In Praise of Folly (Erasmus of Rotterdam)
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“An essential element for happiness is this: to want to be what we are.” An amazing beautiful yet simple sentence, however at first sight it might seem rather banal, or on the contrary, cryptic, but meditating on it sufficiently one can well understand its deepness. To live fulfilled and happy we must become what we really are, and not what life’s experiences have made us become, not even what we superficially think we want to become. If I am a “good person,” I cannot try to live as a “bad one” and be “tough,” just because life has put me through hard trials. Likewise, if I am holy, deep in my Spirit, I cannot not act like one, merely because daily vicissitudes do not allow me to “express” my being. He who lives in unhappiness is only because he has not yet found himself.

This is just one of the thousands of thoughts that Erasmus’ magnificent text inspires in attentive readers. The kind of text that cannot be explained, but only studied for an understanding of its power. A forerunner of his time for the correction and improvement of the faith and the ecclesial institution. In few words, “a master with a timeless thinking,” this was Erasmus.

Erasmus of Rotterdam

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=”18″]”And what is all this life but a kind of comedy, in which men go up and down disguised from one another and play their respective parts, until the man of the estate brings them back to the house that houses them. Yet he often orders a different outfit, and makes the one who has just come out in the robes of a king put on the rags of a beggar. Thus all things are represented by counterfeit, yet without this there was no life.”[/perfectpullquote]

One of the greatest thinkers, philosophers and theologians in history. A revolutionary who never “raised” a weapon, a person who was “uncomfortable” to others but true to himself.
His full name was Desiderius Erasmus, born October 27, 1469 (or 1466 according to some accounts) in Rotterdam, in what is now Holland (Netherlands). Died July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland. A humanist, and the greatest scholar of the Renaissance, first editor of the New Testament and also a very important figure in patristics and classical literature.

Using the philological methods pioneered by the Italian humanists, Erasmus helped lay the foundation for the historical-critical study of the past, especially in his studies of the Greek New Testament and the Church Fathers. His educational writings contributed to the replacement of the old school curriculum with the new humanism that emphasized the classics.

Especially with his masterpiece “In Praise of Folly,” Erasmus opposed ecclesiastical abuses in the hope (and theological conviction) of a better age to come, thus encouraging the growing push for reform that found expression in both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

His independent stance in an era of heated confessional controversy (rejecting both the doctrine of predestination and the powers claimed for the papacy) made him a target of suspicion for faithful partisans on both sides, but also a beacon for those who valued religious freedom that did not succumb to orthodoxy.

Erasmus was the second illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a doctor’s daughter.
After the death of both parents, the two boys’ guardians sent them to a secular school that promoted monastic vocations. Erasmus will remember this school only for its strict discipline, which he said was intended to teach humility by breaking the boy’s spirit. Having no other choice, both brothers entered the monasteries. Erasmus chose the Augustinian Canons Regular of Steyn, near Gouda, where he seems to have stayed about seven years (1485-92). At Steyn he paraphrased Lorenzo Valla’s Elegantiae, which were both a compendium of pure classical usages and a manifesto against the scholastic “barbarians” who had supposedly corrupted them. Erasmus’ monastic superiors thus became “barbarians” to him, discouraging his classical studies.

After his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he was happy to escape the monastery by accepting a position as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai. His Antibarbarorum liber, contained in a 1494-95 revision, is a vigorous restatement of patristic arguments for the usefulness of pagan classics, with a polemical thrust against the cloister he had left behind: “All sound learning is secular learning.”

After his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he was happy to escape the monastery by accepting a position as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai. His Antibarbarorum liber, contained in a 1494-95 revision, is a vigorous restatement of patristic arguments for the usefulness of pagan classics, with a polemical thrust against the cloister he had left behind: “All healthy learning is secular learning.”

Erasmus was not suited to the court life, nor did things improve much when the bishop was induced to send him to the University of Paris to study theology (1495). He disliked the almost monastic regimen of the Collège de Montaigu, where he stayed at first, and imagined himself, by the word of a friend, sitting “with a furrowed brow and a glassy eye” following the lectures of the Scotists. To support his classical studies, he began to take in pupils; to this period (1497-1500) date the first versions of those aids to elegant Latin (including the Colloquia and Adagia) that would soon be used in humanistic schools throughout Europe.

Impact and affirmation of Erasmus

Always a scholar, Erasmus was able to see many sides of the same argument. But his oscillations and studied ambiguities were appreciated less and less in the generations that followed his death, as men prepared for the struggle, theological and otherwise, in the service of their convictions. Later, however, the Council of Trent and the rise of Calvinism meant that such views had a generally marginal influence. The Catholic Index expurgatorius of 1571 contained a long list of suspect passages to be eliminated from any future editions of Erasmus’ writings, and those Protestant tendencies that came close to Erasmus’ defense of free will were defeated by defenders of a stricter orthodoxy. Even in the classroom, Erasmus’ preference for direct student contact with the classics gave way to the use of compendia and textbooks of humanistic rhetoric and logic that bore no resemblance to the school curriculum of the past. Similarly, the bold and independent scholarly temperament with which Erasmus approached the New Testament text was long overwhelmed by the demands of theological polemic.

