The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Summary and Analysis of “But let me go back on a topic on which I barely started:” (26) – “But I think I hear the philosophers raising objections.” (32)


Folly stresses the ubiquitous value of mutual flattery, explaining that only mutual flattery could have brought the primitives together, or brought the Roman plebeians to concord, or formed the message of such famous fables such as the fox and the hedgehog or the white deer. Fabulous stories like these have the ability to “stir to action that great beast the people.” Rarely does a group of people decide to let the teachings of Aristotle and Plato guide them; they prefer the flatterings, favors, public ceremonies and trappings of power that surround the heroes they exalt. This “same foolish desire of praise” led to the building of the great cities, the foundation of religious systems, the origins of politics, and indeed, all of human life.

In regards to the arts and sciences, what spurs men on to their great accomplishments is actually the desire for reputation and recognition. This pursuit of folly results in the great achievements of the human race.

Folly believes herself to be the champion of prudence, and seeks to prove as much. Prudence arises from experience; men of wisdom are usually too fearful or modest to take many chances, so they rarely reap the rewards of experience. Fools, on the other hand, are continually leaping into unwise experiences, which gives them occasion to learn from their mistakes and thereby gain prudence in the process. Usually diffidence and fearfulness prevent a man from acquiring knowledge of things, but folly can liberate him from both.

She acknowledges the potential charge that prudence must exist in those who 'seem' prudent, the wise men who show no folly. However, she points out that in all human affairs, there are two faces: “what seems beautiful is really ugly; riches are poverty; the contemptible is glorious; the erudite is ignorant; the strong feeble; the noble vulgar; the joyful melancholy; the promising fatal; the friendly hostile; the healthy diseased…” As in a theater where one would not wish the masks of the actors to be stripped off their faces for fear of the illusion being destroyed, in everyday life men are constantly wearing many different masks. Therefore, she argues, the appearance of prudence may actually hide within it imprudence, the seemingly prudent man might actually be entirely imprudent.

She then seeks to elucidate how no man can have access to “marvelous wisdom” without taking folly for a guide. It is stipulated that emotions are the “province of folly” and that men can distinguish a wise man from a fool by claiming that the former has banished emotion from his life. However, Folly argues, emotions can both serve as guides for those who seek wisdom, and act as stimulants to those who perform good deeds and practice virtues. Men without emotions may be wise, but no one would want them for a general, magistrate, husband, etc. Fools are more pleasing than wise men.

Further, Folly argues that she helps make life bearable. When Jove looks down upon mankind, he observes the number of calamities that beset us. Birth is painful, education is tedious, young manhood is arduous, old age is wearying, and death comes sometimes painfully through disease. Poverty, imprisonment, torture, betrayals, slander, fraud, and more characterize mortal life. Folly, through the use of human ignorance and silliness, “playing sometimes on forgetfulness of evils and other times on hope of good, sprinkling in a bit of pleasure here and there…[brings] mankind some relief from their accumulated woes.”

Elderly men do not want to surrender to death even when their life is almost spent, and they do a myriad of absurd things to foolishly perpetuate a sense of youth, like entice young women and engage in amorous antics. Old women are perhaps worse, as they are gross and ridiculous in their attempts to look beautiful and young again. Even though others laugh at them, they are happy in their delusions, which are provided by Folly. Thus it can be seen that, with blessings from Folly, men and women find happiness. Though reliant and delusion and potentially laughable to some, is this sort of life not more enjoyable and fulfilling than one spent waiting prudently for death? Folly’s fools do not even heed the insults levied upon them by others; they are lost in the enjoyment she brings them.


While The Praise of Folly is filled with classical allusions and influences, its debt to medieval sources is also quite manifest. The spirit of Carnival is one of the most pervasive themes in the text; Mikhail Bakhtin's exemplary work on Carnival is usually the intellectual touchstone upon which most other scholarly work is based. Donald Gwynn Watson's article on Erasmus's work and the spirit of Carnival works with Bakhtin's research and delves into Erasmus's thorough knowledge of the carnival traditions and how it informs The Praise of Folly.

