences have imported these fifty years" (TS, 5.28.
387). Yorick further ridicules "polemic divines" by comparing their
mental gymnastics to the tumbling feats of the Rabelaisian characters
Gymnast and captain Tripet. The point of Rabelais' story is to show
the irrelevancy of Gymnast's tumbling tricks to the battle he fights
with Tripet. In his slightly altered version of the story, Yorick,
who carries a copy of Rabelais in his pocket, describes how the two
combatants "battle" without striking a blow. In the context of
Yorick's version of Rabelais' story, polemic divines are satirized for
their reliance upon pedantic and irrelevant mental gymnastics at the
expense of executing their proper function of "practical divinity"--
preparing man for the next world by teaching him right conduct in
this. Trim's frustration with Yorick's account of Gymnast's curious
way of doing battle--"Good God' .. One home thrust of a bayonet is
worth it all" (TS, S.29.389)--corresponds to Yorick's contempt of
churchmen whose worldly wisdom lacks "one ounce of practical divinity."
Significantly, Yorick agrees with Trim's comment, while Walter is of
a "contrary opinion" (TS, 5.29.389).
By reducing the canonical debate over the legality of Tris-
tram's baptism to absurdity, and by ridiculing the pretensions of
"polemic divines," Yorick thus exhibits what Henri Fluchere calls the
court jester's traditional function of "castigating the proud"
(Fluchere, p. 666). While the York dinner reveals Yorick functioning
in the satiric capacity of castigating the vain churchmen who preach
themselves instead of the gospel, it also reveals him as a model of
the type of humility traditionally praised by the exponents of Chris-
tian folly. Yorick, like the "noble" fools praised by Gregory, would
rather preach the gospel than himself, and his theory of preaching as
a direct appeal to the heart recalls the anti-scholasticism of Stul-
titia in The Praise of Folly.
Toby's humility and lack of intellectual pretension also
exposes the folly of the worldly wise debates taking place at the York
dinner. When Kysarcius pompously cites the Duchess of Suffolk's case
as the precedent establishing that "the mother is not of kin to the
child" (TS, 6.29.328), Toby asks: "And what said the duchess of
Suffolk to it?" In "confound Ing/ Kysarcius more than the ablest
advocate" (TS, 6.29.330), Toby's question may be seen as a concrete
illustration of the warning enunciated by Paul and the Old Testament
prophets that the simple and unlearned shall destroy the wisdom of the
As will become more evident in Chapter III of the present study,
the corrective wisdom of the novel's simple, but wise fools, such as
Toby and Trim, complements the satirical ability of Tristram and Yorick
in their "open war" on the "affectation of gravity." Foils to the
worldly wisdom of the novel's pedants, Trim and Toby function as
unlearned instruments of divine wisdom and prepare us for the victory
of wise folly's most perfect form in Tristram Shandy--the transcendent
wisdom of Parson Yorick's Christian folly. Like Tobias in the
apocryphal Book of Tobit, who brings the power of sight to his father,
Tristram's uncle, Toby, helps bring the illuminating power of wise
folly to Shandy Hall by showing that the proud spirit of reason must
be vanquished before man may become a receptacle worthy of the wisdom
of Christian folly.
1. In Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's P Reputation in England, 1760-
1868 (Ne H~aven, Conn,, 193) Al~an B. Howes observes that "Yorick,
Tristram Shandy, and Laurence Sterne became hopelessly entangled in
the public mind" (p. 5) upon publication of the first installment of
Tristram Shandy in December, 1759.
2. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. James
A. Work (New York, 198Z0), ol.II chp.iip.86.Al subsequent
references are to this edition.
3.See Howes, pp. Lff, 9ff, and 26ff, for a discussion of Yorick's
character by Sterne's contemporaries. According to Howes, the Roqyal
Female Magazine for February, 1760 described "the character of
Yorick to illustrate the 'consequences of indiscretion and the licen-
tious indulgence of satirical wit"' (p. L).
Ir. Wilbur L. Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne, 3rd ed.
(New Haven, Conn., 199, p. -hratrctda ie
5. Norman N. Holland, "The Laughter of Laurence Sterne," Hudson
Review, IX (1956), L30.