Erasmus’ reputation began to improve at the end of the 17th century, when the last religious war in Europe was fading from memory and scholars such as Richard Simon and Jean Le Clercq (the editor of Erasmus’ works) were again taking a more critical approach to biblical texts. At the time of Voltaire, in the 18th century, it was possible to imagine that the intelligent and rather skeptical Erasmus must have been a philosophe before his time, whose professions of religious devotion and submission to ecclesiastical authority could be seen as convenient escapades. This view of Erasmus, curiously parallel to that of his orthodox critics, has long been influential. Only in recent decades have scholars given due recognition to the fact that the goal of his work was a Christianity purified by a deeper understanding of its historical roots. Yet it was not entirely wrong to compare Erasmus to those Enlightenment thinkers who, like Voltaire, defended individual freedom at every turn and had little to say about the various societal solidarities that hold human society together. Some historians trace the enduring debate between these complementary aspects of Western thought to the 12th century, and in this very broad sense Erasmus and Voltaire are on the same side of a divide, just as, for example, Machiavelli and Rousseau. In a unique way he merged his multiple identities: Dutchman, Renaissance humanist, and pre-Tridentine Catholic (prior to the Council of Trent). Erasmus helped build what can be called the liberal tradition of European culture.

In Praise of Folly: Description.

The Praise to Folly (Latin: Stultitiae Laus or Moriae Encomium), is an essay written in Latin in 1509 by Erasmus and first printed in June 1511. It can be seen as a satirical attack on superstitions, ignorance (understood as failure to engage in the pursuit of knowledge) and the various traditions of European society and the Latin Church that prevented the people from thinking for themselves, keeping them “weak and controllable.”

The Praise of Folly is considered one of the most significant works of the Renaissance.
It begins with an erudite satirical encomium in which madness praises itself, in the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian (2nd century CE), whose work Erasmus and Sir Thomas More had recently translated into Latin.
Later in the book it takes a darker tone in a series of orations, when “Folly” praises self-deception and turns to a satirical examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in parts of the Roman Catholic Church.
Erasmus had recently returned disappointed from Rome, where he had rejected offers of advancement in the curia, and Folly increasingly takes on the chastened voice of Erasmus himself. The essay ends with a direct statement of the Christian ideal: “No man is wise at all times, or is without his blind side.”

The essay is full of classical allusions delivered in a style typical of Renaissance humanist scholars. Folly is presented as a goddess, daughter of Plutus, the god of wealth, and a nymph, Youth. She was suckled by two other nymphs, Drunkenness and Ignorance. Among her faithful companions are Philautia (self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (forgetfulness), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (dementia), Tryphe (debauchery) and two gods, Komos (intemperance) and Nigretos Hypnos (heavy sleep). Folly praises herself endlessly, claiming that life would be boring and unpleasant without her. Regarding earthly existence, this “goddess” triumphantly states, “You will find nothing amusing or fortunate that does not depend on me.”

Meaningful quotes

“For anyone who loves intensely lives not in himself but in the object of his love, and the further he can move out of himself into his love, the happier he is.”

“Just as nothing is more foolish than misplaced wisdom, so too, nothing is more imprudent than perverse prudence. And surely it is perverse not to adapt yourself to the prevailing circumstances, to refuse ‘to do as the Romans do,’ to ignore the party-goer’s maxium ‘take a drink or take your leave,’ to insist that the play should not be a play. True prudence, on the other hand, recognizes human limitations and does not strive to leap beyond them; it is willing to run with the herd, to overlook faults tolerantly or to share them in a friendly spirit. But, they say, that is exactly what we mean by folly. (I will hardly deny it — as long as they will reciprocate by admitting that this is exactly what is means to perform the play of life.)”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=”18″]”And again, that wise preacher who said, “The fool changes like the moon, but the wise man is as permanent as the sun,” what else did he imply but that all men are fools and that the name of wise is proper only to God? In fact, by moon the interpreters mean human nature and by sun God, the only source of light; with this agrees what Christ himself in the Gospel denies, namely that anyone can be called good except one, namely God.”[/perfectpullquote]

“Almost all Christians being wretchedly enslaved to blindness and ignorance, which the priests are so far from preventing or removing, that they blacken the darkness, and promote the delusion: wisely foreseeing that the people (like cows, which never give down their milk so well as when they are gently stroked), would part with less if they knew more…”

“Yet in the midst of all their prosperity, princes in this respect seem to me most unfortunate, because, having no one to tell them truth, they are forced to receive flatterers for friends.”

