The Importance of The Praise of Folly
by A.H.T. Levi (1993)

The Praise of Folly has long been famous as the best-known work of the greatest of the Renaissance humanists, Erasmus of Rotterdam. It is a fantasy which starts off as a learned frivolity but turns into a full-scale ironic encomium after the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian, the first and in its way the finest example of a new form of Renaissance satire. It ends with a straightforward and touching statement of the Christian ideals which Erasmus shared notably with his English friends John Colet and Thomas More.

It was written in 1509 to amuse Thomas More, on whose name its Greek title Moriae Encomium is a pun, as a private allusion to their cooperation in translating Lucian some years earlier. It was a retreat into the intimacy of their friendship at a moment when Erasmus, just back from Italy, was ill, disillusioned at the state of the Church under Julius II and perhaps uncertain whether he had been right to turn down the curial post of apostolic penitentiary and promise of further preferment offered him if he stayed in Rome. He tells us that he wrote the Praise of Folly in a week, while staying with More and waiting for his books to turn up. It was certainly revised before publication in 1511, and the internal evidence leads one to suppose that it was considerably augmented and rewritten. Almost one sixth of the text here translated was added after the first edition, almost all before 1522. The text as we have it now moves from light-hearted banter to a serious indictment of theologians and churchmen, before finally expounding the virtues of the Christian way of life, which St Paul says looks folly to the world and calls the folly of the Cross (I Corinthians i, 18 ff.). It is situated at the nodal point where Renaissance Christianity, having broken with medieval religion, already manifests those characteristics which will later make inevitable the split between the majority of the evangelical humanists who inaugurated the early sixteenth-century return to scripture and the leaders of the Reformation.

The bantering tone, the attack on the theologians and the satire on widely practised religious observances provoked a reaction of shocked hostility during Erasmus's lifetime. Erasmus regarded the Praise of Folly as a minor work and, in his letter to Dorp (p. 138), said that he almost regretted having published it. But Leo X was amused by it, and both More and Erasmus defended the work in long formal letters to the representative of the Louvain theologians, Maarten van Dorp. Erasmus himself was surprised at the satire's success and at the strength of the reaction it provoked. As he pointed out, it contained, cast in an ironic mould, much the same views as he had already published in the Enchiridion Militis Christiani. But the Praise of Folly with its bantering and incongruous irony was a much more potent vehicle for conveying the same message.

It was certainly a success. By Erasmus's death in 1536 it had been translated into French (Galliot du Pre, 1520), Czechoslovakian and German (Schoeffer, 1520), and thirty-six Latin editions had been printed. From 1515 onwards it was accompanied in all the editions printed by Froben by the learned commentary of Gerard Lijster, to which Erasmus substantially contributed. It was subsequently translated into English, notably by Thomas Chaloner (1549), John Wilson (1668), White Kennet (1683) and J. Copner (1878). More recently interest has increased and, when this translation was first published, three other English translations had appeared in the USA since 1940, Hoyt Hudson (1941), Leonard F. Dean (1946) and John P. Dolan (1964). The present translation first appeared in 1971 and was updated for the Toronto Collected Works of Erasmus (1986), and it has been followed by the translations of Clarence H. Miller (1979) and Robert M. Adams (1989). Between 1950 and 1962, fifty-two new translations or printings of the Praise of Folly in various languages have been listed.

Several reasons for the recent increase of interest suggest themselves. Erasmus, for all his tortuous subtlety and waspish irony, produced an extremely intelligent and articulate response to what was perhaps the fundamental value-shift in modern European history. In a world slowly rejecting its medieval moorings, a new and intoxicating vision of man's potentialities had opened up. Predictably, the results ranged from a theological backlash of unprecedented severity to the wild millenniarist expectations of such figures as Charles de Bouelles and Guillaume Postel. They included the Reformation and the rise of national consciousness in northern Europe, and were not diminished either by the exploitation of the newly discovered printing press or the wave of economic prosperity and inflation which spread eastwards form Spain, as western European economies reacted to the influx of precious metals from the new world.

In an era such as our own, in the grip of a value-shift no less bewildering and of changes in systems of transport and communication no less disturbing, the northern European Renaissance must necessarily represent a historical paradigm of interest and importance. Looking back over the course of Renaissance history, we may feel that Europe had to pay dearly for the failure of its spiritual and temporal leaders to heed Erasmus's advice. If, instead of returning to England to write the Praise of Folly, Erasmus had stayed in Rome, where Leo X was shortly to be elected to the papal throne, it is difficult to suppose that Rome's reaction to Luther would not have been different.

