In the Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus examined his contemporary world of the Medieval Ages and put forth in satire, using a narrator and main character personified as Folly, its deep-rooted ignorance and stubbornness for all to see, to reveal what the world lacked
In the Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus examined his contemporary world of the Medieval Ages and put forth in satire, using a narrator and main character personified as Folly, its deep-rooted ignorance and stubbornness for all to see, to reveal what the world lacked – the true idea of the individual’s potential. Thomas More’s Utopia, with similar intentions, practically illustrates a more direct solution to the times with his depictions of the manners and ways of the distant people of a place known as Utopia. It is thus that these two great writers came to be renowned as the best in their craft of the “studia humanitatis, [which] emphasized speculative thought, and above all, logic,” a focus of the 16th century humanist movement (Bonney 9).
Erasmus works on this task by narrating his work from the point of view of his embodiment of Folly, a goddess of pretension and foolishness, which seeks to encourage and support mankind’s many faults and shortcomings. The parallel to Folly is of course More’s Hythlodaeus, his narrator in Utopia, whose name literally means “dispenser of nonsense,” in an almost carelessly witty book which “[claims] to match [Plato’s Republic], or beat at its own game” (More 5). With their quick banter and senses of humour, Erasmus and More are able to criticize and offer amends to the narrow-mindedness of their times in the form of particularly deep and comprehensive stories with a boldness matched only by themselves. For as Erasmus said, “[the writer] never loses sleep as he sets down at once whatever takes his fancy and comes to his pen, even his dreams, and it costs him little beyond the price of his paper” (Erasmus 82). As Erasmus and More systematically develop their respective arguments and even question the reader’s own ideas, it becomes apparent that their works are valuable and insightful historical sources, which best exemplify “power of the intellect,” with their visions of the true potential of individuals and their ideals of a fairer world (More 91).
Utopia, as described by Sir Thomas More (Image Source).
As Bonney states in The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, “before the Reformation, Catholicism had been regarded as the ‘true’ faith,” which just about ruled all the countries of Europe as the kingdom of ‘Christendom’ and in which there could only be “one faith, one law, one king” (Bonney 1). Spearheaded with the dawn of the humanist movement, of which Erasmus and More were key figures, the Reformation set out to change all this. Against the so-called ‘religiosity’ of his fellow men, Erasmus was ready with quill and parchment to counter all such claims when he satirically points out that, “a good many [people’s] religious sense is so distorted that they find the most serious blasphemies against Christ more bearable than the slightest joke on pope or prince, especially if it touches their daily bread” (Erasmus 7). In such a way, Erasmus shows that the average Christian’s so-called religion only extended as far as their purses, in that they treasured titles and wealth far more than any faith that they harboured. This is in stark contrast of More’s ideal Utopians, who “feel they can please God merely by studying the natural world and praising Him for it” (More 103). This more closely resembles the humanist interest “in Latin and Greek literature,” in which they “had sought to draw moral lessons from its works” (Bonney 9). In this period, any religion expressed by the ‘faithful’ is decrepit and false, characteristics which are best supported when Erasmus says, “for myself, I often have a good laugh when they particularly fancy themselves as theologians if they speak in a specially uncouth and slovenly style” (Erasmus 95). Again this is in sharp contrast to the Utopians, who by chance it seems get everything right the first time, in that “all their priests are exceptionally pious, which means that there are very few of them” (More 104). This is further supported when More says of the Utopian churches, “they sing hymns of praise to God...all their music, both vocal and instrumental, and is wonderfully expressive of natural feelings” (More 108). What a blunt contrast this makes against the Erasmus’s and More’s contemporary theologians of the Church, who restricted true faith by feeding lies to the public, for which reasons they were, quite obviously, opposed by Erasmus, More, and other humanists like themselves. For it seems that these self-named theologians have reached the agreement that, “we’ll never get human behaviors in line with Christian ethics, so lets adapt Christian ethics to human behavior” (More 43). By wittily pointing out these shortcomings and contradictions of the Church, Erasmus and More hoped to “dispel what he considered to be superstition and the empty ceremony of the late medieval church” (Bonney 11).