“The Stoics define wisdom to be conducted by reason, and folly nothing else but the being hurried by passion, lest our life should otherwise have been too dull and inactive, that creator, who out of clay first tempered and made us up, put into the composition of our humanity more than a pound of passions to an ounce of reason; and reason he confined within the narrow cells of the brain, whereas he left passions the whole body to
range in.

“Two hindrances, mainly, do not allow a person to reach knowledge: shame, which blinds the spirit, and fear, which sees danger in everything and discourages a person in his activity.” Madness brilliantly relieves all those difficulties. Few people know how many benefits and comforts the wealth brings, that you are never ashamed of anything and that you are never afraid!”

“And what is all this life but a kind of comedy, wherein men walk up and down in one another’s disguises and act their respective parts, till the property-man brings them back to the attiring house. And yet he often orders a different dress, and makes him that came but just now off in the robes of a king put on the rags of a beggar. Thus are all things represented by counterfeit, and yet without this there was no living.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=”18″]”There is first a point of contact between Christians and Platonists: both believe that the soul, ensnared in the constraints of the body, finds in its matter an impediment to contemplation and enjoyment of truth. Hence Plato calls philosophy a meditation on death, because, like death, it diverts the mind from visible and corporeal things. Therefore, as long as the soul makes good use of the organs of the body, it is said to be healthy; but when, having broken its bonds, it attempts to assert itself in full freedom, and comes almost meditating an escape from bodily imprisonment, then it is spoken of as madness. If by chance the thing happens by illness, by some organic affection, then it is full-blown insanity. However, we see that even men of this species predict the future, know languages and letters that they never learned in the past, flaunt something that definitely belongs to the realm of the divine.”[/perfectpullquote]

Most people will like a bad opera. Nothing more natural, because, as I told you, most people are stupid. Or, since the most insignificant artists are always delighted with their smallness and are flattered by the multitude, why would they stop to acquire true graces? In the end, this would only shatter their good opinion of themselves, would calm them down and reduce their admirers enough.”

“If a stone falls on your head, it’s really bad; but shame, dishonor, shame or insult is only bad if you care. If there is no feeling, there is no evil. What harm can it do if you applaud yourself while the people are whistling you with all their might? That’s the only thing that makes it possible for you to applaud yourself.”

“Happiness loves those who don’t think much, it loves bolder people and those who risk everything. Wisdom creates fearsome people.”

“There are others who are rich only in wishes; they build beautiful air-castles and conceive that doing so is enough for happiness.”

“And who is more folly, or indeed more happy, than those who by reciting every day seven verses of the Psalter promise themselves boundless bliss? Pointing out those magical verses to St. Bernard is believed to have been a facetious demon, more foolish indeed than clever, if, poor man, he was trapped in his own deception. Crazy stuff! even I am ashamed of it. These are things, however, that enjoy the approval, not only of the vulgar, but also of those who propagate religious teachings.
Or is it not the same case as when each region claims its particular patron saint, each with its own powers, each worshipped with certain rituals? This one makes toothache go away; that one assists parturients. There is the saint who makes stolen objects recover, the one who shines benignly on the castaway, another who protects the flock; and on and on. Too long would be to list them all. There are some that alone can be useful in several cases; I remind you of the Virgin, mother of God, to whom the vulgar almost attributes more powers than to her son.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=”18″]”Those who practice religion, on the other hand, the more a thing is pertaining to the body the more they neglect it and are all caught up in the contemplation of the invisible. The some put riches first, body-related comforts second, and the soul last: which, after all, most do not even believe exists because the eye cannot discern it. Others, on the other hand, first tend with all their might to God, the simplest of beings; secondly to something that still remains in his circle: that is, to the soul, which most of all is close to God; they neglect the care of the body, despise riches and shun them as from unclean things. If then they cannot avoid caring for it, they feel its burden and boredom; they have, and it is as if they did not have; they possess, and it is as if they did not possess. In individual cases there are also many other differences in gradation. First of all, although all senses have a connection with the body, some are more corpulent, such as touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste; others more detached from the body, such as memory, intellect, will.”[/perfectpullquote]

“If a rock falls on your head, that is bad; but shame, infamy, opprobrium, and curses hurt only so far as they are felt.”

“tis the part of a truly prudent man not to be wise beyond his condition, but either to take no notice of what the world does, or run with it for company”

“A remarkable thing happens in the experience of my fools: from them not only true things, but even sharp reproaches, will be listened to; so that a statement which, if it came from a wise man’s mouth, might be a capital offense, coming from a fool gives rise to incredible delight.”

“Most people are actually crazy, no, we should say, there is no one who is not crazy in various ways, so necessity brings the like together with the like.”