The technical difficulties of penetrating behind Erasmus's writings to the imaginative and intellectual constraints which explain his mind are formidable. He was an accomplished classical scholar, but was also learned in the history of the Church and the writings of its early Fathers. He was devoted to the study of the scriptures, but was also familiar with the scholastics. He was an educational reformer in touch with all the major European humanists, a satirist and a political thinker. He was an original and important moralist and no mean theologian. He was interested in the arts and held strong views on most of the issues which concerned his contemporaries. Well over three thousand of his letters have been preserved, but the letters occupy only one large volume in the ten-volume edition of his writings. Totally to understand the contours of his thought in so many different fields demands a rare and complex competence unlikely to be found in any individual modern scholar.

Partly for this reason, and because he founded no school or sect, and partly because the serious study of the Latin authors of the Renaissance is only now beginning to find room on university syllabuses, Erasmus's work was for a long time more neglected than it should have been in view of his known historical importance. The Colloquies, the Praise of Folly and perhaps the Enchiridion were all that were known, and Erasmus was erroneously judged on evidence small in volume, humanist in content and haphazard in survival. Recently, however, and largely owing to the decisive step forward marked by the publication of P. S. Allen's remarkable twelve-volume edition of the letters, a much fuller and more balanced view of Erasmus's mind has emerged. There are still too few reliable monographs, and Erasmus's technical and moral achievements as a Renaissance humanist have been emphasized to the detriment of any balanced assessment of a figure whose piety, at least, never moved far from its medieval moorings. But some recent historical monographs have been excellent, and they have totally changed the old view of Erasmus as an intellectual dilettante uncommitted to the great struggles of his time and fastidiously ironic about its religious, social, imaginative and political life.

The Praise of Folly, considered inside the huge corpus of Erasmus's writings, is a slight work. It would be wrong to expect from it either an understanding of the mature Erasmus, struggling despondently on as the religious schism between Rome and the Protestant churches became more irreparable, or a systematic exposition of his views even in 1511, when he was forty-two. The body of the satire catches Erasmus in a moment of melancholy, but even as satire it is less caustic and sure of touch than some of the Colloquies or the 1528 Ciceronianus. The collection of commentaries on antique proverbs known as the Adages, first published in 1500, had grown from 838 in 1505 to 3,260 in the Aldine edition of 1508, but was still without the long essays and the biting criticism of contemporary society to be introduced after 1515. The 1508 edition had still represented a compromise between religious and classical interests rather than a bridge from one to the other, and in this the Praise of Folly scarcely marks any advance. The learned references and newly coined Greek terms accord ill with the unlearned piety praised in the final pages, and although these pages are aimed more against the fourteenth-century theologian Duns Scotus and his followers than against the humanists, there is in them a melancholy tinge of self-denunciation.

Although affirmed by Erasmus from the beginning, the link between the religious attitude or philosophia Christi and classical learning becomes much closer in the Colloquies, while only the later works show clearly the integration of the whole spectrum of Erasmus's religious, educational, political and social attitudes. The grand programme for reform in all these spheres unfolded more slowly than is often realized. It was unified by the application to different situations of a series of constant values that became articulate only in reaction to concrete situations or occurrences. It was scarcely discernible even in outline before 1516.

The Praise of Folly, however, despite its imperfect unity of tone, does contain comment on a very wide range of Erasmus's interests, and, if the unifying principle of his attitudes is not yet completely apparent, the satire does at least allow a clear glimpse into the constraints which bore on their elaboration. For this reason, it is still the best introduction to Erasmus's thought. No other single work reveals quite so clearly the alternatives between which he was moving or gives such insight into the reasons for his final position. The Praise of Folly has a historical importance which transcends its considerable literary merit. It is not a flawless masterpiece, but it is an exciting feat of literary virtuosity. Folly, considered blinded by the self-love that impels her to sing her own praises, turns out to be wise with Pauline as well as with Shakespearean folly. The technique is self-consciously stretched to explore the limits of its potentialities, and it provokes in the reader a reaction of intellectual appreciation before it moves him. But what warrants its accustomed place in the front rank of Renaissance satire is the brilliance of its technique, the sharpness of its aim, the daring of its implications and, not least, the insight it gives into the mind of its author.

