Praise Of Folly Summary

Desiderius Erasmus

Praise Of Folly

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Praise Of Folly Summary

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“In Praise of Folly,” an essay by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam written in 1509 and printed in 1511, was translated from Latin. The essay was inspired by works of the Italian humanist Faustino Perisauli, including De Triumpho Stultitaei. The essay is a satirical criticism of many of the superstitions and other traditions held by European society at the time, and in particular the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus eventually revised and extended the work; originally it was written within the space of a week, while he spent his time sojourning Sir Thomas More’s estate in Bucklersbury with More. It is a short piece of literature, most often understood as being divided into three distinct sections, even though there are no subheadings or chapter heads. In Praise of Folly is considered one of the most notable works of the Renaissance, and contributed quite significantly to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Folly is the narrator of the work, the premise being that Folly is standing in front of a crowd of listeners. She is wearing a fool’s costume as she tells the crowd of her intention to admire and commend her own virtues and merits. Several of her attendants are also personified characteristics, including Philautia, or Self Love; Kolakia, or Flattery; Lethe, Forgetfulness; and Anoia, Imbecility.

Folly is shocked that no one has bothered to build a monument or encomium for her, despite her pervasive presence and her ability to bring about universal pleasure. She states her intention to explain how she can better bring joy to nearly all gods and men. She says that marriages and childbirth would never have existed without her. Old age becomes softened and mitigated by her. Those who support her are pleasantly plump and happy. She guarantees that men who work too hard and never rest will grow old and haggard much faster than the rest. She also claims that even the gods are in her debt—their actions and behaviour proves without a doubt that this is true. Women are foolish and silly because they constantly strive for beauty and love. Men are even more ridiculous because a woman’s beauty causes them to engage in absurdity. A public gathering must have folly to be amusing. Friendships would never succeed without folly, because men tell themselves that their friends’ quirks and habits are their highest virtues. Folly continues, saying all relationships on the Earth need Folly and Flattery to proceed in harmony. Folly explains that self-love is not a bad thing, and anyone must like him or herself to accomplish anything of worth. Projects would never come to fruition if not for Folly. Everyone likes the fool much more than the wise man, because at least the fool has silly talk and impish behaviour with which to entertain. The wise man only vexes and provokes. The worst possible disasters that might overwhelm mortal life can be overcome with the help of Folly.

The second section continues with Folly criticizing various classes, including social and academic. She starts first with lawyers and doctors, then philosophers, gamblers, hunters, superstitious folk, authors of books, poets, businessmen, grammarians, men who obsess about their bloodline and ancestry, artists, performers, and even entire nations and cities. All of these people, Folly says, display a much higher level of folly, as demonstrated by their smugness, silliness, and irrelevance. As she continues, Folly’s tone of voice becomes more and more harsh, condemning everyone she speaks of. She specifically calls out the doctors of theology, who are, she says, more indebted to her than any other person because they pretend to ignore and dismiss folly, while indulging in foolishness. They take pride in their obscure arguments, and refit scripture to fit their opinions and theses. They seek to inspire their listeners by confusing turns of phrase, and ignore the true message of Christ. Monks forget about the gospel; Popes, Cardinals, and Bishops live a life of luxury. Princes ignore their people, indulging their own whims.

In the third section, Folly leaves behind her procession and turns to the idea of the Christian fool. Scripture praises ignorance and simplicity. Paul and Christ discussed meekness and humility. Christ was, Folly says, the biggest fool of all, because he became sin in order to redeem sinners. The Christian religion resembles folly more than wisdom. A Christian is supposed seek divine transformation, bordering on madness, and become as close to God as possible. Folly finishes by reminding her listeners to enjoy life as much as possible as the most illustrious disciples of Folly.