Been There Done That

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 2, 2023

One of the many wise old sayings which my father was fond of quoting was itself about age and wisdom, and indeed reeks of both of them. It says: 

Experience keeps a dear school – but fools will learn in no other.

And what exactly does keeping a dear school mean? Here, “dear” means the opposite of cheap, and goes back to a time when there was no such thing as free public education, even in what eventually became the United States of America. That time was in fact the Eighteenth Century – because the earliest known appearance of that saying was as a kind of “filler” in a periodical called Poor Richard’s Almanack, published in Philadelphia by a man named Benjamin Franklin whose life (from 1706 to 1790) practically spanned the Century, and who is known – among many other things – as one of the Founding Fathers of America.

The Almanack was published annually from 1732 to 1758, and many of the “sayings” were borrowed from other sources, but some, attributed to a variety of “Richards,” were Franklin’s own.

But whoever coined the expression about experience, they had hit on something that stayed around for centuries, and appealed to a variety of people, including an English schoolboy who became my father.

And what about the “fools” who need the school of experience in which to learn what wiser people learn from the mistakes of others? Our culture has fostered two kinds of fools. First there were the intentional kind, otherwise known as jesters. It may seem strange to us now, when professionally funny people of various persuasions are available at a rate which used to be quoted at a dime a dozen – but there was a time, some eras ago, when only very rich and powerful people could afford the luxury of in-home entertainment, provided by those for whom jests were their stock in trade. Such creatures were so commonly associated with royalty that they somehow found their way into our ordinary decks of playing cards, where they reside beside the Kings and Queens, and are known as Jokers. 

What particular role jokers play in a given card game is determined by a variety of factors, including the game and the rules, which of course come in great variety. But one more or less standard characteristic is the type of garb depicted in the usual image, a close-fitting costume of mixed and mingled stripes and colors, with a multi-pointed headpiece, each point usually tipped with a little bell. The face and head also tend to have exaggerated features.

But, as is evident in the expression about learning in a dear school, the word “fool” has come to have an entirely different connotation, in which being a fool and being fooled are not so much about merry jesting as about demonstrating stupidity and being deceived. This usage is actually the more common, and is clearly seen in such “wise” sayings as this one, supposedly passed on to white settlers from American Indians (or Native Americans, as is now considered the more culturally correct designation):

Fool me once – shame on you;
Fool me twice – shame on me.

Possibly an even more famous expression comes from Alexander Pope’s long poem (it is actually line 625) which he called “An Essay on Criticism”:

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

What exactly does it mean? The contrasting of Fools with Angels seems to me to imply that there is something unholy about stupidity.

Holy or not, another proverbial expression apparently justifies deceiving the unwise by telling us that, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” And even the not-so-unwise can sometimes fail to distinguish the genuine from the deceptively false – which is why the mineral iron pyrite, which glitters enough to be mistaken for the real thing, is commonly known as “Fool’s Gold.”

All of which brings us back to that highly paid teacher, Experience – otherwise known as time, trouble, aging, reality, hard knocks, and just plain old Life.

In case you are wondering, I myself must admit to having had, in the last nine decades, my own share of those hardy and foolhardy haps and mishaps, adventures and misadventures. And all they seem to have produced of note is a bunch of epigrams (never more than seventeen words) of which you may find the following relevant to our current discussion:

Life is a wonderful learning experience – but that doesn’t mean you always like what you learn.  


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