Desiderius Erasmus’ The Praise Of Folly

The Praise Of FollyAn apocryphal story, relayed in the introduction to the Princeton Classics edition of Desiderius Erasmus’ The Praise Of Folly, describes the first meeting between Erasmus and Thomas More, during which the two men, as yet unknown to each other, have a heated point and counterpoint discussion that culminates in Erasmus exclaiming, “Either you are More, or no one,” and More replying, “You are either Erasmus, or the devil.” Both men’s reputations preceded them, and out of their friendship was born The Praise Of Folly, whose Greek title, Morias Encomion, disguises a punning praise of More (punning in English being for amateur scholars only). And yet the two men make for an odd pair: More burned alive blasphemers and would-be translators of the Bible, and Erasmus is second only to Martin Luther in his subversions of Catholicism and its interpreters. (Luther, incidentally, agreed, and sought to enlist Erasmus to his cause).

The first thing to note is the form of the work. Erasmus personifies Folly as a goddess, who delivers an encomium on, what else, her own virtues (“he rightly praises himself who never meets anyone else who will praise him”). And Folly, in her own estimation, is owed much. Without her influence, she argues, men and women would not marry, for what but the sheerest folly keeps couples together? Children are beloved, and enjoy life best, because their whole beings are characterized by folly. And if old age – with illness, loss of vitality and the prospect of death – is bearable, it is only because the elderly become more childlike:

Old age would not be tolerable to any mortal at all, were it not that I, out of pity for its troubles, stand once more at its right hand; and just as the gods of the poets customarily save, by some metamorphosis or other, those who are dying, in like manner I bring those who have one foot in the grave back to their infancy again, for as long as possible; so that the folk are not far off in speaking of them as ‘in their second childhood.’

Even happiness itself is owed to Folly, for who does not know that wisdom brings only a greater awareness of pains, troubles and insecurities? “So sweet it is not to be wise that mortal men will pray to be delivered from anything sooner than from Folly.” Much of this is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but much, also, has a ring of truth to it, and it’s not difficult to imagine the two are intermixed to give Erasmus a kind of plausible deniability. Here, for example, are some caustic lines about the bulletproof nature of fools:

If a rock falls on your head, that is bad; but shame, infamy, opprobrium, and curses hurt only so far as they are felt. If one has no sense of them, they are not evils at all. What harm is it if everybody hisses at you, so long as you applaud yourself? But to this happy end, only Folly avails.

Alexander Pope, in his “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” takes up a similar argument when his satire takes a turn towards the vicious: “You think this cruel? take it for a rule / No creature smarts so little as a fool.”

By far the most searing and subversive lines, however, focus on the clerics and the aristocracy. With scant modification, they seem equally applicable today:

They believe they have played the part of a sovereign to the hilt if they diligently go hunting, feed some fine horses, sell dignities and offices at a profit to themselves, and daily devise new measures by which to drain away the wealth of citizens and sweep it into their own exchequer.


Fashion me now a man such as princes commonly are, a man ignorant of the laws, almost an enemy of the public welfare, intent upon private gain, addicted to pleasure, a hater of learning, a hater, too, of liberty and truth, thinking about anything except the safety of the state, and measuring all things by his own desire and profit.

This is less satire than naked contempt, but Erasmus still has his fun: “If a prince really laid his own life alongside these symbols [of rulership], I believe he would have the grace to be ashamed of his finery. He would be afraid some nosy satirist might turn the whole spectacle, suited as it is for high tragedy, into laughter and derision.” Of the clerics, who were then famous for selling “indulgences,” promises of heavenly rewards paid for in legal tender, or for the grossest hypocrisies in scriptural adherence, Erasmus is unsparing:

No other people are so loth to acknowledge my favors to them; yet the divines are bound to me by no ordinary obligations. They are happy in their self-love, and as if they already inhabited the third heaven they look down from a height on all other mortal men as on creatures that crawl on the ground, and they come near to pitying them.


Members of certain orders start back from the mere touch of a piece of money as if it were aconite. They do not, however, withdraw from the touch of a glass of wine, or of a woman. In short, all orders take remarkable care that nothing in their way of life shall be consistent; nor is it so much their concern to be like Christ as to be unlike each other.

These are not mere academic concerns. Erasmus is here giving expression to a widely-held discontent, one that would soon fracture all of Europe. But he doesn’t stop there. Some passages go so far as to attack the Christian faith itself:

The Christian religion on the whole seems to have a kinship with some sort of folly, while it has no alliance whatever with wisdom. If you want proofs of this statement, observe first of all how children, old people, women, and fools find pleasure beyond other folk in holy and religious things, and to that end are ever nearest the altars, led no doubt solely by an impulse of nature. Then you will notice that the original founders of religion, admirably laying hold of pure simplicity, were the bitterest foes of literary learning. Lastly, no fools seem to act more foolishly than do the people whom zeal for Christian piety has got possession of; for they pour out their wealth, they overlook wrongs, allow themselves to be cheated, make no distinction between friends and enemies, shun pleasure, glut themselves with hunger, wakefulness, tears, toils, and reproaches; they disdain life and dearly prefer death; in short, they seem to have grown utterly numb to ordinary sensations, quite as if their souls lived elsewhere and not in their bodies.

How far would Erasmus, a devoted scholar of Greek and Latin, prize simplicity over “literary learning,” we need not guess, but he is cagey to the end, aware of how volatile and potentially dangerous his little encomium has become, and he begs us to remember that “’tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.” Only the biggest of fools could take comfort in that.