The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Erasmus perceive the pagan/classical writers?

    It is well-known that Erasmus was a serious scholar of the classical writers of antiquity. He uses them to legitimate and buttress his telling his tale of folly. In the preface, he explains that these authors had also dealt with frivolous and absurd tales and arguments; here he references Homer, Ovid, Lucian, Virgil, Polycrates, Synesius, Plutarch, and Favorinus. Thus, it is perfectly appropriate that he attempts to deal with the same subject. Throughout the text, he continues to mention some of these figures. He does so in order to demonstrate Folly's understanding of human nature and her relationship to it. The invocation of the pagans serves to further illustrate or clarify her points as well as give them a solid and erudite framework. For example, when discussing how folly and prudence are related, she gives a proverb by Homer ("once a thing is done, a fool sees it" [27]) to show how she is correct in her assertion.

  2. 2

    What is the significance of rhetoric in The Praise of Folly?

    Rhetoric is the art of discourse; Aristotle defined it as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." His three main appeals to an audience were logos, pathos, and ethos; the five canons of rhetoric, codified in Rome, are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. It is one of the three ancient arts of discourse along with grammar and logic. In Erasmus's day, it was still one of the major areas of study in centers of higher education. Thus, it is no surprise that Folly exemplifies the art of rhetoric in her oration- it was highly esteemed and respected, was recognizable by intellectuals both secular and religious, and was highly effective. Many of the classical figures Erasmus mentions in the text were paragons of rhetoric. Folly joins them with her skillful, persuasive, and appealing oration. Understanding the significance of this art/area of study elucidates the power of Folly's speech, adds legitimacy to her words, and, on a meta level, clarifies the text's structure.

  3. 3

    How does Erasmus depict Christ?

    Christ espouses and evinces mildness, meekness, gentleness, and humility. He excoriates those who trust only in their own wisdom and extols the merits of fools and simpletons who approach his message with an open mind and an open heart. He eschews the trappings of worldly success, preferring to ride on a donkey rather than a lion. He refers to his followers as sheep and gives the charge of spreading his word to "ignorant, sottish disciples" (81). He is the biggest fool of all, for he "took on the foolishness of humanity in order to relieve the folly of mortals, just as he became sin in order to redeem sinners" (81). His behavior on earth made him appear almost mad, and Erasmus suggests that Christians should approach this same type of madness in their attempts to get close to the divine. Overall, Christ is the greatest example of folly as a virtue.

  4. 4

    How do the three sections of the text differ from each other?

    In the first section Erasmus's tone is lighthearted and mirthful. His catalogue of folly is inoffensive and amusing; he does not seek to condemn or disparage, but desires to demonstrate that through her can be found happiness and relief from despair. Irony and charm are given out in equal doses. In the second section, his tone changes remarkably. It is harsh, bitter, and biting. He profiles many classes of men, ranging from academics to merchants to theologians, and vilifies them for their hypocrisy. He reveals that folly is an integral part of their lifestyles and professions, but they are unaware of this fact. Their folly makes things difficult for others. Finally, Erasmus continues his discussion of folly in the third section, but this time deals with the Christian fool. His tone is not as incisive but it is still serious; the lilting humor from the first section is still gone. Here he deals with the closeness of Christianity to ignorance and folly, and condemns worldly wisdom. Some critics see the structure as indicative of rebirth and the cycles of life.

  5. 5

    What does Folly say about prudence?

    Folly says that she is close to prudence, even though some might think you might as well try to mix oil and water. She explains that prudence is learned through experience; wise men often shy from this due to fearfulness or modesty. They believe their studies have warned them against new or varied experiences, or against dealing with problems. However, the fool approaches the problem directly and "acquires true prudence from his experience" (27). Folly explains that there are two obstacles that usually get in the way of acquiring experience- diffidence and fearfulness, "but how gloriously folly liberates us from these two encumbrances!" (28) By being willing to attempt foolish efforts, fools make mistakes from which to learn prudence. Wise men take no risks and hence learn nothing about life.

