The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Summary and Analysis of “But why do I talk only of mortal men?” (16) – “But let me go on to a topic on which I barely started:” (26)


Folly turns to a discussion of the gods and states her belief that they have been improved by her influence. A god like Bacchus, with his revelry, joy, and lust for life, is much more appealing than the grim, mirthless, stoic gods like Jove and Pallas. It is far better to be like the beautiful Venus or the sweet and insensible Cupid. All of the history of the gods, especially as recorded by Homer, is filled with tales of their foolishness and misdeeds. The one who used to tell these tales was Momus, the god of satire and mockery, who was thrown down to earth with the god of discord, Ate, for incurring the gods’ anger. Now without a censor, the gods can cavil about more freely and pleasantly. Their bouts of revelry and drunkenness have become admirable and legendary, all of which Folly posits as proof of her virtue.

Folly then returns to a discussion of life on earth, claiming that “we’ll find nothing either joyous or pleasant which doesn’t owe a debt to me.” The common understanding is that wisdom is governed by reason while folly is controlled by the emotions, and that Jupiter gave mortal men a greater heaping of feeling than of reason. Reason may be oriented in the head, but feeling is suffused throughout the rest of man’s body. Anger and lust make war on reason, the former being located in the breast and the latter in the loins.

Folly explains that a man has a degree more of reason than a female does. Folly advises man to join himself with woman because she is a “stupid animal and a clumsy one, but funny and endearing” and “through constant association her foolishness might temper and mollify his sullen male intelligence.” As Plato himself explained, “their sex rejoices in unusual foolishness.” Of course, Folly is a woman herself and cannot say that the entire class is horribly stupid. She can say, however, that because of this large dose of folly, women are better off than men. Their gift of beauty allows them to exercise power over men. All of their beauty regimens work towards making themselves attractive to men; as Folly explains, “now what counts more in attracting men than folly?”

Folly then turns to the subject of drink, which for many men brings much fulfillment and pleasure. Of course, without a “dash of folly there’d be no fun in it at all.” When imbibing their drinks, men want to be entertained and will sometimes hire a comedian to regale them with jokes and antics. Drinks and rich foods count for nothing unless the eyes, ears, and soul are also fed with laughter and amusements. This sort of revelry is necessary because it dispels the gloom from life; indeed, “gloomy it is bound to be unless with amusements of this sort you expel boredom, the first cousin of gloom.”

Others point to the pleasures of love and friendship as the superior pleasures. Folly makes the case that she is present within these things as well, for, when a friend overlooks his friend’s vices or shortcomings and admires them as virtues, he is also indulging in folly through a willful blindness. Friendships require these sorts of mental exercises in order to subsist. All men have a multitude of flaws and vices and idiosyncrasies, yet they still have friendships. These absurdities, and men’s capacity to overlook them, “binds society together in mutual pleasure.”

This argument also applies to marriage, for, “how many divorces or catastrophes worse than divorces would take place if the domestic adjustments of men and women weren’t sustained and eased by flattery, jokes, yielding dispositions, mutual misunderstandings, dissimulations- all of them assistants to me?” Folly makes it possible for man and woman to bring pleasure to the other and overlook the realities of their situation.

Most other relationships –master and servant, maid and mistress, friend and friend, prince and citizen –benefit from folly in the same fashion. The involved parties must be mistaken in one another and flatter each other if a relationship is to persist.

Folly continues by explaining that men have to love themselves before they can love other men. Nature has planted envy in the hearts of men, which can lead to the withering away of beauty and grace and youth. Folly’s attendant, Philautia (Self-Love) must be at hand to prevent this. It may be assumed that self-love is foolish, but if a man dislikes himself, how can he hope to do anything gracious or agreeable? Without self-love, an orator would not be able to give a speech, or a painter would be disappointed in his work, or an actor would be booed from stage for a lack of commitment. Folly asserts that “no great project is undertaken without my support, no great discoveries made in the arts in which I am not at the bottom.” Even wars are always begun from folly, despite the heroic actions of some of its participants.