6. Henri Fluchere, Laurence Sterne: From Tristram to Yorick, an
Interpretation of "Tri:s-tram Shandy," :~'Itras.BabraBry(Lndn
7. For a brief discussion of Tristram as a court jester in the
Erasmian tradition, see John Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 19SL), pp. 39, 38-39.
8. Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. Lewis P. Curtis (Oxford, 1935),
Numer 6,p. All subsequent references to Sterne's letters
are to this edition and will hereafter be cited as Letters.
9. See Chapter I, above, pp. 21-23.
10. In "Laurence Sterne, Apostle of Laughter," in The Age of
Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, ed.
Frederick W. Hilles (New Haven, Conn., 19L89), Phfus D. S. Futney
reminds us that Sterne "possessed an impulse to folly that had
driven him, while his reputation was merely local, to play the
fool agriculturally, politically, clerically, and domestically"(p. 166).
11. In The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne (Toronto, 1967), John Sted-
mond points out that with the publication of the first selection of
The Sermons of Mr. Yorick "between the publication of the first two
volumes /of Tristram ShandyT and the second two," Sterne "could now
count on h~is readers to think of him as a clergyman, to some extent
equivalent to Yorick, and thus not to identify him with Tristrpam, or
only in so far as he could be imagined as deliberately donning cap and
bells for the performance" (p. 90).
12. William Warburton's relationship to Sterne is a case in point.
Although he patronized Sterne after the novelist's triumphant visit
to London in 1760 as the successful author of Tristram Shandy,
Warburton soon became concerned about the effect of Sterne's "play-
ing the fool" upon his clerical reputation. Writing to David
Garrick, Sterne's friend and admirer, Warburton said of the novelist:
"I have done my best to prevent his playing the fool in a worse
sense than, I have the charity to think, he intends. I have dis-
charged my part to him. I esteemed him as a man of genius, and am
desirous he would enable me to esteem him as a clergyman" (quoted
by Howes, pp. 6-7).
13. At the beginning of her praise of folly, Stultitia says to her
audience: "The reason why I appear today in this unusual garb you
will presently hear, if you listen to me with attention; not as you
do in sermons, but as you do to salesmen in the market, to clowns
and jesters" (Folly, p. 101).
14. According to Cross, Sterne endorsed a manuscript copy of his
sermon "Our Conversation in Heaven" with the following memorandum:
"Made for All Saints and preached on that Day 1750 for the Dean.
--Present: 1 Bellows Blower, 3 Singing men, 1 Vicar & 1
Residentiary" (quoted in Life, p. 620).
1.Quoted by Cross, Life, p. 236.
16. Stultitia's statement that her "face and visage .. tell well
enough who I am" must be read in the ironic context of her next
remark: "As if anyone, who thought I was Minerva, or Wisdom, could
not easily be convinced otherwise by only looking at me" (Folly, pp.
102-03). Like all wise fools, Tristram and Stultitia inten~tionally
confuse the categories of appearance and reality in order to achieve
their transvaluation of the ideas of folly and wisdom.
17. In Hamlet, V, i, 172-73, Hamlet says to Horatio as he picks up
Yorick's skull, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow
of infinite jest."
18. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.11.2,
quoted by Work, 1S, p. 193, n. 2.
19. James Work points out that Agelastes means "one who never laughs";
Triptolemus, a "judge in the infernal regions"; and Phutatorius,
"copulator, lecher" (Work, TS, p. 193, n. 1).
20. Work, TS, p. 196, n. 6.
21. In Tristram Shandy's World, John Traugott observes that "for
Shandean~sor ab~elais ians there may be a world of significance in a sot,
a pot, a fool, a stool" (pp. 70-71).
22. Throughout this section, I am greatly indebted to Walter Kaiser's
discussions of the relationship between Panurge and Triboullet on
pp. 176-77 of his Praisers of Folly.
23. Cf. Stedmond: "Most of the characters in Tristram Shandy are
'fools,' though they represent different kinds of folly" (p. 92).
21r. A. E. Dyson, "Sterne: The Novelist as Jester," Critical
Quarterly, IV (1962), 33.
