The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Summary and Analysis of “You see now, I guess, how much men of the cloth owe to me…” (66) – “But why should I exercise myself so much over a single example…” (78)


After articulating how much doctors of theology owe to Folly, she decides to proceed to princes and courtiers, as they seek her favors quite openly and frequently. Noblemen have a heavy burden to bear; they must keep the public welfare in mind, abide by the rules, expose their own lives to scrutiny, and ably govern their country. There are a myriad of things to distract a prince from his virtue, but he must remember that he is always subject to the judgment of the one true King.

However, most princes do not let these realities bring them down and they embrace folly with open arms. They do what they please and call it precedent. They are easily flattered. If a prince wore the trappings of his office –a golden chain symbolizing the linkage of virtues, a scepter symbolizing justice, a purple robe symbolizing devotion to the people’s welfare –he would be embarrassed to see how his own behavior contrasts.

Courtiers are the “most meeching, slavish, stupid, abject creatures conceivable” but they “fancy themselves the most distinguished of men.” They are sycophants and flatterers, and spend their days whittling away the time with amusements and droll pursuits.

Many Popes, Cardinals, and Bishops spend their lives in a similar fashion. Merely looking at the garb would suggest that they are pure (the white robes), knowledgeable (the mitre), clean (the gloves), and concerned with their flocks (the crozier they carry). However, their actual behavior is far different, although it bothers them not. The Bishops (the very name means “overseer”) care less about overseeing their flocks than about overseeing the coffers. The Cardinals are supposed to be like the Apostles, but if they actually ruminated on how their garb and job descriptions required they act, they might be sorely disappointed to remember their own behavior.

The Popes are supposed to be vicars of Christ, but do not live the life He advocated. Christ’s toils, sufferings, and poverty are nothing like what the luxurious life of the Pope offers. If the Popes really embraced the lifestyle of Christ, “off they would go, all those riches, honors, powers, triumphs, appointments, dispensations, special levies and indulgences; away with the troops of horses, mules, flunkies, and all the pleasures that go with them!” They believe they are fulfilling Christ’s commandments by adding mystery and theatricality to their sermons; they do not perform miracles, as they are obsolete and boring, and they shy away from embracing prayer, tears, poverty, and even death. While they content themselves with the belief that they are routing Christ’s enemies, they are the ones “who by their silence allow Christ to be forgotten, lock him up behind their moneymaking laws, contaminating his teachings with their interpretations, and murder him with their atrocious manner of life.”

These Popes also embrace war with a zealousness unfit for their status as vessels of Christ. They delight in plunging the sword in another man’s gut for their doctrines and dogmas, all the while sniffing that men should behave in a Christian manner towards their neighbors. Rather than remembering the parts of the Scriptures that advance charitable notions towards the people, they look for ways to terrify them and exhort from them more tithes. When an arduous job arises, they pass it along to the next man.

Folly pauses in her diatribe against the princes and Popes to comment that she does not intend to satirize. Besides, she explains, “I don’t want anyone to suppose I’m casting blame on good princes when I praise bad ones. I raised the whole matter only in passing, to make it clear that no mortal can possibly live happily unless he is initiated into my rites and enjoys my favor.”

While fortune and folly favor the dimwitted and the brash, wisdom makes men meek and timid. Fools roll in money and rule the world, while the wise remain in their hovels. It is difficult for a wise man to make money because he is limited by his scruples and conscience; it is also difficult for him to attract a woman because she shies away from his blandness.

Folly states that it is time to conclude by speaking of the authors who have spread her fame abroad in deeds as well as words. By listing these authors, she also offers validation of her superiority. In many proverbs and poems, such as in works by Homer and Epicurus, foolishness and childishness are praised. If some would object to the usage of pagan authors, one could turn to the Scriptures as well. Folly takes on the guise of Scotus to make her point. She proffers verses from Ecclesiastes and Jeremiah, among others, highlighting the great number of fools and how God alone possesses wisdom. Even Solomon wrote that “Folly is joy to him that is destitute of wisdom.” The preacher in Ecclesiastes opined “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.” The Scriptures also depict a wise man as one who thinks himself superior to others, while the fool has a generous and open heart.

