The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Study Guide

The Praise of Folly is one of the most important books of Renaissance Humanism and one of the most perfect expressions of the sentiments and philosophy of its author, Desiderius Erasmus. Its historical importance cannot be overestimated; the critic A.H.T. Levi explains that its worth derives from the fact that it was " extremely intelligent and articulate response to what was perhaps the fundamental value-shift in modern European history."

The Praise of Folly was written in 1509 to amuse Sir Thomas More, Erasmus's close friend and intellectual counterpart. Erasmus wrote in the preface to the work that he was reflecting upon the closeness of the Greek word for folly, Moria, and More's own last name. He claimed it was written in a week but there were clearly revisions made before its 1511 publication and a large section was added to it after the first edition.

Erasmus conceived of this as a minor work and was surprised at the controversy it stirred up. Maarten van Dorp, a humanist theologian at Louvain, took it upon himself to speak for his colleagues and engaged Erasmus in a number of letters regarding The Praise of Folly, among other theological issues. Erasmus's response to it is of such significance that it is usually included in the back of modern editions of the book to elucidate his feelings on the subject of folly even further. A few paragraphs into his letter, Erasmus went as far to write, "First, then, to speak frankly, I'm almost sorry myself that I published the Folly. The book has gained me a certain amount of reputation, or, if you prefer, notoriety; but I don't care for fame when it's accompanied by envy." In the rest of the letter Erasmus defends himself, explaining that he did not slander individuals, that the great writers of antiquity enjoyed jokes, that many people admired his wit and learning, that his text was not biblically unsound or blasphemous, and many more points where Dorp and other detractors were misguided.

Not everyone was offended by the book; it was remarkably popular in the 16th century. Pope Leo X was highly amused, and the text was circulated throughout Europe. By Erasmus's death in 1536, it had been translated into French, Czechoslovakian, German, with over 36 Latin editions printed. A 1515/1516 edition was illustrated by the famous German artist Hans Holbein the Younger.

The tensions brought about by the Protestant Reformation led to the decline of Erasmus's reputation because he would not fully throw his support behind the Catholic Church. Just over two decades after his death, The Praise of Folly was placed on the Roman Index of prohibited books and banned in Franche-Comté, Spain, Rome, and by the Council of Trent. His name remained on the Roman Index until 1930, when it was finally removed.

Erasmus's reputation began recovering during the Enlightenment. Today his works are widely read and considered part of the Western canon.