25. Kaiser, p. 99.
26. As Tristram reveals in the middle of his life and opinions, his
hobby-horse is his unique way of telling his story: 'What a rate
have I gone on at, curvetting and frisking it away, two up and two
down for four volumes together, without looking once behind, or even
on one side of me, to see whom I trod upon!" (TS, 6.20.298) In
"The Hobbyhorsical World of TristramShandy," NIQ, XXIV (1963),
131-b3, Joan Joffe Hall points out that "the exaggeration of the
particular ideas in Tristram's train /Le,, of thought and his
obsession with the reader define Tristram's own hobby" (139).
27. As Kai~ser has shown (Praisers of Folly, p. 95), Stultitia's
belief that man is naturally foolish becomes explicit at several
points in her oration. One such time occurs when Stultitia disagrees
with the philosophers who say that "it is misery itself to live in
folly, to err, to be deceived, and to be ignorant." "On the contra-
cy," she argues, "this is what it is to be human. I cannot see why
they call this kind of life miserable when it is the common lot of
all men to be born, brought up, and constituted in such a way.
Nothing is miserable that is constant with its own nature" (Folly,
28. Tristram refers to his fool's cap in TS, 3.29.236 and TS,
29. In La~urence Sterne's 'Sermons of Mr. Yorick,' Lansing Hammond
theorizes that "lall but one of Mr. Yorick's sermons had been written
before 1751, and most of them probably several years before then"
(p. 58). The first two volumes of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick appeared
in May, 1760.
30. Alan Dugald McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction
(Lawrence, Kansas, 1956), p. 190.
31. Tristram reveals that he is a priest when he claims to be worth
"two bad cassocks in the world" (TS, 3.11.179). The only other
indication of Tristram's clerical profession occurs during his grand
tour of the continent when he describes himself as "a person in black,
with a face as pale as ashes, at his devotions" (TS, 7.36.927). In
spite of Tristram's statement about his "two bad cassocks," Alan Howes
is unwilling to accept the evidence that Tristram is a priest. "In
Tristram Shandy, Howes writes, "the distinction between Tristram and
Laurence Sterne breaks down as early as Vol. 3 (ch. 11; Work, p. 179),
unless we assume that Tristram is a clergyman too" (Howes, p. 5, n. 7).
32. Martin Price, "Sterne: Art and Nature" in To the Palace of
Wisdom (Garden City, N. Y., 1966), p. 322.
33. For a discussion of Pope's treatment of the rupture between words
and thought, see Aubrey L. Williams, Pope's 'Dunciad': A Study of its
Meaning (London, 1955), pp. 111-15.
36. For a discussion of Popeis attack upon the threat to the humanis-
tic tradition of the west in the early eighteenth century, see
Williams' study of Pope's Dunciad, particularly chapter six, "The
Anti-Christ of Wit," pp. 131-58.
35. Ernest Tuveson, "Locke and Sterne," in Reason and the Imagina-
tion: S j.~tude nte History of Ideas, 1600-18g0~0 (NSew Y-?io;rk, 1962
36. Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn (Oxford,
1956), vol. II, p. 315.
37. Quoted by Rufus Putney, "Laurence Sterne, Apostle of Laughter,"
in The Age of Johnson, p. 166.
38. Alan Howes cites an informative example of the representative
Augustan attitude toward indiscretion in "playing the fool" in a
letter from Bishop Warburton to Charles York at the time of Sterne's
death: "'Poor Sterne ...was the idol of the higher mob..
/Ed7 chose the office of common jester to the many. But what is
hard, he never will obtain the frivolous end he aimed at, the reputa-
tion of a wit, though at the expense of his character, as a man, a
scholar, and a clergyman He chose Swift for his model: but
Swift was either luckier or wiser, who so managed his wit, that he
will never pass with posterity for a buffoon; while Sterne gave such
a loose to his buffoonery, that he will never pass for a wit"'
(p. 28, n. S).
39. Work, TIS, p. 198, n. 5. In view of sterne's satire in vol. IV
of Tristram Shandy upon abuses in clerical wisdom, it is worthy of
note that his brief Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais satirizes
the attempt of Lon gi~nus Rabeaicus" to "compose ag houg-
stitch'd system of the art of making all kinds of your
theological, hebdomical, rostrummical, humdrummical" sermons (The
Writings of Laurence Sterne, IV, 183). Cross points out that "The
Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais ...appears to have been a
discarded digression originally written for the fourth volume of
Tristram Shandy" (Life, p. 522).
