Desiderius Erasmus' Praise Of Folly satirically examines the ignorance and stubbornness of the Medieval Age in order to establish and found the true idea of the individual's potential, one of the centerpieces of the humanist movement of the 1500s.
Desiderius Erasmus’ Praise Of Folly satirically examines the ignorance and stubbornness of the Medieval Age in order to establish and found the true idea of the individual’s potential, one of the centerpieces of the humanist movement of the 1500s. Erasmus does this by narrating his work from the personification of Folly, a goddess of pretension and well, folly, which seeks to promote and strengthen the faults and shortcomings of mankind in general. In such a way, Erasmus, with extravagant wit and banter is able to criticize the so-called “Christian piety” and perspectives of his time, thereby allowing “any reader who is not altogether lacking in discernment [to] scent something far rewarding in them than in the crabbed and specious arguments of some people we know” (Erasmus 6). Erasmus’ book should be perceived, and as such, read as a satirical story, albeit a particularly deep and comprehensive one. However, though a satire, the work is a valuable historical source as it matches and complements the inclinations of the period of the Reformation.
This is a result of the fact that Erasmus examines and presents his own personal views, in fact reveling in doing so, but also systematically backing his statements up with his knowledge of the times. Better yet, his sharp criticisms serve not merely in presenting data, but actually questioning the reader’s own ideas on the subject. The work is not all-encompassing, nor does it pretend to be so, as Erasmus himself said when he called his work, “my bit of nonsense” (Erasmus 4). Though a “frivolous” work written solely for Erasmus’ and Sir Thomas More’s own “amusement,” a general background to the period is still required to fully understand all of Erasmus’ references and witticisms of his book. If Erasmus’ work 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 would be most helpful in understanding the text. And this understanding is found in Bonney’s The European Dynastic States 1494-1660.
As Bonney states in The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, the period of the Middle Ages were ruled by the adage that there could only be, “One faith, one law, one king,” and Catholicism of the “European Christendom” was viewed as the “one true faith” (Bonney 1). The Reformation set out to change all this, starting with the advent of the humanist movement, of which Erasmus was a leading figure. Against the “religiosity” of his fellow men, Erasmus was ready with quill and parchment to counter all such claims as 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). Erasmus shows that the average Christian’s so-called religion only extended as far as their purses, in that they treasure titles and wealth far more than any faith that they harboured. And any religion that they expresses is decrepit and false, 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). For years the theologians of the Church had restricted true faith, by feeding lies to the public, but they were staunchly opposed by Erasmus and other humanists. By wittily pointing out these shortcomings and contradictions of the Church, Erasmus hoped to “dispel what he considered to be superstition and the empty ceremony of the late medieval church” (Bonney 11).
Erasmus also found much to say in response to the historical pattern of false 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). He shows with these lines the bitter irony and foolishness of those who called themselves scholars, those who thought themselves better than most men. As Erasmus remarked sarcastically, “the idle frivolity of the Greeks added hundreds more [words/grammar rules] simply to torment the wits of man” (Erasmus 52). As Folly, Erasmus mocks the intellectuals of the period who think themselves superior even though, ironically, through their own folly, they could not reach their highest potentials. This, of course, would not deter the false intellectuals from their task, and so Erasmus says that “the idea is, I suppose, that those who can understand are better pleased with themselves, and those who can’t are all the more lost in admiration the less they understand” (Erasmus 14). In a much better world, which Erasmus could at this time foresee, the possibility for genuine and tangible humanist intellectualism was quite possible, for, as he said, “there is no branch of learning for which the human mind is not receptive” (Bonney 13).
Many of Erasmus’ observations are made on the subject of people of the Medieval Ages themselves, whose own limiting and simplistic ideas constrains the world around them, such as “the people who’ve adopted the foolish but pleasurable belief that if they see some carving or painting of that towering Polyphemus, Christopher ... or 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 hilarious snippet, with Erasmus stylizing himself as a false charm, conveys the disparity in intellectual and independent thought of the time. In their bliss, so Erasmus satirically remarks, great men have forgotten to think, leaving that and other matters to lesser men. This particular concept is best summarized by Erasmus’ tale of “a man who hears a donkey bray and thinks he hears a marvelous symphony” (Erasmus 60). Through their limited outlook on life, man misses most of it, often mistaking some things, while entirely forgetting others still.
In being so blind, man, at such a point in time, can never reach his full potential, but in being blind he can never come to realize this fact. For as Erasmus draws from the ancient philosopher Plato, “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). Erasmus, examining the world around him, finds men easily swayed, and expresses this, as Folly, by making ignorance bliss. Thus, he paints a portrait of an era in which he shows that people would not dare to think, but rather let, with such little persuasion, higher authorities such as the Church, rule them in their own folly. To this Erasmus remarks sarcastically that, “but it’s sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it’s far sadder not to be deceived. They’re quite wrong if they think man’s happiness depends on actual facts; it depends on actual facts; it depends on his opinions. For human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain, as has been rightly stated by my Academicians, the least assuming of the philosophers” (Erasmus 70).
The folly of the individual carries over personal self-love, which unless entirely deceiving, “has not been altogether foolish,” as Erasmus himself said (Erasmus 7). For with self-love, ignorance is bliss, and can now be carefully brought to every individual person, thus making people “less concerned with facts than the names applied to them” (Erasmus 69). With such a trait, people continue to sink into blissful ignorance, and thus in turn, “far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth” (Erasmus 71). Erasmus, through his personification of the goddess, shows exactly how much man really is affected by impressions and ready to embrace so many others if they appeal to us. This statement is supported when Erasmus states that by, “self-love, they lead happy lives; and there are always plenty of fools like themselves to look up to this sort of brute as if here a god” (Erasmus 67). Better yet, Folly shows us how truly dependent we are on self-love, it ironically being that which binds not only personal, intellectual, and spiritual relationships, but also that of all human society. As Folly remarks, “It’s hardly believable how much laughter, sport, and fun you poor mortals can provide the gods every day” (Erasmus 75).
In conclusion, Erasmus accomplished his goal of presenting a stinging criticism in a well-argued and interesting book. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in its explanations. What makes Erasmus’ book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he analyzes and interprets various aspects and characteristics of the problems of the period’s transitory phase. As Bonney remarked, “there was nothing unworthy about Erasmus’ vision of revitalizing the church from within” (Bonney 12). After reading this book, 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 this book, and they would certainly facilitate the understanding of it. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and it should be read by anyone interested in European history.
Erasmus, Desiderius. Praise Of Folly. London, England: Penguin Book Ltd., 1971. Print.
Bonney, Richard. The Short Oxford History Of The Modern World: The European Dynastic States 1494-1660. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.
© 2011 Gregory Markov