It starts off in relaxed mood when Folly, dressed in the 'unaccustomed garb' of a jester, steps forward to claim that she is mankind's greatest benefactor, an assertion that is substantiated with great energy and ingenuity in an amusing parody of a classical declamation. Born in the earthly paradise of Plutus, the young and intoxicated god 'hot-blooded with youth', and of Youth herself, 'the loveliest of all the nymphs and the gayest too', Folly was nursed by Drunkenness and Ignorance. She represents freedom from care, youth, vitality and happiness. Her followers include Self-love, Pleasure, Flattery and Sound Sleep, and she presides over the generation of life.

Even Jupiter has to join her retinue when he wants to beget a child. Not even the stoics can achieve fatherhood without her. Happiness, which Folly bestows, is the prerogative of the young, the foolish and all those subversive of dignity, hierarchy and authority. The enemies from whom Folly offers release are propriety, 'which clouds the judgement', and fear, which draws back from danger. Woman, 'admittedly a stupid and foolish sort of creature', is Folly's particular pride. The 'incessant outcry' of the severe stoics leads only to what is 'dreary, unpleasant, graceless, stupid and tedious' in life, and Folly maliciously asserts that even the stoics, like the rest of mankind, are secretly intent on pursuing the pleasure over which she presides. Folly, helped by Flattery, alone binds human society together, and she cites Socrates as an example of just how useless these philosophers are for any practice in life'. Who would ask a wise man to dinner? Stripped of every emotion 'by that double-dyed Stoic Seneca', the wise man is no better than 'a marble statue'.

The first forty-six pages follow this vein of inspiration and may well have been all that Erasmus wrote immediately on his return from Italy, Lucianic more in content than in form. The humour is straightforward and gay. More, for whom it was written, will have understood the allusive jocularity. Erasmus is of course conscious that he is parodying himself. He admired Seneca, whom he was about to edit. He takes an advanced position about the role of women in society and he knows that he passes in the world for a wise man, that flattery was a social evil in all the courts of Europe. He admires Socrates and was elsewhere to remark on the spiritual stimulus to be gained from reading Seneca and Plato. But in these early sections the sense of self-parody does not obtrude or weigh down the text. It is a clever and frivolous mixture of wit and fantasy, swift in pace and gay in tone.

The first striking metamorphosis in Folly's role comes when she has boasted of her role in politics and the arts, and the parade of people on whom she confers her benefits moves on from the young and the hot-blooded to the pitiful and the grotesque, whose folly is to preserve their illusions. They include old men with wigs and dyed hair and old women running after young men 'exposing their sagging, withered breasts'. Folly has come down to earth 'as Homer does', and discoursed on her role in human affairs, relationships and wars.

Folly's note is lower and her voice graver as she praises ignorance and lunacy. She forgets for a moment that Flattery is one of her attendants in a passage celebrating court fools, and it is clear that the declamation's ingenious virtuosity takes precedence over depth and consistency. Folly has to cover herself by suddenly distinguishing between good and bad sorts of flattery as she had already made the all-important distinction between the two sorts of madness, modelled on the two sorts of love distinguished by Pausanias in Plato's Symposium. The original gaiety is replaced by a consciousness of paradox as Folly deals with the benefits of insanity, although the mood continues to switch back without warning to the most light-hearted banter, as in the passages on hunters, builders, seekers after the fifth essence and gamblers. Already by page 65, under the guise of continuing frivolity and without any change of tone or style, Erasmus has thrown in a list of pious superstitions, quite long enough to make any theologian's hair stand on end. And, as Folly continues, the banter turns to acid. By the end of this chapter Erasmus is calmly arguing in something very like his own voice with nothing but an occasional reference to folly to remind us of the framework into which it is all supposed to fit. Then he switches back again to the grotesque parade as Folly resumes her second voice, to claim for her own those obsessed with their ancestry or their funeral arrangements, and those made happy by their delusions.