80. See note 19, above.
1.For a full discussion of the meaning of the symposium in Book
III of Rabelais, see Kaiser, pp. 151-62,
62. For a history of Sterne's quarrel with Topham, see Life,
83. See Chapter I, above, p. 11.
b James Wrork notes that "John Selden (1581r-1656), English
jurist, antiquary, Orientalist, and author, relates this story in
his Table Talk" (TIS, p. 330, n; 10).
65. John Stedmond argues that the point of Yorick's story is to
satirize Walter, not the "polemic divines": "Walter's theories
embody as many mental somersaults and caperings as any parabolized
by Rabelais in his fable of Tripet and Gymnast" (p. 1181).
Three: Thae Wbisdom of Folly
In Volume III of Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy claims that in
spite of the "worth" of his brother Toby's "honest ignorance," he will
attempt to replace this "honest ignorance" with "knowledge" (TS, 3.18.
189). We have seen in Chapter Two of this study that Walter's
worldly wisdom led to folly because, in Augustinian terms, he was
obsessed with knowledge (speculation about temporal things) to the
total exclusion of wisdom (contemplation of eternal things). Walter's
conviction that "knowledge, like matter .. was divisible in
infinitum" (TS, 2,19.145) epitomizes his failure to maintain a proper
balance between knowledge and wisdom which .Augustine, among other
writers that we have considered, deemed necessary in man's quest to
achieve the wisdom of Christ.
Because of his "honest ignorance" and "common sense" (TS,
2.19.158) and because "of all men in the world, /547 troubled his
brain the least with abstruse thinking" (TS, 3.18.189), Toby,
instead of Walter, is a fit receptacle for the wisdom of Christ. More
than any of the novel's other characters, Toby resembles the unlearned
"foo~l of nature."1 Walter Kaiser reminds us that the "fool of nature"
rejects "the Stoics .. the philosophers, the metaphysi~cians, the
scientists, and the Schoolmen, because they employ anti-natural means
to understand nature" (Kaiser, p. 95). Although Toby is not a wise
fool in the sense that Tristram and Yorick are (nowhere in Tristram
Shandy is Toby called a "fool"), the analogies between Toby and the
unlearned "natural fool" identify Toby as an instrument of Christian
wisdom. By exhibiting the gnomic wisdom of the "fool of nature,"
Toby, as we shall see, undercuts the foolish vanity of the worldly
Two signs of Toby's fitness as a receptacle of divine wisdom
are his child-like trust in God and his exemplary Christian charity.
In the eyes of the Walter Shandys of this world, Toby's simple faith
and charity are foolish because they lack the worldliness of human
wisdom, but we have seen in Chapter One that simple faith, humility,
and charity, instead of Walter's kind of worldly wisdom, enable man
to become a worthy receptacle of divine wisdom. Traditionally singled
out for praise by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators,2
Toby's simple faith and charity have also been praised by recent
critics. A. R. Towers, for example, eulogizes Toby as a "holy
innocent, and John Stedmond calls him "a comic version of the saint"
(Stedmond, p. 81).
In the second section of this chapter, we shall see that while
Trim shares Toby's function of undercutting the foolish wisdom of the
novel's worldly wise men, he employs somewhat different means of
executing this function. Representing Sterne's projection of the
ideal preacher, Trim demonstrates that the "foolishness of preaching"
(I Cor. 1.21) reveals wisdom far more rewarding than that reflected
in the "enticing words of manss wisdom" (I Cor. 2.6). In frustrating
the false wisdom of the worldly wise, both Toby and Trim remind us
that "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the
wise; and .. the weak things of the world to confound the things
which are mighty" (I Cor. 1.27).
The ability of the simple-minded Toby, whose "brain was like
wet tinder" (TS, 3.39.236), to confound worldly wisdom is evinced when
he subverts the speculative foundations of Walter's hypotheses.
