Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly


Forum Staff
May 2008

Science is the Plague of Mankind

But again, the virtuosi may say that there was particularly added to man the knowledge of sciences, by whose help he might recompense himself in understanding for what nature cut him short in other things. As if this had the least face of truth, that Nature that was so solicitously watchful in the production of gnats, herbs, and flowers should have so slept when she made man, that he should have need to be helped by sciences, which that old devil Thoth, the evil genius of mankind, first invented for his destruction, and are so little conducive to happiness that they rather obstruct it; to which purpose they are properly said to be first found out, as that wise king in Plato argues touching the invention of letters.

Presented by Comet:[/COLOR]

Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, 1511.

Sunday, 21 November, 2010


Forum Staff
Aug 2006
Born in 1466 at Rotterdam, Desiderius Erasmus was one of the most influential Northern Humanists of the late Renaissance period. He was educated by the Brotherhood of the Common Life, a religiously devoted group who believed education was an important part of everyday life.

Around the turn of the 16th century, Erasmus became a priest; first in Paris and then in England. During his travels, he came in contact with history's most well known humanists. Men like Thomas More, John Colet, and eventually Martin Luther, would have a profound influence on his life. Also like his contemporaries, he sought to reform the Church, its theology, and the educational system of his time.

In 1511, Erasmus put his humanist agenda on the map with an interesting satire known as The Praise of Folly. The work centers around Folly, a goddess who gives a "speech" to her readers. The purpose of her "rant" is to provide her readers with her views on life as well as the many pressing issues of the Renaissance era.

From the abuses of the Church to the criticisms of Scholasticism, the Praise of Folly is an entertaining piece that is extremely important in understanding the climate of Renaissance and early Reformation Europe.

*In order to start the discussion, I would like to discuss a few points of interest that I seemed to find throughout the piece:

1. Folly uses satire in her speech to conclude that the world is a tolerable place and that humans should embrace what they have in life.

2. Church leaders, scholars, and other men of knowledge are blind to see the constant abuse that surrounds them. It's because they live "happily" that these abuses are consistently and eagerly ignored.

3. Folly tells Christians to stop being "fools" and live life to its fullest while still looking forward to enjoying the treasures of heaven later.

Let the discussion begin :)

*Desiderius Erasmus. The Praise of Folly. Translated by Clarence H. Miller


Forum Staff
May 2008
A very nice introduction, Comet, thank you! :)

1. Folly uses satire in her speech to conclude that the world is a tolerable place and that humans should embrace what they have in life.
I’m going to grab and run with this initial point if I may. I agree with this. For me, Erasmus arrived at a point made previously (and famously) by Protagoras of Abdera: ‘Man is the measure.’
It is folly that keeps the world in being. If men were not fools they wouldn’t marry and attach themselves to women; if women were not fools they wouldn’t marry put up with child-rearing. If men weren’t fools they wouldn’t engage in building works or trading, there would be no government, no kings, nor soldiers; there would be no professions, lawyers, doctors, professors or scientists; there would be no theologians. Folly’s central tenet is that those who live with what they hope to be true are happier than those who see things as they are really. Contrast the happiness of the fool who knows nothing and is content with the scholar who wastes time in a vain assembly of knowledge. Those theologians who spend their time writing useless notes on other people’s books are classed by Folly along with those folks who think they can cure physical ailments (Erasmus mentions toothache) through the invocation of some saint or other. Into this same category he places monks who pretend to live virtuously but do not uphold their celibacy; censors poring over harmless books to pick a passage as irreverent or scandalous; preachers who paint what happens in hell when they have no knowledge of it whatever; kings who oppress the poor and spend the taxes on their horses; popes who think it a disgrace to be beaten in war.

Thus, man is central to his own universe and we must consider how far Erasmus is challenging the versio vulgata.

In the prefatory letter to Thomas More, Erasmus specifically described the Praise of Folly as belonging to the genre of the classical mock-encomium. But, he also implicitly (in my opinion, at least) suggests to his readers (for this letter was not actually meant for More) that the work is in part a popular piece of theatre. I don’t know about anyone else, but my reading of this piece had me thinking of it as a play of sorts. The characters, the costumes (particularly if we consider Holbein’s illustrations), the speech/sermon given by the female, Folly.

btw - thread open!


