The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly Quotes and Analysis

"...prick up your ears and I'll tell you how many benefits I bestow on both men and gods, how widely my sacred powers extend."

Folly, 11

This quote comes from Folly's introduction and sets forth her aim in delivering this oration: namely, to demonstrate just how ubiquitous she is on earth and amongst the pantheon. Her treatise takes on fools and philosophers, men and women, theologians and doctors, Christians and pagans, kings and monks, gods and children, and identifies their debt to her charms. It is rare that anyone does not live their life without indulging in folly. She does not seek to criticize or catalogue sins, but instead endeavors to showcase why she, amongst all of the other gods, deserves recognition and praise. If no one else will set up a monument to her, she will do it herself.

"Briefly, no society, no association of people in this world can be happy or last long without my help; no people would put up with their prince, no master endure his servant, no maid her mistress, no teacher his pupil, no friend his friend, no wife her husband, no landlord his tenant, no soldier his drinking-buddy, no lodger his fellow-lodger -unless they were mistaken, both at the same time or turn and turn about, in each other."

Folly, 22

Nearly every single relationship that can exist on earth -marriages, master and servant, teacher and student, friendships, contractual relationships, etc. -needs a dose of folly to endure. Marriage is perhaps the most conspicuous example of how folly is necessary; a man needs folly to put up with his wife's silliness and his potential cuckoldry, while a woman needs folly to endure the pain of childbirth. Parents of course need the delightful foolishness of their child to compensate for the toil and expense of rearing their offspring. Folly devotes some time to friendship, explaining that the reason why a friend can ignore his friend's flaws and idiosyncrasies and convince himself that his friend is the height of intelligence and mirth is because of Folly's intervention. Clearly, Folly makes people happier because of their foolishness and ignorance.

"...suppose I prove I am also the champion of prudence. Somebody is bound to say I might just as well try to mix fire with water. But I think I can do this too, if you'll favor me, as you've done so far, with attentive ears and minds."

Folly, 27

Some might conclude that folly and prudence are as alike as oil and water. However, Folly is very keen to point out that this is not the case whatsoever. Prudence is derived from experience, and men of wisdom are usually too fearful to undertake such experiences. Their timidity precludes them from being bold and trying to solve a problem. A fool, on the other hand, does not shy away from solving problems and thereby "acquires true prudence" (27). Diffidence and fearfulness, the two barriers to acquiring knowledge, do not afflict the fool; wise men "[hide] behind the volumes of the ancients, and derives nothing from them but empty verbal formulas" (27). It is precisely because a fool will take a foolish risk that he will ultimately learn prudence from the effort. Thus, folly can lead to prudence despite how much wise men might decry such an idea. What this quote also reveals is Folly's ability to ironically embrace pretty much every aspect of human life. Even those elements or characters who are not outwardly 'foolish' will ultimately be described as foolish by Folly precisely because they do not acknowledge their foolishness.

"But I make such good use of human ignorance and imbecility, playing sometimes on forgetfulness of evils and other times on hope of good, sprinkling in a bit of pleasure here and there, that I bring mankind some relief from their accumulated woes."

Folly, 31

Folly's claim that she brings happiness and relieves "accumulated woes" is perhaps her most effective argument regarding her importance to mankind. The woes of mankind are manifold: wars, childbirth, hard labor, sickness, intolerance, debt, slavery, etc. The only way life can be made tolerable is with Folly, for it is she who can make men forget their troubles and concentrate on what is amusing and diverting. The other gods may believe themselves to be generous in their bounty, but what god is more beneficent than Folly?

"Tell me, by all the gods, is anyone happier than that class of men whom we commonly call fools, idiots, morons, and simpletons -names, in my opinion, of exquisite beauty?"

Folly, 35

Most people would assume that the wise men are the ones who are happiest, as they know (or claim to know, or at the very least attempt to learn) the secrets of God, existence, and all manner of things on earth. However, their happiness is fleeting and false compared to that of fools and simpletons. A fool does not know the terror of death; he lives his life in sublime pleasure and does not concern himself with worrying about the afterlife. He does not fall prey to excessive hope or despair. He does not have a conscience nor does he feel extremities of love, anger, or modesty. In fact, as he is completely ignorant, one could claim that he does not even sin. He brings delight and mirthfulness to his companions and garners the approbation of exalted men far above their dour counselors. A fool, then, is much more pleasant to have in one's company than a wise man, who is often reticent, arrogant, and sour.