Walter's preoccupation with hypotheses about noses, indicated by his
having "collected every book and treatise which had been systematically
wrote upon noses" ('IS, 3.36.226), provides a clear example of how Toby's
"honest ignorance" and "common sense" expose the foolishness of worldly
wisdom. Distraught because Erasmus' doctrine of noses (simply, that
the nose makes the man) was "laid down .. with the utmost plainness
/In 7 without any .. speculative subtilty or ambidexterity of
argumentation upon it" (TS, 3.37.229), Walter takes his penknife and
literally tries to "scratch some better sense" into the humanist's
sentence. When Walter ludicrously attempts to distort a sentence from
one of Erasmus' Colloquia Familaria by actually altering a word on the
printed page, Toby exposes the danger of man's foolish preoccupation
with useless learning.
I've got within a single letter, brother Toby, cried mny
father, of Erasmus, his mystic meaning. --You are near
enough, brother, replied my uncle, in all conscience. -
Pshawl cried myr father, scratching on, --I might as well be
seven miles off. --I've done it, --said my father, snapping
his fingers. --See, mny dear brother Toby, how I have mended
the sense. --But you have marr'd a word, replied my uncle
Toby. --My father put on his spectacles, --bit his lip,--
and tore out the leaf in a passion (TS, 3.37.230).
Functioning as an instrument of Sterne's satire upon useless
learning, Toby exposes the foolish "extravagance of alter's7
affliction" (TS, 3.30.217) --his obsession with "speculative sub-
tilty or ambidexterity of argumentation,n as exemplified in his
ludicrous attempt to replace the literal meaning of Erasmus' doctrine
of noses with a "mystic and allegoric" (TS, 3.37.299) meaning. Writ-
ing to Stephen Croft about the section of Tristram Shandy dealing
with noses (Volume III, chapters 31-62), Sterne remarked:
...the principal satire throughout that part is levelled
at those learned blockheads who, in all ages have wasted
their time and much learning upon points as foolish /.e.,
as foolish as philosophical speculations upon noses? (Letters,
No. 70, p. 126).
In addition to functioning as an instrument of Sterne's satire upon
useless learning, Toby exhibits his natural or gnomic wisdom by
refusing to be taken in by his brother's claim that "learned men...
don't write dialogues upon long noses for nothing" (TS, 3.37.229).
The extent of Walter's obsession with philosophical speculations is
indicated in his belief that "heaven had bestow'd /Ehe ability to
speculate /l upon man on purpose to investigate truth and fight for her
on all sides" (TS, 3.37.229). While Walter foolishly attempts to
ascertain "the mystic and the allegoric sense" (TS, 3.37.229) of
Erasmus' doctrine of noses, Toby frustrates the attempt by reminding
Walter that he has distorted Erasmus' literal meaning. By preventing
Walter from marring a word, Toby has, in a small way, prevented his
brother from further "crucifying" truth (TS, 9.32.6U6).
Besides undercutting the useless learning of Walter's specu-
lative hypotheses, Toby exposes what Sterne considered some of the
"abuses of religion" (Sermons, II, 179) practiced in the Catholic
Church.4 In his sermon "Penances," for example, Sterne lashes out at
"such abuses of religion" as penances for making religion "consist in
something which it ought not":
How such mockery became a part of religion at first, or upon
what motives they were imagined to be services acceptable to
God, is hard to give a better account of than what was hinted
above; --namely, --that man of melancholy and morose tempers,
conceiving the Deity to be like themselves, a gloomy, dis-
contented and sorrowful being, --believed he delighted, as
they gid, in splenetic and mortifying actions (Srmns II,
The butt of Sterne's anti-Catholic satire in Tristram Shandy is the
Papist Dr. Slop, whose religion is the object of both Trim's and
Toby's satiric thrusts. During Trim's reading of Yorick's sermon upon
abuses of conscience in Volume II, Dr. Slop launches into an apology
for the Catholic doctrine of the seven sacraments. The brief conver-
sation between Toby and Slop on the subject of the seven sacraments
shows how Sterne utilizes Toby to expose what he, as an Anglican priest,
considered abuses in religion:
Pray how many have you in all, said my uncle Toby, --for I
always forget? --Seven, answered Dr. Slop. --Humph! --said
my uncle Toby; tho' not accented as a note of acquiescence,
--but as an interjection of .. surprise .. Humph!
replied mly uncle Toby. Dr. SloE, who had an ear, understood
mry uncle Toby as well as if he had wrote a whole volume
against the seven sacraments (TS, 2.17.129).
