Letter by Desiderius Erasmus To His Friend Thomas More (1509)
Prefatory To The Praise Of Folly

During my recent journey back from Italy to England, not wishing to waste all the time I was obliged to be on horseback on 'idle gossip' and small talk, I preferred to spend some of it thinking over some topic connected with our common interests or else enjoying the recollection of the friends, as learned as they are delightful, whom I left here. Among these you, my More, came first in my mind, whose memory, though absent yourself, gives me such delight in my absence, as when present with you I ever found in your company; than which, let me perish if in all my life I ever met with anything more delectable. And therefore, being satisfied that something was to be done, and that that time was no wise proper for any serious matter, I resolved to make some sport with the praise of folly. What sort of a goddess Athene put that notion into your head, you may well ask. In the first place, it was your own family name of More, which is as near to the Greek word for folly, moria, as you are far from it in fact, and everyone agrees that you couldn't be farther removed. Then I had an idea that no one would think so well of this jeu d'esprit of mine as you, because you always take such delight in jokes of this kind, that is, if I don't flatter myself, jokes which aren't lacking in learning and wit. In fact you like to play the part of a Democritus in the mortal life we all share. Your intelligence is too penetrating and original for you not to hold opinions very different from those of the ordinary man, but your manners are so friendly and pleasant that you have the rare gift of getting on well with all men at any time, and enjoying it. I am sure then that you will gladly accept this little declamation of mine as a 'memento' of your friend and will also undertake to defend it. It is dedicated to you, so henceforth it is yours, not mine.

There may well be plenty of critical folk rushing in to slander it, some saying that my bit of nonsense is too frivolous for a theologian and others that it has a sarcastic bite which ill becomes Christian decorum. They will clamour that I'm reviving Old Comedy or Lucian, carping and complaining about everything. Well, those who are offended by frivolity and fun in a thesis may kindly consider that mine is not the first example of this; the same thing has often been done by famous authors in the past. Homer amused himself ages ago with his Battle of Frogs and Mice, Virgil with his Gnat and Garlic Salad, Ovid with his Nut, Polycrates wrote a mock eulogy of the tyrant Busiris and so did his critic Isocrates, Glauco spoke in favour of injustice and Favorinus [of Thersites] and the quartan fever; Synesius praised baldness and Lucian the Fly [and the parasite]. Seneca was joking in his Apotheosis of the Emperor Claudius, as Plutarch was in his dialogue between Gryllus and Ulysses. Lucian and Apuleius both wrote in fun about an ass, and someone whose name escapes me about the last will and testament of the piglet Grunnius Corocotta: this is mentioned by St Jerome.

If they want they can imagine I've been amusing myself all this time with a game of draughts, or riding my stick if they like that better. How unjust it is to allow every other walk of life its relaxations but none at all to learning, especially when trifling may lead to something more serious! Jokes can be handled in such a way that any reader who is not altogether lacking in discernment can scent something far more rewarding in them than in the crabbed and specious arguments of some people we know — when, for example, one of them endlessly. sings the praises of rhetoric or philosophy in a botched-up oration, another eulogizes some prince, and a third sets out to stir up war against the Turks. Another man foretells the future, and yet another invents a new set of silly points for discussion about goat's wool. Nothing is so trivial as treating serious subjects in a trivial manner; and similarly, nothing is more entertaining than treating trivialities in such a way as to make it clear you are doing anything but trifle with them. The world will pass its own judgement on me, but unless my 'self-love' entirely deceives me, my praise of folly has not been altogether foolish.

Now for the charge of biting sarcasm. My answer is that the intelligent have always enjoyed freedom to exercise their wit on the common life of man, and with impunity, provided that they kept their liberty within reasonable limits. This makes me marvel all the more at the sensitivity of present-day ears which can bear to hear practically nothing but honorific titles. Moreover, you can find a good many people whose religious sense is so distorted that they find the most serious blasphemies against Christ more bearable than the slightest joke on pope or prince, especially if it touches their daily bread. And to criticize men's lives without mentioning any names — I ask you, does this look like sarcasm, or rather warning and advice? Again, on how many charges am I not my own self-critic? Furthermore, if every type of man is included, it is clear that all the vices are censured, not any individual. And so anyone who protests that he is injured betrays his own guilty conscience, or at any rate his apprehensions. St Jerome amused himself in this way with far more freedom and sarcasm, sometimes even mentioning names. I have not only refrained from naming anyone but have also moderated my style so that the sensible reader will easily understand that my intention was to give pleasure, not pain. Nowhere have I stirred up the hidden cesspool of crime as Juvenal did; the ridiculous rather than the squalid was what I set out to survey. Finally, if anyone is still unappeased by all I have said, he should at least remember that there is merit in being attacked by Folly, for when I made her the narrator I had to maintain her character in appropriate style. But why do I say all this to you, an advocate without peer for giving your best service to causes even when they are not the best? Farewell, learned More; be a stout champion to your namesake Folly. — From the country, 9 June 1508