Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Review: Praise of Folly by Erasmus

Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, translated by Betty Radice

Praise of Folly is an imagined speech by Folly, defending herself as important to the happiness of mankind. She argues that people start as fools in childhood and wind up in an old age full of folly when people start to "lose their marbles." Those considered wise are usually the unhappiest of men, for
amongst mortal men those who strive after wisdom are the furthest from happiness; they are in fact doubly stupid simply because they ignore the fact that they were born men, try to adopt the life of the immortal gods, and like the giants would rebel against Nature, with the sciences for their engines of war. Conversely, the least unhappy are those who come nearest to the instinctive folly of dumb animals and attempt nothing beyond the capacities of man. [p. 54]
People who try to be smart are fools by the very fact that they try to go beyond their own abilities and comprehension. Even more, they are the worst sort of fools, the unhappy ones, because Nature will always win against them. With Folly's gifts (she says she was nursed at the breasts of drunkenness and ignorance), life is a much happier affair. The idea may sound cynical, but consider that
no association or alliance can be happy or stable without me [i.e. Folly]. People can't tolerate a ruler, nor can a master his servant, nor a maid her mistress, a teacher his pupil, a friend his friend nor a wife her husband, a landlord his tenant, a soldier his comrade nor a party-goer his companion, unless they sometimes have illusions about each other, make use of flattery, and have the sense to turn a blind eye and sweeten life for themselves with the honey of folly. [p. 35]
Assuming the best about people in many cases may be folly (as is "innocent until proven guilty") but surely it is a much better way to live life and an encouragement to be one's best. The arguments throughout the book have this witty trickiness about them.

The book turns to various professions and shows how foolish people tend to be. Rulers, if they did their jobs properly, would be looking out for themselves last of all, but so often they only look to their own comfort or their own ideas as ideals. Theologians get a lot of flack for spending their time arguing and developing syllogisms rather than reading the gospels or the letters of St. Paul. Like the rulers, they focus on themselves rather than the actual good they ought to pursue.

On the other hand, Folly looks on authentic Christians as her greatest disciples:
...the biggest fools of all appear to be those who have once been wholly possessed by zeal for Christian piety. They squander their possessions, ignore insults, submit to being cheated, make no distinction between friends and enemies, shun pleasure, sustain themselves on fasting, vigils, tears, toil, and humiliations, scorn life, and desire only death--in short, they seem to be dead to any normal feelings, as if their spirit dwelt elsewhere than in their body. What else can that be but madness? [p. 128]
This is a huge contrast to regular people: "The ordinary man gives first place to wealth, the second to bodily comforts, and leaves the last to the soul--which anyway most people believe doesn't exist because it is invisible to the eye." [p. 129] How common is this attitude 500 years after it was written? Human nature hasn't changed, much less made progress in half a millennium. Folly has little digs at and nice insights about all levels of society.

That's what so delightful and captivating about Erasmus's work. It shows the folly of everyone, peasant or king, slum dweller or White House dweller. Theologians still squabble over verbal technicalities; scientists think they understand the depths of the universe because they've assigned numbers to it. The only people immune to Folly are those who embrace it, who realize their own limits and weaknesses and live with them.

One quick note on this edition: the footnotes do a good job of explaining classical and literary references but the notes are typically for a full paragraph of references, so a quote in the first sentence isn't footnoted till the last reference in the paragraph. It can make things a little hard to follow. Also, I did not read the introduction. Maybe next time around!

Sample Text, from the Letter to Maarten van Dorp replying to objections about Folly's position on theologians:
What purpose is served by that maze of debatable issues, so many of which are a waste of time or a noxious evil, if only because of the strife and dissension they create? Some points need elucidating and some decisions have to be taken, I don't deny, but on the other hand there are a great many questions which are better ignored than investigated, seeing that part of our knowledge lies in accepting that there are some things we cannot know, and a great many more where uncertainty is more beneficial than a firm standpoint. Finally, where there has to be a decision, I should like to see it taken with reverence, not with a feeling of superiority, and in accordance with the holy scriptures, not the fabrications of men's petty minds. Today there's no end to futile investigations which are the root of all the discord between sect and party, and every day one pronouncement leads to another. In short, we have come to the point when the basis of the issue involved rests not so much on Christ's teaching as on the schoolmen's definitions and the power of the bishops, such as they are. Consequently everything is now so complicated that there is not even a hope of recalling the world to true Christianity. [pp.153-154]

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