The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Summary and Analysis of “But why should I exercise myself so much over a single example…” (79) – End of Praise of Folly (87)


Folly explains how modern theologians delight in taking four or five words from a biblical passage and distorting, stretching, and perverting them. They leave out the parts that do not work for their argument; an example of one theologian’s specious work concerns a story about Christ. In the scholar’s interpretation, Christ advocates for his disciples to sell their packs and their garments to buy a sword because they cannot proceed without the latter, even though the sword has obvious allegorical messages that the scholar ignored.

Another absurd example concerns a theologian who claimed he had scriptural proof that all heretics should be put to death rather than reasoned with logically. Showing that Folly was right there when he spoke, he ventured so far as to claim anyone who was an evildoer should not be allowed to live. Rather than believe this passage pertained only to sorcerers and magicians, as is quite clear, this man seemed to suggest anyone who has ever sinned should be put to death.

Both Jesus and Paul speak approvingly of folly and foolishness in the scriptures; Paul says, “We are fools for Christ’s sake.” Christ spoke directly to God, saying “O God, thou knowest my foolishness.” Fools are appealing to God, in fact, and Christ continuously excoriates those men who would rely on their vast wisdom alone. Christ delights in women, children, the elderly, and simple fisherman. He rides a donkey, not a lion. The Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove, not an eagle. Christ’s followers are likened to sheep, commonly understood as dumb animals.

Indeed, “all these witnesses point to a single conclusion, that all men are fools, even the pious ones. Christ himself, though he was the wisdom of the Father, took on the foolishness of humanity in order to relieve the folly of mortals, just as he became sin in order to redeem sinners.” His disciples were “ignorant and sottish” yet he chose them to spread his message. This message is meant to suggest we avoid the trappings of 'wisdom,' not rely on one another's prudence but rather be dependent on Christ. After all, eating from the Tree of Knowledge was what condemned mankind in the beginning.

Folly acknowledges that folly seems to be pleasing to men of higher powers because it is an excuse for acting poorly or incorrectly, while one who claims to be knowing receives no pardon. Biblical figures like Aaron, Saul, and Paul begged forgiveness from their superiors and did so on the basis of their foolishness and ignorance.

Overall, as Folly begins to conclude her treatise, the “entire Christian religion seems to bear a certain natural affinity to folly, and relate far less clearly to wisdom.” Clearly, the people who are most genuinely excited by the religion are simpletons, and its first founders were attracted to simplicity, not learning. Those who choose to adopt ardent Christian piety can be deemed insane, for they put up with insults and trickery, shun their friends, subsist on fasts and tears, seek death, and are numb to all human feelings.

The happiness that Christians seek is quite close to folly and madness. Folly's argument for this is that, first, Christians and Platonists agree that the mind is buried deep within the body and bound to it by heavy chains. Philosophy, according to Plato, is akin to meditating on death because it leads the mind away from visible, bodily things. Thus, when Christians try to predict the future and speak in tongues, they are nearing madness because their minds are closer to being unhinged from their bodies.

Most Christians are like Plato’s cave-dwellers in that they are ignorant and in the dark, knowing only the shadows of things. The man who has achieved understanding pities these poor men, while they in turn view him as a raving lunatic. The pious shun worldly affairs like money and bodily health, seeking to indulge only their soul. These men focus on the senses of memory, intellect, and will rather than sight, sound, touch, hearing, and smell; the latter thus atrophy and become torpid. Common men deal with the impulses of their body, such as sexual appetite, hunger, and desire for sleep, while the pious constantly seek to control such impulses. The latter cannot even tolerate their more natural impulses, which include honoring one’s parents or loving one’s children. They try to harmonize and intellectualize such feelings with the highest part of their mind.

Everything that is visible should be subordinate to the things that cannot be seen, according to these pious men. They should not only fast but seek to quell all other feelings. When taking the Eucharist, they believe the ritual’s depiction of the death of Christ means “men should reenact by mastering, destroying, and (as it were) laying in the grave the passions of the body, so that they may rise again to a new life, made one with him and with each other.” This is far different from how the common people approach the Eucharist. Both sides think the other side quite mad, but the facts seem to demonstrate that the pious folk are tottering closer to the edge of madness.

When men depart from their corporeal selves, they are closer to madness. Common expressions like “he is beside himself,” “he has come to,” and “he is himself again” suggest this very phenomenon. Profound love brings madness as well as happiness. These men hope to have their spirit master their body, ascend to heaven, and mingle their spirit with the greatest spirit of all- God’s. This can only happen when body and soul move into immortality; any taste of this on earth brings the greatest bliss. This may take the form of speaking in tongues, or fainting, or convulsions, or extremities of emotion, or incoherent babbling. When one “wakes” from this state, he often claims he does not know what happened or where he was, but that he was extremely happy and disappointed to return to his reason and senses. Ultimately, Folly considers herself responsible for this madness that is close to godliness, in effect marking her as supreme over the religion that focuses solely on ritual and symbols in order to reinforce a hierarchy.