Sterne's utilization of Toby to expose what Sterne considered
the artificiality of Catholic doctrine is further exemplified when
Toby challenges Slop's assertion about the value of the sacrament of
confession. "Amongst us LT~e., Roman Catholics7, a man's conscience
could not possibly continue Eo be7 long blinded," Dr. Slop asserts,
for "'three times in a year, at least, he must go to confession.'
'Will that restore it to sight?' quoth m~y uncle Toby" (TS, 2.17.130).
The effectiveness of Toby's rhetorical question illustrates the extent
to which "a plain man, with nothing but common sense" (TS, 2.19.156)
can undercut the false learning espoused by such worldly wise men as
Walter Shandy and Dr. Slop.
Both Toby's function of exposing the folly of worldly wisdom
and the efficacy of his simple faith in God become more evident in the
sequence of scenes where Walter relates his theory of Christian names--
that "good or bad" names determine men's characters and conducts--and
his hypothesis that man can withstand adversity by relying totally on
his own resources. Although Walter laments the crushing of his son's
nose at birth as further proof of the "persecution against him" (TS,
6.19.297), he draws comfort from the "one cast of the dye left for /Eis7
child" (TS, 6.19.298) --fulfilling his theory of Christian names by
naming his son "Trismegistus." Referring to the comfort afforded by
his "opinion of Christian names" (TS, L.8.279), Walter says to Toby:
"'tis wonderful by what hidden resources the mind is enabled to stand
it out, and bear itself up, as it does against the impositions laid
upon our nature" (TS, L.7.277). Exhibiting the simple eloquence of
the wise fool, Toby reminds his brother that the truly wise man relies
upon God to assist him in meeting life's exigencies:
"Tis by the assistance of Almighty God, cried my uncle Toby,
looking up, and pressing the palms of his hands close
together--'tis not from our own strength, brother Shandy--a
sentinel in a wooden centry-box, might as well pretend to
stand it out against a detachment of fifty men, --we are
upheld by the grace and the assistance of the best of Beings
From the point of view of worldly wisdom, represented here by Walter
Shandy, Toby's unquestioning faith in God's grace is simple-minded and
characteristic of his "honest ignorance" (TS, 3.18.189). Walter's
condescending attitude toward his brother's lack of "knowledge" (TS,
3.18.189) is seen in his comment upon Toby's trust in divine providence:
"That /1.e., trusting in divine providence is cutting the knot ..
instead of untying it. --But give me leave to lead you, brother Toby,
a little deeper into this mystery" (TS, 6.7.278).
Unwilling to accept the traditional Christian view which Toby
articulates, that the Lord is man's shepherd in times of distress,
Walter characteristically tangles himself up in a web of distorted
speculations about human nature. Describing man as a "most curious
vehicle," Walter asserts that man is able to withstand his "rugged
journey" through life only because of "a secret spring within him"
(TS, lr.8.278). Far from being the fool that WaJlter thinks he is,
Toby undercuts his brother's unnaturally contrived assertions about
the "mystery" of man's "secret spring" by identifying man's "secret
spring" as "Religion" (TS, 6.8.278). Walter's reaction to Toby's
faith in religion reveals the degree to which Walter's speculative
hypotheses have prevented him from sharing his brother's fitness to
receive the wisdom of Christ:
Will that set my child's nose on? cried my father, letting
go his finger, and striking one hand against the other--It
makes every thing straight for us, answered my uncle Toby--
Figuratively speaking, dear Toby, it may, for aught I know,
said my father; but the spring I am speaking of, is that
great and elastic power within us of counterbalancing evil,
which like a secret spring in a well-ordered machine, though
it can't prevent the shock--at least it imposes upon our
sense of it (TS, 8.8.279).
