The Praise of Folly, by Erasmus

This translation from the original Latin, Moriae Encomium, is in a 1993 Penguin paperback, along with the explanatory Letter to Maarten van Dorp. Erasmus displays his wide reading in Classical sources, giving example after example of the unacknowledged need for folly in human life. Throughout, Folly speaks as a goddess in her own voice.

The Encomium takes a sharp turn at midpoint and becomes a satire on contemporary Christian theology and piety. Folly stops showering examples of her necessity and blasts away at unnecessary foolishness. There is then a second turn as the last part of the work describes the necessary folly in Christian belief, echoing St. Paul: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”

In the Letter to van Dorp, Erasmus tries to mask the obvious satire of the second part of the Encomium as harmless fun. After all, when Folly talked about sovereign pontiffs, no particular pope was named; and quotations from the Vulgate in the Church Fathers were often different from the text as it existed in his time, which showed that there had been corruptions of Jerome’s original.

Folly writes: “But, someone may say, the ears of princes are strangers to truth, and for this reason they avoid those wise men, because they fear lest someone more frank than the rest should dare to speak to them things rather true than pleasant; for so the matter is, that they don’t much care for truth. And yet this is found by experience among my fools, that not only truths but even open reproaches are heard with pleasure; so that the same thing which, if it came from a wise man’s mouth might prove a capital crime, spoken by a fool is received with delight. For truth carries with it a certain peculiar power of pleasing, if no accident fall in to give occasion of offense; which faculty the gods have given only to fools. And for the same reasons is it that women are so earnestly delighted with this kind of men, as being more propense by nature to pleasure and toys. And whatsoever they may happen to do with them, although sometimes it be of the most serious, yet they turn it to jest and laughter, as that sex was ever quick-witted, especially to color their own faults.”

Erasmus was the man in the middle, fool and wise man, Catholic and Protestant, scholar and gypsy. The Letter to van Dorp disappoints because it smudges the shiny espièglerie of the Encomium. My poor fool is dead!

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