Forum Staff
Aug 2006
Thus, man is central to his own universe and we must consider how far Erasmus is challenging the versio vulgata.
I think this statement is central to what makes Erasmus a true humanist. One of the many concepts of humanist thought is man's ability to carve its own destiny. The focus for centuries was on the pleasing of God so that they could leave this world and ensure they make the next. What we really see in the book is a shift in cosmological thought. Considering this, I would say he is seriously challenging the status quo of late medieval fact, we could say he is putting the status quo to rest while introducing to his readers a fresh new ideology stemming from humanist thought.


Forum Staff
Mar 2008
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
I must confess I had a bit of trouble getting into this work ‘The Voice’ I was hearing as I read wasn’t right. Then I remembered I had the same problem with Carlyle’s French Revolution until I realized that Carlyle was most likely writing as he spoke. Most writers don’t write in a speaking voice. (Who was the writer that said every man speaks one language and writes in a foreign tongue?) Once I had Carlyle’s declamatory style in mind then its sense followed. With Erasmus I had somewhat the same feeling, except the style I needed was more akin to a Borscht belt comedian. This Erasmus is one funny guy.

The humor is what is most remarkable to me. Another reader might see it as a sharp satire; others will see it as bitter; then there are those who will feel that it demonstrates with irony a profound Christian faith. To imagining it being read by someone with a street smart attitude worked for me. Someone like Jackie Mason. (I hear you now ’who was he?’

I have read that The Praise of Folly has been on the best seller list for centuries and is one of the most widely read books in all history. It turns out this no ordinary book, but one for all ages and seasons. Erasmus dedicated the work to his beloved friend, that man for all seasons, Thomas More:

I resolved to make some sport with the praise of folly. But
who the devil put that in your head? you’ll say. The first thing
was your surname of More, which comes so near the word
Moriae (folly) as you are far from the thing. And that you are
so, all the world will clear you. In the next place, I conceived
this exercise of wit would not be least approved by you;
inasmuch as you are wont to be delighted with such kind of
mirth, that is to say, neither unlearned, if I am not mistaken,
nor altogether insipid, and in the whole course of your life
have played the part of a Democritus.

We are told More loved the compliment and was not put off my it . And why not, a clever pun in Latin is not only to be admired but in its appreciation acknowledges the listeners own sophistication. More was a great admirer of Erasmus’s book.
Folly (Erasmus) opens in the guise of a woman, dressed in cap and bells; the costume of the fool of the time.
She begins:

How slightly soever I am esteemed in the common vogue of
the world (for I know how disingenuously Folly is decried,
even by those who are themselves the greatest fools) yet it is
from my influence alone that the whole universe receives her
ferment of mirth and jollity.

Folly then explains that without her the world would not turn, people would not marry resulting in no future generations. She goes on to ask who would be so rash to marry if they knew what was in store. (take my wife, Please -Henny Youngman-) And not only that… what maid would become pregnant if she knew the pain that lead to? It is by folly that humans are able to overcome obstacles and move forward.
Folly then describes her ancestry and lineage:

First then, my father was neither the chaos, nor hell, nor
Saturn, nor Jupiter, nor any of those old worn out, grandsire
gods, but Plutus, the very same that, maugre Homer, Hesiod,
nay, in spite of Jove himself, was the primary father of the
universe, at whose beck alone, for all ages religion and civil
policy have been successively undermined and re-established—
by whose powerful influence war, peace, empire, debates,
justice, magistracy, marriage, leagues, compacts, laws, arts
(I have almost run out of breath) but in a word, all affairs
of church and state, and business of private concern, are
severally ordered and administered.

Wow! Don’t you just love a run-on sentence? The Latin scholars say that this was typical of Erasmus’s Latin. It has been suggested that he did this on purpose to emphasize folly’s lack of sense or/and sanity. To drive the point home, Erasmus quoted from the Greek playwright Sophocles:
“To know nothing is the sweetest life.”

Even the people he grew up with did not escape his barbs; even the Holland of his youth.
In the following excerpt we see him mocking youth and age:

Folly is the best preservative of youth, and the most effectual
antidote against age, and it is a never-failing observation
made of the people of Brabant, that, contrary to the proverb
of older and wiser, the more ancient they grow, the more
foolish they are; and there is no any one country, whose
inhabitants enjoy themselves better, and rub throughout the
world with more ease and quiet. To these are related, as well
by affinity of customs as by neighborhood, my friends, the
Hollanders. Mine, I may well call them, for they stick so close
and lovingly to me, that they are styled fools to a proverb, and
yet scorn to be ashamed of the name.