Several passages from two of Sterne's sermons illuminate the
superiority of Toby's natural wisdom to Walter's acquired learning by
showing that Toby is a spokesman for the Christian teachings expressed
in The Sermons of Mr. Yorick. In "Trust in God," for example, Yorick
recalls Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians "never to depend on any
worldly trust, but only on God" (Sermons, II, 153), and concludes his
sermon by encouraging his flock to "learn this great lesson in the
text, in all thy exigencies and distresses, --to trust GOD" (Sermons,
II, 56).As seen in a passage from "On Enthusiasm," Toby's trust
in God and his recognition of the divine source of human fortitude
echo Yorick's words in the Sermons:
However firmly we may think we stand--the best of us are but
upheld, and graciously kept upright; and whenever this divine
assistance is withdrawn, --or suspended, --all history,
especially the sacred, is full of melancholy instances of what
man is, when God leaves him to himself, --that he is even a
thing of nought (Sermons, II, 192).
The discussion between the Shandy brothers about the source of
man's ability to withstand adversity dramatizes the distinction
between the foolishness of Walter's "knowledge" and the wisdom of
Tobyls "honest ignorance." Significantly, Toby's reminder to Walter
that man is "upheld by the grace and the assistance of the best of
Beings" (TS, 6.7.278) echoes Yorick's warning in his sermon "Trust in
God." "Without some certain aid within us to bear us up," the preacher
begins his sermon, "so tender a frame as ours, would be but ill fitted
to encounter what generally befals it in this rugged journey" (Sermons,
II, 87).It is precisely because Toby "troubled his brain the least
with abstruse thinking" (TS, 3.18,189) that he is such an effective
instrument for imparting the Christian wisdom contained in Sterne's
sermon "Trust in God."
Even though Walter recognizes the existence of a "secret spring"
within man which enables him to survive his "rugged journey" through
life (TS, L.8.278), his short-sighted worldly wisdom prevents him from
perceiving the role of divine providence in assisting man in his
voyage through life. Not only does Walter's vain worldly wisdom blind
him to the workings of Godss hand in providing man with a built-in
"secret spring"; it also prevents him from following Toby's advice to
seek "the assistance of the best of Beings" (TS, 8.7.278) when man's
inner "secret spring" runs afoul of life's exigencies. Walter's foolish
blindness to Christian wisdom becomes more evident in light of Sterne's
expansion upon the theme of divine trust in his sermon "Trust in God."
Indicative of his greater wisdom, the preacher Yorick in
"Trust in God" sees through the apparent fortuitism of man's inner
spring. Unlike Walter, Yorick perceives God's design in providing man
with an inner power which operates "like a secret spring in a well-
contrived machine" (Sermons, II, 188).6 The failure of Walter's worldly
wisdom to understand the workings of this "secret spring"' is revealed
when Yorick not only identifies "the principle of self-love" as the
force generating man's secret spring" (Sermons, II, 187), but also
assesses the limitations of this generating force. Describing self-
love as "one of the most deceitful of human passions," Yorick argues
that it "too often disappoints in the end" (Sermons, II, 1L7), by in-
clin Ing us to think better of ourselves, and conditions, than there is
ground for" (Sermons, II, 189). By a process of induction, Yorick
arrives at the same conclusion reached by Toby's intuitive gnomic
wisdom--that "Religion" is ultimately man's only fool-proof "secret
spring." Since "we still find a necessity of calling something to aid
this principle" of self-love, Yorick argues, "reason and religion are
called in at length, and join with nature in exhorting us to hope; --
but to hope in God, in whose hands are the issues of life and death"
(Sermons, II, 1L9). In light of the similarity between Yorick's
advice to his congregation and Toby's advice to Walter, then, Walter's
foolish rejection of God's assistance becomes more blameworthy, while
Toby's function as an instrument for imparting Christian wisdom
becomes more evident.
The short-sightedness of Walter's worldly wisdom is
epitomized in his attempt to "counteract and undo" the evil of his
son's crushed nose by naming him Trismegistus:
But alas! continued my father, as the greatest evil
has befallen him--I must counteract and undo it with the
He shall be christened Trismegistus, brother.
I wish it may answer--replied my uncle Toby, rising up
The folly of Walter's trust in his "opinion of Christian names"
(TS, 6.8.279), and the wisdom of Toby's skeptical view of worldly
wise hypotheses, become more evident in light of Walter's reasons
for relying on a name to undo "evil." Because "there never was a
great or heroic action performed since the world began by one called
Tristram" (TS, 6.18.295), walter believes that "there was a strange
kind of magick bias which good or bad names . irresistibly
impressed upon our characters and conduct" (TS, 1.19.150). For Walter,
Trismegistus is the most fitting name for his son because he was "the
greatest .. of all earthly beings .. the greatest king--the
greatest lawgiver--/End7 the greatest philosopher" (TS, 8.11.283-88).
