Folly, a female personification of the quality, stands before a crowd speaking. As the essay begins, Folly has already taken her place.
Folly introduces herself and explains that, despite her bad reputation, she is the only one who can bring joy to both gods and men. Indeed, when she first stood up before the crowd in the hall, the attendees' faces lit up with smiles, and cheers broke out in the room. She has the power to transfigure them, much as the sun does when it comes up in the morning or spring brings its freshness to the chill of winter. She asks her listeners to attend to her as if she was a street-performer or a comedian, and states that she is going to act like a Sophist whose job was to praise gods and men.
Folly plans to sing her own praises because, after all, who knows her better than she knows herself? There is no need to do what the pundits and patricians do when they hire a sycophantic and servile rhetorician to extol their merits. Amazingly, no one before has sought to sing of Folly's praises. She finds this strange because most of mankind has partaken of her bounty. She promises that her treatise will be truthful, and is not designed solely to show off her wit. Considering how many previous orators have expounded on ridiculous subjects, she does not believe her intention lacks precedent.
Her strategy is not to provide a definition and then divide up her topic, as a speaker might do when dissecting an idea; verbal definitions are unnecessary since she is actually before her listeners. She gives her Latin name as Stultitia and her Greek name as Moria, and she does not attempt to hide her identity by manipulating her appearance- "I'm always exactly like myself, so that even those who most aspire to the name and reputation of wisdom cannot hide in my presence..." Folly thinks it best to imitate the style of her contemporary rhetoricians, who she says delight in mixing Latina and Greek into their oratories in order to impress their listeners with their erudition.
Returning to her main point, Folly is determined to set the matter straight on her lineage. She is descended from Plutus, god of riches, and Neotes, a nymph of Youth. She was born on the Fortunate Isles where no one grows old or sick and everything is fecund and fertile and beautiful. She was nursed by Methe (Tipsy) and Apaedia (Ninny), both of whom are in her company today. Her company is also comprised of: Philautia (Self-Love), Kolakia (Flattery), Lethe (Forgetfulness), Misponia (Lieabout), Hedone (Pleasure), Anoia (Imbecility), Tryphe (Fascination), Comus (Festivity), and Negretos Hypnos (Sound Sleep). With their faithful help, Folly maintains dominion over all things.
Folly, now having established her patrimony, avers that she is ready to detail the benefits she bestows upon gods and men, and to explain how much joy she brings them. First of all, nothing is sweeter than life itself and Folly is owed some credit for engendering life, considering that men and women would not likely engage in intercourse without a dose of folly. Men would not enter into matrimony if they knew how inconvenient it was, and women would not want to do so either if they knew how painful and time-consuming childbearing and child-rearing were; it takes Folly's servant Forgetfulness to both inspire matrimony and ensure its continuation.
Not only life but every good thing derives from folly. Anything that brings pleasure is from folly, and even the Stoics cannot decry the need for pleasure. Indeed, "what part of life is not gloomy, not sullen, not drab, not dull and dreary, unless you add a dash of pleasure, the condiment of folly?" Even Sophocles wrote that "the happiest life is to know nothing at all."
As Folly explains, all of this can be proved simply by looking at children, whose age makes them the happiest of people. They are cooed over and cuddled, all because they possess the charm of foolishness. This foolishness compensates for the toil of bringing them up. As soon as they grow older, their bright and shining faces grow dull and they call folly a liar. The further they depart from folly, the less they truly live. Only folly allows old age to be pleasurable. It is almost like a second childhood; the old are silly, playful, and have no cares because Folly has mitigated the curse of growing older. These old men and women have more in common with children, "for what is the difference between them, apart from the fact that the elders have more wrinkles and more birthdays?"
None of the other gods can do what Folly does- she can restore men to the best and happiest days of their life even when they are old and gray. All those men who have devoted themselves to their studies or other difficult and serious business have grown old before their time, but, as Folly explains, "my morons are all plump, with sleek and glistening skins..." Folly is truly the only one who can bestow the fountain of youth upon men.
