Be a Fool: what archetypes can teach us about failure and perseverance

By Brennan Keifer

Elm Staff Writer

Why would anyone want to be a fool? The idea itself sounds ludicrous. Because of the common connotation of the word, to call someone a fool would be an insult. However, according to the archetypes developed by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, the idea of a fool is not one of idiocy. Instead, the archetypal fool is a character of confidence, persistence, and courage.

An archetype is a reoccurring, universal symbol found throughout the stories and myths of our world. A fairy godmother or wicked stepmom are two common archetypes. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung developed the theory that the human psyche is a composite of various archetypes, which are then made manifest in world myths and stories. In other words, the archetypes found throughout the myths of the world are manifestations representing different parts of our conscious and unconscious minds.

Joseph Campbell was an American professor of literature who developed the theory of the monomyth: that, in essence, all mythology is the same “beneath its varieties of costume.” Campbell noticed repeating themes, symbols, and characters throughout world myths and developed a series of literary archetypes that coincide with Jung’s archetypes of psychology. Both Jung and Campbell recognize the archetype of the Fool.

For anyone who has looked through a deck of tarot cards, you may have found the Fool card. The card depicts a man with an unworried expression, eyes on the sky, walking straight towards a cliffs edge. His eyes on the sky represent striving towards high aims, his unworried expression represents courage, and the cliff’s edge represents stepping willfully into the unknown.

This is the basic idea of the Fool archetype: a character who is unafraid to aim high, to try new things and to face the unknown. Jung describes the Fool as being a “potential future,” meaning that, through various attempts and failures, the Fool gains experience. As the Fool gains experience, he builds his character and eventually develops into the archetype of the Sage or Savior.

Toronto University’s professor of psychology, Dr. Jordan Peterson, said, “One of the things I’ve learned from Jung that is so unlikely, is that the Fool is the precursor to the Savior [or Sage]. Why? Because you’re a fool when you start something new. So, if you’re not willing to be a fool then you’ll never start anything new, and if you never start anything new then you won’t develop.”

The archetype of the Fool is all about growth and development. If we never try and never take risks then we will never grow.

Winston Churchill once said, “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

We cannot be afraid of failure, because it is through our failures that we will find eventual success. Essentially, failure is a prerequisite of success.

Melody Sharp, a Washington College junior, shared her story of perseverance through failure, and her eventual success.

“I applied for a job in admissions my freshman year. I didn’t get the job and was moody about it for a year. But I thought if I didn’t apply again, I’d end up regretting it later. Now that I’m a junior, I’m a bit more grown up and more qualified, so I applied again and got the job.”

Sophomore Delilah Jones described a similar experience of perseverance through failure. Jones said that, in high school, she wanted to be a drum major and conduct for her school’s band:

“The first year I tried out, I gave up because I didn’t feel like I could do it,” Jones said. However, conducting was a passion for Jones and she decided to keep practicing.

 “I tried out again the next year, but still didn’t get it. That kind of bummed me out, but I knew that I loved conducting and so I kept practicing and kept going.”

Jones’ perseverance eventually paid off, as she now assists with conducting for WACapella.

These WC students never let their failures get the better of them. They were fools who stepped into the unknown, took a chance and attempted something new. Despite the initial failure, they kept trying and eventually succeeded. To quote Winston Churchill again, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

There is no shame in failure, shame is only in not trying again. Learn from the archetypes of Campbell and Jung. If you let the fear of failure control your life, you will never get anywhere at all. So, take a chance, and if you fail, learn from your mistake and try again. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Be a fool.

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