Typifying his interest in religion, Toby reminds Walter that Tris-
megistus was also "the greatest priest" (TS, lr.11.288), thereby point-
ing to Walter's indifference to anything of an other-worldly nature.
Walter's comment upon Toby's reminder of Trismegistuss priestly fame--
"in course" (TS, 6.11.288)' --confirms Walter's indifference to
religion in the order of things.
Compounding Walter's indifference to religion and religious
values is his selection of Trismegistus for his son's name in spite
of the name's pejorative connotations in patristic literature. The
"Greek name of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom" (Work, ed., TS,
p. 279, n. 2), Trismegistus (also called Hermes) is attacked by
several Church Fathers as a symbol of worldly folly.8 In The City
of God, for example, St. Augustine devotes two chapters to denouncing
Trismegistus as a fool in the eyes of God. Maile pointing out that
Trismegistus revealed the error of his Egyptian forefathers in invent-
/In 7 the art of making gods" (The City of God, 8.24.129),9 Augustine
condemns Trismegistus for bewailing the future destruction of the
...he bears witness to Christianity by a kind of mournful
prophecy. Now it was with reference to such that the apostle
said, that "knowing God, they glorified Him not as God, neither
were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and
their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be
wise, they became fools" .. For Hermes makes many such
statements agreeable to the truth concerning the one true God
who fashioned this world. And I know not how he has become so
bewildered by that darkening of the heart as to stumble into
the expression of a desire that men should always continue in
subjection to those gods which he confesses to be made by men,
and to bewail their future removal (The City of God, 8.23.127-28).
It would seem unlikely that in the systematic pursuit of his
opinion of Christian names, Walter would be ignorant of Trismegistus'
reputation as a symbol of worldly folly in patristic literature.
Tristram reminds us that Walter, in his opinion "of the influence of
Christian names .. was serious; --he was all uniformity; --he was
systematical, and, like all systematic reasoners, he would move both
heaven and earth, and twist and torture every thing in nature to sup-
port his hypothesis" (TIS, 1.19.153). In addition, Tristram points out
that his father "would lose all kind of patience whenever he saw
people .. who should have known better, --as careless and as indif-
ferent about the name they imposed upon their child, --or more so,
than in the choice of Ponto or Cupid for their puppy dog" (TS, 1.19.
53*$6). It would seem more in keeping with walter's obsession with
worldliness to assume, then, that he would deliberately choose the
pagan god of worldly wisdom as the name of the son he was grooming to
succeed him as philosopher par excellence of Shandy Hall.
Just as Walter foolishly stressed worldly rather than religious
qualities in his choice of Tristram's name, so he did in his choice of
qualities for Tristram's tutor. The discussion about desirable quali-
ties in Tristram's tutor serves as another example of the superiority
of Toby's natural wisdom to the foolishness of Walter's worldly wisdom.
For Walter, Tristram's tutor must be "prudent, attentive to business,
vigilant, acute, argute, inventive, quick in resolving doubts and
speculative questions . wise and judicious, and learned" (TS, 6,..
1).Once again, Toby exhibits his gnomic wisdom by siding with the
wise fool, Yorick, to expose Walter's foolish obsession with worldly
wisdom: "And why not humble, and moderate, and gentle tempered, and
good? said Yorick: --And why not, cried my uncle Toby, free and gener-
ous, and bountiful, and brave?" (TIS, 6.5.815) In commenting upon Toby's
sense of humanity, John Stedmond reminds us that "Toby, .. like the
traditional wises fools, is on the side of nature against human attempts
to institutionalize man's instincts" (Stedmond, p. 92).
Walter's preoccupation with the muddled world of his hypotheses,
with their emphasis on material, this-worldly gains, prevents him from
realizing the folly of his faith in all abstract systems, epitomized
by hi~s hypothesis of Christian names. Like his Tristra-poedia,
Walter's theory of Christian names is foolish also in its irrelevance
to the reality of human experience. Whereas the wise fool Tristram
exposes the foolish wisdom of his father's educational system, the