Folly concludes by asking her listeners to forgive her if she went on for too long; after all, she is a woman and the embodiment of folly itself. The Greek proverb applies: “Even a foolish man says something to the point.” She ends with, “Clap your hands, live well, and drink deep, most illustrious disciples of Folly.”


In this final section of the text, Folly continues her serious, un-ironic tone as she discusses a different type of fool- the Christian fool. The procession of arrogant and corrupt men of the academic and social classes has ended, and the subject is now the fool who rejects the world and becomes truly wise. Folly's exemplar of this type of foolishness is St. Paul himself. Those who most easily exemplify the type of foolishness advocated here are women, children, and the mentally incompetent; they are free from the pride that characterizes the theologians. Simplicity and openness of spirit are what elevate these seemingly simple people to wisdom. This wisdom, however, is based upon faith, not reason or will. As literary scholar Wayne A. Rebhorn writes, "the Christian fool is able to rise above the limits of earthly life and achieve a foretaste of the true, unending bliss that God has prepared for him and that, once experienced, completely transforms his life."

The irony is that Folly earlier criticized philosophers who purport to live a life away from the senses, who criticize foolish life and love of the body, while she now puts these figures forward as the most holy. The difference is in intention. Purity approached through simplicity (lack of intellectual intention) allows these 'mad' people to come closest to the mind in the body, to attempt to escape their body as Plato's philosophers escaped the cave. The philosophers criticized by Folly earlier are those who intellectually attempt such transcendence. They wear the cloak of the philosopher and purport to be above their bodies, and as such lack the simplistic faith that can truly achieve their purpose. This touches at the central irony of the work - in a sense, most of us want this transcendence, but only those of us who are not working our lives away in pursuit of it will actually find it. It is the basic tenant of Christianity: children have faith because they do not belabor the search for it, and in this simple foolishness they can find true wisdom, while the learned man is distracted by the trappings of wisdom and thereby misses the forest for the trees.

When Erasmus ends the book itself, the movement that structures the work is complete. The first, second, and third parts work together in a particular way to demonstrate the journey from knowledge of the "ambivalent, inadequate, futile character of life on earth" (Rebhorn) to the ultimate understanding that this sublunary life is merely a steppingstone to a fuller, more meaningful one in eternity. The entire meaning of the work, as Rebhorn suggests, is "the total structure, the process of movement itself, which leads from comedy to tragedy and then beyond."

In terms of Erasmus's own religious beliefs, his "Philosophica Christi" is given full expression here by Folly. It relies upon mildness, tolerance, charity, and refutation of the world. In his Paraclesis, Erasmus delved further into his perspective on what a Christian life entailed, writing about the need for a deep transformation. He explained "this sort of Philosophy is more truly seated in the affections than in syllogisms, is life more than disputation, inspiration rather than learning, transformation more than reason."

However, it is not wise to completely conflate Erasmus and Folly, even in this third section where one might be tempted to believe they are reading a lucid account of Erasmus's own religious philosophy. As A.H.T. Levi counsels, Erasmus might have been more prudent if he was not using Folly to speak. Literary analysis reveals "ambiguity in the continuously varying relationship between Folly and Erasmus." Because there is a record of Erasmus making many, many changes to his work, "it is clear that Folly's inconsistencies are deliberately exploited in the interests of achieving the extraordinary control of satirical nuance and ambiguity that Erasmus required." In other words, using Folly allowed Erasmus to explore various, often-contradictory perspectives, whereas speaking in his own voice might have pushed him to more consciously craft his argument to be free of contradiction. In this way, Erasmus is implicitly acknowledging his own folly, his own human ambition to be viewed in an appropriate light. By use of the humorous form, he is able to speak outside himself and somewhat combat these foolish ambitions.

Finally, what of Folly's last words, her exhortation to her listeners to “Clap your hands, live well, and drink deep, most illustrious disciples of Folly" (87)? On the surface it may seem like she is negating the last section by telling her listeners to revert back to a life of folly and sin. However, that is not accurate. She is indeed telling them (and us) to enjoy mortal life to the fullest and experience the pleasures it offers (within reason), but also to see it as a preview of the life to come, to rely on faith, to live a life of the spirit, and to seek a divine transformation. We must identify our models as those who live this way, those who achieve great purity through foolishness, not pompous sanctimony, and hope that by delving into the life God has allowed us, we might grow closer to Him.