Should You Ever Argue with a Fool?
Should You Ever Argue with a Fool?
Lucas Hagen Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Mark Twain is wrongly attributed to saying, “Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” While this is almost certainly not something Twain said, it is based on a proverb from Scripture that shares the same idea. It is wise to not argue with a fool, because you will likely become one yourself. However, is this always the case? What exactly does this proverb mean, and how can Christians live it out today?
Where Does the Bible Talk about Arguing with Fools?
Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him” (Proverbs 26:4). The meaning of this verse is relatively simple. If you engage with a fool, he will bring you down to his level. Rather than proving him and others of his foolishness, you will be viewed as a fool, just like him.
Solomon continues in the following verse complementing verse four. He writes, “answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5). Here, Solomon gives a blueprint for when one is to answer a fool, which is to expose his foolishness lest he lead others astray. If everyone avoids challenging fools, then fools will go on thinking that they are in the right, and others may as well.
These verses are striking because they contradict one another. In verse four, Solomon warns against engaging with fools to expose their foolishness. Yet, in the following verse, Solomon warns against not engaging with fools, because otherwise no one will ever expose their foolishness.
When to Not Argue with a Fool
While these verses do seem to contradict each other, they are both wise in their own right. Verse four is wise because trying to expose the foolishness of a fool can go sideways very quickly. By trying to show the fool up, you may come across as simply trying to show that you are smarter, in which case your pride may make you appear just as foolish as your counterpart.
Such interactions will have no end because each party will continually seek to best the other in a showcase of vanity.
Here is an example. If you were to come across a group debating political policy, you may be tempted to intervene and challenge them, showing the group the error of their thinking. However, in the course of time, you may simply end up exchanging blows, trying to outwit the others, to show off who is smarter and who is right. Rather than changing people’s minds, you may simply be viewed as arrogant and rude, which is unproductive to say the least.
By trying to argue with the fool and show everyone his foolishness, you now have joined him and are both considered to be fools. Solomon’s proverb goes to show that in cases such as these, it is better to not engage with the fool and give him an opportunity to drag you down to his level. In many cases, it is better to bite your tongue rather than engage.
When to Argue with a Fool
Proverbs 26:5 directly contradicts the previous proverb, and it too is wise in its own right. As Solomon says, there certainly are times when one must engage a fool, because if no one does, he will lead people astray. A fool left unchecked is bound to continue in foolishness, wreaking havoc the whole way. By challenging the fool and showing him how he is being foolish, you are preventing others from being led into foolishness.
Imagine now that you come across an atheist explaining to a group of teenagers why Jesus cannot possibly have been raised from the dead and that Christianity is complete garbage. In this case, it still may not be best to publicly challenge and engage the debate. However, if you truly believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and that He is the one true Savior, you do not want to let him go unchallenged, lest he be confirmed in his thoughts and continue teaching falsehood.
Solomon’s teaching here is that fools can often, through their foolishness, lead others down the same path. If such fools are not challenged and exposed, they will think that they are wise, and will not change their thinking or actions. By engaging with the fool, you can prevent him from leading himself and others astray.
Do not take these examples to be gospel. They are meant to illustrate that, as Solomon seems to indicate, practical wisdom in such situations is complex. There very well may be a time similar to what is described where it is best to do the opposite. It can be difficult to know when to instruct someone who is speaking foolishly and when to let it go. While Solomon’s proverbs appear to contradict each other, they are not mutually exclusive. As with many situations in life, there is not always one right answer. It requires wisdom and discernment to rightly apply such principles and deal well with difficult situations.
When dealing with someone who is a fool, proceed with caution. Many times, engaging with him and arguing with him can do nothing else other than show your own foolishness. During other times it is necessary to challenge the fool so he and others do not take his foolishness for wisdom.
Avoid Fools to Avoid Foolishness
While there may be times when it is best to challenge a fool, in most cases it is best to avoid them altogether. Solomon teaches, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). Those who spend time in fellowship with wise people will inevitably become wise. However, those who spend their time arguing with and engaging with fools will inevitably become fools themselves. Those with whom you spend your time will influence you. It is vital to choose wisely, lest you become a fool.
In the pursuit of godliness, it is essential to seek wisdom in all situations. When you come across someone speaking foolishly, ask God for wisdom whether to engage or not. While it may be beneficial to challenge him, it is probably best to walk away and protect yourself from acting foolishly. In all things, seek the wisdom of the Lord, and you will one day find yourself to be wise.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/fizkes
Lucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.