This section ends when Folly, having enumerated her powers to confer happiness through the gifts she bestows from love to insanity, begins in the paragraph starting 'We won't go into every kind of life . . ' to list her followers. She uses her most solemn voice, and the tone is harsh as she indicts the follies of the human race as seen by the gods and passes in review those who on earth seem to be wise. This section, with its attack on pretentiousness of all sorts, forms the heart of the satire. There is no parody, and the subdued humour yields to the catalogue of fatuities that plague the affairs of men. The section culminates in the treatment of the theologians and monks, a full-scale attack from which banter almost disappears after the original reference to the theologians as 'a remarkably supercilious and touchy lot'. Folly is decidedly in her third role, that nearest to the role of Erasmus himself. The issues at stake are discussed in the next section of the Introduction.

The long insertions into the Post-1514 text start with the paragraph about the 'jack-of-all-trades' put in after the schoolmasters, and not until 1516. The reference is to Thomas Linacre, and the pretended attack is friendly in tone, as when Folly makes remarks about Erasmus's own pedantry. The long insertions of 1514 concern the abstract scholastic arguments and abstruse concepts which had come to have no apparent bearing on the moral values that, for Erasmus, were the essence of the Christian message. It was clearly neither very difficult nor very daring to make fun of the scholastic attempts to give a coherent rational substructure to Christian belief in the name of religious devotion. The scholastics had applied Aristotelian notions of causality to the theology of the sacraments, defining the psychology of cognition in such a way as to preserve the human spiritual principle's independence of corruptible flesh. The scholastics had laid down norms for moral behaviour that they had conceived outside the situations in which actual moral decisions were generated, according to abstract principles whose applications could be shown to be grotesque.

What is noteworthy is that it is in the name of the simple piety of the devotio moderna that Folly here attacks the scholastics in earnest. Folly, like Erasmus before he entered the monastery, is not interested in supporting religious attitudes with rational scaffolding of any philosophical provenance at all, but only in following the example of Christ, the warrior against temptation of the Imitation of Christ who was the exemplar of charitable simplicity. When, in the final section of the declamation, Erasmus — in 1514 and subsequently — strengthens Folly's defence of the Pauline folly of the cross, he keeps adding further short allusions, references and scriptural tags, as if anxious at every rereading to buttress the argument even further, as he had earlier constantly added classical examples to increase the erudite humour of the list of antique mock encomia.

After the attack on theologians, the parade of apparently wise followers of Folly continues with princes and courtiers. But we are soon back to prelates in a development that ends with a savage attack on Supreme Pontiffs, in particular when they have recourse to war. Erasmus is careful not to name Julius II, to whom, however, he is clearly alluding. It is only after the section on Folly's followers, in the paragraph beginning 'To start with . . . ' (p. 114), that Folly makes the two-paragraph transition to the declamation's final section in which she will speak with yet another voice, her fourth, the most complex and paradoxical of all. As Folly proclaims the virtues of the religious ideal in which Erasmus was brought up, in terms which exclude the possibility of defending it in the way Erasmus has dedicated his life to defending it, Erasmus indulges in a whimsical and melancholy ironic comment on his own behaviour. Did he more than half regret the security of a boyish piety for which learning had seemed the path to pride? Or did he simply ironize his present position whimsically, by pointing to what could prove to be its internal contradiction? What is certain is that in 1511 Erasmus published Folly's earnest and touching praise of the Christian folly of St Paul, quite conscious that Folly expressed it in terms which excluded from it his own intellectual endeavours. In case we miss the point, it is explicitly made when Erasmus is identified by Folly with the Greek pedants.

It is never safe to identify Folly, not even when she is using her third voice, with Erasmus, who might always have been more prudent were he not projecting his view through Folly's mouth. Nor can we use the satire as a guide to Erasmus's world, which Folly caricatures. Careful literary analysis reveals only ambiguity in the continuously varying relationship between Folly and Erasmus. Indeed, since we know how often and carefully Erasmus corrected his text, it is clear that Folly's inconsistencies are deliberately exploited in the interests of achieving the extraordinary control of satirical nuance and ambiguity that Erasmus required. Neither in 1509, nor in 1511, nor in 1512, nor even in 1514, did Erasmus quite know what he thought should be done to reform the Church. He could not identify the dangers to be avoided, nor how to solicit such reform without setting fire to a revolution. The ambiguities are necessary, deliberate and effective, but they detract from the literary unity of the satire. The refusal to establish a clear tonic key in which a totally consistent Folly speaks with an identifiable and steady relationship to the voice of Erasmus makes the satire as tentative as it is sharp and subtle. What happened between 1514 and the condemnation of Luther in 1520 was to leave Erasmus sadly aware of what in 1514 was still to go wrong.