Many of these humanistic intelligentsia observations are made on the subject of the common people in general, who were often constrained and in turn constrained the world around them with their crude and limited ideas. These are “the people who’ve adopted the foolish but pleasurable belief that if they see some carving or painting of that towering Polyphemus, Christopher...or [that] a man will soon become rich if he approaches Erasmus on the proper days with the proper bits of candle and the proper scraps of prayer” (Erasmus 63). This amusing snippet, in which Erasmus stylized himself as a false charm, conveys the divergence of intellectual and independent thought of the time. This is, naturally, something that is inherently opposed by the Utopians, who “pay no attention to omens, fortune-telling, or any of the superstitious practices that are taken so seriously in other countries...in fact they treat them as a joke” (More 103). This is, of course, according to the humanists at least, the ways things should be, but unfortunately, great men have forgotten how to think, leaving that and other matters to lesser men. This is best summarized by Erasmus’s anecdote of “a man who hears a donkey bray and thinks he hears a marvelous symphony” (Erasmus 60). The Utopians, on the other hand, “receive [mental pleasure] from understanding something or from contemplating truth” (More 76). It is through their regrettable limited outlook on life that man misses most of it, often mistaking some things, while entirely forgetting others still.
The humanist authors also found much to say in response to the pretentious false scholars of the day, and more importantly the people who had the potential to learn more but blatantly refused. As More said, it was almost “as if it would be a major disaster for anyone to be caught being wiser than his ancestors!” (More 21). Ironically, those same scholars who thought themselves superior could never reach the pinnacle of achievement because through their folly, they were more concerned with appearance rather than credibility. This is supported when Erasmus says of these scholars, “who fancy themselves practically gods on earth if they can show themselves twin-tongued, like horse leeches, and think it a splendid feat if they can work a few silly little Greek words, like pieces of mosaic, into their Latin speeches” (Erasmus 14). Through their continued stubbornness, these so-called scholars could never even come to realize their true blindness, for “what difference is there, do you think, between those in Plato’s cave who can only marvel at the shadows and images of various objects, provided they are content and don’t know what they miss ... the fools are better off, first because their happiness costs them so little, in fact only a grain of persuasion, secondly because they share their enjoyment of it with the majority of men” (Erasmus 72). Thus it seems that these people would not dare to think but would rather a higher authority, like the Church, rule them in their folly. This is again in direct conflict with the Utopians, who rather delight in Greek literature in a true, befitting manner, in which they not only read but understand and so they’ve “got Plutarch, who is their favourite author, and Lucian, whom they find delightfully entertaining” (More 81). And so it is the stylized Utopians who are the best example of widespread and developed humanism put into practice, and so are an ideal society that Erasmus and More longed for but never could see or reach.
In conclusion, Erasmus and More achieved their goals of presenting the stinging although witty bite of humanism in their two well established books. Though the texts, like practically all works, have a few minor problems, they still remain clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in their explanations. A general background to the period is still required to fully understand all of the humanists’ references and witticisms of their books. If their works were to be viewed from the standpoint of a purely independent study, the reader would have to have had some foreknowledge of the key elements of the humanist movement and the Reformation itself. As such, a bit of pre-textbook reading prior to undertaking Erasmus and More would be most helpful in understanding the texts. What makes their books such timeless classics is the thoroughness with which they analyze and interpret various aspects and characteristics of the problems of the period’s transitory phase. After reading these books, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. Some basic background information, as previously mentioned, as well as knowledge of major events and figures, of the Reformation is strongly recommended to know before attempting to read these books, and they would certainly facilitate the understanding of them. Overall, the works were thought-provoking and interesting, and they should be read by anyone interested in European history.
© 2011 Gregory Markov
Erasmus, Desiderius. Praise of Folly. London, England: Penguin Book LTD, 1971. Print.
More, Thomas. Utopia. London, England: Penguin Book LTD, 2003. Print.
Bonney, Richard. The Short Oxford, History of the Modern World: The European Dynastic States 1494-1660. Oxford England: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.