The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Summary and Analysis of “Here’s another lot of men who definitely belong to my sect…” (41) – “Perhaps I ought to pass over the theologians in silence…” (57)


Folly continues to list people who belonged to her sect; in this section she discusses those men who delight in ghost stories, eerie and fantastical tales, relics and magical items, and talismans and lucky charms. These men and their ilk are interested in eking out the pleasures and joys of life, and only when they feel they have exhausted their possibilities for a full, pleasurable life do they desire a seat in Heaven (although they have been assiduously praying for this for many years).

She turns her eye then towards religion. Folly is also amused at the rich man who believes he can get into heaven with his gift of a single coin after years of indulging in all possible vices and lewd behavior. This is not the way Folly designed it, but instead such beliefs reflect dogmas “accepted and approved, not just by the uneducated, but even by the teachers of religion.” Similarly, religion seeks to divide up the saints and assign them to their own special focus, no matter how small and trivial that inane focus may seem. This is indeed absurd, Folly insinuates.

Folly points out that when one enters a church, he or she can observe the numerous tokens of gratitude to God or saints for protection, but never will one see a prayer for protection from folly. No one seems to be too aggrieved when they escape from her clutches, but mortals will certainly pray for everything else.

Overall, the “whole life of Christians everywhere is infected with idiocies of this sort; yet priests tolerate them without misgivings, and even encourage them, being well aware of how much money can be coined out of them.” If a priest were honest with his parishioners about what they must do to attain salvation, they would surely be dismayed, and the Church thereby a bit less wealthy.

Another example of absurdity is the man who spends a lavish amount of money and time on designing his funeral, as if he might be able to return from the afterlife and admire his work.

Folly then turns to politicians and nobility. Those who can trace their ancestry back to some exalted figure revel in this connection and spend a great deal of time rattling off ancient ancestors. However, despite their foolishness, they can become immensely happy in this, thanks to Philautia’s help. With her help, men who are ugly find themselves attractive; others delude themselves that they are accomplished musicians or architects. Others take credit for the work of their inferiors. Artistic performers, such as singers, actors, and poets, embrace Self-Love perhaps more than any other type of man –they always believe themselves to be at “the pinnacle of their profession.” These deluded-but-blissful performers actually reel in a much larger audience, who delights in the skills of the performer. Why waste time involving oneself in other, more tedious professions?

Philautia has also attached herself to nations and cities: the French brag about their manners; the Romans, their old Empire; the Italians, their culture; the Turks, their religion; the Venetians, their nobility; the Greeks, their invention of the art; etc. Each takes pains to assert its own superiority and to point out the barbarism and backwardness of other nations or civilizations. It is another manifestation of self-love, and hence evidence of how widely accepted Folly and her friends are.

When self-love is practiced on someone else, it is flattery. While flattery may have a bad reputation, that reputation is completely undeserved. Folly seeks to explain how flattery is not the “enemy of good faith” but a purveyor of happiness. Per example, a dog that fawns over its master is blissfully content. The flattery of Folly is from a “gracious and candid mind; it comes much closer to virtue than its opposite, which is a sharpness of disposition…” Flattery brings lovers together, spurs men on to do great things, enlivens the feeble, cheers the sick, and, when delivered as praise, assists princes without offending them. It is important to eloquence, medicine, poetry, and, indeed, “the honey and spice of all human intercourse.”

Folly argues that anyone who suggests that being deceived is no way to go about life may want to reassess that opinion, for what happiness does knowledge actually bring men? Almost everything is unknown or obscure anyway, and when men are confronted with truth, as in a sermon, they view it with distaste. Old wives’ tales and fables are far more palatable. The satisfaction incurred from self-love is very inexpensive, whereas the cost of knowledge is far greater. A man whose bride is delighted with artificial gems that she believes are real is blissfully happy. Plato’s cave-dwellers are perfectly content with their appearances of things and do not need the things themselves. Overall, “between delusion and reality, there’s either no difference at all, or if there is a difference it’s all in favor of the deluded fool.”

Like Bacchus, who brings lightness to one’s mind, Folly provides delight, frolic, and capering. Her gifts are not for the chosen few, as those who bestow wisdom, physical beauty, or wealth. Surprisingly, no one puts up a temple or offers sacrifices to Folly, but she does not really desire those attentions anyway. What need of a hog or human blood has Folly? She has a multitude of worshipers already and does not need painted images of herself, appointed days of celebration, or other such gifts. She is honored through life, not rituals.

Folly continues by addressing how much men of position reflect her influence. It is not merely common men who live a life unknowingly devoted to her. She is continuously amazed at the spectacle men enact for their gods, when their lives actually reflect so much folly, for which she gives many examples. A man dies of unrequited love, or prostitutes his wife out, or is ridiculous when he is in mourning, or is gluttonous, or spends his life sleeping, or wastes his clients’ money and goes bankrupt, or marry childless elderly women to find an inheritance. Businessmen are particularly amusing because they commit the most absurd acts to attain money. Their attendants serve to flatter them, and they are privy to intense degrees of self-delusion. Folly concludes that if one viewed mankind from a lofty perch in the heavens, “you would think you were looking at a swarm of flies or gnats, all struggling, fighting, and betraying one another, robbing, playing, lusting, birthing, sickening, and dying.”