Indeed, Folly took on all (or Erasmus. I bet he was a riot at a party). He goes on to mock both friendship and marriage:

Good God! What frequent divorces or worse mischief would
oft sadly happen,were it not that man and wife were so discreet
as to pass over light occasions of quarrel with laughing, jesting,
dissembling, and such like playing the fool? Nay, how few
matches would go forward, if the hasty lover did but first know
how many little tricks of lust and wantonness (and perhaps
more gross failings) his coy and seemingly bashful mistress
had oft been guilty of? And how few marriages, when consummated,
would continue happy, if the husband were not either
sottishly insensible of, or did not purposely wink at and pass
over the lightness and forwardness of his good-natured wife?
This peace and quiet is owing to my management, for there
would otherwise be continual jars and broils, and mad doings,
if want of wit only did not at the same time make a contented
cuckold and a still house.

Erasmus’s wit didn’t even spare the greatest of Greek philosophers.

If Socrates and Plato were so wise, why did the former commit suicide
and the latter fall into silly daydreams about an idyllic social republic?
Did they not know better? How! you will say, this is absurd and contradictory;
the east and west may as soon shake hands as Folly and Wisdom be reconciled.
Well, but have a little patience and I will warrant you I will make out my claim.
First then, if wisdom (as must be confessed) is no more than a readiness of doing
good, and an expeditious method of becoming serviceable to the world,
to whom does this virtue more properly belong? To the wise man, who partly out of modesty, partly out of cowardice, can proceed resolutely in no attempt; or to the fool,
that goes hand over head, leaps before he looks, and so ventures through the
most hazardous undertaking without any sense or prospect of danger?

Six years before Luther nailed it, that would be 1511, Erasmus (as Folly) had harsh words for believers in indulgences and other certificates of merit from the church:

What shall I say of such as cry up and maintain the cheat of
pardons and indulgences? That by these compute the time of
each soul’s residence in purgatory, and assign them a longer
or shorter continuance, according as they purchase more
or fewer of these paltry pardons, and saleable exemptions? Or
what can be said bad enough about others, who pretend that
by the force of such magical charms, or by the fumbling over
their beads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions (which
some religious impostors invented, either for diversion, or
what is more likely, for advantage) they shall procure riches,
honor, pleasure, health, long life, a lusty old age, nay, after
death a sitting at the right hand of our Savior?

Erasmus was a life long international Christian, preferring not to be identified as a Dutchman, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or an Italian. Although all of them would eventually claim him in one manner or another. In the following passage Erasmus details the absurdity of nationalism:

Upon this account it is that the English challenge the prerogative
of having the most handsome women, of being the most accomplished
in the science of music, and of keeping the best tables.
The Scotch brag of their gentility, and pretend the genius of their
native soil inclines them to be good disputants. The French think
themselves remarkable for complaisance and good breeding; the
Sorbonists of Paris pretend before any others to have made the
greatest proficiency in polemic divinity. The Italians value themselves
for learning and eloquence: and, like the Grecians of
old, account all the world barbarians compared to themselves;
to which piece of vanity the inhabitants of Rome are more
especially addicted, pretending themselves to be owners of all
those heroic virtues, which their city so many ages since was
deservedly famous for. The Venetians stand upon their birth and
pedigree. The Grecians pride themselves in having been the first
inventors of most arts, and in their country being famed for the
product of so many eminent philosophers. The Turks, and all the
other refuse of Mahometanism, pretend they profess the only
true religion, and laugh at all Christians for superstitious,
narrow-souled fools. The Jews to this day expect their Messiah
as devoutly as they believe in their first prophet Moses. The
Spaniards challenge the repute of being accounted good soldiers.
And the Germans are noted for their tall, proper stature, and for
their skill in magic.

When taking on authors and scholars his critique seems to be a foretaste of internet forums.:

Of the same gang are those scribbling fops, who think to eternalize
their memory by setting up for authors: among which,
though they are all in some way indebted to me, yet are those
more especially so, who spoil paper in blotting it with mere
trifles and impertinences. For as to those graver drudgers to
the press, that write learnedly, beyond the reach of an ordinary
reader, who dare submit their labors to the review of the most
severe critics, these are not so liable to be envied for their
honor, as to be pitied for their toil and slavery.