Folly then considers philosophers, ostensibly the wisest of men, as examples of how a life that disavows folly can lead to disaster. Folly turns to Socrates, whose career demonstrates how “little philosophers are worth in the common business of life.” He knew he should not deem himself wise, but it was this that led to drink the hemlock. He spent his life philosophizing, but not learning about the common way of life for men. Other examples of philosophers buttress her argument. The state is generally miserable when philosophers have a say in its governance; examples include Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and the two Catos. Philosophers and sages also tend to make other events unpleasant as well, for they are often sour and contemptuous and silent. These men know nothing of normal everyday matters (which are Folly's bread and butter), which makes them tedious to have near both because of their awkwardness and insistence on broaching unpleasant topics at inappropriate times.


Folly is very clear in her discussion of philosophers (or "foolosophers") that they are absurd, self-congratulatory, and unfit to actually govern a province of any sort. Their behavior and personality do not contribute to social gatherings, as they are generally dour and reticent. Her brief discussion of Socrates would seem to place that figure within her pantheon of useless philosophers, but there is much more to that little paragraph than immediately meets the eye. While Socrates has often been considered a pagan Christian, as he is the bearer of the Logos, Erasmus reveals here a greater appreciation for the thinker. The work of Lydia Gregorian Christian and Erasmus Bartholin illuminates how, for Erasmus, "Socrates becomes a symbol for the essentially paradoxical nature of the Christian life...[and his] attitude toward Socrates always has implications for his understanding of the meaning of Christ."

In the Praise of Folly, Erasmus's Folly is supremely ironic and amusing. The text itself points to the differences between Christian and secular wisdom. Folly plays the Silenus figure, who is laughable on the outside but contains deep and meaningful riches and wisdom within. While she may seem ridiculous on the surface, Christian writes "she holds the key to life. In this respect she is a symbolic Socrates. Ironic, witty, and profound, she has within her the promise of divine wisdom." When she describes Socrates she appears to be doing so to condemn him along with the other philosophers, but what she is actually doing is demonstrating his wisdom. Socrates is wise, but he understands the limits of his wisdom and decries the label.

The similarities between Socrates and Jesus can be seen in a few instances. First, her odd description of Plato's inability to defend his teacher mirrors Jesus' own abandonment by his disciples in his hour of need. Folly's later criticisms of Christ's foolishness (near the end of the work) illuminate her criticisms of Socrates, for "they are the criticisms that the world makes of the divinely foolish man." Christ is a divinely foolish man, Socrates a worldly fool. Christian sums up her article by writing that "through Socrates, Erasmus had come to see that Christ was not just the greatest and wisest philosopher of all, but a paradox whose inner divinity was masked by what the world would call folly."

In another article by Christian, the figure of Socrates is still central to the work, but here he represents the transition of Folly from Stultitia to Moria. The article, entitled "The Metamorphoses of Erasmus' 'Folly,'" claims that when Folly begins her oratory she is speaking as Stultitia, the pagan goddess of the personification of the folly of natural man, but about two-thirds of the way through she changes into Moria, the representative of Christian folly praised by the Apostle Paul. Just as Christ is preceded by Adam, natural folly precedes God-given Moria, which redeems the former.

Socrates is the figure through which this change operates. He is "pagan yet blessed," and through his awareness of the deception of self-love and flattery of the world, he becomes a wise fool. He seeks foolishness because it is actually wise to do so. In the section on Christian folly, self-love has no place and foolishness is constantly touted as the ideal. Overall, the figure of Socrates is instrumental in understanding Erasmus's concern with the figure of pagan philosophers, Christ, and the different types of folly.

Elsewhere in this section of the work, Folly continues to dissect various behaviors and spheres of life that both prove her supremacy amongst gods and value to men. By using examples like marriage, drinking, and the Greek gods (stories of whom continue to entertain us even today), Folly implicitly makes the challenge to condemn these popular subjects. When an audience is unable to totally condemn them, they then must accept that Folly is far more a part of our everyday lives than we might otherwise wish to admit, and so are they then open to consider the arguments that will follow. Further, by moving to a counter-example - showing the perils and annoyances of wisdom as exemplified by the "foolosophers," Folly further suggests her value. The irony is that these arguments, and the rhetorical devices used to make them, appeal to our intellect, by asking us to intellectually judge her reasoning, even while she is simultaneously attacking intellect (or reason) as inferior and dull.