Of course, Folly would exhaust herself trying to list all of the shapes foolishness and insanity take. It is much easier to look at these shapes as they form themselves in the men of wisdom. For example, the teachers of grammar lead horrible lives filled with toil and obscurity and delight in torturing their students. To them, their “own miserable drudgery seems a royal kingdom” and they consider it the height of felicity to light upon a new interpretation, no matter how banal that interpretation might be. Their free time is spent reading their verses and engaging in mutual admiration and criticism with their fellows. Poets also owe something to folly, for they devote their whole lives devising diverting but meaningless verses and rewarding themselves with the highest degree of self-love.

Similarly, the “halfwits who expect to achieve immortal fame by writing books” seem more pitiable than happy to Folly as they lose their health, good looks, wealth, and sanity by spending endless hours writing and revising. As soon as a few “experts” approve of their work, they suddenly believe their wasted lives are now worth something. Other men simply take work that is not their own and pass it off as theirs. Most men will never remember these authors, and, even more ridiculously, some of them even use pen names instead of their own! These wise fools are even sillier when they begin acclaiming each other and patting each other on the back for their perceived accomplishments.

Lawyers are equally well-pleased with themselves, and the natural philosophers behave as if they know the secrets to the universe and everything within it. They can barely navigate this earthly world but flatter themselves that they have the key to such abstract ideas.


Erasmus's problems with the Scholastics were abundantly clear. He and other humanist thinkers disputed the Scholastics' rigid, purportedly all-encompassing theology for all aspects of the Christian religion. Many readers of his The Praise of Folly assume that it elides all elements that smack of medieval theology, structure, and literature. Its debt to classical authors and thinkers is well documented. However, the work does actually contain some medieval elements, which is not surprising considering that Erasmus was well-versed in the ideas that he later came to disapprove of. His thorough knowledge of what he was writing against allowed his criticisms to be direct, incisive, and accurate. Folly uses the frequent rhetorical device of proffering a counter-argument to her own so that she can speak at length against it.

In his influential article, literary scholar Clarence A. Miller argues that "some of Erasmus' views, filtered through the person of Folly, are thoroughly reactionary and medieval" and "its social satire also relies significantly on the techniques of medieval satire." The middle section of the The Praise of Folly is concerned with academic and social classes. The former includes lawyers, grammar teachers, dialecticians, philosophers, doctors, theologians, monks, writers of books, and poets. The latter includes kings, courtiers, bishops, cardinals, priests, and popes. Like medieval satires, Erasmus' book "displays a similar sense of hierarchy" in its understanding that society is made up of the body politic and the mystical body as well as the church and the state, each with its own distinct groups working toward the harmony of the whole.

The first part of the text articulates the thesis that a happy life relies upon foolishness and folly. Everything from marriage to friendship to reproduction to warfare relies upon this folly, and self-love and flattery are necessary to keep society running smoothly. The last part of the text discusses Christian folly through religious fools whose behavior distances them from society at large. In the middle section, of which this segment is a part, dedicated to the social and academic classes, Erasmus' own voice becomes most apparent through Folly and his ideas and philosophy come to light.

In this middle section, the idea that the "establishment" is ridiculous is reinforced. The teachers and theologians lead arduous and arguably pointless lives centered around irrelevant squabbles and points of contention. The fools from the middle section, however, differ from the fools in the first because "however beatific folly may be for individual academic and social leaders, it has a disastrous effect on society as a whole." The people from the first section are treated in terms of private vices or as representative of large, indiscriminate swathes of mankind, whereas the people from the third section derive pleasure from avoiding their social roles.

In this second section, the satire is arguably the most biting. The figures whom Erasmus skewers here (though they remain representative as he promised in his preface and are not named individually) are discussed with the harshest condemnations. Perhaps this could be due to the superiority that 'higher' figures eschew, or it could reflect that Erasmus is confronting the class with which he, as a theologian, had the most contact. Either way, it is certain that the humorous tone drops in this section, and the meticulous listing of the higher social classes whose foolishness negatively impacts humanity by reinforcing a social system based on ridiculous assumptions and inadvisable behavior ('wise' behavior) has a slightly more didactic, high-stakes tone.

The third section, which follows this segment, discusses Christian fools, who reject their community, family, friends, and country and contribute to the dissolution of society. The establishment of scholars, politicians, and theologians has shirked its role, and the Christian fools are rejecting it. Thus, as Miller writes, "we can accept the final ironic paradox of the Christian who is absurd in the eyes of the world because that world has already been presented as vitiated by another less basic ironic contrast: the rulers of the world remain happy by ignoring their duty to regulate and purify the world."

The paradox of the third section regarding Christians has been linked to Plato but was also influenced by the work of Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Dominican priest and Scholastic from the 13th century. His work on ecstasy and madness is mirrored in The Praise of Folly's touting of irrational ecstasy and suprarational ecstasy. Overall, Erasmus owes a significant part of his text -the middle section, in fact -to the Scholasticism that he was so keen to refute.