And then drives the point home:
They make additions, alterations, blot out, write anew, amend,
interline, turn it upside down, and yet can never please their
fickle judgment, but that they shall dislike the next hour what
they penned in the former; and all this to purchase the airy
commendations of a few critical readers, which at most is but
a poor reward for all their fastings, watchings, confinements,
and brain-breaking tortures of invention.

When he has finished with his list of human foibles (friendship, scholarship, indulgences, and nationalism) Folly’s tone changes in a subtle and profound way. For the last few pages of The Praise of Folly we have a subdued and subtle defense of his faith.
It starts with Folly praising St. Paul:

“Nay, St. Paul himself, that
great doctor of the Gentiles, writing to his Corinthians, readily
owns the name, saying, If any man speak as a fool, I am more;
as if to have been less so had been a reproach and a disgrace.”

A bit farther on, he writes:
Thus indeed St. Paul himself minces and mangles some citations
he makes use of, and seems to wrest them to a different sense
from that for which they were first intended, as is confessed by
the great linguist, St. Hierom. Thus, when that apostle saw at
Athens the inscription of an altar, he draws from it an argument
for the proof of the Christian religion; but leaving out a great
part of the sentence, which perhaps if fully recited might have
prejudiced his cause, he mentions only the two last words, viz.,
To the unknown God; and this too not without alteration, for
the whole inscription ran thus: To the Gods of Asia, Europe,
and Africa, to all foreign and unknown Gods.

Folly (Erasmus) then turned to Jesus himself to make her point:
To the same purpose did our blessed Lord frequently condemn
and upbraid the scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers,while he
carries himself kind and obliging to the unlearned multitude:
For what otherwise can be the meaning of that tart denunciation,
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, than woe unto you
wise men, whereas he seems chiefly delighted with children,
women, and illiterate fishermen. We may farther take notice,
that among all the several kinds of brute creatures he shows
greatest liking to such as are farthest distant from the subtlety
of the fox. Thus in his progress to Jerusalem he chose to ride
sitting upon an ass, though, if he pleased, he might have
mounted the back of a lion with more of state, and as little of
danger. The Holy Spirit chose rather likewise to descend from
heaven in the shape of a simple guileless dove, than that of an
eagle, kite, or other more lofty fowl.

Folly wraps it up by resuming her mocking manner but we, the discerning reader, are not deceived. Erasmus has had a great joke on us and in the laughter he makes us see his message which is: Folly guides us all to a christian destiny.

I eagerly away Desiderius next book. Need I say More?
Jan 2009
Minneapolis, MN
I wasn't interested in this discussion at the time the discussion was current, but have become more so now. I just haven't read it yet.

I am currently reading History of Madness by Michel Foucault and better understand the allegorical trope of "Folly" much better than I did before. I have been referring back to Foucault's citations, especially this job and Sebastian Brant's Stultifera Navis, or The Ship of Fools. I've also been looking at some of the art and some of the motifs described by Foucault.

The trope to which I refer is that according to Foucault, Death's Head of the 14th century was replaced in the 15th by madness or absence of reason. The fool, or jester, could say anything without reproach. Thus Brant in Ship of Fools, as well as Erasmus in In Praise of Folly, could use Folly to satirize church and state with few repercussions. The first chapter of Foucault's book sheds much possible light on this subject--at least if I accept what he says at face.

I've read some excerpts from both Brant's work and Erasmus's on the internet, and now have ordered both books. I'm after copies with copious footnotes since such works in translation often miss many of the double meanings and literary devices that greatly enhance the meaning of such works. For In Praise of Folly, for example, I've ordered the Norton Critical Edition. It promises to be interesting, and I hope I'm not disappointed.


Ad Honorem
Mar 2010
I haven't read it fully yet, but I intend to do so. Desiderius Erasmus was without a doubt a great man and a great mind.
Jan 2009
Minneapolis, MN

Just for fun, this is the issustration of Alexander Barclay's translation of Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools. The latter predated Erasmus' In Praise of Folly by 17 years and also has the theme of Follly which became so important a motif in the 16th century.

I am the firste fole of all the hole nauy
To kepe the pompe, the helme and eke the sayle
For this is my mynde, this one pleasoure haue I
Of bokes to haue grete plenty and aparayle
I take no wysdome by them: nor yet auayle
Nor them preceyue nat: And then I them despyse
Thus am I a foole and all that sewe that guyse
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