Even Paul deemed himself a fool, but Paul's proclamation led to a dispute between those whom Folly deems the “Greeklings,” theologians who uphold the value of Greek in interpreting the Bible and scoff at the new learning, and the “most pompous, fat, thick, and popular theologians.” Indeed, one of the latter actually found a way to interpret the passage in a completely new light, but then forgot about it because he was so enamored with his own treatise.


First, a note on "Scotus," who is Duns Scotus, a 13th century Scottish philosopher and theologian who was considered one of the most important voices of the High Middle Ages and of the Scholasticism movement. He developed an intricate argument for the existence of God, and, among other things, argued for the immaculate conception of Mary. He put forth the theory of "univocity of being," that our mortal existence is the most abstract concept we have and is not distinct from essence; and that all things have a common nature. Erasmus's invocation of this thinker is a jab because Folly deems him "more prickly than any hedgehog or porcupine" (75) and does not care if he goes straight to Tophet (Hell).

Another interesting topic to take up is that of Dutch proverbs and other ancient sources that Erasmus utilized in his The Praise of Folly. It is well known that Erasmus did not write his books in the vernacular; he preferred Latin and Greek. The Praise of Folly was written in Latin and many scholars have noted the frequent classical proverbs and allusions. Others have called attention to the debt to the medieval thinkers. Ari Wesseling takes up the Dutch proverbs in his critical essay, noting that many of them exist in Erasmus's text but have hitherto received little recognition.

Wesseling notes several examples, citing them in Latin and Greek. A few of them (in English!) include "He is right in praising himself, who has no one else that praises him," used by Folly in her introduction; "Folly is the only thing that delays youth and dispels old age," invoked during her discussion of how she makes old age palatable; and "Wise parents sometimes produce stupid children," used during her criticism of the learned. According to Wesseling, "Folly seeks to strengthen her point by citing phrases current in both Latin and the vernacular." Her vernacular proverbs would appeal to the people in a way they understood, and she would also provoke the necessary respect by using Latin.

Erasmus's interest in Dutch proverbs manifested itself earlier than in The Praise of Folly; in his first major work, the Adagia, there are over 250 Dutch proverbs and expressions "with a deliberate purpose, namely, to illustrate or clarify a given ancient proverb or point out that it lives on in his own day." This work, and others like it, was intended to be studied and its lessons absorbed. Readers would "become erudite and morally responsible persons."

Wesseling concedes that the amount of Dutch proverbs is nothing compared to the amount of biblical or classical allusions and anecdotes. However, their inclusion is significant because he employs them with the same vigor and with the same purpose as the other types. The difference is that "a classical adage is authoritative as being an expression of the ancients [and] a vernacular proverb derives its evidential value from being shared by the speech-making community of his own day, illiterate people included." Proverbs were highly regarded in the 16th century- they caught the fancy of their listeners and were perceived as vehicles of truth and wisdom. They were frequently present in satires and other writings and orations. Thus, Erasmus's sources for this work are diverse.

Most of this section continues to employ the harsher tone that Erasmus has been using. As he moves up the ladder of hierarchy, his attacks grow more vicious, not because high figures like the Pope employ greater folly than the common man, but again because their folly causes greater harm on the world as large. It is interesting that Folly does not condemn the pursuit of wealth (since it is linked with self-love), but does criticize the Papal pursuit of wealth and power. The reason is simple: in the latter case, such pursuits are validated by delusions of wisdom and superiority, and pervert the Christianity of which those figures are the highest emblems. It is the incredible blindness that the rituals of Christianity afford to bishops and Popes that make these power pursuits so dangerous and harmful. It is the nature of satire that without a firm grasp of the humor, the vices being mocked can lead a writer to righteous anger, and indeed, Folly comes close to stepping into this territory.

Almost as if realizing her tone grows too harsh, Folly stops herself and takes a more rational tactic to argue for her supremacy, by listing the authors who have praised her. By ceasing in her litany of complaints, she allows herself a segue into the next and final section, which will offer the most effective means Folly has to both bring individuals to happiness and religious fulfillment.