The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Praise of a Folly is a quintessential Renaissance work. In the work, Folly gives an oration about her own importance, claiming that her followers are everywhere in the world, and goes on to document the man ways that folly and hypocrisy features in everyday experience and in various human institutions such as: philosophy, education, politics, poetry, and religion. At the beginning of the work she describes her mythical origins in the vein of Hesiod, claiming to be to child of Plutus (Greed), which suggests allegorically human folly often stems from greed. The Roman satires of Juvenal and Lucan are a strong influence on the work as well as  The Consolation of Philosophy, which features the allegorical figure of Philosophy herself discussing the nature of the world, along with the medieval allegorical traditions, which features allegorical figures that give long orations (i. e. The Romance of the Rose).

While many parts of the work are amusing in its playful and satirical critique of society, there are elements that might irritate a reader.  The work is a bit repetitive. It is difficult to tell if this is a flaw in the writing or Erasmus was attempting to match style to content. Folly rambles and repeats herself, in which the style can be seen as a type of folly itself, the sort of person who rambles without being concise and to the point, as well as the type of person who endlessly repeats their story without realizing they’re repeating themselves.

One critique that is repeated a lot is that against philosophers. In a world built on human folly and the pleasure it brings, who wants to listen to a bunch of pedantic philosophers telling us to ignore human pleasures! The true knowledge of philosophy only brings trouble, annoys other people, and brings no pleasure to the individual. Indeed, so much stoic philosophy is built on putting aside and ignoring human pleasures. Unfortunately, this critique is repeated over and over again.

Folly also critiques princes who believe it is their duty to focus on their own pleasure rather than the good of people.

“They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens’ purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet’nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.”

His strongest critiques, however, are reserved for religious institutions of his day. The work with its irreverent tone and critique of medieval theology is cited as a major inspiration for the Reformation. For example, the work tackles the institutions of monks and their variety of orders.

“these are Benedictines, those Bernardines; these Carmelites, those Augustines; these Williamites, and those Jacobines; as if it were not worth the while to be called Christians. And of  these, a great part build so much on their ceremonies and petty traditions of men that they think one heaven is too poor a reward for so great merit, little dreaming that the time will come when Christ, not regarding any of these trifles, will call them to account for His precept of charity.”

Folly suggests that all these monks would rather be called other names associated with their various order than simply Christians, delude themselves that their petty rules and ceremonies associated with each order will somehow merit them a higher place in heaven, and that they are in fact performing many practices and buying into many assumptions that are not in line with Christ’s teachings.

He also tackles theologians, those professional scholars of religion who “are so taken up with these pleasant trifles that they have not so much leisure as to cast the least eye on the Gospel or St. Paul’s epistles.” By Erasmus’ time, theology spent an exorbitant amount of time arguing about minor details that had little relationship to the message of the Gospels. Despite dealing with trifling matters about the secret meaning of Christ’s name or some other esoteric subject, these theologians puffed up their own importance “requir[ing] that their own conclusions, subscribed by two or three Schoolmen, be accounted greater than Solon’s laws and preferred before the papal decretals.” Anything they dislike is dismissed as irreverent or heresy.

In this sense, the work is very modern in its willingness to critique the institutions of its time. It has a critical voice that is different from earlier medieval works. Like Juvenal, Erasmus is willing to question and critique all that is wrong, or at the very least, absurd and ridiculous about society and human affairs


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