One of the most interesting components of this section is Folly's discussion of old age and its concomitant follies. Hard work and deep mental duress, as well as the natural progression of life, bring old age, but Folly claims that she is a veritable elixir of life that can restore older people to the foolishness and bliss of youth. She explains: "add this to the popular saying very much to the point, that 'folly is the one and only thing that delays youth in her flight and keeps sour old age at a distance' " (15). While this claim is easy to gloss over, a deeper look at popular proverbs of the day reveal no such "popular saying" to suggest folly is a means of prolonging youth and keeping old age at bay. Literary critic Harry Vredeveld delves into the history of Erasmus's world to try and ascertain the origins, of any, of that familiar proverb.
It may perhaps seem likely that Folly invented this proverb, but she claims it is authoritative and commonly known. She also gives the impression that she is paraphrasing or interpreting it. Vredeveld's paper continues with the assumption that "Folly is alluding to a common and authoritative, perhaps biblical, proverb which she is deliberately distorting beyond our present recognitions" and seeks to discover what Erasmus's audience may have thought of. Folly's whole discussion of old age is buttressed with medical theory; the work is a reflection of the contemporary thinking about old age and its causes.
Medieval medical theory was situated on the four humors of the body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm) and their connection to the four elements (air, fire, earth, water), and the four ages of man (adolescence, youth, manhood, old age) correlated with the four seasons of the year (springtime, summer, autumn, winter). As the body ages, the hot elements that had predominated begin to cool because the body is losing its vital moisture; therefore, "aging, consequently, was defined as the insensibly slow cooling and drying of the body, the effects of which begin to make themselves felt at mid-life." As the body cools and dries, the outward appearance is affected- wrinkles, grey hair, shriveled skin, weakening body, decay of mental powers proliferate. The key to slowing this process down was to discover the elixir of life, or, rather, what could speed up or slow down the cooling/drying process. It was commonly assumed that lascivious behavior like drinking and sexual activity as well as intense mental perturbation such as scholarly study or excessive worrying could speed up the cooling process. Happiness and mirthfulness are the opposite activities/emotions, so naturally they were assumed to slow down the process. Men were encouraged to be cheerful, indulge in recreation, and cease worrying.
As Vredeveld points out, "Folly -we see it clearly now -must be putting herself here in the place of joy, the quintessence of youth." The biblical proverb becomes clear when Folly is conceived as joy. Proverbs 17:22 (in the King James Version) says: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones." Vredeveld concedes it is not one that modern readers might immediately identify, but that is because they have "lost touch with the tradition that interpreted biblical texts such as these in the light of current medical views." Erasmus specifically cites or alludes to this proverb in many of his other works, and the verse was also utilized by the famous physician Arnald of Villanova in his widely-read commentary. The "popular saying" has become illuminated for modern readers. To put it simply, Folly proffers herself as a virtue with actual physical value, rather than simply being of emotional or mental value, a claim that is less difficult to comprehend in the context of the time.
The issue of marriage and procreation is quite amusing as well. Folly quickly credits herself with engendering life itself, with ensuring that the 'circle of life' continues. The irony is that, according to Folly, all of the ingredients towards continuing the human race are unpleasant enough to deter a 'wise man' from pursuing them, and yet humans continue to pursue them nevertheless. That is, out of pleasure, men and women continue to procreate and marry despite what Folly claims is the common knowledge that such activities lead to unpleasant experiences. Her acknowledgment of this irony sets up the basic premise for her argument throughout the work: without her inspiration, we might be wiser, but wisdom ironically makes us worse off.
One other point to make about the oration's opening is the fantastic, ironical, light-hearted tone Erasmus uses for his narrator/subject. She is a profoundly enticing speaker and her introduction is beguiling and authoritative. Her claims are bold but uttered with such ease that the listener becomes rapt with attention and delight. She is clear in her desire to avoid the absurdities of oration that contemporary speakers prefer to indulge in. She acknowledges that these men love to sprinkle arcane bits of learning and other languages into their speeches but does not need to do that herself. She does, however, allude to many different literary, historical, political anecdotes, proverbs, vignettes, moral lessons, etc. Likewise, his willingness to engage in satire is already apparent in the way he mocks these oratorical devices, using an argumentative speech to mock the basic tropes of a argumentative speech. One could argue that despite claims to the contrary, Folly uses a plethora of rhetorical tricks to make her point throughout the entire speech, though even if we were to accuse Folly of this, her tone makes it clear she'd acknowledge the ability to embrace such contradiction as one of her foolish virtues.