The Praise of Folly is a short work, commonly understood to be divided into three different sections (although there are no official demarcations). It is narrated by Folly herself; she stands before a crowd of listeners wearing the costume of a fool and announces her intention that she plans to extol her own virtues and merits. She is accompanied by a number of her attendants, including Philautia (Self-Love), Kolakia (Flattery), Lethe (Forgetfulness), and Anoia (Imbecility), among others. In her introduction, she wonders at the fact that no one has sought to build a monument or compose an encomium for her, despite her ubiquity and her ability to bring universal pleasure. In fact, her stated intention is to articulate how she can be said to bring joy to nearly all gods and men.
In this first section, Folly explains how, without her, marriages and childbirth would not exist. Old age is mitigated by her presence. Her adherents are plump and happy, while wise men who labor unceasingly can be assured that they will grow old and haggard before their time. The gods, of course, are completely in her debt; any catalogue of their behavior reveals this to be the case. Women are particularly foolish in their quest for beauty and love, but their beauty is what causes men to engage in absurdity. Any gathering needs a sprinkling of folly to be amusing. Even friendships cannot proceed without folly, for men have to convince themselves that their friends' idiosyncrasies are their highest virtues. Indeed, all relationships on earth need folly and flattery to proceed harmoniously. Folly explains that self-love is not a bad thing; rather, one must like himself to accomplish anything of merit. All great projects are owed to folly or they would most likely never come to fruition. Wise men are far less tolerable at a gathering than a fool, who, with his silly talk and impish behavior, delights and assuages rather than vexes and provokes. All of the calamities that beset mortal life can only be endured with the assistance of folly.
In the second section, Folly moves to criticize various academic and social classes. She begins with lawyers and doctors and then moves to philosophers, gamblers, hunters, superstitious folk, authors of books, poets, businessmen, grammarians, men obsessed with their lineage and ancestry, artists and performers, and even nations and cities themselves. All of these men evince a heightened level of folly in their smugness, silliness, and irrelevance. Folly's tone is much harsher and more condemnatory as she moves through these classes. She reserves special ire for the doctors of theology, who, perhaps more than any other class of men, are unequivocally indebted to her. They pretend they do not indulge in folly but are responsible for egregious acts of foolishness. They delight in their convoluted and obscure arguments, mold and reshape the scriptures to fit their theses, seek to inspire awe and reverence in their listeners by circuitous methods of speaking, and ignore the true message of Christ. Monks content themselves with a life of rules and good works, forgetting about the gospel. Popes, cardinals, and bishops live a life of luxury. Princes ignore what is best for their country and indulge their whims.
In the third section, Folly leaves behind her procession of foolish men and turns to the idea of the Christian fool. The scriptures esteem ignorance and simplicity and decry false wisdom and adherence to the ways of the world. Paul and Christ spoke of meekness and humility. Christ was in fact the biggest fool of all, as he "became sin in order to redeem sinners" (81). The whole Christian religion bears more of a resemblance to folly than wisdom. A Christian should seek a divine transformation, bordering on madness, and aspire to come close to God. When Folly concludes her treatise, however, she does remind her listeners to enjoy life as much as possible as the "most illustrious disciples of Folly."