  6. 6

    Why does Erasmus extol the merits of fools as opposed to wise men?

    Fools live life to the fullest; they are not afraid of death or disease or depression. They indulge in pleasurable activities and are not afflicted by anxiety or fearfulness. They do not need the superfluities of the arts and sciences because they are content with their own knowledge. Princes welcome them because they bring joy and amusement to all who observe their antics; their counsel is actually welcome and taken seriously because of their directness and truthfulness. They are not arrogant or boorish, and are actually desired in company. In Christianity, fools are closer to Christ and to the essence of Christianity. Their behavior aligns them with the divine much more than that of wise men. The Bible advocates ignorance and simplicity, and these fools daily imbue such traits. By contrast, wise men are silly, dour, hypocritical, irrelevant, unpleasant, and unhappy.

  7. 7

    How does Folly legitimate her oration?

    Folly takes pains to make sure her listeners know that she is not overstepping her bounds by delivering this oration. First, she explains that it is appropriate for her to praise herself because it is in her character and others hire people to praise them all the time. Secondly, she is going to be truthful. Thirdly, she will deliver her oration in a manner that is befitting to the noble art of rhetoric. And as Erasmus himself wrote in his preface, the intent of Folly's treatise is not to catalogue sins or call attention to the shortcomings and sins of individual men, but to "ridicule absurdities" (5) and amuse her audience.

  8. 8

    How is Folly involved in childhood and old age?

    In regards to childhood, it is unlikely a child would even be conceived without the aid of Folly. A man and a woman need a dash of folly to have intercourse and produce a child. In order to put up with the fatigue and difficulties of rearing that child, the parents have to be beguiled and charmed by the child's foolishness. It is the only way to convince couples to reproduce, as childbirth is painful, and child-rearing is arduous and frustrating. Old age brings with it the lessening of such charm, and a world-weariness sets in. This period of life can be tiresome and depressing unless a man allows Folly to work her magic and bring upon him a second childhood. Anxiety and despair fade away in the face of such mirthfulness and delight. Overall, children and the old have much in common: " their whitish hair, toothless gums, frail bodies, love of milk, stammering, babbling, foolishness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, and a host of other qualities, they are quite alike" (15). Both exemplify the power of Folly.

  9. 9

    What are Folly's views on madness?

    As Folly's explanation of how she brings happiness and pleasure to men continues, she takes a moment to address the men who would criticize her portrayal of behavior closely akin to madness. While they think insanity is mental aberration, they are wrong. There are in fact two sorts of madness. The first is the type that is dangerous and destructive; it leads to war, lust for gold, parricide, sacrilege, etc. The second, however, is to be desired because it "comes about whenever some genial aberration of the mind frees it from anxiety and worry while at the same time imbuing it with the many fragrances of pleasure" (39). It brings with it a contentment and happiness that men desire. It is an agreeable delusion and is more widespread than one might care to accept. Overall, Folly's opinion is that "the more different ways a man runs mad, the happier he is, provided he sticks with that variety of madness which is my specialty" (39). Clearly madness is not something to decry, provided it is not harmful to others. Later in the discussion of Christian fools, Folly asserts that the behavior of the pious runs toward the mad. This, again, is not to be misunderstood; it is actually a welcome state of mind because it brings man closer to the divine.

  10. 10

    What is the significance of Bacchus to the text?

    Bacchus is perhaps the most apposite example of folly unfettered. The god of wine, he is always "tipsy, spending his whole life in parties, high-jinks, and games..." (16) His silliness and absurdity are appealing to mortals beset by the trials and tribulations of life. He eschews wisdom for he knows it only brings sorrow and anxiety. Folly also explains "among the many praises of Bacchus this is one of the first, that he lightens the troubles of the mind, though only for the time being..." (47) This is something that he and Folly have in common; she says several times throughout the text that she brings relief from woe and causes a pleasant forgetfulness. Bacchus is not the only god that Folly calls attention to, of course. She also mentions Cupid, Venus, and Flora as his companions in bringing joy and silliness to their lives and the lives of mortals.