Praise of Folly, by Erasmus

Praise of FollyPraise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the layreader, I would recommend skipping the introduction to this text, which comprises the first fifty pages of this edition, and continuing on to Erasmus’ essay, Praise of Folly. The essay itself is quite an easy ready, if one approaches it in a superficial manner excluding historical, metaphorical, or personal references. Without those things considered, this essay reads something like our modern bestsellers that reveal some secret way of living that eludes anxiety, stress and worry, e.g. The Secret, or author, Sylvia Browne. Approaching Erasmus’ philosophical treaty as a popular self-help book is problematic, but I think reveals more about our culture then we would like.

Structurally, Erasmus’ essay is organized in “chapters,” or small sections that cover a certain topic, e.g. marriage, play, common sense, fools, science, etc. The “plot,” if there is one, is limited to a speech or oration by the goddess, Folly, who is speaking on her own behalf—and defense. The reader can extract at the very least one aphorism from each chapter, and perhaps find themselves enlightened by a banal truism—although it may confront the very thing they perform on a regular basis.

I don’t believe I can do justice to this review without quotations and examples—I will now flip through the text at random… einen Moment, bitte. Folly states, “But it’s sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it’s far sadder not to be deceived” (135). Is this not the precursor to Friedrich Nietzsche and his Dionysian man? Is not the absolution of facts for the beautiful complexity of opinion a mode that informs our postmodern, interrogative culture? Folly continues, “For human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain…” (ibid). There are no facts, only opinions. Quite the statement in 1509 for a religious scholar—even if he is highly critical of theologians and the church.

To return to my earlier assertion that Praise of Folly is obscurely related to our self-help books. One of the gods who follow in Folly’s leadership is Self-Love. Self-Love is continually and highly praised by Folly—even so more than the other followers, e.g. Pleasure, Flattery, Idleness, etc. (73). Folly states in a glorious rhetorical aphorism, “Now tell me: can a man love anyone who hates himself?” (94). And later on states that “happiness consists in being willing to be what you are [and] Self-Love [ensures] that no one is dissatisfied with his own looks, character, race, position and way of life” (95). Beautiful. One can extract quotes continually, but they add up to our culture’s way of selling self-recognition and self-affirmations through quick guides to better living. Of course this is only one aspect of Erasmus’ essay, but the usefulness of Folly’s instruction and observations are reflected in our culture of self-denial and overwhelming desire to treat Self-Love as a mortal sin.

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit (Wikipedia)

Folly is in direct conflict with the pretensions of knowledge. Her skewer cleaves itself in the wise man—the very man who escapes Plato’s cave—and, as I read it, neither Folly nor Erasmus, is expounding this theory in jest. The wise man, according to Folly, does not lead a happy life—and this is THE goal of Folly’s mortal tutelage. The wise man does not admit himself a beast, nor does he admit himself to the absurdity of the basic elements of man. For example, Folly takes complete responsibility for the propagation of the entire human race (75). Why, you may ask? Well, ahem, excuse my vulgarity, but it is basic biology. Folly states that the part of the body that reproduces men is unspeakable do to its humors and that “it can’t be named without raising a laugh” (76). And that even philosophers, if they want to reproduce, must come to Folly. For, Folly asks, what woman does not praise a man for his humor, his pleasure, his love, his wit? Rather then his ability to expound numerous theses. And since Pleasure is a follower of Folly, it is but that emotion to bridge the necessary gap of reproduction…

But, I digress.

I caught myself underlining text, laughing out loud, and sharing my thoughts with my friend while reading Erasmus’ essay. I think it shall be a text I refer to from time-to-time, and look for when my “adulthood” is called into question, or when I am considered childish or immature. For the pretension of man stands upon the annulling of the very nature of Folly, and the absurdity of man a far too beautiful a thing to bear without Folly.

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