[Regarding the different orders of monks] “Much of their satisfaction derives from their names: some are pleased with the name of Cordigliers, distinguished into Coletans, Minors, Minims, Bollists; others enjoy the name of Benedictines, or Bernardines; these of Brigidensi, those of Augustinians; some hold to the denomination of Williamites, others of Jacobites, as if to call themselves Christians were too little.”

[Again concerning “some” monks] “Some will boast that they have passed the age of sixty without touching money, except with their hands protected by two pairs of gloves.”[…]”But Christ, interrupting these boasts that would otherwise be in danger of never ending, “Whence cometh he, will he say, this new race of Jews? I acknowledge for mine only one law, and of this alone no word is spoken.”[speaking of the Law of Love (“caritas)”]

“Do but observe our grim philosophers that are perpetually beating their brains on knotty subjects, and for the most part you’ll find them grown old before they are scarcely young.”

“I hear the philosophers opposing it and saying ’tis a miserable thing for a man to be foolish, to err, mistake, and know nothing truly. Nay rather, this is to be a man. And why they should call it miserable, I see no reason; forasmuch as we are so born, so bred, so instructed, nay such is the common condition of us all.”

“Few people understand the immense advantage of never hesitating and daring everything.”

“I do not like a child that is a man too soon.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=”18″]”Now it is the turn of the supreme pontiffs, who stand in the place of Christ. None more than they would be found to suffer, if they tried to imitate his life: poverty, travails, doctrine, cross, contempt of the world; if they thought of their name PAPA, that is, father, and their qualification as HOLY! Who would ever spend so much to buy themselves that place to defend later with the sword, with poison, with all their strength? How many advantages would they have to say goodbye to, if wisdom could barely make itself heard! But what am I saying, wisdom? I should say a grain of that salt mentioned by Christ. Farewell to so much wealth, so many honors, and so much power, so many victories, so many offices, so many dispensations, so many taxes, so many indulgences, and so many horses, mules, servants and pleasures. See what a market, what a lush harvest, what a sea of riches I have concentrated in a few words! In their place vigils, fasts, tears, prayers, sermons, study, sighs and a thousand such burdensome occupations. Again, a not inconsiderable detail, so many scribes, copyists, notaries, lawyers, promoters, secretaries, muleteers, palafreniers, bankers would be reduced to hunger”[/perfectpullquote]

“what is all this life but a kind of comedy, wherein men walk up and down in one another’s disguises and act their respective parts, till the property-man brings them back to the attiring house. And yet he often orders a different dress, and makes him that came but just now off in the robes of a king put on the rags of a beggar. Thus are all things represented by counterfeit, and yet without this there was no living.”

“Conniving at your friends’ vices, passing them over, being blind to them and deceived by them, even loving and admiring your friends’ egregious faults as if they were virtues — does not this seem pretty close to folly?”

“But who are they that for no other reason but that they were weary of life have hastened their own fate? Were they not the next neighbors to wisdom? among whom, to say nothing of Diogenes, Xenocrates, Cato, Cassius, Brutus, that wise man Chiron, being offered immortality, chose rather to die than be troubled with the same thing always.”

“Sweet is war to those who have not experienced it.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4476a5″ class=”” size=”18″]”Theologians starve, physicists suffer cold, astrologers are mocked, dialecticians count for nothing, while one doctor is worth as much as many men. In this profession, the more ignorant, reckless, light-hearted one is, the more he is regarded by the same princes with a crown on his head. Medicine, in fact, especially as it is practiced today by most, is reduced, like rhetoric, to a form of flattery. The second place, with a very brief detachment, belongs to lawyers – and I would be about to say the first; their profession, not to express personal opinions, is mostly derided by philosophers, amid general consensus, as an ass art. However, business, from the largest to the smallest, is at the discretion of these donkeys. Their latifundia extend, while the theologian, after documenting himself on all aspects of divinity, gnaws lupins, engaged in an ongoing war with bugs and lice.”[/perfectpullquote]

“There is no enjoyment of things if they are not shared with others.”

“But, to return to my design, what power was it that drew those stony, oaken, and wild people into cities but flattery? For nothing else is signified by Amphion and Orpheus’ harp. What was it that, when the common people of Rome were like to have destroyed all by their mutiny, reduced them to obedience? Was it a philosophical oration? Least. But a ridiculous and childish fable of the belly and the rest of the members. And as good success had Themistocles in his of the fox and hedgehog. What wise man’s oration could ever have done so much with the people as Sertorius’ invention of his white hind? Or his ridiculous emblem of pulling off a horse’s tail hair by hair? Or as Lycurgus his example of his two whelps? To say nothing of Minos and Numa, both which ruled their foolish multitudes with fabulous inventions; with which kind of toys that great and powerful beast, the people, are led anyway.”

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