"Not only are they ignorant of themselves, they cannot avoid falling into a ditch or stumbling over a rock in the path (perhaps they are bleary-eyed from studying or just absent-minded); yet they claim to know about abstract ideas, universals, separate forms, primary matter, quiddities, and different modes of being -objects so phantasmal I doubt Lynceus himself could make them out."

Folly, 56

Men tend to revere their philosophers and regard them as the apotheosis of mankind. After all, they know the secrets and mysteries of the universe and speak in such erudite, often incomprehensible ways. However, as Folly points out, philosophers are among the most absurd of men. They are completely unfit for normal life and find traversing the paths of the everyday arduous. They do, however, claim to be privy to such abstracts and theories that the rest of mankind cannot understand. Folly's oration, particularly the middle part with its harsh tone, is keen on pushing such arrogant men of stature off of their pedestals and exposing them for the hypocrites and frauds that they very often are.

"No other people are less ready to acknowledge my services to them; yet they're obliged to me on several important scores."

Folly, 57

Here Folly is referring to theologians, men who decry their debt to folly and claim to be the pinnacle of learning and rectitude. Folly's criticisms of theologians are many. They seek to inspire awe in their listeners by speaking in quiet or loud voices, prefer their own arguments and theses to that of the scriptures, create confusing and circuitous arguments regarding the most minute and inane points, and mold the scriptures to fit their own mindsets and perspectives. Monks are even more absurd in their adherence to silly and trite rules that they convince themselves are indicative of piety. They use the power of the confessional to hold sway over other men. They are selfish and self-indulgent and while they abhor money, they are perfectly fine with women and drink. The way they live is far from what Christ dictates in the Bible. Erasmus was particularly harsh on monks as he lived in an Augustinian monastery for some time and found his companions' behavior ludicrous. Further, their ludicrous folly is far worse than that of the average man not only because they are unaware of it, but also because it has the potential to cause harm in the world.

"Now imagine how much pleasure they get from shaping and reshaping the holy scripture at will, as if it was made of wax, while they demand that their own decrees shall be observed, as soon as a few schoolmen have subscribed to them, more strictly than the laws of Solon, and shall even be placed above papal edicts."

Folly, 60-61

Folly continues her excoriation of the theologians and makes clear that one of the most obnoxious things they do is upholding their own decrees and denigrating or altering the actual scriptures. Whereas they should be working directly within the text of the Bible, they actually delight in manipulating it and using it as they see fit. The true message of Christianity is lost amid their convoluted and abstruse arguments. The simplicity of Christ's life and commandments falls by the wayside. Ironically, their attempts at wisdom therefore make them the most dangerous and severe kinds of fools.

"Now consider this: the scriptures attribute to the foolish a candid and generous mind, while the wise man thinks himself superior to everyone else."

Folly, 77

Folly buttresses her main argument that fools and simpletons are happier than wise men by turning to the Bible. There, foolishness and ignorance are upheld. Christ and the Apostles, as well as writers of the Old Testament, continually exhort men to eschew worldly wisdom and focus on Christ himself. It is better to be meek, humble, and ignorant rather than to be brash, proud, and filled with the wisdom of the world. This invocation of the Bible should prove most effective to religious readers. Erasmus's religious critics decried his use of pagan/classical writers, but would not be so easily able to dispute his biblical examples. Further, by linking Folly to the highest authority of the age, Erasmus makes an implicit argument that she is not merely a necessary part of humankind, but inexorably linked with our highest faculties and faith.

"And now to sum up (lest I go on with these citations to infinity), the entire Christian religion seems to bear a certain natural affinity to folly, and to relate far less clearly to wisdom."

Folly, 82

In the third section of the text, Erasmus (through Folly) describes Christian folly. Christian fools avoid the trappings of the world and seek a divine transformation. They are even near to madness in their desire to transcend the sublunary and come close to God. While priests and monks and theologians try to impress laymen with their confusing and arcane arguments, lengthy and tendentious texts, and general pomposity, true Christianity is actually quite closer to foolishness and simplicity. Faith is more important than reason, humility of spirit is more important than self-righteousness. Christ and the Apostles modeled the correct type of life while the contemporary men of religion pervert and subvert the scriptural message. True Christianity has more than a dose of folly; it is filled with it and, more importantly, it extols it.