Folly offers the complaints of philosophers, who usually protest that it is misery to be enslaved by folly and to never know anything for sure. She concludes, however, that such uncertainty is an unavoidable part of being human; it is man’s basic nature to be bewildered or unsure. The philosophers also suggest that men can compensate for their natural deficiencies through the sciences, which reveal man's ability to examine the world, but Folly warns “Thoth, that demonic enemy of the human race, invented for man’s ultimate destruction, and which are so far from serving human happiness that they actually hinder it.”
The crux of Folly's argument is that we are better served to rely on nature than on our attempts to dissect nature. The arts and sciences prove to be the bane of man’s existence. In the golden age, men did not need sciences and were governed by nature and their natural instincts alone. It was not necessary to have grammar, rhetoric, special reason, and their ilk. Religion was sufficient to answer the larger questions; no one was insane enough to probe into what was beyond the heavens. However, the arts and other disciplines were eventually discovered, and now men are no longer allowed to live without them.
The most highly prized disciplines are actually the ones that are closest to common sense; i.e., popular folly. According to Folly, “theologians starve, natural scientists are cold-shouldered, astrologers are ridiculed, and dialecticians neglected.” Doctors and lawyers are accorded a great deal of respect, but their professions are asinine, their manners arrogant, and their fortunes vast. It is clear that these most blessed arts contain within them a high degree of stupidity.
On the other hand, communities that are quite remote from learning are much happier. Bees, for example, may lack a great deal of intelligence, but their society is remarkable. However, horses, which have closer associations with humans, live a more miserable existence filled with toil, cruelty and arduous labor. Earlier philosophers and storytellers asserted that the lowly sponge was better off than man because man tried to surpass his natural limits and was exhausted by the effort. Homer made it clear that the hog Gryllus was smarter than Ulysses himself. Men who endeavor to come close to wisdom are more miserable than those who remain closer to their natural state (which is closer to beasts than learned men) and do not try to rise above their humanity.
Folly buttresses her argument further by taking up the subject of fools and simpletons. These folk are happier than nearly everyone else. This is due to several things, the first being that they do not fear death. They are not subject to shame, fear, hope, hate, or love. Some even believe simpletons to be incapable of sin itself because of their condition. They are continually laughing, joking, smiling, reveling, and bringing happiness to others.
No one attempts to harm a fool, and he is generally one of the most valued individuals in a gathering. His innocence and mirthfulness make him sacred to the gods and man alike. Monarchs grow tired of their wise men and their “gritty truths,” but are always pleased to attend to their fools. These monarchs can even tolerate difficult truth from the mouths of a fool, rather than from one of their dour, self-interested councilors. Princes often hate the truth and seek to avoid it unless it is delivered by a fool, upon which they greet him with laughter and thanks.
Folly knows that her “chorus of stoic frogs” (those who oppose her) would croak at her again and protest that “folly of the highest order is either madness or the next thing to it.” Their opinion is that insanity is mental aberration, but Folly does not agree. What is called “madness” can be found in the writings of Horace, Plato, and Homer. It is found in poetry, art, prophecy, and love. There are really two types of madness. The first is the one that leads to warlike hatred, lust, rapaciousness, avarice, incest, sacrilege, etc. She does not take credit for this form of madness. The other, however, is far different and comes from folly; “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.” Folly’s argument is that this type of madness does not harm others and generally brings amusement and happiness to the person thus afflicted. There are also many more varieties of inanity than the wise men like to accept. Folly concludes 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.”
Examples of men whose natural proclivities, upon further analysis, seem like a result of madness include those who hunt, those who spend an inordinate amount of time constructing and building edifices, those who engage in alchemy, and those who are ridiculously involved in gambling. Are these not forms of madness?
Erasmus's discussion of the superiority of fools is one of the most insightful and interesting passages in the text. It has even given rise to critical articles regarding the similarities between the The Praise of Folly and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play delightfully populated with fools, sprites, and simpletons. Thelma Greenfield calls attention to these continuities; she writes that Folly's claim to have a hand in everything that brings pleasure and happiness and her assumption of revels, mirthfulness, and youth is reflected in Shakespeare's play's spirited and playful gambols, games, dreams, and confusion.
Both works depict folly's presence in nearly all human encounters and experiences, and tout the virtues of foolishness. Wise men are considered absurd and unnecessary. Both make use of the ass emblem and its associations with foolishness in art and literature. Folly exhorts her listeners to don ass's ears, while Bottom embraces his true nature when he is given such ears. Bottom represents all mankind through the blatant and natural manifestation of his folly. The play, Greenfield explains, "falls quite specifically into some of the very special realms of folly to which Erasmus' Moraie encomium alludes. In both works, we, the audience, are challenged. We consciously must enter fooldom, admitting our folly in doing so, in order to become the audience."
Also, both works point to folly's (and love's) ability to transform the ugly and indifferent into the beautiful. This is how husbands and wives can remain married, how friends overlook each other's flaws, how children can be conceived. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Helena can only see Demetrius and Hermia only Lysander, even though there is little to choose between them, because love 'transposes' to enable a specialty of choice." Overall, both works express a "kind of vision in the face of which the limits imposed by everyday rationality are themselves only illusory. Both works within a comic context offer ironic but sublime hints of fleeting, nonrational modes of perception which give the fool, after all, his valid moment of triumph." Greenfield's article is an insightful look at how Erasmus's work influenced his intellectual successors.
Leaving Shakespeare behind, we can now turn to a completely different but equally compelling point for discussion- Folly's gender and what it signified to contemporary readers of The Praise of Folly. Renaissance orations and dialogues often featured female speakers; there was also a commonly understood figure deemed "Mother Fool" from the medieval and Renaissance carnival literature. However, Renaissance history reveals that women were absolutely frowned upon if they practiced rhetoric in public; they were seen as unchaste. Even though most upper class women actually studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and astronomy, they did not study rhetoric. The only women that were allowed to speak in public without being considered improper and unchaste were female monarchs.
Therefore, Folly would be seen as unchaste to Erasmus' contemporary readers. As feminist and postmodernist scholar Patricia Bizzell writes, "This Folly becomes a playful illustration of the charms of mundane life, of which the erotic side is stressed in the examples of the first section of the Praise..." Folly is also a bit of an actress, another profession that called into question the chastity of its members. Folly uses the formula of a play in her encomium and there are plenty of theatrical images scattered throughout the text. One scholar, Thomas O. Sloane, even suggests that the best way to experience this text is to hear it read aloud by an attractive woman! Clearly, Folly's gender adds another degree of interest and contemporary significance.
Further, considering the argument Folly makes earlier in the speech - that women are closer to folly than men - one is left to wonder if one of the female advantages is due to being closer to nature. In this section, Folly explains how our education and 'noble' learning moves us away from our beastly state, but also removes us from natural happiness in the process. Certainly, the text does not go far enough to suggest that women are "simpletons," but the fact that they would be removed by societal stricture from the temptation offered by ambition does put them closer to the ideal state suggested by Folly. So the gender that Erasmus chooses makes an implicit point for the virtue of folly: the further we can get away from the societal constructions that lead us towards fallacious attempts to transcend our human limitations, the happier we will be.