The Carnival celebrations in Europe were held in the month or so before Lent, usually February. They achieved their apotheosis in the 13th-16th centuries. Carnival was a time of celebration and revelry, renewal and regeneration for the community and the individual, and upheaval and debauchery. Social chaos was seen as the remedy for everyday ills. People wore masks and disguises, and roles were reversed. Ranks were leveled, and norms and mores were suspended. Excess was trumpeted as the mode de rigeur. Artificial categories of identity were subverted or ignored. It seems likely, Watson writes, that "Carnival excesses dramatize the energies created by the deliberate pursuit of chaos and liberate the participants from social restrictions which conceal the total man." Carnival also resonated with Christianity because of the emphasis on death and rebirth; the paschal season was the most important time of year for Christians because the simultaneous celebration of the sacred and the profane aligned with the death and rebirth of Christ. Carnival returns participants to the natural cycles of day and night, spring and winter, etc. Sins are cleansed and innocence returns, just as Christ rises from the dead.

Erasmus, like other intellectuals of the 16th century, would have been saturated with the popular culture of his day, which looked back to the medieval era and was often not easily distinguishable from the more classical traditions. The Praise of Folly invokes the spirit of Carnival first by its insistence on performance, a hallmark of Carnival. An audience is assumed to be present for her oration; this audience is carefree, hedonistic, and silly. It represents everyone and the reader represents the Everyman. Like carnivalesque traditions, the fool or Folly plays the central role. Also like Carnival, Folly's narrative "means to release the common energies of its readers through its challenging, burlesquing, and inverting of institutional, hierarchical, and other everyday restrictions on those energies." Folly is of course the universal condition of man, as both Folly and Carnival demonstrate. It is universal and ubiquitous. Both Erasmus's work and Carnival were also serious about overturning and inverting traditions and norms- Folly's father, Plutus, turns things upside down; the Sileni are ugly on the outside but lovely within; and the use of proverbs is deliberately contradictory and confusing.

Watson's article also looks into the middle section of Praise of Folly and asserts that it too, despite its major shift in tone, works within carnivalesque themes and topoi. The first section, with its lighthearted descriptions of the foibles, vices, and foolishness of large swathes of mankind and gods, is clearly carnivalesque. They are types, not actual members of social or academic professions and institutions. The latter, including popes, cardinals, monks, grammarians, lawyers, and more, "not only deceive themselves but also deceive others, and their folly has become dangerous, cruel, and destructive." Erasmus is sympathetic to the fools from the first section but quite hostile to those in the middle. While the middle section's procession of arrogant, hypocritical, and corrupt men of rank is harsh in tone, it still incorporates elements of Carnival through the veritable parading of these men in front of her audience and their subjection to ridicule. Their procession and excoriation by Folly align with Carnival's desired intent of cleansing wickedness and sin. This leads directly to the third section regarding Christian folly.

The "ritual catharsis" of the middle section allows Erasmus to turn to spiritual rebirth in the third. Overall, "these last sections form a movement both logical and typical of religious ritual: from sinfulness and pollution to grace, from disease to health, from catharsis to sanctification." Erasmus's Praise of Folly is a joyful and meaningful meditation on human foolishness and owes much to the vibrant spirit of Carnival.

In this particular section of the speech, the Carnival is an apt metaphor to understand the ways Folly praises herself for bringing reward to humans. Amongst those rewards she attributes to her influence are: happiness, prudence, and persistence. By either engaging in foolish behavior or reveling in foolish delusions, life is made significantly better. She tends in the speech to gloss over the suffering aspect of life, but does acknowledge it in the section about Jove, admitting there that the normal quality of life involves suffering. However, her intention here is to stress that she allows man to transcend his suffering by ironically delving down into the foolishness of his flesh. Where a wise philosopher is mired in suffering because of his insistence on recognizing the limits of the flesh, a foolish man continues to pursue his sexual satisfactions even when age has made it doubly inadvisable, but he thereby is able to ignore the suffering that Time has brought to him. Likewise, the fact that prudence comes only from attempting foolish things suggests another irony, which is that Folly teaches people to live in this life of suffering, as opposed to merely contemplating it and never getting anywhere. All of these gains require a man to embrace his emotions (the province of Folly), sometimes even to disappear into his emotions, the chaos of which hearkens to the Carnival metaphor.