Folly shifts gears to discuss the theologians, a group of men who are utterly loath to acknowledge their debt to folly but who are absolutely indulge in such foolish behavior as folly might contrive. They are arrogant and assured of their correctness; they claim to know the answers to the multitude of mysteries of the universe. Their protections are “academic definitions, logical argumentations, inferential corollaries, explicit and implicit propositions…” The most absurd hypotheticals take up their time. They maintain the strangest paradoxes and claims, use tortured prose, boast of their erudition, and seek to go beyond even the apostles themselves in elucidating certain points regarding Christ. Their studies take up their whole lives.
They have not clarified the difference between actual grace and sanctifying grace, nor have they explained what good works mean, what the difference between infused and acquired charity is, and what the exact scientific definition of a sin is. The doctors of theology do not condemn what the apostles wrote, but rather they “interpret into the form and sense that they prefer.” They do not expect academic correctness from the apostles, but they certainly would not hesitate to criticize and correct the church fathers like Chrysostom, Basil, and Jerome.
The apostles were able to confute pagans and Jews, but they did so through the examples of their lives and miracles, not “logical syllogisms.” If anyone in Folly's day was to try and argue with one of the theologians, they would either have to be dumb or impudent to stand even one minute. Folly suggests that perhaps the Christians should not use armies make war against their professed enemies the Saracens, but should instead send their most vociferous theologians to engage in a mighty battle of the intellects. That would prove immeasurably amusing, and wear the Saracens down more quickly than brute strength.
Folly assures her listeners that she does not intend to make a joke of these attacks, even though she knows that there are some theologians who do not tolerate these “theological ingenuities.” Meanwhile, the interpreters delight in complimenting each other and basking in the praises of others. They “quibble over their footnotes” as if they were of actual importance.
These men derive pleasure from “shaping and reshaping the holy scripture at will, as it were made of wax, while they demand that their own decrees shall be observed.” There is no toleration for ideas that differ even slightly from their own, and they use the most stringent terms in condemning any challenges, with charges like: “this proposition is scandalous, this needs a tad more reverence, this rings off-key.”
Their time is also spent describing hell in the most minute detail, and inventing other worlds. Folly is amused that the more eminent they believe themselves to be, the more inclined they are to speak in a manner that is coarse and unrefined. They mumble and speak incorrectly, but decry the same traits in others.
The “men of religion” and “monks” come next in her litany of fools. They pretend to be spiritual and withdraw from the world, to disdain the world of letters, to live like beggars, and thereby convince themselves that they are mankind’s apostles. The obsessive reliance upon arcane and unnecessary rules, such as how many knots are required in a shoelace or how many colors a cloak can have, lends itself to this perceived superiority. It is important to them to avoid money at all costs, but many cannot resist women or wine, all without recognizing the hypocrisy. Each monk points to his own sacrifices and particularities of faith, never remembering that Christ judges each based off of his own standard of charity. When Christ returns and embraces sailors and coachmen, they will surely be shocked, but until that time, they will content themselves with their sanctimonious boastings.
The monks are held in such regard despite their absurdities because they hold the key to the confessional, a tool every Christian believes holds the key to his own salvation and forgiveness. It is preferable to watch a street charlatan than listen to one of their blundering and inane sermons filled with mistakes and mix-ups, but one must if one is worried about earning forgiveness. Their oratorical style is said to be a secret tradition passed down from their brethren, but Folly decides to hazard a guess as to its true origins.
First, a monk will deliver an invocation, resembling that of a poet. Working around to the main idea takes a considerable amount of time; one theologian’s sermon was eight months long and resulted in his blindness (which he considers worth it). Folly scoffs that Cicero and Demosthenes, or even a simple swineherd, did not tax their listeners in such a fashion. These theologians and monks prefer to move hastily over the passage from the gospel that they should in fact be spending their time on, then use majestic titles for themselves and talk about “conclusions, corollaries, ridiculous hypotheses, and hair-splitting distinctions.” Finally, they believe they must speak so softly that they cannot be heard, or, conversely, bellow at their listeners with ferocity.
Of course, thanks to the assistance of Folly, their listeners marvel at their intelligence and believe they are hearing a modern Demosthenes or Cicero. Shopkeepers and women are their target audiences; the former may unloose their moneybags and the women will always seek them out to pour out their grievances with their husbands.
It is remarked upon by every reader of The Praise of Folly that Erasmus's tone changes demonstrably as he moves into his catalogue of the folly of theologians. Gone is the lighthearted, fanciful and delightful tone of the first section; here is a tone that is harsh, biting, incisive, and blunt. Erasmus did enter an Augustinian monastery and spent some time there, but grew to hate monks and their preposterous behavior and outlandish, oblique arguments.
This world of theologians is a world of "competition, self-aggrandizement, and exploitative hierarchies," as Donald Gwynn Watson writes. They perhaps owe more to Folly than any other group, but they are not prepared to acknowledge her. In fact, it is to their benefit to deny her any credit since doing so would compromise the wisdom they purport in order to justify their superior standing. They concern themselves with irrelevant questions and tout their own writings more than they recommend the scriptures. In fact, they often shape and reshape the scriptures as if they were wax, drawing from them what benefits their argument best.
The monks' power, in particular, comes from the fact that they hear confessionals, making them privy to the innermost secrets of powerful men. Though this element is dealt with quickly in the passage, it carries a lot of weight, since it implies that the power of monks is in fact buttressed on the foolishness and folly of the common man. This is not to suggest that Erasmus is at all criticizing the sacrament of confession, whereby a Christian is given license to atone for his sins before a representative of God, but rather the criticism is implicitly that these men do not deserve such power and yet are allowed to wield it. Again, the tone here is harsher because the folly of the monks is no longer merely something that will hurt them, but rather wields a destructive influence over the world at large.
Folly particularly objects to the monk's manner of delivering orations. The 16th century placed a premium upon rhetoric; it was considered one of the highest forms of learning and skill and its practitioners were regarded with respect and reverence. Thus, Folly's criticism of their oratorical style is particularly incisive. She explains how these doctors of theology took their time getting to their main point, with one actually taking eight years before he concluded his learned discourse and going blind in the process.
Unlike the great rhetoricians of the Greek and Roman periods, who adhered closely to the main point, these speakers delight in the tangential, the circuitous, the prefatory. The actual part of their lectures where they might be expected to deal with the scriptures is hastily passed over in favor of explicating their own theses. Finally, their voices are often too soft or too loud, which they assume inspires awe in their listeners. This entire description confers upon these men the highest levels of folly, but they of course do not notice this reality. And further, because the common man need to maintain the illusion of their superiority so as to ensure subsequent forgiveness through the confessional, there is no escape, except for that Folly will proceed to give in further sections.
This criticism of the theologians gives perhaps the most helpful insight into Erasmus's own opinions and personal philosophy. As mentioned previously, he was a monk who lived within the walls of a monastery for some time. Regarding this expatiation of Erasmus's beliefs, A.H.T. Levi writes, "Folly, like Erasmus before he entered the monastery, is not interested in supporting religious attitudes with rational scaffolding of any philosophical provenance at all, but only in following the example of Christ, the warrior against temptation of the Imitation of Christ who was the exemplar of charitable simplicity." There is no place, Erasmus is saying, for these absurdities of Scholasticism. The men who profess its convoluted tenets are bizarre and obnoxious. It is better to proceed to the truest type of Christianity, that found in the last section of the text [see Summary and Analysis for “But why should I exercise myself so much over a single example…” (79) – End of The Praise of Folly (87)].