Clown Philosophy

by Jan Henderson


In a lifelong search for meaning, I have found the clown to be the best, all-encompassing metaphor for the human condition - an uncompromising mirror to look into for glimpses of the truth. We look at the clown and see ourselves - our hopes, dreams, fears, and virtues, our flaws and our process. Clowns show us how, as a species, we get into trouble - without ever meaning or wanting to - and how we sometimes stumble onto sublime solutions to our problems. The Fool has eyes to see, and heart to recognize.

Clowning isn't something we need to learn so much as something we become aware of in ourselves. Any time that we are curious, playful, or creative, we are in clown mode. When we are in a state of wonder or awe, surprise or amazement, we are in clown. Whenever we have hunches, act on impulse, or digress - we are in clown. Whenever we have strong emotions, we are in clown. The clown lives in the place of laughing and crying at the same time.

“Tragedy is the question. Comedy is the answer.”
— Luke Barber, PhD philosophy

The art of clowning involves much more than the slapstick and oversized shoes of the traditional circus clown. The character of The Fool is an essential ingredient of human society - a universal archetype found in some form in all cultures and in all times. The Clown is the "puer aeternus", the eternal child in all of us - the innocent who sees things as they really are and not as convention decrees, who can be counted on to tell us, in the loudest possible voice, that the emperor's not wearing any clothes. It is the part of us that has never grown up, that lives in the heart and in the moment, with no past to regret and no future to dread - the part that only wants to play, completely free of responsibility - and yet is willing and able to save the world if necessary.

The clown takes everything literally and personally, questioning everything under the sun except itself, blithely flaunting the egg on its face and the heart on its sleeve. With the best of intentions and no thought of failure, it leaps naively into danger - getting knocked down over and over - but never failing to get up and try again. It is an embodiment of hope in the face of hopelessness, and possibility in the face of the impossible. It blissfully ignores the obvious and somehow convinces us of the wisdom of folly, and if, as I suspect, we are here to bear witness to the universe, the clown aspect of ourselves provides the best color commentary.

Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves, warts and all. It offers us respite from our self-doubts and fears, and opens the door to joy. And the best part is, we are all already our clowns. They are here inside us, waiting for us to recognize them so that they can come out and play.