The author’s preface is a letter from Erasmus to his good friend Sir Thomas More. He writes that he was on the road from Italy to England and, rather than waste his time with idle chatter and gossip, he preferred to muse upon his friendship with More. He then decided that he would occupy his time writing a praise of folly. This idea was suggested to him by the similarity of “More” to “Moria,” the Greek word for folly. Although the man and the putative vice could not be more distanced from each other, Erasmus knew his friend would appreciate his literary endeavor.
Believing More would no doubt be amused by the “declamationlet,” Erasmus here devotes the work to his friend. He is aware that criticism might abound; some might find it too silly of a text for a theologian to compose, while others might declare it an inappropriate way to approach the subject.
Erasmus dismisses these concerns about the “frivolity of the argument and the absurdity of the jokes” by gesturing to famous authors of the past who were equally guilty of writing such works. Homer, Virgil, Polycrates, Ovid, Favorinus, Seneca, Plutarch, and Lucian, among others, all wrote works humorous, satirical, or jesting.
Similarly, every profession is owed a bit of leisure and Erasmus firmly believes that scholars are entitled to the same accordance. His own jokes are no doubt more conducive to bringing enlightenment and amusement than are the pompous and self-interested orations of other learned men. And of course, Erasmus assures his friend that “unless I’m completely misled by ‘self-love,’ my praise of folly hasn’t been performed altogether foolishly.”
“Good wits,” as Erasmus deems them, have always been entitled to deliver satire and humor as long as they are not too savage about it. It is amusing to him that some religious men in particular can tolerate the most grievous blasphemies about their religion but are offended at the slightest joke about the pope or local prince. Erasmus does not intend to hurt anyone, and will ensure as much by targeting vice in general, rather than particular people. Indeed, “if anyone complains that he’s been harmed, it’s either his conscience that accuses him or his guilt.” His intention is not to harm but to amuse, to “ridicule absurdities, not to catalogue sins.”
Erasmus signs off his preface with “Farewell, most learned More, and defend your Folly faithfully. From the country, June 9, 1510.”
The friendship between Erasmus and Thomas More is one of those mutually beneficial, uplifting, and intellectually stimulating relationships that often occurs between men of keen, penetrating minds. The two had met in 1499 on Erasmus's first trip to England; he described More as "born and created for friendship." Erasmus wrote the The Praise of Folly in 1509 to amuse More; the title itself was a pun on the similarity of More's last name to the Greek word for folly, Moria. The work seems to have been a private allusion to their work together on translating Lucian a few years before. More's own response was the equally Lucianic and fantastical Utopia. According to the great Erasmus scholar A.H.T. Levi, "both have serious imaginative purposes, both explore seriously the compatibility and implications of the enlightened social and personal ideas that were the heritage of [John] Colet."
In this preface, Erasmus makes clear his love of humor and satire, and takes great pains to ensure that no matter the content of his work, it need not be taken too seriously. Indeed, much of Erasmus's work is heavily indebted to Lucian, the 2nd century rhetorician and satirist. Like Lucian, Erasmus defends ambiguity and utilizes a teasing tone that mixed the superficial with the serious. Levi writes that Erasmus "likes the vividness of the Lucianic satire, but above all he delights in the mixture of serious satire with banter, of vinegar with sweetness, of the trivial with the important, and the lighthearted treatment of sacred and solemn subjects." Erasmus would go on to translate many of Lucian's works, writing a preface to The Cock in 1506. Erasmus mentions Lucian several times in his own satire.
It is useful in reading this work to consider the time period of its creation, since that gives insight into both the ideas of the work and the form Erasmus chose with which to express them. Erasmus wrote the Praise of Folly in a time period characterized by intense strife amongst intellectuals and religious men. In brief, Renaissance Humanism began butting heads with the Scholasticism that had prevailed in the great European centers of learning and religion. Scholasticism derived from medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, who sought to create a massive and complex system of thought that would define the nature and purpose of everything from the smallest blade of grass to God himself. It was based upon Aristotle's logic and metaphysics and attempted to provide answers for questions about God's existence and His relationship with man.
However, Erasmus falls more firmly into the humanist camp, a group of thinkers who turned instead to classical, non-Christian sources for their inspiration. Humanistic studies originated in Italy during the Renaissance and later moved north. Humanists looked to the classics for guidance: Virgil, Ovid, Livy, Cicero, and Terence were their foci. These classics were studied in the context of the classical Greek and Roman civilizations, with the belief that they could provide answers to modern questions, and, paradoxically, help Christians lead a virtuous mortal life so they could attain an afterlife in heaven. The Latin of the ancients was also admired, and vernacular languages were shunned. Erasmus justified his study of the pagan authors by writing, "All studies, philosophy, rhetoric, are followed for this one object, that we may know Christ and honor him. This is the end of all learning and eloquence" (quoted in Paul F. Grendler). One of Erasmus's most important and popular works was the Adages, a collection of popular sayings from Greek and Roman classics. It is useful to consider how, even in the preface, Erasmus reveals that his interest in human, rather than divine, matters will serve as his subject for analysis.
The work's publication history is also interesting. While Erasmus claims he wrote the text of The Praise of Folly in a week in 1509, it was revised for publication before 1511 and a considerable amount was added after the first edition before 1522. Many of the insertions occurred in 1514 and concerned Erasmus's response to the scholastics and their abstruse, absurd arguments, which had no moral or practical bearing on the true meaning of the work's Christian message. Indeed, as Levi writes, "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..." Erasmus's work may seem light and whimsical on the surface, but it was a profoundly impactful text that incisively dealt with the theological and intellectual issues of his day (see "About The Praise of Folly").